If you think you know everything about the 2009 disappearance of Susan Cox Powell, chances are your knowledge of the case just scratches the surface. A 20/20 special reveals new developments in the missing mother's case, including the possible discovery of her remains.
The story has a ton of twists and turns — from father-in-law Steven Powell's dark obsession with Susan to the tragic murder-suicide carried out by husband Josh on their two young sons. To help guide you through your viewing, here is a brief overview of Susan's case. We also spoke exclusively with Susan's sister Denise in 2019, who opened up about her sister and the way authorities handled her disappearance.
Who is Susan Powell and what happened the day she disappeared?
Susan Cox Powell has been missing and presumed dead since Dec. 6, 2009. Initially, the entire family was reported as missing by Josh's family. However, he returned home with his two boys, Charlie and Braden, later that evening and said they had gone on a camping trip in the middle of the night while Susan slept. His wife never showed up for her shift at work and was nowhere to be seen. Her purse, wallet, and ID were at home.
Police had entered the home on a welfare check shortly before Josh and the boys turned up, and they noted a wet spot on the couch with two box fans pointed toward it. During a police search two days later, they collected DNA from a small amount of blood on the tile floor next to the couch. Tests revealed both Susan's DNA and that of an "unknown male contributor" were present.
Even before finding the blood, police didn't believe Josh's alibi. Who goes camping in the middle of the night during a blizzard, without scheduling time off work or even calling in sick, only to return less than a day later? Also, a phone call Josh made to Susan seemed staged. Adding to suspicions, Josh moved the boys back to Washington only a month after Susan disappeared, an action that seemed out of line for someone married to a missing person, unless he knew her to be deceased.
As investigators would learn from friends, as well as Susan's own diaries, the young mother was unhappy in the eight-year marriage and even feared for her life. She had a handwritten will, dated June 28, 2008, which she addressed to friends and family, specifically excluding her husband, with the line "except for Josh Powell husband, I don't trust him!"
The 28-year-old mother's friends described a very controlling and abusive marriage. For example, Susan was forced to give up her car and bike seven miles to work and back each day. She also expressed concern over her children ending up with Josh if something were to happen to her. And it appears her fear was completely justified.
Over the next few years, Josh and his family would paint a very negative portrait of Susan as mentally ill and overly sexual, positing that she had abandoned her kids and run off with another man. The Cox family rejects those claims and loved ones still feel compelled to defend her honor.
When Distractify spoke with her sister, Denise Cox Ernest, she described Susan as "passionate, open-hearted" and "very outgoing and thoughtful of others." She also said the devoted mom would never have left her children of her own accord.
What happened with Susan's father-in-law, Stephen Powell?
It seems the apple didn't fall far from the tree as far as Josh was concerned. The trouble with Susan's father-in-law began shortly after the couple married and resided together briefly with Josh's father, Stephen. The divorced father of five developed a disturbing obsession with Susan during this time. He would photograph and videotape her, often without her knowledge, and imagined Susan reciprocated his feelings. On the contrary, her growing discomfort with Steven accelerated the couple's move to Utah.
In 2011, police arrested Steven on charges of voyeurism and child pornography. In their search, which was initiated to uncover evidence directly related to Susan's disappearance, they found hours of footage detailing Steven's obsession, as well as tapes he had made of other women and underage girls without their knowledge. He was convicted and served over four years before being released in 2017. Steven passed away a year after his release, in July 2018, due to heart problems.
What happened leading up to Josh Powell's murder-suicide?
Upon Steven's arrest, Josh also found himself under investigation for possession of child pornography. As a result, Susan's father, Chuck Cox, was granted temporary custody of the boys. Child protective services in Washington ordered Josh to move out of Steven's home in order to maintain custody of Charlie and Braden. Despite this investigation and police suspecting Josh of Susan's murder, he was granted supervised visits with their sons.
On Feb. 5, 2012, a social worker named Elizabeth Griffin brought the boys to Josh's home in South Hill, Wash., for a supervised visit. Josh took Charlie and Braden from her and barricaded himself inside with them. The social worker called 911 to report the incident and said she smelled gasoline. Shortly thereafter, the house exploded. An investigation revealed Josh had set the home on fire, but the boys also had several wounds from a hatchet.
Where did authorities go wrong?
Understandably, Susan's family feel authorities missed key opportunities to save Braden and Charlie from their eventual fate. "I believe they had probable cause to arrest [Josh] and chose not to," Denise told us, adding that an earlier search of the family's storage locker could have helped the case.
Denise has a message for Susan and those interested in her case. "I want people to know that we are staying strong, and that we haven't given up on finding her," she said.
"I believe they are all together and resting," she said of her sister and nephews, but even still, "we won't stop searching until we find her."
Chuck and Judy Cox sued the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services
According to ABC News, after the house explosion in February 2012, Susan's parents sued the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in civil court, "alleging that its negligence contributed to the deaths of their grandsons." Unfortunately, the lawsuit was tossed out in 2015, but was appealed and revived by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals n 2019.
In February 2020, eight years after the murder of their grandsons, the trial began but was derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic the following month. Finally, in July 2020, the case was reconvened. A month later, a jury awarded the Cox family a whopping $98.5 million award against the State Department of Social and Health Services.
Since then, the judge presiding over the case reduced the reward to $32 million, a decision the Cox family plans to appeal. Hopefully, the family will be given what they're owed because Chuck wants to use what they are awarded to honor his late grandchildren. "I intend to ... use the award to try and help other people, [so] that we can save more children,” he said.
What will the '20/20' special reveal?
In a promo for 20/20's "If Something Happens to Me," we learn that remains were recently found in an abandoned mine shaft in Utah's West Desert. Authorities have been at the site since late January 2022, digging up debris from a mine where they believe Susan's body was dumped, per KUTV.
The search is being led by Dave Sparks, a private citizen who is part of the Discovery Channel's reality show Diesel Brothers, who was fascinated by the case. He told Fox 13 he "got a tip there's a chance she's out there." He was soon joined by Susan's father, who is grateful for the help.
So far, the search has yielded bones and articles of clothing that could belong to a woman or a small man. Chuck had the bones tested by two different experts. One claimed they were animal bones; the other said they were human. Regardless, this team seems intent on figuring out what happened to Susan.
20/20's "If Something Happens to Me" premieres Friday, Feb. 19 at 9 p.m. EST on ABC, and streams on Hulu the following day.