WEST VALLEY CITY — A document, obtained exclusively by KSL for the Cold podcast and independently verified, shows Josh Powell sought treatment for a severe shoulder injury just days after his wife, Susan, disappeared in 2009 — a development that was unknown even to West Valley City police.
The disappearance of Susan Powell is one of Utah’s most enduring mysteries. In the minds of most, it’s never been much of a “whodunit”. Her husband, Josh, who killed himself and their two sons a little over two years after she vanished, has always been the lead suspect. But the mystery of what happened to her and where her body is today has never been solved.
Shoulder injury 101
Dr. Peter Chalmers, a shoulder and elbow surgeon at the University of Utah, performs hundreds of rotator cuff repairs every year. We asked him to look over a document called an independent medical examination, which in this case showed us that Josh Powell visited a physical therapist to address a strain and possible partial tear of his rotator cuff on Dec. 17, 2009. The exam, he explained, is typically performed as part of a workman’s compensation claim investigation, or as part of an insurance probe.
“The purpose of the report is to determine whether or not the injury and the specific problem the patient is having are related, which is called causation, and then whether or not the treatment that’s been received for that injury is appropriate and whether it is also related to the initial injury,” Chalmers said.
Police likely never knew about the injury or treatment because it was billed through an existing personal injury claim on Powell’s auto insurance, stemming from a fender bender on Sept. 2, 2009. A CARFAX report showed the accident appeared to be minor, causing less than $1,000 in damage to the family minivan. The airbags did not deploy.
The day of that accident, the medical document states, Powell sought chiropractic treatment for severe neck and back pain and also filled a prescription for cyclobenzaprine, a muscle relaxant.
Was it plausible that a minor crash in September would have prompted Powell to seek medical treatment for a rotator cuff injury more than three months later? We posed that question to Dr. Chalmers as well.
“It’s really, really, really uncommon from that mechanism,” Chalmers said. “In fact, when I see on my schedule, ‘rotator cuff injury,’ and the mechanism is a motor vehicle accident, my first thought is that the motor vehicle accident has caused some whiplash and maybe a pinched nerve in the neck that’s causing some shoulder pain that’s been misdiagnosed as a rotator cuff injury.”
The discovery of the document raises new questions about whether Powell may have been injured either in a physical confrontation with his wife or in the process of moving her body.
Building a case against Josh Powell
From the first week she disappeared, police worked to retrace Powell’s steps, sure that if they could figure out where he went on the night of Dec. 6, 2009, they would find Susan’s body. But today, nine years later, they still haven’t been able to find her.
Investigative reporter Dave Cawley, however, sat down with the Ellis Maxwell, the lead detective on the case, to discuss everything they know about Powell’s movements for the podcast “Cold”.
The Pony Express Trail
Until the day he took his own life and that of his sons, Josh Powell maintained the same story. On the day his wife vanished, he told police, he was out in the West Desert taking his two and four-year-old boys on an impromptu camping trip – two hours after midnight in the middle of a blizzard.
It’s hardly the most convincing alibi. But when Cawley sat down with Detective Maxwell to try to retrace Powell’s movements on that day, he learned something no one could have expected: Josh’s alibi wasn’t entirely a lie.
Josh Powell really did drive out to the West Desert, Maxwell says. That’s one thing they’re almost certain about.
The Pony Express Trail, where Powell claimed he’d taken the kids camping, was one of the first places the police searched for Susan. They didn’t find any signs of a fire or that anyone had set up a campsite there; but they did find evidence that, even if he hadn’t done any camping, Josh Powell had been there.
A sheepherder had seen him; or, at least, had seen someone matching his description driving a blue minivan.
That, Maxwell believes, is exactly what Josh had planned. While the police were grilling him about his whereabouts on the night his wife disappeared, he had made a point to talk about how “cool” it was to see a dog herding a flock of sheep on the Pony Express Trail.
“That’s his truth, right?” Maxwell told Dave Cawley. “He wanted us to verify that he was out there, and we did.”
Those little truths were a big part of what made it so hard for West Valley City Police to build their case against Josh Powell. He’d slipped little slivers of honesty into every story he told, building up an alibi that was hard to crack.
But that little truth also provides a clue: one place that we know, for sure, Josh Powell visited on that night.
Tracing a trail of lies
To see just how well his story holds up, Cawley recreated the trip Josh claims to have made on the night Susan disappeared. He drove from the Powell home on Sarah Circle at 2:00 a.m., onto the I-80, down the Pony Express Trail, and all the way to the approximate location of the desert campfire where Josh Powell claimed to have spent the night.
Following Powell’s timeline, Cawley only allowed himself three hours of sleep, then returned, not through Tooele but through Lehi, to track down the possible location of the car wash Powell claimed to have visited. The timeline, Cawley learned, worked.
But even if the timeline added up, West Valley Police have hard proof that not every word Josh Powell said was true. There was a breadcrumb trail of little lies, pointing the way to the truth.
His cell phone records showed that, even if he had made a quick appearance on the Pony Express Trail, he hadn’t gone everywhere he’d told the police. Those records showed Powell called his father at about 12:15 PM on Dec. 6, 2009. After he hung up the phone, he didn’t use his phone again until 3:00 PM the next day.
When he picked up his phone at 3:00 PM, Susan, police believe, was already dead. Josh was out in the family minivan, and he told the person who called him – the family babysitter, Alex Owings – that he was south of the Salt Lake Valley, on his way home from his Pony Express Trail trip.
But Josh wasn’t on the Pony Express Trail. When he took that call, his phone pinged a cell tower in West Valley City, about 40 miles from where he claimed to be.
About thirty minutes later, cell phone records show Josh Powell checked his voice mail. Then he placed a called to Susan’s phone, leaving a long message apologizing for having taken the car and saying that he was on his way home.
It was another lie. Powell had already been in West Valley City. Now he was pinging a cell tower near Point of the Mountain, more than 20 miles south of both West Valley City and his home.
He was backtracking, Maxwell believes. The detective thinks Powell was making sure that, when the police saw him, he was coming up from the south so that his Pony Express Trail story would hold up.
The full story
Dave Cawley, the host of Cold, has spent the last three years investigating the truth of what happened that night.
In episode six, he presents his incredible in-depth examination into the evidence as to where Josh really went on the night she disappeared – including the strange story of the more than 800 miles Josh drove in a rented car two days after his wife vanished.
Find out everything Dave learned – and hear the original audio from Steve Powell’s interview with West Valley City Police – on the Cold podcast.
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