Every moment I step back and take stock of what I’m dealing with, it feels like a never ending cycle but I’m too afraid of the consequences, losing my kids, him kidnapping [them], divorce or actions worse on his part …
—SUSAN POWELL E-MAIL, JULY 5, 2008
Debbie Caldwell pulled up in her Ford Club Wagon—the one with fifteen seats to carry all the children who attended her day care—and observed how quiet her friend and neighbor Susan’s house seemed. It was 9:00 A.M. on Monday, December 7, 2009, and West Valley City, a suburb of Salt Lake City, was in the middle of a three-day winter storm. Freezing temperatures and four inches of new snowfall made the roads so icy that the local news described the streets as “mayhem.”
Susan, twenty-eight, and Josh, thirty-three, usually dropped Braden and Charlie at Daydreams & Fun Things Child Care as early as 6:00 A.M. When they didn’t appear that morning, Debbie started trying to reach the young parents. Susan was always prompt and conscientious. Josh was another story. He tested Debbie’s patience regularly, bringing the children late—which complicated the morning, since Debbie needed to know how many children needed breakfast. He also neglected to pick up the boys on time in the evening, cutting into Debbie’s time with her own family.
The other day-care parents avoided Josh because he talked incessantly and acted as if he was an expert on anything and everything. They had a nickname they called Josh behind his back: Rocks for Brains. One day, when Josh had given Debbie a hard time because Braden had lost his socks, one of the mothers said, “That idiot must have rocks for brains.” It stuck.
Charlie and Braden, ages four and two, respectively, had been attending Debbie’s day care for a year and a half, and like many women who had met the outgoing Susan, Debbie had become a confidante. Susan and her circle of friends were young, committed Mormon wives. Their children and their marriages came first. The friends had heard, because Susan told them, that Josh wouldn’t give her money to buy groceries and diapers, wouldn’t have sex with her, and wouldn’t go to counseling. One friend joked that Josh treated his pet parrot better than his wife and sons. Susan also voiced displeasure that he was spending too many hours on the phone talking with his father, who had left the Mormon church. Steve Powell, Susan told her friends, had been inappropriate with her—disgustingly so. Susan was so open with her complaints that her friends were feeling a bit apathetic. They’d heard it all so many times.
That morning, Debbie, forty-seven and the mother of four daughters, was on her way home from dropping the older children at school. She still had three toddlers in the car, and as she parked the van in front of 6254 W. Sarah Circle she told them she would just be a minute. She knocked on the front door several times. No answer. She expected to find Josh, harried anytime he had the slightest responsibility, getting the boys dressed, or more likely sequestered on his computer in the basement where he liked to hide. In any case, Susan would have phoned Debbie if there had been a change in plans.
By the time Debbie was at the Powells’ front door Monday morning, she had already called Susan on her cell phone. When there was no answer, she tried Susan’s work phone at Wells Fargo Investments and, finally, their home landline.
Again, no answer.
Debbie dialed Josh’s employer, Aspen Distribution, a trucking and shipping firm where he did computer programming. They said that Josh hadn’t shown up for work. When no one answered the front door of their house, she phoned the name listed as Josh and Susan’s emergency contact, his sister, Jennifer Graves.
“Hi Jennifer, this is Debbie Caldwell, Josh and Susan’s day-care person,” she said when she got Jennifer’s voice mail. “It’s nine o’clock. I’m at Josh and Susan’s house. No one is home, and they didn’t drop Charlie and Braden off this morning. Do you know what’s going on?”
A few minutes later, Josh’s mother, Terrica (Terri) Powell, heard the message. A quiet woman who never really got back on her feet after the divorce from her husband Steve, she lived with her daughter Jennifer, her son-in-law Kirk Graves, and the couple’s five children fifteen minutes south in West Jordan, Utah.
Terri conferred with Jennifer and they went over to the house. Finding it locked up tightly they tried both Josh’s and Susan’s cell phones, which went to voice mail. Then Terri phoned the West Valley City police to report the family missing.
* * *
The Powell residence looked like hundreds of others in West Valley City; maybe thousands. It was a white tract home with blue trim and blue shutters, and some stonework in the front. There was a tiny porch, a bay window, and a two-car garage. In the front yard was a wooden swing Josh had built for their two little boys. In back was playground equipment a neighbor had lent the family and a dormant vegetable garden. The garden wasn’t a mere hobby for Susan, it was a necessity. Occasionally its produce was the only thing Josh allowed his family to eat. Susan sometimes called friends to ask if she could borrow some hot dogs.
“The boys are hungry,” she’d say.
Within minutes of Debbie’s call of concern, Josh’s sister Jennifer met the police at the Powell house. The police logged it as a “welfare check” call. Jennifer, a soft-spoken woman with long, brown hair and her father’s blue eyes, was shaken. There was fresh snow on the driveway and the steps to the door. After accounting for Debbie’s tracks, it was clear that no one had been in or out of the house for at least several hours. When police knocked and got no answer, she gave them permission to break a window. They all braced themselves. Salt Lake City had just had several deaths attributed to carbon monoxide poisoning caused by faulty furnaces and that was on their minds as they entered the house. There was loud music blaring from a stereo and two box fans were angled to blow air on a damp spot on the carpet and a love seat near the front window.
At first there was a sense of relief: Josh and Susan and the boys were not dead in their beds. But something was wrong.
They weren’t home at all. Where were they?
Jennifer went into the master bedroom. Despite the clutter, she noticed Susan’s blue leather purse on a table by the foot of the bed. It contained her wallet, credit cards, and keys. There was no cell phone. The house was messy, but that was normal. There was no sign of forced entry or a robbery, home invasion, or struggle. Susan’s red nylon snow boots, which she wore whenever she left the house, were in the living room.
West Valley City police issued a statewide attempt-to-locate bulletin so that law enforcement in other jurisdictions would be on the lookout for the Powells’ 2005 light blue Chrysler Town & Country minivan. The police sent Jennifer home so they could search the house.
Jennifer called Susan’s father, Chuck Cox, in Puyallup, Washington, nine hundred miles to the northwest, to ask if he had heard from Susan or Josh. He hadn’t, but he wasn’t alarmed. Josh was known to make impulsive, last-minute decisions and the family liked to go rock hunting or camping. Yet, Chuck agreed it was odd that neither Susan nor Josh had called their places of employment or day-care provider to say that they’d be away.
Jennifer phoned her father’s house, also in Puyallup, and talked to he