GRAHAM, Wash.—If anyone had any lingering doubt that Josh Powell had something to do with the disappearance of his wife, Susan, in 2009, it went up in smoke this weekend—billows of smoke, after the Utah man blew himself and his two young boys up in his Washington-state home.
“I’m sorry, goodbye,” Powell said in the three-word text message he sent his attorney minutes earlier. Police said Powell also attacked his sons with a hatchet or small ax, before igniting the accelerant-fueled blaze.
The explosion Sunday, which Powell had apparently been planning for some time, put to rest any defense of the story he’s clung to since his wife didn’t show up for work at her Utah job as a stockbroker in 2009. Despite nonstop police and media scrutiny since then, Powell insisted that his wife had left him, that he took her camping in the hours before her disappearance, and that “I would never even hurt her,” as the red-eyed father told CBS’s Early Show in August.
“This,” Powell’s estranged brother-in-law, Kirk Graves, told reporters outside his home in Utah on Monday, “is Josh’s admission that he did it.”
But what Powell’s death doesn’t do is answer the question that haunts his wife’s parents: where is Susan Cox Powell?
It may have been Powell’s intent to silence a murder’s only witnesses. As his sons, 5-year-old Braden and 7-year-old Charles, have grown older, they’ve said some revealing things about their mom and dad and the day she disappeared.
Susan Powell’s father, Charlie Cox, told reporters on Monday that he believes his grandchildren could have helped investigators find their mother, even if it took some time.
“I do think they knew something,” Cox said, “and I do think [police] would have eventually have been able to find out what they knew and find my daughter.”
The summer after Susan Powell went missing, the boys were at a day camp, and Braden drew pictures of a minivan with three people inside, Cox said.
“That’s, me, Daddy, and Charlie,” the boy said. “But Mommy’s in the trunk.”
Braden didn’t say why Mommy was in the trunk. He was only 2 at the time.
“They knew something,” Cox said. “But we’re not going to know now.”
It’s too soon to tell whether Josh Powell succeeded in hiding his sons’ secrets, though. Cox’s attorney and others who spoke with The Daily Beast on Monday said they are hopeful that if anything good could come out of the killings, it’s new information about Susan Powell’s whereabouts.
The deaths may allow investigators to press harder, said Chuck and Judy Cox’s Seattle attorney, Anne Bremner.
“It’s likely we’ll find out more about her disappearance now,” Bremner told The Daily Beast. “Even though police are saying this is an ongoing investigation, there’s a court order requiring confidentiality. If someone is dead who’s the subject of that investigation, they’ll have a harder time keeping that information in.”
Bremner has long suspected the boys had information, she said; they made comments about Mommy being “in the mine” and “if we can find the mine, we can find Mommy.” One of the places policed searched was in the remote central Utah desert, around Topaz Mountain, a popular spot for rock and gem hunters, 30 miles south of where Josh Powell told police he went camping when his wife disappeared.
Now police don’t have to worry about slander or libel issues against the dead father, said Atlanta criminal defense attorney Meg Strickler, who has spoken frequently on high-profile missing persons cases around the country. And the public can be more involved in the investigation.
“Clearly, the police have bungled this,” Strickler said. “Now that more people can scrutinize the data about Josh—maybe with all of us getting the information, since he’s no longer here—we can talk about him, things that were court-ordered to stay private.”
Strickler contended the case would be much further along had police in Utah mustered the “cojones” to arrest Josh Powell, or at least name him as a suspect.
“Since he’s only a person of interest, law enforcement is not allowed to disparage him,” she said. “Now maybe they’ll feel more comfortable pursuing every lead rather than tiptoeing around.”
West Valley City Police Sgt. Michael Powell would take none of that bait, offering the tried-and-true, “We continue to have an active missing-persons investigation” in a terse interview with The Daily Beast on Monday.
A department press release issued a day earlier stressed that the police’s confidentiality issues remained, despite the explosion, and that no new information from the investigation would be released.
Until Sunday, Susan Powell’s parents had held out some hope that their daughter might be found alive, Bremner said. Now they just want closure.