A beautiful young mother vanishes in Utah – and her husband's story raises questions

By Howard Breuer
December 16, 2009 03:15 PM
West Valley City Police Department

Is it Laci Peterson all over again?

An attractive young mom has gone missing from her suburban home, and her handsome husband has hired a criminal lawyer amid questions about his alibi and level of cooperation.

Joshua Powell has told investigators he last saw wife Susan, 28, at their house in West Valley City, southwest of Salt Lake City, on the night of Sunday, Dec. 6, when he took their 2- and 4-year-old sons for an overnight trip. When they returned the following afternoon, Powell says, his wife was gone.

The case is reminiscent of the Christmas Eve disappearance of Modesto homemaker Peterson seven years ago, and Utah police – and Susan Powell’s father – are skeptical of the husband’s story. He says that he and his boys went camping – in the snow.

“The whole western United States was suffering from an extreme cold snap that night, and the lows were below zero,” says West Valley City police Capt. Tom McLachlan tells PEOPLE. “I would not make that choice.”

Police have searched the area along the Pony Express Trail where Joshua Powell says he went camping, and because of fresh snowfall there was no evidence Powell had been there.

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“I asked him if he had any idea where his wife, my daughter Susan, would be,” her father Charles Cox told Good Morning America. “And he said he didn’t. He was sincere sounding when he said that. I believed that.” When asked if he still believed his son-in-law, Cox replied, “I don’t know what to think anymore.”

McLachlan says Powell is not very cooperative. He initially turned down a request this week for a third interview, and when it eventually went forward on Tuesday, Powell would only answer a few of the investigators questions.

Powell s criminal attorney, Scott C. Williams, did not return a call seeking comment. He told some reporters that Powell delayed the third meeting so Williams could gather information. The lawyer denied that Powell is hindering the investigation as police suggest.

Initially, police said they saw no signs of trouble of in the Powell marriage. But according to the Salt Lake Tribune, Joshua filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in April 2007, citing more than $200,000 in credit card debt. The couple argued over their financial problems, and friends urged Susan to get a divorce.

“She had lots of people tell her to end it and get a divorce because it was not worth going through that kind of heartache,” Rachel Marini, who met the couple shortly after they wed in 2001, tells the newspaper. “But Susan didn’t want to give up on her marriage.”

The couple are members of a local Mormon church, where Susan last year discussed her marital problems at church meetings, the newspaper reported.

McLachlan would not say whether there was evidence of a struggle in the house, nor would he say what evidence police removed when they served a search warrant there. McLachlan told ABC News that DNA samples have been collected from various individuals, and his department got a court order to compel a DNA sample from Joshua Powell.

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Susan’s father has told reporters that when police initially entered his daughter’s home on Dec. 7, they found two fans blowing on a wet spot. He didn’t know where in the house the spot was or what caused it.

McLachlan says he cannot discuss the Cox’s statement. He would only say that Cox is doing as much as he can amid extremely disturbing circumstances. “This is every parent’s nightmare. He is under a lot of stress over this,” McLachlan says.

He adds that, despite the husband’s unusual alibi, police have not named him a suspect or the euphemistic “person of interest.” He says Susan is still considered a missing person, not a homicide.

He says Powell, 28, is 5-foot-4, with brown hair and blue eyes. Anyone with information is asked to call police at (801) 840-4000.