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Auto shop owner talks unexpected Susan Powell connection

A cadaver dog named Tug inspects the car Michael Powell sold to an Oregon auto shop. Photo: West Valley City Police

PENDLETON, Oregon — For the first time, the owner of an auto shop and salvage business in a small Oregon community is talking about his connection to the disappearance of Susan Powell.

Dave Lindell, the owner of Lindell Auto, says he’s the person people in Pendleton come to when their cars break down beyond repair. So it wasn’t unusual when a young man reached out on December 23, 2009, to sell his 1997 Ford Taurus.

“We run an automotive recycling, auto parts scrapping, towing-type business. We do a variety of things with cars, and we sell some used cars,” he told investigative reporter Dave Cawley.

Out of the blue

Lindell didn’t remember the specifics, but he believed the owner reported some problems with the transmission, while noting the Taurus looked a little nicer than the usual junkers he picked up.

“I don’t remember the circumstances, except a fellow called me up out of the blue, which happens on a regular basis, and said, ‘I want to sell a car.’ I says, ‘Yeah, we buy cars.’ And he came out,” Lindell recalled.

lindell auto susan powell

Michael Powell sold his car to Dave Lindell for $100 at Lindell Auto on Dec. 23, 2009. Photo: Dave Cawley

Police records obtained by Cold show he offered Michael Powell, the younger brother of Josh Powell, a lowball $100 for his Taurus, which Michael accepted. Lindell later remembered being surprised that Powell accepted that initial offer.

“Time went by. We sold a few parts off the car,” Lindell said.

Then, in September of 2011, the same day Josh Powell’s father, Steven, was arrested and charged with voyeurism and child pornography in the state of Washington, Lindell was surprised to hear from Utah police. They wanted to know if he had bought a car from Michael Powell.

Piecing the puzzle together

Now retired, Ellis Maxwell served as the lead detective on the Susan Powell investigation.

“An intel analyst of ours at West Valley, phenomenal intel analyst – she came across this information and got it right to us, and we followed up on it right away,” Maxwell said of the tip that led investigators to Pendleton.

“I remember at the time thinking it was kind of odd, because I have a neighbor right behind me that has a car shop, named Mike Powell. Michael Powell is his real name. And we do business with him on a daily basis,” Lindell said. “And he looked at me, kind of, ‘So you know Michael Powell?’ I remember him saying that. I says, ‘Well, my neighbor. Mike Powell.’”

The confusion was sorted out once Lindell looked up the record of the transaction using the VIN number provided by police for the car in question.

“I went back by the VIN number, pulled the file on the car, and I could see where the paperwork had come from and what it was,” Lindell said. “And I started to put the picture together in my head that this was to do with THAT Michael Powell.”

In the nick of time

In fact, the timing was somewhat perfect. Lindell had shortly before filed the necessary paperwork with the state of Oregon to have the car scrapped, a process that would include crushing it into an unrecognizable cube.

“If they’d come, probably another three months later, it wouldn’t have been there,” Lindell remembered.

West Valley City Police Detective Dave Greco told Lindell he wanted to bring in a cadaver dog to search his car lot. Later, Maxwell would remember that the police were a little nervous about the challenges that would pose. In particular, because many junked cars have been in collisions that involve serious injuries, Maxwell and his team worried about multiple cars attracting the attention of a cadaver dog.

Looking for Susan Powell

Cadaver dogs are trained to recognize a myriad of smells beyond what most people would define as a dead body – including blood, tissue and bone in addition to the multiple stages of body decomposition. Cars that have been in a nasty accident could potentially confuse the cadaver dog.

“So you’re gonna have blood and stuff like that in those vehicles,” Maxwell explained.

Fortunately, the cadaver dog West Valley City brought in, named Tug, was not confused.

“And this dog went directly, didn’t hesitate, didn’t stop at any other vehicles, went directly to Michael Powell’s vehicle,” Maxwell said.

cadaver dog susan powell

A cadaver dog named Tug
showed particular interest in the trunk of Michael Powell’s car on Sept. 20, 2011. Photo: West Valley City, Utah police

Greco informed Lindell police would need to take the car as evidence.

“I had to figure out what was going on, so I called our police chief and says, ‘So, can they just take this car?’ And he said, ‘Yep. You gotta give them that car,’” Lindell said.

A break in the case

For Maxwell, the indication of the cadaver dog seemed to be a major development.

“We thought it was a huge break,” he said.

Police tore out the car’s rear seats and the carpet from its trunk. They collected strands of hair and swabbed the seats and carpet for DNA, which they sent off, along with the hair, to the Utah state crime lab.

But as with so many developments in the Susan Powell investigation, the discovery of her brother-in-law’s car became more complicated.

“When that was done and we had a full DNA profile, the lab called me,” Maxwell remembered. “I was excited, I was nervous, but then again, I was skeptical. I mean, again, because – is this going to be another swift kick in the guts?”

The DNA did not match Susan Powell’s profile.

Cold: Episode 13

The discovery of Michael Powell’s car was just one piece in a larger puzzle that police were putting together in the fall of 2011.

Subscribe to hear more about the brewing custody dispute between Josh Powell and his in-laws, Chuck and Judy Cox, as well as the opinion of a forensic psychologist who evaluated Josh Powell on behalf of the state of Washington in that case.