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.

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Cold podcast goes inside the psychological evaluation of Josh Powell