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Family Tragedy: What Happened to the Powells?

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JoVonna Owings, the last non-family member known to see Susan Powell alive before she vanished on Dec. 6, 2009, had no idea she was witnessing the beginning of the end when she dropped in on her neighbors in West Valley City, Utah, to help Susan with quilts she was making for her two young sons-blue and green for Charlie, yellow and orange for Braden. In recent weeks Susan had confided concerns about her marriage, among them that her husband, Josh, had stopped attending their Mormon church and that her dislike of his father was a source of contention. But during this visit, there was no hint of marital discord as she and Owings sewed and chatted, and Josh kept the boys busy in the kitchen, scrambling eggs and flipping pancakes. “What I saw that evening were only positive, good things,” Owings said at the time. In the wake of Josh’s senseless slaughter of his boys in a Feb. 5 fire that killed him, too, Owings now views that happy scene through a different lens. “I feel like I was set up by Josh,” she says. “I think today that he needed to put on a good show that night.”

With every aspect of the Powell case now being called into question, from the police work to the boys’ child custody arrangements to the eight minutes that it took a 911 operator to respond to the deadly blaze, second-guessing was rife last week as Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, were laid to rest in a single gray casket topped with daisies. “Why didn’t they err on the side of safety?” demanded Pam Roach, a state senator in Washington. Josh had relocated with the boys to his father’s house in Puyallup just weeks after Susan’s disappearance. “I simply do not understand how anyone could have made the decision that it was in the best interest of those children to have visits in Josh Powell’s home.”

Bewilderment only grew as police seized a blood-stained comforter from a storage locker that Josh had rented not far from his father’s house. Information also emerged that had been known to Utah police for two years: A computer seized from the Powells’ Utah home shortly after Susan’s disappearance included cartoon images of what appeared to be incestuous sex. That fact was made known to attorneys in the custody battle only shortly before Josh set fire to the house he’d rented after losing custody of his boys last September. Steve Downing, an attorney for Susan’s parents, Charles and Judy Cox, says that had he seen these images, he would have used them as ammunition to block or change the terms of Josh’s visitations with the boys. Instead, says Sen. Roach, Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) personnel were “just ignoring all the signs and fast-tracking [Josh] toward regaining custody. I don’t understand it.”

In Utah law officials defended their decision not to change Josh’s status from a “person of interest” to a suspect. “We have not found a body,” says Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill. “We simply can’t charge people without evidence that we know is likely to give us a good outcome at a trial.” Downing counters that in recent months police repeatedly told Susan’s father that Josh’s arrest was imminent. In November, two months after Josh’s father, Steve Powell, was arrested on voyeurism and pornography charges, the event that led a judge to place the boys in the temporary custody of the Coxes, “I heard a West Valley police detective tell [Charles], ‘You’ve got [the boys] from now on. There will be an arrest,’ ” Downing says. “It was not an insinuation. It was a promise.” Cox family spokeswoman Anne Bremner, a former prosecutor, says that while she doesn’t “like finger-pointing,” she wishes the police “would have filed the murder case. They kept saying they were going to.”

Downing also finds DSHS officials’ handling of the case unfathomable. “Visitation between Josh and the boys had been in a facility where other people were exercising visitation and where there was security,” he says. The decision between DSHS and Josh to move the visits to his house, he says, “was not even discussed in court.” He adds that the court-appointed psychologist, sufficiently concerned about Josh to recommend a psychosexual evaluation, should also have pushed for a change in the visitation arrangements. DSHS spokesman Thomas Shapley counters: “We are required by law to be on a course toward reunification of the parent and child.” He notes that DSHS, the psychologist and the courts all “thought that moving these supervised visits to Josh Powell’s house was the best thing to do.”

Satisfactory answers were still in short supply when more than 1,500 people turned out on Feb. 11 for the boys’ memorial service. “All sorts of things have been said about these boys and how this could have happened,” Dean Curry, pastor of the hosting Life Center Church in Tacoma, reminded the congregation. “But that is grown-up talk, and today is not about grownups; it is about the children.” For the next hour, the service focused on Charlie and Braden. Tammy Oughton, Charlie’s kindergarten teacher from Puyallup, recalled a bright, nature-loving boy who on occasion snuck caterpillars into the classroom. Christie King, Braden’s pre-K teacher, described a “tickle monster” who loved to tickle and be tickled and could complete 48-piece puzzles by himself. Over and over, as if to reassure themselves, mourners talked of the two boys now being with their mother. Speaking both to the moment and to those that will follow, Curry told the assembled crowd, “How we got here is a story well known. But what we do here…is up to us.”