Police call fire Powell's virtual confession to wife's murder
Police say the fire that engulfed Josh Powell's home in Washington state Sunday, apparently killing him and his two young sons, was deliberately set -- and as far as they're concerned, that concludes the long-running investigation into the disappearance of Powell's wife, Susan.
"This is not a tragedy. This is a double homicide," Pierce County Sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer told The Los Angeles Times.
Josh Powell had been a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife, then a 28-year-old stockbroker who vanished from their former home in Utah in December 2009. He had denied any involvement, brushing off questions about why he took the boys camping in the middle of the night during a snowstorm on the night his wife vanished.
"This is a guy who murdered his two kids, and probably murdered his wife. I don't know what Utah police think, but as far as we're concerned, this is pretty close to a confession to the crime," Troyer said.
Powell had been seeking the return of the couple's two boys, 5-year-old Braden and 7-year-old Charles, who had been living, on court orders, with Susan Powell's parents since September.
A social worker was delivering them to Josh Powell's home near Fredrickson, Wash., for what was to have been a supervised afternoon visit. Police said Powell let the boys in but then barricaded the door against the social worker. The social worker immediately called a supervisor, saying she smelled gas, and at that point the home exploded into a hot, fast-burning fire.
"What probably happened was he used accelerant throughout the residence," Troyer said. "The whole thing went up really, really fast in large flames, and burned really hot and really quick."
Though neighbors reported the sound of an explosion, Troyer said that was likely the sound of windows popping and breaking in the blistering heat. The bodies of Powell and the two children, believed to be his sons, were found in the same room, Troyer said.
"There's no doubt about what happened here," he said.
Powell's lawyer, Jeffrey Bassett, told the Associated Press he had received an email from his client several minutes before the explosion but didn't read it until later. It said: "I'm sorry, goodbye."
Authorities removed the boys from Powell's custody after his father, with whom he and his sons had been living after Susan Powell's disappearance, was arrested on charges of child pornography and voyeurism. In court papers filed in December, Powell accused his wife's parents, Chuck and Judy Cox, of conducting an "irrational vendetta" that was turning his boys against him.
Powell rented a home of his own several blocks from his father's residence, but last week lost a bid to have the boys returned to his custody. A Washington state judge said Powell would first have to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation.
Sherry Hill, spokeswoman for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, said in an interview that Powell was entitled to visit the boys every Sunday from noon to 4 p.m.
"This was a regularly scheduled, supervised visit, and the court had ordered those," she said.
"We had no indication that there was going to be any harm to the children, or a suicide. And had we suspected any of those things, we would have gone immediately to the court and addressed those concerns."
It was not clear how Powell's death would affect the investigation into his wife's disappearance, being conducted by police in West Valley City, Utah.
"Quite frankly, this has obviously quickly unfolded up in Washington and we’re obviously just working through the details ourselves here," West Valley City Police Sgt. Mike Powell, who is not related to the Powell family, told the Salt Lake Tribune. The police chief there was expected to fly to Washington on Monday.
--Kim Murphy in Seattle
Photo: Remains of Josh Powell's home near Graham, Wash. Credit: Ted S. Warren/Associated Press