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Susan Powell search explored abandoned mines much earlier than we knew

This abandoned structure sits in Utah’s Gold Hill mining district, near the Utah-Nevada state line. Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL Newsradio

WEST VALLEY CITY — A year before Susan Powell vanished, a casual conversation at a work Christmas party laid the groundwork for one of the most enduring theories about what happened to her. Was her body left in one of the thousands of abandoned mines that dot the western landscape?

Her co-worker, Amber Hardman, sat at the end of a table in December 2008 with Susan and Josh Powell and her own husband, Scott. The conversation began simple enough. The Powells chatted with the Hardmans about Josh and Susan’s love of TV shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.

“They were obsessed with this one show, and they would actually watch it together,” Amber Hardman recalled.

The innocent Christmas party chitchat quickly deviated.

“I remember hearing him say, ‘Those shows are so dumb, those people always put bodies in the stupidest places,'” Hardman said. “Josh was like, ‘If it was me – have you ever been out to the West Desert? There’s mines everywhere. Nobody’s going to find anything out there.'”

This conversation stayed with the Hardmans. When Susan went missing in 2009, Amber Hardman made it a point to alert the police.

Within ten days of Susan’s disappearance, the police began exploring the possibility that Josh Powell might have dumped his wife’s body in an abandoned mine. From the beginning, it became clear the task would be enormous and difficult.

Utah has an estimated 17,000 abandoned mines overall, and of those, 5 to 10,000 that could potentially have been contenders in the West Desert region, according to two experts familiar with the case who are now telling their story for the first time as part of the Cold podcast.

Louis Amodt, a retired geologist with Utah DNR, was heavily involved with the Utah Abandoned Mine Reclamation Program in 2009 when he got the call to assist police in the search for Susan Powell at the end of 2009.

Amodt said not only are there far more mines out there than many laypeople realize, each carries specific dangers of its own.

“These mines openings are totally unstable,” Amodt said. “The collar – the area right around the opening to the mine – is very unstable.” 

Unmaintained, Amodt said a number of the abandoned mines have rotting timber, and the continual possibility of crumbling or falling rock. He said he has encountered wild animals in abandoned mines – rattlesnakes and mountain lions, to name two of the scarier options.

There is often not even breathable air in those mines.

“We always carry an air monitor to monitor oxygen levels because you get back in these workings and there’s no air circulation and there’s a lot of times a lack of oxygen, so you could pass out and wake up dead,” Amodt said.

police abandoned mines mine search

This Jan. 13, 2010 photo shows police using a spotlight to visually inspect a mine near the Pony Express Trail west of Lookout Pass for the body of Susan Powell. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Amodt and his colleague Tony Gallegos, a mining engineer, also procured a high-tech borehole camera to search shafts that were too deep or too dangerous for a person to explore.

“We’d drop down so many feet and then move the camera around, pan around, then drop down further,” Gallegos said. “Our instructions were if we actually saw anything, we were just going to hold off there and then let the detectives comment on the recording if they wanted to.” 

It was slow-going, treacherous work. For several weeks, Gallegos and Amodt were housed in a barrack at the Army’s Dugway Proving Ground while they scoured the remote mines, reached by snowmobile or ATV in some cases.

The men were sworn to secrecy about their role in assisting the detectives who were looking for Susan Powell. Police were concerned that Josh Powell might catch wind of where they were searching and take steps to prevent police from finding out what had happened to his missing wife.

All told, police cleared hundreds of mines in the Oquirrh, Tintic, Fish Springs, Lakeside and Deep Creek mountain ranges, as well as the Simpson Mountains, the Thomas Range and on Topaz Mountain.

police first search near simpson springs then abandoned mines in a thorough mine search

West Valley City police conducted their first major search for Susan Powell in Utah’s West Desert on Dec. 10, 2009. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

The searches did not turn up anything useful, but both men recalled being frustrated later while watching volunteer groups search in some of those same locations. Their non-disclosure agreement with police meant the Amodt and Gallegos could not tell any volunteers they were searching where geologists, engineers and police had already looked.

One question remained: were they even looking in the right place?

In episode 7 of Cold, investigative reporter Dave Cawley talks with Gallegos and Amodt about their experience helping search for Susan Powell as well as some of those volunteer efforts and the reasons why police don’t think the West Desert holds the final answers.

You can listen to all previous episodes of Cold as well as the current one on the Cold website, or by subscribing free through your favorite podcast app.