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COLD: Computer at heart of Josh Powell custody dispute did not belong to him

Dec 11, 2019, 8:52 AM
josh powell computer custody...
Screengrab: Pierce Co. Superior Court

WEST VALLEY CITY — The computer on which investigators found cartoon pornography that was later used in a custody dispute involving Josh Powell did not, in fact, belong to him, the Cold podcast has learned.

The computer

For the last decade, police believed that a computer they seized from the West Valley City home of Josh and Susan Powell the day after she disappeared belonged to Josh. That belief extended to the unusual pornographic images — many depicting cartoon characters in incestuous relationships with children — on that machine.

Anne Bremner, a lawyer representing Susan’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, reacted to the story a year ago as part of “Cold.”

“It’s very, very disturbing, and so that was something else that they knew about him. And that was found by the West Valley police on his computer,” Bremner said.

The psychosexual evaluation

The thumbnail images were the grounds for a judge in Washington to order Josh Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation, and then deny him custody of his sons. Many people close to the case have said that day in court, back in early February 2012, broke Powell.

“When he was not only not given custody, but then the stipulations that they put on him, the psychosexual and some other things, I think that kind of cracked him,” Gary Sanders, a detective sergeant with Pierce County, Wash.

“The psychosexual evaluation was the end of the road for him,” Chuck Cox, Susan Powell’s father, said.

Indeed, it was just days later when Josh Powell killed himself and the boys, Charlie and Braden, during a court-authorized visit at his rental home in Graham, Wash.

Uncovering the truth

However, a review of Susan Powell’s own emails has revealed the computer in question — a Dell desktop — didn’t actually belong to her husband. It turns out, Susan purchased it used about three months before she disappeared.

The pornography wasn’t Susan’s either, though. An independent examination of the digital evidence by “Cold” revealed that the images of cartoon pornography that were so concerning to the Washington judge were likely downloaded six months before Susan purchased the machine — long before the computer entered the Powell household.

In other words, those images that many people, including Susan Powell’s own parents, have called a catalyst for the murder-suicide did not actually belong to Josh Powell.

Decryption efforts

That computer is not the only piece of technology with great importance to the case. A backup hard drive removed from the Powell home at the same time remains encrypted. Efforts to break into that drive have been ongoing for years.

“Everything that we’ve done on this, everyone that’s participated in helping us, no one’s been compensated for it,” said Trent Leavitt, the former co-owner of Decipher Forensics who’s been involved in the efforts since 2013.

Richard Hickman, who, like Leavitt, is another Decipher co-owner, remains involved to this day as an employee of Eide Bailly, the firm that bought Decipher.

“Just because the resources on technology are a little bit better today doesn’t change the fact that that encryption, in the first place, was top-notch,” Hickman said. “It’s still going to take that many permutations to get through it.”

Leavitt, Hickman and others working to decrypt the hard drive have never spoken publicly before, as they were subject to a non-disclosure agreement with West Valley City police. The police department released them from that NDA in order to talk with “Cold.”

Learn more

Hear more about how Eide Bailly and others are working to break into the encrypted backup hard drive in a bonus episode of the Cold podcast.

The Utah Domestic Violence Coalition operates a confidential statewide, 24-hour domestic abuse hotline at 1-800-897-LINK (5465). Resources are also available online: udvc.org.

Help for people in abusive relationships can be found by contacting:

Listen to Cold on the KSL NewsRadio website or on Apple Podcasts. Look for additional information and resources at https://thecoldpodcast.com

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COLD: Computer at heart of Josh Powell custody dispute did not belong to him