Exclusive: COLD podcast obtains wiretap records in Susan Powell case

Sep 15, 2020, 10:05 PM | Updated: Sep 16, 2020, 6:42 am

SALT LAKE CITY — The podcast “COLD” reported extensively for the first time on a multi-state operation aimed at getting Josh Powell, the lone suspect in the disappearance of Susan Powell, to talk — including a wiretap. But until now, that did not include details of what police learned during the wiretapped conversations. 

Now, “COLD” host Dave Cawley has released a new episode of the podcast with those details.

Wiretaps: an uncommon tactic

“Wiretapping private phone calls, you get some very intimate, very serious, very sensitive information,” University of Utah law professor Matthew Tokson said.

Tokson, who researches Fourth Amendment issues, says judges grant about 3,000 wiretap warrants every year in the United States. Because wiretaps invade someone’s privacy, anyone abusing that power faces stiff penalties; law enforcement officials must jump through a number of hoops to obtain permission to listen in. 

“Typically, they’re confined to cases that are serious — like, you know, like this investigation was, or if it’s a larger criminal enterprise,” Tokson said. “And in part that’s the system working, that’s the statute working as it’s designed to work, because it sets a high bar for wiretaps.” 

In requesting a normal warrant, Tokson said investigators must show they have probable cause to search. For a wiretap warrant, he said investigators also need to show they can’t obtain the information any other way.

Additionally, they must plan to minimize the invasion of privacy.

“The idea is you have to take reasonable steps, basically, to minimize what you collect from a wiretap,” Tokson said. “You have to stop listening when it’s clear when part of the conversation is not relevant to your criminal investigation.”

And the information they obtain isn’t widely available. 

“They are sealed court records, sort of like any other sealed record. So they’re disclosed to the judge but not open to the public,” Tokson said.  

The Susan Powell wiretap

In the case of Susan Powell, investigators sought the wiretap warrant as part of Operation Tsunami. That was a sweeping operation uncovered in episode 11 of “COLD.” Recently, Cawley obtained records of the wiretapped conversations. 

The wiretap in the Susan Powell investigation targeted the cell phones belonging to Josh and Steve Powell, Susan’s husband and father-in-law, and the landline at Steve Powell’s South Hill, Washington, home, where Josh Powell lived at the time. 

In August 2011, as part of Operation Tsunami, the records show a number of calls relevant to the case. At the time, police searched abandoned mines in eastern Nevada and Susan Powell’s parents staged a “honk-and-wave” event. Police intended for those events to get the Powells talking, and hopefully reveal Susan Powell’s final resting place. 

While the wiretap did not ultimately bring about that result, it did offer investigators new lines of inquiry. 

New details revealed in wiretap records 

More than once, the wiretap records show Josh Powell brought up the rental car in which he logged 807 miles over 18 hours — just days after his wife vanished. On one occasion, investigators heard him tell his family about going into a convenience store on that trip, one in which he’d been “very memorable” to the clerk, according to the records. 

On no occasion did investigators record hearing Josh Powell or his family express regret, remorse or sympathy for Susan Powell. Instead, there were multiple conversations, some in the presence of the couple’s sons, in which the family disparaged their mother. 

Police witnessed, through the wiretap, Josh Powell coaching his young boys to use foul language. They also listened as he told the boys, then just four and six years old, his wife’s parents were monsters. 

“When Chuck Cox is out of our lives . . . you’ll make more friends because Chuck Cox is abusive,” Josh Powell was documented as saying in one conversation. 

Evidence at the wrongful death trial

The man who led the investigation into the disappearance of Susan Powell may have been referencing the wiretap when he testified at the wrongful death trial brought by her parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, against Washington state officials. 

“This was August 2011, we’d been investigating this case for some time, and learned a lot of information about Steven Powell and Josh Powell, the family members inside of the home,” retired West Valley City Det. Ellis Maxwell testified in 2020. “So, yeah, the environment within the home was just concerning to me. Because of — and there’s other stuff I can’t discuss, that’s protected.” 

The records of the wiretapped conversations offer a glimpse at what that environment might have been like. 

You can learn more about the details of the wiretaps and the disappearance of Susan Powell by listening to the “COLD” podcast here or visiting the COLD podcast website.

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Exclusive: COLD podcast obtains wiretap records in Susan Powell case