LAKE POINT, Utah — A gas station employee who believes she was the last person to see Susan Powell before she vanished in 2009 is telling her story publicly for the very first time as part of the Cold podcast.
Officially, the last time Susan Powell was seen was on Dec. 6, 2009, at about 5:00 p.m. That was when her neighbor, JoVanna Owings, left the Powell home expecting she’d see Susan again on Tuesday.
But another woman claims she saw Susan Powell later that same night. That employee at the Flying J gas station in Lake Point, Utah, said a man and woman she later recognized as Josh and Susan Powell came in for supplies and gas at about 12:30 a.m., as a snow storm hit northern Utah.
The woman, named Denise, asked that her last name not be used out of concern for her privacy. Denise said Josh and Susan also had their two sons, Charlie and Braden, with them.
Denise shared her recollections of that night with Cold in an exclusive interview.
An unverified Susan Powell sighting
A harsh winter storm was raging on the night of Dec. 7, 2009, when a silver or gray minivan pulled up to gas pump number six.
Truckers and travelers had been in and out looking for supplies, but the family that came out of the van and into the Flying J were out of place for a late-night crowd.
The man was carrying a toddler in his arms, and he was chasing after another young boy, calling out: “Hey, Charlie!”
He wore a leather jacket, Denise remembered. He had dark hair and a goatee. He was, Denise would realize weeks later when his face was all over the news, the spitting image of Josh Powell. And the woman with him, Denise would insist, could only have been Susan Powell.
Denise said the woman who she believed to be Susan looked well put-together, especially for a woman road-tripping through a snowstorm in the middle of the night. Denise also noticed red rings around her eyes like she’d been crying.
The couple Denise believed to be Josh and Susan Powell came to the register with rescue tape, crackers, and licorice. She said the man called out “Hang on a minute. Let me buy this and then we’ll go camping,” to a young boy who was standing near the door.
That struck Denise as odd, given the weather and the fact they did not appear to be traveling in an R.V. However, Denise held her tongue. She described nodding at the boy stirring in the man’s arm and saying “Well, he doesn’t look too happy about going camping.”
“Yeah, he’s pretty tired,” the woman Denise believed to be Susan Powell replied.
The man paid for their purchase with cash and used the change to top off the minivan’s gas tank. Then, he drifted out Denise’s mind as nothing more than an odd encounter with a customer.
The memory came rushing back when, several weeks later, she recognized their faces on the TV news.
A piece of a larger puzzle
There was no doubt, in Denise’s mind, that the woman she saw was Susan Powell. More than nine years later, she told Cold:
“I truly believe I was the last person to see her. I truly do. And that’s very haunting.”
Denise reported her sighting to West Valley City police. On the surface, it seemed to corroborate something Susan’s eldest son, Charlie Powell, told the police the day after his mother disappeared: that she’d joined the boys for their late-night camping trip.
“I was camping at the Dinosaur National Park,” Charlie told a detective when she asked where he was on the night his mother vanished. And with him, he said, was “my Dad and my Mom and my little brother.”
The whole family went out somewhere with pretty flowers and crystals, Charlie said. When it was time to go home, Charlie told the police, his mother didn’t come with them.
“My mom stayed where the crystal are,” Charlie said, “’cause it has so much pretty where the crystals grow.”
Charlie’s story contradicted his father’s account. Susan, Josh insisted, had stayed home that night while he took the boys camping.
Even when the police confronted Josh with Charlie’s testimony, he stuck to his account of what had happened.
“She was not with us,” Josh insisted. “They know that’s not true.”
A kernel of truth
Denise’s tip could have been a key piece of evidence in the case. Had police been able to verify it, it might have indicated Josh Powell had been untruthful about a major detail in his wife’s disappearance.
But detectives were unable to support Denise’s story with hard facts. The man she’d seen had paid in cash, leaving no paper trail. By the time Denise reported her sighting, the Flying J had already taped over surveillance footage from that night. And there were no other witnesses to back up anything she said.
At the time, West Valley Police detectives were also being inundated with tips about Susan Powell’s disappearance, most of which led nowhere. Before declaring the case cold, the police received more than 800 tips from citizens, ranging from wild stories painting Josh as a hard-drinking patron of prostitutes to psychics saying they’d spoken to Susan in a séance.
The problem with the tips and leads
Denise’s story, like many others police chased down in the Susan Powell investigation, could not be verified, no matter how certain she was about what she saw. What’s more: Det. Ellis Maxwell worried her memories may have been influenced by media coverage without her realizing it.
“The more information that gets out, that’s more information now you have to sift through in these tips and these leads and trying to identify ‘Okay, is this credible information or is this information that they’ve obtained because of information that we’ve released?’” Maxwell explained to Cold host Dave Cawley.
When Denise reported her story to the police, two weeks after Susan vanished, she was met with skepticism. The police, she said, asked her why she’d waited so long to speak up, and she left feeling they didn’t believe what she’d said.
More than nine years later, however, Denise still believes she was the last to see Susan Powell.
“They were there. They were there,” she said. “How do I convince them? They’ve got to know that they were there and believe that they were there.”
Cold: Episode 16
In episode 16 of Cold, investigative reporter Dave Cawley sits down with other witnesses behind some of the most compelling unproven stories about her disappearance.
Hear their stories, some shared with the world for the first time ever, on the Cold podcast.
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