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COLD: Dave Cawley’s theory behind the death of Susan Cox Powell

The cold case of Susan Cox Powell has left people stunned and curious since her disappearance on Dec. 6, 2009 — and while many people have a theory about what happened to her, no one knows for sure. 

COLD Season 2 available now

After years of investigation, detectives uncovered little information about her disappearance. No one ever found Susan Powell’s body. They never discovered a murder weapon. No one has ever been arrested or charged with a crime. 

It’s widely believed that her husband, Josh Powell, killed his wife the night she went missing. But one looming question remains: How did he kill Susan Powell? 

A new theory in the death of Susan Cox Powell

Josh Powell left behind minimal clues detailing the death of Susan before he took his own life in 2012. Additionally, law enforcement officials have been unable to piece together a coherent explanation about how Susan may have lost her life.

Reporter Dave Cawley has spent countless hours investigating the disappearance of Susan Powell. While he has brought to light multiple facts about the cold case, he, too, has never been able to account for Susan’s manner of death. 

Related: Susan Powell continues to help domestic violence victims, ten years later

However, Cawley, the host of the podcast COLD, does have a theory about how Susan Powell may have died — and the research to back it up. 

Cawley’s theory in the murder of Susan Cox Powell: he thinks Josh Powell may have killed his wife with a handheld power tool, possibly an 18-volt Ridgid brand cordless impact driver. 

Home Depot, power tools and video evidence

The Powell family didn’t have a lot of money. Josh Powell’s inability to hold down a job or manage the family’s finances put a strain on their marriage. He would often invest money in failed business ventures and incomplete hobbies, draining the family of what little capital they had to their name. 

In April 2007, Josh Powell filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which was discharged six months later. Immediately after being cleared from bankruptcy, he headed to Home Depot where he opened a credit card in Susan Powell’s name. He racked up more than $1,000 in debt.

Read more: New info suggests Josh Powell destroyed evidence in wife’s disappearance

One of the purchases he made with the credit card was for a Ridgid brand 18-volt cordless tool-combo kit. At the time, there were two kinds of kits available: a four-piece or a five-piece. Both kits included a hammer drill, a circular saw, a reciprocating saw and a flashlight. The only difference was the five-piece kit included an impact driver. It’s unclear which kit Josh Powell purchased. 

Josh Powell kept a spreadsheet with photos of the tools, along with their serial numbers. He later deleted these files, but thanks to the computer-backup software he used, investigators recovered the log. 

During a phase in 2008, Josh Powell taped a series of home-improvement videos with his wife and two kids, Braden and Charlie. In one of the videos, viewers can see him using the Ridgid kit and a new tool: a 9.6-volt pivot driver. 

The pivot driver was not a part of the original Ridgid kit. But the pivot driver would have made the impact driver from the kit somewhat redundant. Additionally, the home-improvement videos showed Josh Powell preferred using the lighter pivot driver instead of the impact driver. 

Where is the missing power tool?

josh powell susan theory

Pivot drive tool on top of a bookshelf in Josh Powell’s home. Photo: West Valley Police

When West Valley police officers went to the Powell family’s home on Dec. 7, 2009, in search of the missing family, photo evidence showed the pivot driver atop a bookshelf. 

But where was the impact driver? 

Detective Ellis Maxwell also snapped a photo of the family minivan in the garage; in the background was the Ridgid tool-kit bag.

When Josh Powell arrived at the house hours later with his two boys, he claimed he didn’t know the whereabouts of his wife.

The police declined to serve a search warrant for the house that night. 

Photo evidence showed after the police left the house, Josh Powell stacked several pieces of fireproof sheetrock and placed them on the concrete garage floor. 

Next, he placed an unknown metal object on top of the sheetrock, grabbed the oxyacetylene torch he bought two weeks prior and destroyed the object. 

Read more: Det. Ellis Maxwell, lead investigator on the Susan Powell case, talks about the day she disappeared

The next day, Dec. 8, 2009, Josh Powell went to the police station for a second interview with Detective Maxwell. It was after that interview that police decided to seek and serve a search warrant on the Powell home. 

Rigid tool bag found in Josh Powell’s home. Photo: West Valley Police

What police found during the search was disturbing. Maxwell discovered a garbage bag in the minivan filled with heavily burned pieces of sheetrock, melted chunks of metal, three short strips of copper wire, three screws and a single broken Phillips head bit. 

