SALT LAKE CITY — U.S. Marshal Derryl Spencer wouldn’t normally have been involved in a missing persons case out of Utah like the Susan Powell case. But in January 2010, when Josh Powell packed up and moved his sons and belongings away from West Valley City to the state of Washington, the Marshal Service was drawn into the investigation.
“West Valley’s a big participant with the Marshal Service fugitive task force and they wanted to go up to Washington and conduct surveillance on Josh Powell,” Spencer said. “In order for West Valley officers to travel out of state and carry guns, they had to do it under the U.S. Marshal’s special deputization.”
Building trust with the Powells
It would not be until May 2010 that Spencer first met Josh Powell and his father Steve in person, during a consent search of Steve Powell’s home in the town of South Hill.
“I had told Steve and Josh that I had grabbed a bunch of U.S. Marshals and task force officers from the Seattle office,” Spencer said. “I really had a bunch of West Valley cops that were there but I did not want them to know that. They hated West Valley, as you can imagine.”
Spencer found himself in an odd position. He needed to build trust with the Powells, so he commiserated with Josh and Steve about the West Valley City Police Department in front of officers the Powells didn’t know were, in fact, from West Valley.
“A very good friend of mine who’s a West Valley cop, who I still hang out with every day [overheard as] I’m just badmouthing West Valley right along with Josh and Steve,” Spencer remembered. “And I patted him on the back. I’m like, ‘Let’s get to work, Todd! Come on!'”
During that search, FBI agents also informed Josh Powell that they had installed a GPS tracking device on his minivan and that they needed to remove it. That disclosure was required by federal law. Agents briefly took the minivan retrieve their tracker.
When an airbag warning light came on in the minivan days later, Powell reached out to Spencer.
Quid pro quo
Spencer believed taking care of the airbag issue might lead to better cooperation from the Powells. So, in a series of phone calls throughout May and June, he worked with Powell to help him arrange repair work and compensation.
At the same time, Josh and Steve Powell hoped Spencer would be in a position to help them get Josh’s digital devices back from police in Utah. Detectives had seized Josh’s computers and hard drives with search warrants.
“They were trying to kind of use me as a proxy,” Spencer said. “The whole time they wanted those hard drives back. They wanted those computers.”
Spencer interacted in person once again with Steve Powell, during an interview on on July 7, 2010.
“The day before I was supposed to fly up there he had Alina [Powell] call me and tell me that like if I wasn’t going to bring any of the computer stuff or any of the evidence or, you know, any of these other items that were seized as evidence that he didn’t want to talk to me,” Spencer said.
Spencer met Steve Powell at Puyallup’s South Hill Library. He brought a CD of Powell family photos that West Valley City police had agreed to release from their collection of evidence. Josh Powell called during the meeting, and Steve told him about that CD. To Josh, it wasn’t enough.
“Josh just feels like it’s a slap in the face. It’s an insult. You’re talking about 5 terabytes of data and they’re sending this over,” Steve Powell told Spencer. “It’s just ridiculous.”
A marshal on the move
Spencer traveled to Washington once again, in November of 2010, in an effort to get the Powells to hand over childhood journals written by Susan Powell. But the Marshal Service had begun to question the cost and scope of Spencer’s role in the investigation. As a result, the November trip was different than the earlier visits in May and July.
“This meeting needed to happen,” Spencer said. “Nobody really knows this but I paid for my own ticket to go up there.”
Spencer remembered Susan’s sons, Charlie and Braden, playing at his feet while Josh and Steve argued about whether to cough up the journals. Ultimately, they refused, which meant Spencer returned to Utah with nothing to show for his trip.
The journals were later recovered in a warranted search of the South Hill home on Aug. 25, 2011.
Hear more of Derryl Spencer’s story in the second bonus episode of the Cold podcast. It’s available through the subscription service Wondery Plus, along with the entire first season of Cold ad-free. For more information visit www.wondery.com/plus
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