CRIME

Cold podcast goes inside the psychological evaluation of Josh Powell

Feb 6, 2019, 12:02 AM
Josh Powell during hisinterview with West Valley City police on Dec. 8, 2009, the day after his wif...
Josh Powell during hisinterview with West Valley City police on Dec. 8, 2009, the day after his wife Susan vanished. (Photo: West Valley City Police)
(Photo: West Valley City Police)

On Feb. 5, 2012, Josh Powell locked the exits to his home, doused it in gasoline, and burned it to the ground. He and his two sons, five and seven-years-old, were still locked inside.

For more than two years, he’d been the lead suspect in the disappearance of his wife, Susan Powell, whom police believed he’d murdered on the night of Dec. 6, 2009. But up until Feb. 5, 2012, he fought those charges, building websites to try to convince the public he was innocent and fighting to keep custody of his boys.

But something changed. With his final act, Josh Powell gave up every pretense of innocence and, in a single moment, destroyed what was left of his family.

Nobody can say for sure why he killed those boys. Most, however, think that Josh Powell believed he was about to lose custody of his sons.

For the past three months, he’d been undergoing psychological evaluations, and police had just shared some deeply troubling images found on his computer with his evaluator. A judge had ordered him to undergo a psychosexual evaluation which included a specialized polygraph test that would also measure sexual arousal. The horrible end to his story, many believe, was a sign that Josh did not think he was going to pass.

Something in his psychological evaluation was troubling enough to keep him away from his sons – but what was it?

To find out the answer, investigative reporter Dave Cawley obtained the complete psychological evaluation of Joshua Powell from the police. The document is incredibly detailed: 2,592 pages in all. But in episode 13 of the podcast Cold, Cawley explains it.

The psychological evaluation of Josh Powell

Josh Powell Custody Hearing

Josh Powell during a custody hearing. (Photo: KSL TV)

Dr. James Manley was chosen to evaluate Josh Powell because he was one of only a handful of psychologists who hadn’t been following his case on the news.

Josh had lost custody of his children on Sept. 22, 2011, when his father, with whom he lived, was arrested on charges of voyeurism and child pornography. Their home, it was ruled, was an unsafe environment for two young boys, and so on the day his father Steven was arrested, the boys were taken away.

It was a small victory for police, but one that wouldn’t last for long. Washington state law requires social workers to work toward reuniting families unless they can find a strong reason not to. With Josh no longer in Steven’s home, it was just a matter of time before his boys were back in his custody – unless they could find a reason to keep them away.

Dr. Manley was brought on the case because he was impartial. He had no preconceptions about Josh, and he was willing to evaluate him under the assumption that his alibi for the night of his wife’s disappearance – that he’d taken his children camping at midnight in a blizzard – was true.

But even that cover story, Manley says, was a red flag. Taking two boys who, at the time, were two and four-years-old, out into a blizzard in the middle of the night should seem incredibly dangerous to any parent; but Josh, he says, just couldn’t see anything wrong with it.

“He did not see any wrong-doing of what was going on in Utah,” Manley told Cawley, “whether or not he acted inappropriately in what he described as his camping trip in December.”

Manley diagnosed him with adjustment disorder and narcissistic personality disorder. Josh, he says, was unable to see himself as having any flaws.

Josh’s relationship with his sons

Charlie, Braden, Susan, and Josh Powell

A collection of photographs Susan Powell uploaded to Facebook before her disappearance. (Photo courtesy of West Valley City Police / Cold)

His sons, Manley says, were extensions of himself. He says that Josh viewed the boys as “Little Josh 1 and Little Josh 2.”

When he supervised visits between Josh and the boys, Manley says, Josh often seemed to be putting on a show to impress him. “When the lights are on,” he noted, “Dad’s acting the good dad.”

But even if he believed it was a show and even if he believed that it was rooted in narcissism, Manley couldn’t deny that Josh was deeply attached to his sons.

“It was really clear that they had a good bond,” he says. “I could tell that he loved his sons. And they him.”

To some of those who knew him, that statement was troubling. If Manley couldn’t see Josh as a threat to his sons, he would retain custody of the boys, and for many, that was unimaginable.

A member of the precious stone and gem club, of which Josh was a member, specifically wrote a letter to Josh’s social worker petitioning for him to lose custody. Josh, she wrote, had shown a total lack of concern when his children were distressed.

“I had read about people saying, ‘What a great dad Josh is!’” she said, explaining why she wrote the letter. “He’s not a great dad. No way is he a great dad.”

Susan’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, agreed. When the boys came to live with them, Chuck Cox says, they found out that, while living with Josh, they’d been sleeping in the nude, sometimes in their father’s bed.

“There was obviously something there, some sexual abuse going on,” Josh Powell’s sister, Jennifer Graves, told Cawley. “And who knows what else was going on because we were just starting to scratch that surface.”

But even that wasn’t enough. And if nothing changed, in mid-January 2012, Josh was expected to regain custody of his kids.

