Editor's note: This is the sixth of a weekly series featuring highlights from a KSL investigative podcast series titled "Cold" that reports new information about the case of missing Utah woman Susan Powell.
WEST VALLEY CITY — Josh Powell, the lone suspect in his wife Susan Powell’s presumed murder, sought treatment for a shoulder injury just days after her disappearance in 2009.
West Valley police never discovered that information during the course of their investigation, likely because Powell’s visit to a physical therapist was billed through an existing personal injury claim on his auto insurance policy.
However, the "Cold" podcast exclusively obtained and independently verified a document confirming Powell was diagnosed with a “rotator cuff strain and partial tear likely” shortly before he departed Utah for the state of Washington in late December of 2009, not long after his wife disappeared.
The discovery raises questions about whether Powell might have been injured in a physical confrontation with his wife or through efforts to move her body.
The auto accident
Powell told his auto insurance provider, American Family Insurance, that he was rear-ended while driving on Bangerter Highway in West Valley City on Sept. 2, 2009.
The crash was not reported to law enforcement. However, it did appear on a CARFAX report for Powell’s 2005 Chrysler Town and Country. That report said the minivan’s airbags had not deployed and damage was likely less than $1,000.
West Valley police later located photos of the minivan on Powell’s cellphone. The images showed only minor damage, mostly in the form of a dent on the lower portion of the tailgate.
The insurance document noted Powell was evaluated at Granger Medical Clinic on the day of the crash and diagnosed with a neck sprain. That same day, he began receiving chiropractic treatment for “severe neck and back pain.”
Bills for those visits went to American Family Insurance as part of Powell’s personal injury claim. The company eventually became skeptical of Powell’s need for ongoing chiropractic treatment and ordered an independent medical examination, which took place in early 2010.
A confidential source provided a copy of the medical exam report to "Cold."
Susan Powell made repeated references to the accident in emails to friends and family during September and October of 2009. In none of those emails did she ever mention a shoulder injury.
“Classic whiplash stuff,” Susan Powell wrote in one email dated Sept. 22, 2009. “We probably acted a little stupid and bought a massage chair.”
The medical exam report noted the first time any of the medical records related to Josh Powell’s personal injury claim made specific mention of a shoulder injury was Dec. 17, 2009, more than three months following the crash.
On that day, Powell went to Meier and Marsh Professional Therapies. An evaluation there revealed the rotator cuff injury.
“There is nothing in the records that clearly identified the shoulder injury described in the one physical therapy record or how it is related to this motor vehicle accident,” the report states.
By that point, Susan Powell had been missing for 10 days.
Dr. Peter Chalmers, an orthopedic surgeon who specializes in shoulder and elbow injuries at University of Utah Health, reviewed the exam report at the request of "Cold." He said it’s not likely a low-speed rear-end car crash would have caused a rotator cuff injury.
“It’s really, really, really uncommon from that mechanism,” Chalmers said.
The long delay between the crash and the physical therapy visit also seemed to cast doubt on the likelihood of the crash and the shoulder injury being connected.
“It’s not typically something where there’s a really minor thing and then, later on, all of a sudden it becomes a problem,” Chalmers said. “Typically the initial injury is associated with a lot of pain and disability and then it gets better.”
Meier and Marsh Professional Therapies declined to comment, citing medical privacy laws.
Attorney Anne Bremner, representing Susan Powell’s father, Chuck Cox, in his role as the sole remaining trustee for Josh and Susan Powell’s legal trust, asked Meier and Marsh to provide any records related to Josh Powell’s examination. Meier and Marsh responded that the records had been destroyed after seven years, as permitted by state administrative rules.
On the same day that Josh Powell was seeing a physical therapist, West Valley police were serving a search warrant at his house.
They seized a pair of prescription pill bottles. The first contained three pills later identified as phenazopyridine, a drug used to treat urinary tract infections.
The second contained 32 pills identified as cyclobenzaprine, which also goes by the brand name Flexeril. Cyclobenzaprine is commonly prescribed to people who are suffering from whiplash.
It had been dispensed on Sept. 2, 2009, the same day as Powell's crash.
Dr. Barbara Insley Crouch, the executive director of the Utah Poison Control Center, said Flexeril is classified as a muscle relaxant but actually performs as more of a sedative.
“A lot of us think it works by sedating enough that you lay on the couch and don’t strain your back,” Crouch said.
Flexeril is not considered dangerous at therapeutic doses, though Crouch said it could be deadly in an overdose situation.
“It would require a whole heck of a lot or in combination with something else that depresses the central nervous system and then they sort of were left alone and not found,” Crouch said.
Police at the time theorized Powell might have secretly slipped some sort of drug or poison into the meal he prepared for his wife on the afternoon of Dec. 6, 2009. However, they were never able to develop physical or forensic evidence to support the theory.
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