Editor's note: This is the seventh 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.
SARATOGA SPRINGS — A psychic tip, a dog search and a subdivision under construction led West Valley police to a remote garbage dump during the effort to finding missing mother Susan Powell.
Excavation at the Cedar Valley Landfill in Fairfield failed to turn up any sign of Powell, who disappeared from her home on Dec. 7, 2009. Police never publicized the effort. However, it illustrated the lengths to which investigators were willing to go in the hopes of finding her.
The lead originated in March of 2010 when a group of self-described psychics asked the nonprofit organization American Search Dogs to scour the northwestern shoreline of Utah Lake.
Paulette Bennett, then president of American Search Dogs, was skeptical of the request but agreed to bring her goldendoodle Murphy to a spot near the southern end of the Talons Cove golf course in Saratoga Springs.
Murphy appeared to catch what Bennett called a “high air scent” while scanning for the odor of cadaver.
“My dog walked into the water. The breeze was coming toward us, pawed the water,” Bennett said. “That’s what he would do when he couldn’t reach a source. He would paw at it. So I know he picked up something.”
Bennett said the wind could have carried the scent from the far side of the lake.
“I’m sure there was something, but I’m not sure what it was,” Bennett said.
She later reported her findings to detectives in both Saratoga Springs and West Valley City.
West Valley police followed up on Bennett’s tip by bringing another cadaver dog to the same area on May 3, 2010. That dog did not detect any suspicious scents.
However, police learned two homes in a nearby subdivision had been listed for sale on husband Josh Powell’s realty website the prior December. Powell had also claimed to have driven through Saratoga Springs on his way back from the Pony Express Trail on the day of his wife’s disappearance. It seemed plausible that Powell might have stashed his wife’s body in one of those homes.
Police had a cadaver dog sniff inside and outside of both houses on May 3, 2010. Retired detective Ellis Maxwell, who led the Powell investigation, said dogs often proved useful in evaluating such leads.
“The handlers obviously, they are the experts at reading their behavior,” Maxwell said. “Just because they show interest doesn’t necessarily mean it’s anything.”
The dog did not discover anything suspicious at either home.
The landfill search
On May 25, 2010, the manager of the subdivision told police that a dumpster had been in place at a vacant lot on Shorewood Drive, near the two homes, on the day Susan Powell disappeared.
Detectives determined the dumpster’s owner, Trash Unlimited, had taken it to the DCD Orem Transfer Station on Dec. 14, 2009. The transfer station was a place where refuse from construction projects was sorted for recycling.
The operations manager at the transfer station told police the waste materials that were not removed for recycling had been loaded onto another truck. From there, the garbage went to the Cedar Valley Landfill for final disposal.
Staff at the landfill informed police that the waste dumped during December of 2009 covered an area approximately 150 feet wide, 750 feet long and nearly 10 feet deep.
On June 27, 2010, police brought several cadaver dogs to the landfill. According to a police report, the dogs “indicated on one spot where trash and debris had been dumped back in December of 2009.”
Cedar Valley Landfill staff used a trackhoe to excavate the spot, uncovering what the police report described as “only animal remains and excrement.”
American Search Dogs members took part in several other searches for Susan Powell, including a large volunteer effort at Simpson Springs on April 10, 2010. West Valley police had by then conducted multiple searches in the area.
“I know they had said they’d gone over that area, but it’s naive to believe you can just go in on an area once and necessarily find everything,” Bennett said.
American Search Dogs volunteers went out farther west on the Pony Express Trail on Oct. 17, 2010. Their dogs investigated several spots between Tooele and West Wendover, Nevada, but failed to turn up any sign of Susan Powell.
“I always doubted that she was out there,” Bennett said. “Maybe if she was, it was for a short period of time.”
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