WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah — Nearly 10 years later, the investigative reporter behind a hit podcast has learned new details about Josh Powell’s movements in the early days after his wife’s disappearance.
Cold host Dave Cawley revealed in a bonus episode of the podcast, released Wednesday, that Josh Powell apparently visited a number of dumpsters across the Salt Lake Valley within just days of his wife, Susan, being reported missing.
From the beginning of the investigation, lead investigator, now-retired Det. Ellis Maxwell suspected Josh Powell was responsible for his wife’s likely murder. However, the new details reported first by Cold suggest police did not know the extent of Powell’s movements.
Tracking the data on Josh Powell’s movements
Police placed a tracking device on Josh Powell’s minivan the day after he returned from a supposed West Desert camping trip with his sons but without Susan. At the time, Josh Powell waited for the return of his van after a search.
“We want him to stick around and get back in his minivan, and we want to see where he goes,” Maxwell said on the Cold podcast. “Hopefully, he returns to the location — wherever he disposed of her.”
Eventually, he stopped waiting, took a taxi to the airport and rented a silver Ford Focus, putting an unexplained 800 miles on it in under 48 hours. Maxwell had missed the opportunity to follow Powell immediately by just 10 minutes.
When Josh Powell returned, the police gave him back his minivan, with the tracker now in place. They watched with excitement as the minivan traveled west on Interstate 80 toward Wendover, making frequent exits to turn around and go the other direction. Maxwell also learned about the rental car and checked it out. But nothing came of it.
“And that’s this whole story, man. No breaks,” Maxwell said. “Anytime you think you might have something, nada.”
However, Cawley was able to analyze the data from the tracker nearly 10 years later.
By re-configuring the information twice, he was able to line it up with Google Earth and pinpoint the minivan’s movements starting with Josh Powell’s return to the Salt Lake Valley on Dec. 10, 2009.
How it works
More sophisticated than a commercial GPS device you might order for your own vehicle, the tracker placed on Josh Powell’s minivan featured extras. It had a special cover to protect it from road damage. Its battery could run for weeks, powering on and off as it detected movement. And it included cellphone radio technology capable of sending signals back to West Valley City police to follow the minivan’s movements in near-real-time.
“It’s called geofencing,” Maxwell explained. “And you can set boundaries, so if he crosses one of those boundaries, then it’ll send you an alert.”
Cold shared its findings from the tracking device with retired FBI Special Agent Greg Rogers, who spent much of his career working undercover. He is an expert on criminal minds.
“Police departments have analysts, and somebody should have been tracking this information every day. That should’ve been their job,” Rogers said. “‘Where’s he going? Where’s he stopping?’ And then the next logical question is, ‘Why is he doing that and what are we going to do, based on his activity?'”
The data revealed Powell’s minivan traveled to an apartment complex near 7800 South and UT-111 on Dec. 14, 2009, a week after Susan Powell was reported missing. The location where the van stopped included an easily accessible dumpster. Rogers believes Josh Powell was getting rid of critical evidence.
“My guess would be that Powell had items that he believed contained DNA or other forensic evidence, and he’s getting rid of ’em,” Rogers theorized.
By this time, police had already searched the Powell family home on Sarah Circle and their minivan twice.
More dumpster drops
The stop at Serengeti Springs apartments on Dec. 14, 2009, was far from the only activity revealed by the tracker data.
At 3:02 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009, the minivan again stopped at a dumpster — this time, at Flat Iron Mesa Park in Sandy, about a half-hour drive in normal conditions. It stayed there for two minutes.
Next, the van headed north, toward Murray. It circled the dumpster at a Walgreens parking lot near 4500 South and 900 East but did not stop. Rogers believes Powell was looking for dumpsters that were easy to access and would not attract attention.
So, he kept driving. The tracker data show the minivan continued to a church parking lot near 500 S. Emery St. Again, it cruised by, but did not stop. Rogers thinks that was all part of Powell’s plan.
If he didn’t like what he saw, he just kept driving. He didn’t have to be anywhere.
Next, the minivan traveled to Poplar Grove Park, near 700 S. Emery St., stopping for 12 minutes. Here, the park did not feature a dumpster, but a number of easily accessible trash cans at any given time.
On Friday, Dec. 18, 2009, the minivan made a late-night stop at a pair of dumpsters in a strip mall parking lot near 3500 South and 5600 West. After a brief stop there, the tracker shows it headed north, then flipped a U-turn and returned to the same dumpster.
“There’s no other reason for him to be hitting those dumpsters. There’s no other reason for him to be going to those locations, very far away from his residence. He was getting rid of evidence. No question,” Rogers said.
What did the police know?
That same night, the minivan headed north, leaving Utah behind.
“It begs the question, how do you do that when they’re running search warrants, and — yeah, why isn’t someone following you around and doing dumpster dives after you’ve been there?” Rogers asked.
In fact, he points out, police wouldn’t have needed a warrant to inspect the dumpsters visited.
“If you suspect that he’s going to all these dumpsters, and you see all these tracking things, the next thought should be, ‘We need to find out what he’s throwing in there.’ You don’t even need search warrants,” Rogers said. “Once he chucks it in the dumpster, it’s — you can dumpster dive. It’s simple to do.”
It’s unclear whether West Valley City police knew about all the dumpster stops. But Cawley could not find any mention of them in any of the case files he obtained for Cold.
Rogers believes it was a critical missed opportunity.
“Proving a first-degree murder beyond a reasonable doubt without the body, without a murder weapon, is difficult,” Rogers said. “But had you found bags full of forensic evidence that he’s getting rid of, that’s pretty helpful. I wasn’t aware that they had this tracking information, and to be brutally honest, being polite, it’s stunning.”
Cold provided West Valley City police with Cawley’s findings and requested comment. In an email, police spokeswoman Roxeanne Vainuku wrote: “The absence of a location being documented in a log does not equate to investigators being unaware of the location.”
Cold: bonus episode available now
In addition to these stops at dumpsters and trash cans, Cawley uncovered some other questionable stops — including some at 2 a.m. in southern Idaho — on the way from Utah to Washington state.
Hear more about what else Cawley found in the data in a bonus episode of the Cold podcast.
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