September 26, 2011 12:00 PM

Ever since Susan Cox Powell vanished from her home in West Valley City, Utah, on Dec. 6, 2009, her parents and husband Josh have offered very different reasons for her disappearance. Her parents cast suspicion on Susan’s husband by describing their daughter as a devout Mormon woman whose eight-year marriage was strained by Josh’s controlling ways. Josh, 35, depicts Susan as a flirtatious woman who, far from being an obedient Mormon wife, chose to run away, leaving behind her husband and two young sons. When asked directly by PEOPLE if he killed his wife, Powell-who has long been investigators’ sole “person of interest” in the case-is clear. “No,” he says. “Some people will never be satisfied no matter what, but I never even so much as harmed my wife. I love her. Even with all these changes, I suppose I’ll always love her on some level.”

What changes is he referring to? Powell now claims that his wife showed signs of mental instability, and in August Powell’s father, Steve, ramped up the sparring with a startling allegation. “Susan was very, very sexual with me,” Steve Powell told ABC News. “She was very flirtatious… . We interacted in a lot of sexual ways because Susan enjoys doing that.” In a subsequent interview with PEOPLE, he toned down his comments, saying, “There was a little bit going on between us, but mostly it was just innocent stuff.” These claims outrage Susan’s parents..Her father, Charles Cox, counters that his daughter relocated to Utah in 2004 to escape her father-in-law’s advances. “Susan,” he says, “didn’t want anything to do with him.”

After long months of dormancy, the hunt for Susan has exploded back into the headlines. On Sept. 13 police with cadaver dogs began a search around Topaz Mountain, near Delta, Utah; this followed a mid-August search of abandoned mine shafts near Ely, Nev. The renewed hunt has galvanized Susan’s tussling relatives, who have been trading heated words and legal jabs as each tries to control a narrative that offers only one certainty: Susan-who was a 28-year-old assistant at a brokerage firm when she went missing-is still gone.

On Aug. 23 Josh obtained an order requiring that the Coxes and he maintain a 500-ft. distance from each other. (This followed a July encounter in a Lowe’s that Charles called chance and Josh characterized as stalking him and his sons Charlie, 6, and Braden, 4.) Three days later the Coxes retaliated with a temporary court order that restrains Josh from posting online excerpts from Susan’s girlhood diaries; the sole posting to date, which the court ordered taken down, suggests an adolescent chafing against her parents’ rules. Josh describes the journals as “the writings of a young girl who was being very disturbingly abused” by her parents. Charles dismisses the abuse charges as “blatantly untrue.”

Josh first voiced his shocking charge publicly last winter, when he invited a PEOPLE correspondent to his father’s home in Puyallup, Wash., to refute what he called the Coxes’ lies. The month after Susan’s disappearance, Josh, a computer programmer, had moved west with his boys, convinced, he says, that he would never find work in Utah. Back there, friends, fellow church members and relatives, including his own sister, scoffed at his claim that he’d been camping with his sons-in a blizzard-when Susan left home. They dismissed his hunch that she’d run off with another man. They found it suspicious that he’d stopped cooperating with police. He said last February that he wanted to voice his certainty that Susan was alive and had left of her own volition. “People are looking in the wrong places for her,” he said.

In the interview he also aimed to demonstrate that he was a loving father who had mastered the multi-tasking skills of a single parent: He strapped his sons into the rear of his Chrysler Town & Country van, dropped them off at the local YMCA, then ran across the street to squeeze in an oil change before picking the kids back up, walking them to a McDonald’s for dinner, then driving a half hour so they could take in an ice show. “I’m just a single father taking care of my sons every day,” he said. Whenever the tender subject of their missing mom arises, he said, “I just tell them she’s not here at the moment, that she loves them and misses them. I don’t lie to them.”

Some of his new neighbors, like his old, weren’t buying into this happy tableau. When they began posting missing flyers of Susan around the neighborhood, Josh erected a privacy fence in his father’s yard. When some people complained after he joined the PTA at Charlie’s school, Josh kept attending meetings anyway. He also said he’d lost a job after the company caught wind of who he was. Mostly, he said, he’d kept his head down until the neighborhood chatter led to his kids being bullied at school. “I want them to grow up normal,” he said, “and maybe that will take some counter media to start undoing the lies.”

To launch that campaign, he and his father created a website and posted an excerpt from Susan’s childhood journal, aiming to show that Susan was running away from her past-specifically her parents, though at the time she lived in Utah, her parents in Washington.

Now tempers and allegations are flaring anew over possession of the journals, which Josh believes are the key to the case and which, he says, investigators have shown no interest in until recently. (The Utah police decline any comment about the journals.) Josh, who six years ago stopped attending church regularly, is convinced that the refusal is part of a broader attempt to spare the church embarrassment by covering up the truth about Susan’s past.

Charles scoffs at such a notion. “It’s ridiculous,” he says. “I have no control over the Mormon church.” The ways he sees it, Josh will do “anything that’ll shift the blame or focus away from him.” Charles’s attorney Anne Bremner says she is hopeful, given the recent police activity, that “this will come to a resolution” soon. Meanwhile Charles continues to defend his daughter’s reputation against the Powells’ allegations of sexual aggressiveness. “She was friendly, outgoing and liked people,” Charles says. “They’re just trying to reinvent her because they can’t reinvent Josh.” The one person who could set the record straight is Susan-and she’s not talking.

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