Key to finding Utah mom missing more than 10 years could be in Idaho, journalist says
Published at | Updated at
SALT LAKE CITY — The key to finding a Utah mother who vanished more than 10 years ago could be in Idaho.
That’s according to Dave Cawley, a journalist who spent years researching the disappearance of Susan Powell.
Powell vanished on Dec. 7, 2009, the same day her husband, Josh, took their two sons, ages 2 and 4, on a camping trip during a blizzard in the middle of the night. Susan’s body has never been found, and police believe Josh likely murdered his wife, but he was never arrested or charged.
More than two years later, Josh killed himself and the boys, Charlie and Braden, by attacking them with a hatchet and setting his Washington rental home on fire.
Cawley spent thousands of hours pouring over investigative documents, recordings and police reports. He met with family members, friends, detectives and others close to the case and believes it’s likely Josh visited southern Idaho days after Susan was reported missing.
“After his wife disappeared, he was interviewed by the police, and they served a search warrant on his minivan,” Cawley recalls. “During the time they had the minivan, Josh obtained a rental car and he disappeared for 18 hours. Nobody knows to this day where he went, but we know that he put 807 miles on his car in the space of just a couple days.”
Josh’s phone was off while he was away, but when he turned it back on, GPS data shows he was driving south into Utah through Tremonton. Few details are known about that trip, but someone working at a gas station may have some critical information.
“Josh made a comment later on that he had an interaction with a gas station attendant and that the gas station attendant would remember him,” Cawley tells EastIdahoNews.com. “I have to believe somewhere between Tremonton and Boise there’s somebody out there who saw Josh on that night 10 years ago, and that person has never come forward.”
Josh returned to his West Valley City, Utah home, but days later, on Dec. 18, 2009, he left to visit his father, Steven Powell, in Washington. It was the middle of the night, and Cawley’s research shows Josh stopped in Idaho.
“If you zoom really, really close on the data, you can see him make two stops on the side of I-84 between Burley and Bliss,” Cawley explains. “The first stop is for about 10 minutes on the side of the highway just before 2 a.m. Then he drives seven miles to the west, and at the bridge for the Gooding Milner canal, he stops again for five minutes.”
It’s unknown what Josh was doing during that time, but Cawley says “it’s highly suspicious” that he stopped by the canal for five minutes. That would have been enough time to check and see if something he had dumped 10 days earlier was still there.
There is no indication police ever identified that spot or investigated the area, according to Cawley’s research.
The Powell case has been back in the headlines recently after Susan’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, won a lawsuit against the state of Washington. The Coxes had custody of Charlie and Braden when Josh killed them in 2012.
“Her family fought in the courts for years for the right to claim that social workers who had cared for Charlie and Braden had basically been negligent – that they put reunification of Josh with his sons ahead of the safety of the boys,” Cawley says.
The civil case went to trial in February but was interrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Court proceedings resumed in July, and after two days of deliberations, the jury found that negligence was the cause of the children’s deaths at the hands of their father. The Coxes were awarded $98.5 million.
Aspects of the investigation still keep Cawley up at night. For instance, Josh owned an encrypted hard drive that investigators have never been able to crack, and perhaps answers are contained in the data.
As for whether Susan’s body will ever be found, Cawley remains optimistic.
“I can tell you that the people who loved Susan and loved her boys hold out hope. They do still go out and search when they receive tips,” he says. “My personal gut feeling is probably 50/50. I’ve seen stranger things happen – (cases where) decades later a hunter or rockhound, somebody out in the wild, stumbles across something. I think we could all hope and believe that could happen.”
Cawley reported explosive details in the binge-worthy podcast Cold, released by KSL in November 2018. It shot to the top of the Apple podcast charts within hours of the first episode coming out.
Learn more about the Powell case and the Cold podcast here.