Inside the garage, police also uncovered a burn spot on the concrete. Near it sat the torch, a fire extinguisher, a red plastic gas can and the Ridgid tool bag. 

By the end of the night of Dec. 8, Josh Powell had invoked his Fifth Amendment right to remain silent. 

Working to identify the metal findings 

Police speculated the unidentifiable hunk of metal was a cellphone, hard drive or GPS system.

Investigators sent fragments of the metal to an FBI lab, but the bureau could not identify the object. The only thing FBI officials could confirm was the majority of the object consisted of steel, and the burned chunks had “significant amounts” of calcium and strontium — a soft silver-white yellowish metal. 

FBI photo of Josh Powell’s melted objects and wires.

For some background, strontium ferrite is magnetic and ceramic strontium is often used in magnetic motors. Those motors commonly are used in handheld power tools. 

As for the three strips of copper wire found inside the bag in the garage, they were about 2 to 3 inches in length. The FBI concluded the wires were 12 AWG or 0.081 inches thick. 

The length and width of the wires are consistent with what is found inside a Ridgid impact driver. 

Reenacting the destruction 

To test Cawley’s theory that the murder weapon was an impact driver, he bought one similar to the Ridgid impact driver. The sole intention of purchasing the impact driver was to destroy it to see if it was consistent with the findings from West Valley police.  

Spoiler alert: It was. 

With the help of a friend, Cawley applied an oxyacetylene cutting flame to the impact driver, just like Josh may have done. After 45 minutes to an hour, Cawley was left with a melted, but not completely destroyed, tool.  

To make the impact driver totally unrecognizable, Cawley estimated he would have needed an extra 30 to 45 minutes of torching. But he was running low on fuel. Lack of fuel wouldn’t have been an obstacle for Josh Powell, who owned larger fuel tanks. 

But there was another inconsistency. Cawley’s melted tool was black; Josh Powell’s was speckled gray and white. 

Cawley believes this is because Josh first tried to burn the object in a fire. That explains why there was a gas can next to the burn spot in the garage. By using fire, it would have eaten away the top layer of the sheetrock, exposing the gypsum underneath. When he switched to the torch, the metal would have mixed with the gypsum, coating the metal scraps. 

Dave Cawleys melted impact driver. Photo: Dave Cawley

So, Cawley tried it out. He set fire to his sheetrock and rolled the tool in the gypsum. When he finished, what remained bore a striking, uncanny resemblance to Josh’s Powell’s burned object. Even the copper wires looked the same. 

How could it be the impact driver?

Police-evidence photos showed the pivot driver didn’t move between Dec. 7 and Dec. 8, 2009. The pivot driver was still accounted for after the discovery of the melted object. It also showed up in Josh Powell’s photos months later, along with the hammer drill. 

But the impact driver was nowhere to be found. 

Whatever that metal object was, Cawley believes destroying it was Josh Powell’s number one priority.

Josh Powell also put the pieces of metal in his minivan, indicating he planned on disposing of them in a Dumpster far from his home, in a place police would not think to search. This notion is backed up by Cawley’s review of the GPS tracker that police placed on Josh’s minivan after the disappearance of his wife. 

But how could the impact driver be a murder weapon?

Cawley theorizes the impact driver isn’t a tool Josh would have missed, considering he primarily used the pivot driver. An impact driver could carry enough force to cause lethal blunt-force trauma to the head or face, depending on the victim. He also believes it’s reasonable to think law enforcement would overlook the tool as a murder weapon. 

Questions linger from COLD’s Susan Cox Powell theory

A number of questions remain even with Cawley’s theory in the Susan Cox Powell case. 

If the murder weapon was the impact driver, where did it go? Was the impact driver in the Rigid tool bag with traces of blood on it as police searched the house? Did Josh Powell become nervous because he thought police would find it? Was the “camping trip” he took his boys on after Susan’s disappearance just a lousy alibi? When the detective finally left his house on the night of Dec. 7, 2009, did Josh Powell scramble to dispose of the impact driver with the torch he bought specifically to do such a thing? 

There’s a good chance we will never learn the answers to these questions.

For the complete story of the disappearance of Susan Powell, subscribe and listen to the COLD podcast. 

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