Editor's note: This is the 13th 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.
TACOMA, Wash. — A forensic psychologist who examined Josh Powell as part of a 2011 child custody case in Washington state viewed Powell as “very calculated, very bright, very narcissistic.”
James Manley, who holds a doctorate in counseling psychology from New Mexico State University, twice interviewed Josh Powell as the husband of missing Utah mother Susan Powell attempted to regain custody of their two sons, Charlie and Braden.
Manley shared his impressions of Powell in an interview for the investigative podcast series "Cold."
“He seemed to be guarded,” Manley said. “He certainly was dodgy in the interview, and of course I’m there to ask him questions about uncomfortable circumstances.”
Social workers with Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services had asked Manley to evaluate Powell’s parenting capacity.
Following his evaluation, Manley authored a report that pointed out Powell’s decision to take his sons, then ages 2 and 4, out for a winter camping trip on the same night his wife disappeared was “foolhardy.” He said Josh Powell had failed to plan ahead or notify anyone of his itinerary, calling those “fundamental safety measures for wilderness excursions.”
“The more I was with Josh the more I recognized that he did not see any wrong-doing of what was going on in Utah, whether or not he acted inappropriately in what he described as his camping trip in December from his house on the evening that Susan disappeared,” Manley said.
The report concluded Powell had the intellect and skill necessary to safely parent his sons. However, it also said he had difficulty staying focused on his children’s emotional and psychological needs.
“The boys, whom he loved, were actually in my opinion actually extensions of himself,” Manley said. “It’s like ‘Little Josh 1’ and ‘Little Josh 2’ and not my sons.”
Powell ultimately killed himself and the boys on Feb. 5, 2012, days after a Pierce County Superior Court judge ordered him to undergo a psychosexual evaluation. Manley had recommended that evaluation in a follow-up report, authored after Manley reviewed incestuous cartoon images that West Valley police had located on a computer hard drive belonging to Powell.
Manley suggested Powell’s personality and parenting style would have eventually led to strong disagreements with the boys.
“If they would have continued to live, this would have been even more evident as they hit teenager years and more being individuating and standing on their own merits and so forth and challenging dad, as all teenage boys do,” Manley said.
Charlie Powell, were he still alive, would have turned 14 years old on Jan. 19, 2019. Braden Powell would have been 12 on Jan. 2.
Josh Powell also underwent a battery of psychological tests as part of the evaluation. They helped Manley conclude Powell dealt with “adjustment disorder with anxiety” and “traits of narcissistic personality disorder.”
During the evaluation, Powell had repeatedly avoided topics that might portray himself in a negative light, such as claims in court declarations filed during his parents’ divorce that said he had attempted suicide as a teen.
“He had traits, narcissism, which is the perfect self,” Manley said. “The idea of a narcissist is that they do not have the ability to see themselves as flawed.”
In spite of the years that have passed since the 2012 murder-suicide, Manley said he continues to find the case fascinating. He said it seemed a good topic for a feature film at some point in the future.
“I think there’s enough pathology and enough time and different circumstances, which I could see would be quite interesting,” Manley said. “It’s certainly interesting to me.”
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