MyNorthwest.com interview with attorney Jeffrey Bassett
GRAHAM, Wash. — Josh Powell sent an email to his attorney Sunday with a simple message: "I'm sorry, goodbye." Minutes later he accepted his sons into his home, kept the social worker who delivered them there at bay, and ignited a fire that killed himself and his two boys.
The Graham, Wash., home was ripped apart by a fire, described first as an explosion, shortly after noon just after the social worker had called her supervisors to report that she could smell gas in the home. The house was destroyed, and so too the family embroiled in loss, deceit, investigation and finally, death.
Dead are Charlie and Braden Powell, ages 7 and 5. Their mother, Susan Powell, remains missing. And Josh Powell, at the center of the investigation into his wife's December 2009 disappearance, is now accused of killing his sons and taking his own life.
"I did not think he would have the nerve to kill his two little boys," said Kiirsi Hellewell, a good friend of Susan's from their time in the West Valley City neighborhood together.
"Josh has always been about control. To him, the boys were his possessions. To him it was all about getting control back," she said.
That control slowly eroded over the past two years, apparently reaching a crisis point last week in a Pierce County courtroom in Washington, when a judge ordered Powell's two young sons to remain in the custody of the Cox family – Susan's parents — and for Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation to determine his custodial fitness.
Powell was allowed two, three-hour supervised visits each week with his sons. The evaluation, which would have included a polygraph test, was ordered after a psychologist who had been evaluating Powell noted that West Valley Police had images discovered on one of Powell's computers.
Although the images were not described in court, the implication was clear: they were pornographic and possibly illegal.
Sunday about midday, a social worker arrived with the Powell children to 8119 St. Court East in Graham for the first visit since that court hearing. Only a month after the disappearance of his wife in 2009, Powell packed his things and had moved to Washington state and has made it his home ever since.
His behavior and the subsequent arrest of his father, whose home he had shared prior to the father's arrest on pornography charges, led to the separation of Josh Powell from his children.
"We really thought Josh loved his boys," said Kirk Graves, Josh Powell's brother-in-law. He said he and his wife Jennifer received a phone call Sunday afternoon alerting them to the deaths of their nephews and the estranged Josh Powell, shortly after the explosion and even as the house in Washington continued to burn.
Graves said no one in the family had spoken with Josh Powell since before last week's custody hearing. Jennifer, Josh Powell's sister, had no comment Sunday.
Sgt. Ed Troyer, Pierce County sheriff's spokesman, said Powell sent emails to authorities that seemed to confirm Powell planned the blast. Troyer did not elaborate on the contents of those emails.
Jeffrey Bassett, Powell's attorney in the custody case, said he received a three-word email from his client just minutes before the fire began: "I'm sorry, goodbye." The email arrived at 12:05 p.m., but the attorney said he didn't see it until two hours later, when others told him Josh and the boys had been killed. He told The Associated Press that his client was upset about the order for the evaluation.
Sunday the Child Protective Services worker brought the two boys to Powell's home, and Powell let his sons inside. But she could not follow. He blocked the social worker from entering, preventing the supervised visit. The social worker who dropped the boys off was very emotional, Pierce County Sheriff's Department spokesman Ed Troyer, said.
"He pushed her out. He blocked her out," Troyer said. "The whole thing was planned."
The Graham, Washington house sits in a nondescript tree-lined cul-de-sac. Troyer said some neighbors heard popping sounds, like gun shots before the flames erupted. But others thought the sound was just the flames spreading. He said the fire blew out several windows and was aided by some sort of an accelerant.
Troyer said a medical examiner had yet to identify the exact cause of death.
Thayle Nielsen, West Valley City police chief, expressed condolences for the family and vowed to continue the investigation into the disappearance of Susan Powell.
"This tragedy that's happened here, this evil thing that's happened. We'll just have to shake it out. Kind of see where we're out. But we're going to be cautious so we don't interfere in Washington, he said.
On Sunday, the lawyer for Susan Powell's parents told The Associated Press that the children had started talking to their grandparents about things they remembered from the night their mother vanished.
"They were beginning to verbalize more," said attorney Steve Downing, whose clients had custody of the children. "The oldest boy talked about that they went camping and that mommy was in the trunk. Mom and dad got out of the car and Mom disappeared."
Nielsen refused to discuss any details of the investigation Sunday.
"I can't talk about it, that's sealed stuff, but our case is circumstantial. We do have evidence, we are moving along," he said.
Powell was under investigation in the disappearance of his then 29-year-old wife from their West Valley City home in December 2009. He claimed he had taken the boys on a midnight excursion in freezing temperatures when she vanished.
The children had been living with Susan Powell's parents since Josh Powell's father Steven was arrested on child pornography and voyeurism charges last fall.
Autopsies are scheduled for Monday in Washington.
"It's the most horrifying thing you can imagine happening," Downing said.
" Susan Powell's sister, Denise Gordan, was surrounded by others at a candlight vigil held for the boys at their elementary school Sunday night in Puyallup, Wash. She shared the Coxes grief and fears: