By Heidi Hiatt
This is sick. Just sick. Two beautiful little boys who had already lost their mom died today in a fiery explosion in Graham, Washington– which authorities say was started by their father.
I’ll review the basic facts of the case in a moment, but want to note that the first question that came to mind. Why did the Pierce County judge that denied Josh Powell custody of his children four days ago and ordered a psychosexual evaluation give him supervised visits at his home? From the little I know so far, it seems that the parameters set by the court allowed this particular kind of horror to happen.
In late 2009, Susan Cox Powell disappeared. She was reported missing, and when her husband, Josh Powell, was asked to account for his whereabouts, he offered a very suspicious alibi. He claimed to have taken their two tiny sons into a remote, snowy area on a camping trip– in freezing temperatures at midnight. Braden and Charlie were two and four years old. Susan had already talked to family members about leaving the marriage.
Not long after, Josh Powell moved himself and their sons into his father’s Puyallup home. It wouldn’t be until much later, September 2011, that Steven Powell, a Department of Corrections employee, was arrested on child porn charges and videotaping Susan Powell without her consent. Around that time, Steven made claims that Susan had sexual contact with him, and my suspicion of both father and son deepened. A friend of Steven’s told the police that Steven was clearly obsessed with Susan. The police in Utah considered Josh uncooperative.
Just before Steven’s arrest, Utah authorities had searched for Susan’s remains in the Nevada desert and searched the home that Josh and Steven Powell shared. But it wasn’t until after Steven’s arrest that Susan’s parents gained temporary custody of Charlie and Braden. I remember feeling incredulous that their father had been a person of interest all along, but they had been allowed to remain with him for almost two years. It seemed crazy that the boys hadn’t been removed for their own safety much, much earlier.
Since Charlie and Braden have been with Susan’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, I thought they would be somewhat protected physically. I didn’t realize that Josh Powell could have three hour-long supervised visits at his home. Common sense would dictate that visitation with a person of interest in a suspicious disappearance would happen in a neutral location where the children were less likely to be harmed or taken. While an unbalanced person could always show up with a weapon anyway, a neutral location could lessen territorial feelings.
Even though father’s rights groups will argue with me on this one, I question if, given how close Utah authorities have claimed to be to finding answers in Susan’s disappearance, Josh Powell should have been allowed visitation at all. He was in the hot seat, involved in a heated custody battle with his in-laws, and his kids might have known something incriminating.
This leads me to the larger issue of abusers and possible murderers having custody of or access to their children in spite of open investigations. Kids are left in harm’s way all the time, courts reluctant to remove them from the suspect parent until an alleged crime can be proven. Children are witnesses that an abuser or murderer has regular access to. Other types of witnesses are often protected.
The sickening murders of Charlie and Braden Powell are exactly why you don’t even give the suspect parent a chance to exert their control issues and harm the children. It is also why psychological evaluations– and domestic violence evaluations– should be done BEFORE child custody issues are ever addressed. Custody and visitation should not be awarded before we have a better understanding of the parent’s potential to hurt the kids.
Far too often, courts think of domestic violence and/or criminal issues as separate from child custody issues, and they are not separate. Not at all. Someone who is suspected of harming their spouse is capable of hurting the children as well, especially when they have lost some degree of control over the children. One of my catch phrases is “they may not want you, but they still want control over you.” Power and control are at the root of abuse, rape, and murder, and so far it’s sounding like Josh Powell would not let anyone else have control of his kids if he couldn’t.
An aspect of this case that is really eating at me right now is how Josh Powell portrayed himself as the victim, especially after Susan’s parents took the kids. He told people how his in-laws were turning the kids against him, as if he’d done nothing detrimental to the children already.
Powell had set up his own website about Susan’s disappearance and it seems to be more about him than her: http://susanpowell.org/Home. One of the statements on this site that sticks out claims that Susan can’t come back until the adverse conditions created by her family resolve:
At this point, Susan Powell’s family believes very strongly that the ongoing rhetoric of the Cox “Friends and Family” is having a tragic effect on Susan’s emotional well-being as well as Josh’s. Susan knows that she cannot return without having people of the same mentality as the Cox “Friends and Family” turn on her. As difficult as it has been for Josh to cope with this, we believe that in Susan’s emotional state she will not be able to face it.
If Powell is found to be responsible for his wife’s murder, his behavior and statements fit the type of personality who would do such a thing. I call this the O.J. Complex– nothing is their fault, they’re the victim, everyone else is making life hard for them and telling lies.
After Susan’s disappearance, Josh would make the strangest comments about her and her possible murder. According to the Deseret News, a family friend had been worried about him doing something drastic ever since he took the boys to Washington. As this case unfolds, we will probably hear more people come forward and present information that should have been red flags to the court system.
People have already made the comment that Powell “just snapped.” People don’t just snap. We can almost always look back and see how the suspect was dissatisfied with things in their life that led them to commit such an atrocity. There is usually a series of events that could have functioned as predictors of violent behavior. I’ve discussed this bread crumb trail in a previous post,http://wildninja.wordpress.com/?s=red+flags+before+a+killing+spree. Was the bread crumb trail considered before Powell was allowed to see Braden and Charlie at his home?
