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Editor’s note: This is another episode in a series that highlights a KSL investigative podcast series titled “Cold” that reports new information about the case of missing Utah woman Susan Powell.
WEST VALLEY CITY — A series of pornographic images located on a computer seized from the home of Josh Powell the day after his wife Susan Powell disappeared 10 years ago did not belong to Josh Powell.
The nearly 400 images, many of which depicted characters from popular animated TV programs engaged in acts of incest, were a primary catalyst in the sequence of events that resulted in Josh Powell murdering his two sons and killing himself in Graham, Washington, on Feb. 5, 2012.
Days prior to the murder-suicide, a judge had cited the images as rationale for ordering Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation and polygraph as part of a custody dispute. Powell was at the time the lone suspect in his wife’s presumed murder, though he was never arrested or charged with a crime related to her disappearance.
Susan Cox Powell has never been located.
The team behind the “Cold” podcast conducted an independent analysis of digital data gathered by investigators and discovered the pornographic images were likely downloaded in March 2009, six months before the computer entered the Powell home.
Chain of custody
Susan Powell bought the used computer, a Dell OptiPlex GXcol270, for $100 on Sept. 18, 2009. It was meant to replace an older computer that had failed the month before. In emails and social media messages with friends, Susan Powell had described her husband as very protective of his own computers.
“I love Facebook,” Powell wrote in one email a year prior to her disappearance. “Josh is still convinced using it or anything else on the web automatically uploads evil and doesn’t trust me with most of his computers.”
Susan Powell had opted not to tell her husband about the purchase beforehand. When Josh Powell learned what she had done, he criticized her.
“Josh immediately pounced on the computer,” she wrote in an email to multiple friends. “I explained I wanted to do Facebook, Hotmail, pbs.org and let the kids watch movies and such.”
West Valley police seized the computer while serving a search warrant at Josh and Susan Powell’s home on Dec. 8, 2009, the day following Susan Powell’s disappearance. The computer was subsequently examined by police and FBI specialists at the Intermountain West Regional Computer Forensics Laboratory in Salt Lake City.
The examination by “Cold” of files retrieved from the computer at the laboratory revealed the prior owner had not reformatted the computer’s hard drive or reinstalled the operating system before selling it to Susan Powell. Her use of the computer, beginning in September of 2009, occurred under the same user account as the previous owner.
Internet cookie files located on that computer show someone accessed several websites known to host images of cartoon pornography just before 1 a.m. on the morning of March 22, 2009. That internet session predated Susan Powell’s purchase by six months and there are no such cookie files on the machine from the period after it changed hands.
The majority of the pornographic images located on the Dell computer were retrieved from what’s known as slack space on the computer’s hard drive, meaning they had been deleted. They were small, both in file size and pixel dimensions. This suggested they were thumbnails which were cached by a web browser and later purged.
FTK Toolkit, the forensic software used by FBI examiners in 2009, recovered the deleted images. However, most were stripped of metadata. That metadata would typically have included date stamps showing when the files were created, modified or last accessed.
However, one of the cartoon images had not been deleted. Its metadata was intact. It indicated the image was created at 4:32 a.m. on March 21, 2009, less than 24 hours prior to the recorded visits to the cartoon pornography websites.
“Cold” has identified and spoken to the previous owner of the Dell computer but has opted not to name that person due to uncertainty over who all might have had access to the computer prior to its purchase by Susan Powell.
West Valley police records show detectives attempted to develop federal child pornography charges based on the cartoon images in the months following Susan Powell’s disappearance. They opened a second case file against Josh Powell in September of 2010, specific to the images.
In a report at that time, West Valley police detective Darrell Dain wrote that the pornography located on the Dell computer included not only cartoons, but also computer generated images “which showed a naked child like figure interacting with his mother in a sexual situation.” There were also photo manipulations of teen celebrities Miley Cyrus and Emma Watson, with their faces pasted onto the bodies of nude adult women.
In a follow-up report, detective Brad Hardinger described contacting assistant U.S. attorney Trina Higgins to inquire about the filing of criminal charges.
“Higgins has declined to discuss this case due to lack of evidence to establish who the suspect is,” Hardinger wrote. “Higgins requested an interview be conducted with any potential suspect(s) before any further consideration.”
The police records make no indication whether detectives ever pieced together the timeline which showed the images were likely downloaded months prior to the computer entering the Powell house. The computer’s prior owner was not contacted by police in connection to the pornographic images.
The final entry in the police record, dated March 31, 2011, simply states “This case remains under investigation.”
Josh Powell lost custody of his sons Charlie and Braden in September of 2011, when detectives in Pierce County, Washington, arrested his father, Steve Powell, for investigation of voyeurism and possession of child pornography. At that time, Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services raised concerns over the fact that Josh, Charlie and Braden had been living for nearly two years under the same roof as Steve Powell, Josh Powell’s father.
In the months that followed, Josh Powell staged an aggressive effort to regain custody of his sons. He appeared poised to succeed in December 2011, prompting West Valley police to request permission from Utah 3rd District Judge Judith Atherton to share the images retrieved from the Dell desktop computer with authorities in Washington.
Atherton did not sign an order authorizing limited release of the images until January 2012, after Josh Powell’s attorney, Jeffrey Bassett, filed a formal motion with Pierce County, Washington Superior Court Judge Kathryn Nelson requesting Charlie and Braden be returned to Powell.
By that time, psychologist James Manley had already completed an evaluation of Josh Powell’s parenting capacity, which the Washington court had requested. Powell’s attorney argued Manley’s report cleared the way for reunification, but Nelson delayed a scheduled hearing on the issue until Manley could review the images and author a follow-up report.
Manley did so on Jan. 31, 2012, after reviewing the images provided by West Valley police. He suggested the court order Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation.
“If these are Mr. Powell’s images, it gives rise to great concern,” Manley wrote in his addendum. “The reviewed images indicate someone’s fantasy-laden view of having sex with children. This is not a healthy parenting perception.”
The final hearing
The following day, Feb. 1, 2012, Josh Powell went to court to argue for reunification. He brought with him a typed statement for the judge, in which he seemed to make veiled references to the images.
“I have recently heard rumblings that some people are dipping deep down to the bottom of the barrel in a desperate effort to find and manufacture fault with me due to their attitudes,” Powell wrote.
Powell’s attorney, Jeff Bassett, urged Nelson not to base her decision on the images.
“I just think that we are allowing ourselves to be manipulated from outside sources on this case without cause,” Bassett said in court.
Assistant Washington attorney general John Long pushed back, pointing to the Utah order from Atherton, which in turn cited West Valley police’s belief that the images belonged to Josh Powell.
“I think it’s clear from that court order that these can be linked to Mr. Powell,” Long said.
Nelson decided to order the psychosexual evaluation. However, she also allowed supervised visitation between Powell and his sons to continue at a home Powell had rented.
Five days later, Powell killed himself and his sons there.