EUREKA, Juab County — West Valley City police were just one week into their search for Susan Powell when they received their first tip suggesting her body might be entombed in Nutty Putty Cave.
A second tip suggesting the same arrived one day later. Others followed in the months and years that police spent investigating the Powell case.
A perception has persisted in some circles that Susan Powell’s husband, Josh Powell, might have managed to slip her body into the narrow subterranean passageway to the west of Utah Lake on Blowhole Hill.
In a new bonus episode, the "Cold" podcast investigated that theory to determine if it was plausible.
'Hole in the ground with maze'
Josh Powell was, at the least, aware of the cave.
Computer files recovered from Powell’s digital devices by police and obtained by Cold through an open records request included a scanned copy of a postcard showing the interior of Timpanogos Cave National Monument in Utah’s Wasatch Mountains.
The back side of the postcard, which was also scanned, included a note in Josh Powell’s handwriting that read “Nutty Putty Caves in Eureka (south of Spanish Fork). Hole in the ground with maze.”
Police also located thumbnail images on Josh Powell’s computer that had been retrieved from the internet late on the afternoon of Dec. 6, 2009, the last day Susan Powell was seen alive.
One of those images showed the opening of Nutty Putty Cave. Another showed John Edward Jones, a man who died in the cave less than two weeks before Susan Powell disappeared.
Jones, 26, had grown up in Utah but was attending medical school at the University of Virginia in 2009 when he returned home with his pregnant wife and 14-month-old daughter for Thanksgiving.
Two days before Thanksgiving, on Nov. 24, 2009, Jones entered Nutty Putty Cave with 11 other people. While wriggling forward through one particularly tight passageway in a far reach of the cave, Jones became stuck.
“He was originally described to have been in an area called Bob’s Push, which is just near the Birth Canal area — both restricted physical features inside the cave that are challenging,” Utah County Sheriff’s Sgt. Spencer Cannon said. “He was actually beyond that in an unnamed, really unexplored part of the cave.”
Members of Jones’ party worked their way back out of Nutty Putty to the top of Blowhole Hill, where they were able to use a cellphone to call for help.
“They told us that John got stuck about 8:45 p.m. We got the notification sometime I believe just before 9:30,” Cannon said.
Utah County called out its search and rescue team, which had prior experience working to extract stuck spelunkers from Nutty Putty’s depths.
“We had two rescues within about a week of each other about four years earlier. One was, I don’t know, maybe 6 or 7 hours long. The other one was about 11 hours long,” Cannon said.
In fact, Nutty Putty had been closed to public access for years after those earlier rescues. It had only reopened under an online reservation system managed by a local caving organization in early 2009.
The rescuers worked through Tuesday night and into the day on Wednesday attempting to free Jones. They struggled to free him in part because of the angle and position of his body.
Jones had been descending head-first when he became pinned in place. His head pointed downward at an angle of 70 to 80 degrees. The rescuers had little room to move and very little grip with which to pull.
To further complicate the situation, Jones’ ribcage would catch on a lip of rock when the rescuers attempted to pull him back up and over the crux. They succeeded in rigging a rope and pulley system to help lift him past the obstacle. It worked to get Jones past the “fishhook” of the rock lip, causing some relief on the afternoon of Nov. 25.
That relief evaporated when the rigging failed and Jones dropped back into the same trap from which he’d been freed. Jones stopped responding to the rescue team late that night. At 11:56 p.m. on the night before Thanksgiving, the search and rescue team determined Jones had died.
Closing Nutty Putty
In the wake of Jones’ death, the Utah County Sheriff floated the idea of permanently sealing the cave.
“Once John had been declared dead, there were discussions about ‘how do we get him out?’ There were some rather distasteful discussions as well, things that nobody really wanted to do,” Cannon said. “Ultimately the decision was made that it was too much risk for the rescuers to remain there in an effort to get him out and the decision was made to leave him in place.”
Uniformed deputies remained at the opening of the cave 24-hours a day from the night of Jones’ death until Nutty Putty’s permanent closure the following week.
On Dec. 1, 2009 the county’s bomb squad entered Nutty Putty to place explosive charges around the opening of the passageway in which Jones remained trapped. The next day, on Dec. 2, 2009, contractors poured concrete into the main opening of the cave.
“I believe it was about 30 yards that poured down into the main opening to give it as permanent of closure as you could get for it.”
Cannon said given the fact Susan Powell was seen alive after the concrete plug was poured, it is not possible for her body to also be entombed with John Jones.
“The probability of Susan Powell or anybody else being placed in Nutty Putty Cave after John Jones died inside Nutty Putty Cave is zero,” Cannon said.
Bonus episodes of the KSL podcast Cold are available through the subscription service Wondery Plus, along with the entire first season of Cold ad-free. For more information visit www.wondery.com/plus.