GRAHAM, Wash. – Josh Powell’s note was simple and short, a farewell to the world two years after his wife vanished.
“I’m sorry, goodbye,” Powell wrote in an email to his attorney just minutes before authorities say he set fire to his home, killing himself and his two sons days after he was denied custody and ordered to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation.
Susan Powell vanished in 2009. In the time since, her husband has been scrutinized in the media, hammered by police and questioned by judges, prosecutors and social workers. Now he and their children, 5-year-old Braden and 7-year-old Charles, are dead.
A social worker brought the two boys to Josh Powell’s home Sunday for what was to be a supervised visit. They rushed toward the home, leaving the social worker behind. By the time she got to the door, Powell had let his sons in but locked her out, Graham Fire and Rescue Chief Gary Franz said.
The social worker called her supervisors to report that she could smell gas. Moments later, the home burst into flames, igniting an inferno that neighbors said rattled their houses.
Pierce County sheriff’s spokesman Sgt. Ed Troyer said it appeared an accelerant was used to make the house burn faster.
He said emails Powell sent just prior to the blaze seemed to confirm that Powell planned the deadly blast. Troyer didn’t elaborate on the content of the emails.
Jeffrey Bassett, who represented Powell in the custody case, said he received an ominous email from his client just minutes before the fire. “I’m sorry, goodbye,” it read.
Susan Powell, a 28-year-old mother of two, was reported missing Dec. 7, 2009, after she failed to show up for her stockbroker job in Utah.
Authorities in the couple’s hometown of West Valley City, about 10 miles outside Salt Lake City, quickly turned their attention to Josh Powell. He’s been the only “person of interest” in the case, but had repeatedly denied any involvement in her disappearance.
“I would never even hurt her,” a tearful, red-eyed Josh Powell told CBS’ “Early Show” in August. “People who know me know that I could never hurt Susan.”
About a month later, police spent 12 days in the remote central Utah desert looking for clues, and Josh Powell and his father, Steven, quickly disappeared from the limelight. The search area around Topaz Mountain, a popular spot for rock and gem hunters, was about 30 miles south of where Josh told police he went camping with his two children in the hours before his wife’s disappearance – his steadfast alibi.
On Sunday, the lawyer for Susan Powell’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, said the children had started talking to their grandparents about things they remembered from the night their mother vanished.
“They were beginning to verbalize more,” said attorney Steve Downing, whose clients had custody of the children. “The oldest boy talked about that they went camping and that Mommy was in the trunk. Mom and Dad got out of the car, and Mom disappeared.”
Police turned up no clues in their desert search, but a day before ending it, Steven Powell, 61, was arrested at his home in Puyallup, Wash., and accused of secretly videotaping his daughter-in-law, other women, and girls taking baths and sitting on the toilet in neighborhood homes.
The elder Powell is in jail, facing child porn and voyeurism charges.
The children, 5-year-old Braden and 7-year-old Charles, were ordered by a judge to then go live with Susan’s parents as the parallel cases were investigated.
Custody hearings continued, with the latest Wednesday, during which Josh Powell pleaded with a judge to return his children to him.
“For over four months already, my interactions with my sons and many other aspects of my character have been investigated and documented by” social services, he wrote in an affidavit to the court. “I have proven myself as a fit and loving father who provides a stable home even in the face of great adversity. … It is time for my sons to come home.”
But the judge ruled against him, ordering the children to remain with Susan Powell’s parents, at least until Josh Powell underwent a psycho-sexual evaluation, a process more often used as an assessment tool by courts to determine whether a defendant, largely in sex crimes cases, is likely to reoffend. In this case, the judge ordered it in light of the explicit material found on computers inside Steven Powell’s home that led to his arrest.
Sherry Hill, a spokeswoman for the Washington state Department of Social and Health Services, said the social worker who was with the children Sunday was not a Child Protective Services employee but a contract worker with a private agency that supervises visits for the state.
“The visit supervisor for this particular agency had taken the children to the home. When she does that, she sits through the visit and might take notes on her observations,” Hill said. “She pulled up in the car, and the kids ran out ahead of her. He closed the door and locked it. She wasn’t able to get in, and that’s when she smelled gas.”
Downing called it “the most horrifying thing you can imagine happening. … The Coxes are absolutely devastated. They were always very fearful of him doing something like this, and he did it.”
Kirk Graves, 39, of West Jordan, Utah, whose wife is Josh Powell’s sister, said they were stunned by the news. “We never contemplated the idea he would do something like this. You just don’t expect it from a father,” he said. “His world was falling apart around him and he was going to lose his boys and get arrested for Susan’s disappearance. He’s a narcissist and he has no love for anyone but himself.”