It seems very dangerous for the court to have allowed visitation on Powell’s home turf. Yes, a CPS worker was sent along to supervise. But in this case he locked her out of the house, and while she was dialing for help as she smelled gas, the house exploded. I’m just astounded that today is February 5th and Powell was just denied custody on February 1st, yet the boys were allowed to be at his house. Did it occur to anyone that him losing control of his kids, also possible murder witnesses, could be a trigger?
When you’re dealing with this type, that’s like rubbing salt in the wound. It’s giving them a brief taste of what they just lost, reminding them of what, in their minds, has been taken from them while the children are at their mercy. Obviously this was a premeditated crime, and it sounds like it was set up as a powerful statement to the world that, “if I can’t have the boys, no one can.” This is not someone who was concerned with his sons first and foremost. This is an act of immense selfishness and the kids were just pawns in his game.
Sometimes people ask me why we have so many crimes of this magnitude in Washington State and one reason is that our courts can be soft on violent people. Josh Powell had not been convicted of anything, but he was the subject of an ongoing investigation that is likely to end with the discovery of a victim. He exhibited a pattern of behavior that should have clued authorities into the fact that he could do something like this. I’m not saying they could have predicted it, but I understand why the Coxes fought tooth and nail to retain custody of their grandsons. There were a lot of warning signs and that O.J.-like narcissism– they saw it.
I would understand more if a father distraught over losing custody of his children killed himself. But Powell appeared so desperate to retain control that he was willing to blow his own children up so no one else could have them. I can’t see it as an act of irrational desperation. It’s premeditated murder. Just before the house exploded, Powell had emailed his attorney and said, “I’m sorry, goodbye.” Other emails are coming to light as well.
The friends and family of both Susan Cox Powell and Josh Powell need our prayers. Perhaps this situation can be used to save other lives– that it will lead to reform in our court system so that custody will not be awarded without proper psychological and domestic violence evaluations being done first. We should consider that a threat to one parent is also a threat to the children.
I know that some consider these evaluations to be a violation of our constitutional rights and I’ve heard people say that “Josh Powell wasn’t a suspect in the abuse of his children.” Their mother was missing and he was a person of interest– shouldn’t that be enough? What greater danger is there to a child than a parent being suspected of taking a family member’s life? Even if you don’t believe in using such evaluations in most cases, wouldn’t this be the ideal type of case to use them in, an exception?
Isn’t this a situation in which you want a family violence expert trained in that area to assess the parent, not a regular CPS worker or psychologist? Please note that working in social services or psychology does not mean that you have a working understanding of or specialized training in family violence. Additionally, I would note that sometimes the most sinister criminals among us are those who can get away with their crimes and never be charged with them.
As I look at the smoldering shell of what used to be a house on the news, I think about what Charlie and Braden were thinking when their dad jerked them inside and set that fire. Authorities are not expressing any doubt that the fire was deliberately set. They’re calling it murder. One law enforcement officer made the comment that the interior of the house looked staged, as if to portray Josh Powell as a caring husband and father.
I hope that in light of this event law enforcement officers will renew their efforts to find Susan and provide her family with closure. I’d sure like to know more about why Josh or Steven Powell hasn’t been charged in connection with Susan’s disappearance already, but let’s hope they can make it happen now. Josh Powell is at minimum responsible for the murder of his sons, and while some may argue that intense public scrutiny drove him to do it, if he loved his sons more than himself he wouldn’t have killed them.
To the two brave boys who endured so much pain in their brief time on earth, I am so sorry that you were hurt and your lives were taken from you. My heart aches for your family and the many people who love you. I know that you are with your heavenly Father now and will never feel pain again. Your family surely knows that you are safe in His arms and I hope they also take comfort in the fact that justice will come for your mother soon. A tragedy of this magnitude demands nothing less than swift resolution of her case.
Update, 2/6/12: KCPQ is reporting that Charlie and Braden Powell died of axe or hatchet chops to the neck and carbon monoxide poisoning,http://www.q13fox.com/news/kcpq-fiery-explosion-believed-to-have-killed-josh-powell-and-his-2-young-sons-20120205,0,7485907.story. Powell evidently grabbed them and pulled them inside before the social worker could get to the door. Given that she said that just seconds passed before the house exploded, he must have attacked the boys as soon as the door closed.
More evidence has surfaced that the murders were premeditated, including that Josh Powell had prepared over the weekend by donating some of the boys’ toys to charity. He’d also sent emails to people instructing them on what to do after he was dead. Two five-gallon cans of gasoline were found in the house. Chuck Cox has said that Powell thought of the boys as property and that the boys didn’t want to go visit him on Sunday.
The Susan Cox Powell Foundation Facebook page is athttp://www.facebook.com/pages/The-Susan-Cox-Powell-Foundation/235316293180751#!/pages/The-Susan-Cox-Powell-Foundation/235316293180751?sk=wall&filter=1. The foundation website is athttp://susancoxpowellfoundation.org/Home.aspx.
Heidi Hiatt, MA recently graduated as a Forensic Psychologist. You can read more of her posts at her personal blog, Truth, Justice, and All-American Allergen-Free Apple Pie Straight Talk in a Crooked World