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Ravell Call, KSL, File

'Cold': Devastating fire left few digital clues

By Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio | Posted - Feb. 13, 2019 at 6:51 a.m.

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Editor's note: This is the 14th 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.PUYALLUP, Wash. — Josh Powell’s suicide after murdering his two sons on Feb. 5, 2012, deprived West Valley police of their best chance of ever locating his missing wife, Susan Powell.

On that Super Bowl Sunday, Josh Powell set fire to a home he had rented in Graham, Washington, while the boys, Charlie and Braden, were there for court-authorized visitation. At the time, the children were dependents of the state, having been removed from their father’s custody the prior September.

Officials investigate at the home of Josh Powell in Graham, Wash., on Monday, Feb. 6, 2012. (Photo: Ravell Call, KSL, File)

Retired West Valley police detective Ellis Maxwell, who spearheaded the Powell case, participated in a search of the burned-out home on the day after the fire.

“It was super difficult,” Maxwell recalled. “Here you are going through this home and looking for anything that can be saved and you could potentially maybe get some answers from, all while in the back of your mind your primary target, the person responsible for Susan, is now gone.”

Police did locate several digital devices in the remains of the home. The most promising was a desktop computer tower, which sat in the master bedroom where Powell had ignited the fatal fire.

Digital data

Police extracted three hard drives from the computer. Heat from the fire had caused two of them to fuse together. They also removed the computer’s RAM chips.

West Valley police sent these three burned hard drives located in Josh Powell's rented home following a fatal fire on Feb. 5, 2012, to the FBI for analysis. The two larger 3.5-inch drives had melted together. The FBI was not able to extract any data from the drives. (Photo: West Valley City Police Department, File)

Detectives discovered a 4-gigabyte USB flash drive and a Samsung digital camcorder in a dresser that was also present in the master bedroom. They seized a Motorola Wi-Fi modem from an adjoining bedroom.

Two cellphones were also present in the house. Pierce County sheriff’s detectives located the first in the master bedroom. West Valley police found the second in the garage.

Investigators had at various times monitored Powell’s phone and internet communications using court-authorized wiretaps or pen register and trap-and-trace devices. He had circumvented police snooping by encrypting his emails or passing his calls through VOIP services.

“Which led to us not having a clue of what he was doing,” Maxwell said.

Dead end

On March 21, 2012, West Valley police obtained a search warrant affidavit in U.S. District Court that authorized the release of those digital items to the FBI for forensic testing. The warrant noted Powell had sent out emails to his sister, attorney and pastor shortly before starting the fire.

“There were probably other emails sent by Joshua Powell which can assist law enforcement in recovering Susan Powell or identifying others possessing information which can assist law enforcement in this endeavor,” a detective wrote in the affidavit.

At the time, police strongly suspected that Powell had shared information about his wife’s disappearance with his brother, Michael Powell.

On Jan. 7, 2013, a full 11 months after the fire, the FBI’s Digital Evidence Section issued a report on the digital data. It noted that the wireless modem and RAM chips did not contain any data. All three hard drives were too badly damaged to yield any information.

Investigators located this camcorder and cellphone in Josh Powell's rented home in Graham, Wash., following a fatal fire on Feb. 5, 2012. The FBI extracted data from both devices, but case files to not reveal what was included in that data. (Photo: West Valley City Police Department, File)

The FBI did recover information from the cellphones, flash drive and camcorder. Case documents do not indicate what that data included, or if it provided police with any additional leads or insight.

A little over a month later, Michael Powell committed suicide by jumping from a parking structure in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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