The disturbing contents of Josh Powell’s hard drive

Josh Powell's comptuer

The Powell family computer, photographed Dec. 8, 2009: the day after Susan Powell disappeared. (Photo: West Valley City Police)

The police were openly worried about the prospect that the boys might go back into Josh’s home. They knew, however, that it might be inevitable.

Pierce County Det. Sgt. Gary Sanders, one of the lead investigators on the case, admits: “A judge at some point was gonna go ‘Okay, they’ve been away. Steven’s out of the home. He’s the one, the voyeurism, you haven’t proven anything substantial as far as Josh not being a fit parent, so we can put the boys back.”

They had the smoking gun they believed could stop that from happening. They’d found pictures on Josh Powell’s hard drive that, though they weren’t necessarily illegal, would make it very difficult for any judge to allow children to live in his home. The photos were depictions of cartoon characters engaged in sex acts. Police just needed to win the legal right to share them with Manley.

On January 4th , 2012, they won that right. Manley did his review, then on January 30th sent a collection of hundreds of pictures that, if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were animated, would have been a crime to own. They were deeply disturbing, and troubling enough that he called for Josh to take the polygraph test and a psychosexual evaluation.

Learn the details of what they found on Josh’s hard drive and how it set a tragedy into motion in episode 13 of Cold.

Today’s Top Stories

Crime

Police in Highland Park, Illinois, respond to a shooting at a Fourth of July event....
Eric Levenson, Adrienne Broaddus, Shawn Nottingham and Brynn Gingras, CNN. Mark Jackson

Police have arrested a ‘person of interest’ after a mass shooting at July 4th parade in Highland Park, Illinois

Robert E. Crimo III, a person of interest in a mass shooting at a parade that left six dead and sent more than two dozen people to hospitals, has been taken into custody near Lake Forest, Illinois, authorities said during a brief news conference. Authorities said Crimo was spotted by a North Chicago officer who […]
22 hours ago
People leave Field's shopping centre, after Danish police said they received reports of shooting, i...
Kim Norgaard, Pierre Meilhan and Jorge Engels, CNN

Several people killed in Copenhagen mall shooting, police say

shooting at a mall in Copenhagen has left several people dead, local police said Sunday.
2 days ago
Image from the scene of the shooting on South Major street in Salt Lake City (Photo courtesy of SLC...
Chandler Holt

UPDATE: SLCPD arrest two in connection to Sunday’s Ballpark neighborhood shooting

Police received multiple calls regarding shots fired near 1485 South Major Street at around 5:30 a.m. on Sunday July 3, 2022. 
2 days ago
The scene of the shooting at 900 S. 200 West (Photo courtesy of Adam Sotelo)...
Chandler Holt

UPDATE: Shooting on TRAX platform leaves one dead, one injured

Police responded to reports of shots fired on a TRAX platform near 900 South and 200 West at around 10 p.m. on Saturday night.
2 days ago
Herbert Cox statement Reyes election lawsuit...
Mark Jones

State of Utah files lawsuit against pharmaceutical retailers

Three pharmaceutical retailers are facing a lawsuit from the State of Utah. The lawsuit was filed the week of July 1.
4 days ago
draper shooting police...
Mark Jones

Party ban becomes permanent for Airbnb

Airbnb announced this week that it is placing permanent ban on disruptive parties. In April, two people died in a shooting at an Airbnb in Draper.
5 days ago

Sponsored Articles

Tax Harassment...
Jordan Wilcox

The best strategies for dealing with IRS tax harassment | You have options!

Learn how to deal with IRS tax harassment. This guide will teach you how to stop IRS phone calls and letters, and how to handle an IRS audit.
spend a day at Bear Lake...
Bear Lake Convention and Visitors Bureau

You’ll love spending the day at Bear Lake | How to spend a day at Bear Lake

Bear Lake is a place that needs to be experienced. Spend a day at Bear Lake.
Curb Appeal...
Price's Guaranteed Doors

How to have the best of both worlds for your house | Home security and curb appeal

Protect your home and improve its curb appeal with the latest security solutions like beautiful garage doors and increased security systems.
Prescription opioids can be disposed of during National Prescription Take Back Day...
Know Your Script

Prescription opioid misuse | How to protect your family from the opioid epidemic

Studies have shown that prescription opioid misuse has increased since COVID-19. So what do you need to know about these opioids?
national heart month...
Intermountain Healthcare

National Heart Month: 5 Lifestyle Changes to Make Today to Keep You Heart Healthy

Heart disease is the leading cause of death for both men and women. One person dies every 36 seconds in the United States from cardiovascular disease
Joseph Smith Memorial Building...
Temple Square

The Joseph Smith Memorial Building is an icon of Salt Lake City | Why hosting an event at this beautiful location will make you a hero this year

Here's why hosting an event at the iconic Joseph Smith Memorial Building in downtown Salt Lake City will make you a hero this year.
Cold podcast goes inside the psychological evaluation of Josh Powell