Evidence In Susan Powell Case Police Could Never Identify
SALT LAKE CITY, Utah – It would fit in the palm of your hand. Blackened, charred and burned beyond recognition, this single piece of evidence from the Susan Powell case could hold answers to what really happened to her. To this day, no one knows what it is.
In an attempt to rule out some theories, KSL put a torch to several objects and got the expert opinion of the lead investigator on the case.
Josh’s First Lie
“The biggest thing that sticks out in my memory was just not having a crime scene. Nothing,” Retired Detective Ellis Maxwell told us when we talked to him for KSL’s new true crime, investigative podcast COLD.
Maxwell said he knew within minutes of talking to Josh Powell for the first time that something wasn’t right with his story.
“That first impression, when he pulled up to the house and I was leaning in through the passenger door looking at him,” he said, “He’s just a guy. Just a guy with a couple of kids. Nothing really jumped out at me then, other than he was obviously a liar.”
Maxwell said he asked Josh why he hadn’t been answering his phone or returning calls to the people, including himself, who had left him messages wondering where he, Susan and the boys were.
“He told me that he was trying to conserve his battery because he didn’t have a charger. But the charger is plugged in in his car. I could see that,” said Maxwell.
After returning home without his wife, Josh told investigators he had taken two young boys camping in the middle of the night, during a snowstorm. He said Susan had stayed behind and he had no idea where she was.
Maxwell and the team of officers searching for any sign of Susan. They searched the house and Josh’s van documenting nearly everything.
In addition to that “forgotten” phone charger, police also found other items in the vehicle that piqued their interest – power tools, a shovel, a tub filled with unopened camping supplies – and Susan Powell’s cell phone.
Josh Powell said he had forgotten her phone was in the van.
A striking piece of evidence but not enough to put Powell in handcuffs.
It was the next day, when police asked Josh to come back for a second interview, that they found something even more suspicious.
Detectives served a search warrant on the van and found that it had been cleaned out. All of the items that had been there the day before were gone and the carpets had been vacuumed.
“There were some garbage sacks that he had hidden in a compartment in the floorboard in the middle of the van,” Maxwell told KSL.
Inside one of those bags, police found three pieces of heavily burned sheetrock, several chunks of blackened material, bits of wiring, a few screws and a drill bit.
“He had heavily destroyed something over the top of that sheetrock,” Maxwell said, “What that item was, was never identified.”
Even after sending the burned item to the FBI for analysis, its true form remains a mystery.
“He obviously wanted to destroy it, dispose of it. Because he had hidden it in his van along with the garbage from the kitchen that was there the day before when we were inside the home. Rather than throwing that away in the garbage in his house, that was empty, he had it in his van,” Maxwell said. “He had those two garbage sacks there that he was going to dispose of somewhere else.”
Police hoped that sack of garbage would provide more clues.
Tests for poisons, narcotics or sedatives all came back negative.
“If she had consumed it all, there’s not going to be any trace. Maybe there would be a trace on paper towels or paper plates but nothing was discovered,” Maxwell said.
Whatever items Josh wanted to throw away, away from his home, he hid well.
“There (are) assumptions that it was a cell phone or a GPS or a hard drive,” Maxwell told us when we asked him what his team thought the burned item could be.
This fall, COLD host and KSL investigative reporter Dave Cawley invited Detective Maxwell to join him for a test to try and determine which items the burned object likely wasn’t.
Using an acetylene torch like the one Josh Powell had in his garage, and three layers of the same fire-proof sheetrock police found burned in the van, KSL spent over an hour burning a cell phone, a power cable, and a computer hard drive.
It took a matter of minutes for the cell phone to mostly disintegrate and the sheetrock beneath it was barely scorched.
It was a similar case for the power cable.
The hard drive took longer to burn through its many layers of metal. We stopped after roughly 10 minutes when the hard drive had been cut in half and much of the metal had melted.
What we hadn’t done, however, was burning through even one layer of sheetrock. Based on the evidence police recovered in the garbage sack, they believe Josh burned completely through two layers and into a third.
In our experiment, we concluded it would take much longer to do the same.
We expected to find that the mystery object would look nothing like a burned cell phone or hard drive. A cell phone made of mostly plastic would likely not leave as much material behind. A hard drive likely wouldn’t account for the bits of wiring that had been found in the bag.
Once we saw the burn marks around the melted metal, we weren’t completely convinced it should be ruled out.
“It’s interesting. Looking at this and looking at the image (from the evidence files), you could possibly see some similarities if you stay at it,” Maxwell said. “I don’t think you can discount the hard drive.”
Our test was in no way scientific or as thorough as anything that would be performed by forensic experts, but it did help give us a little insight into how badly Josh Powell wanted to destroy and dispose of something after he returned home.
It would have taken a significant amount of time to burn through those pieces of sheetrock. Whatever it was, Josh had the patience to make sure it was unidentifiable.
You can hear much more about the mystery object and how its discovery made have led police to miss their best chance at finding Susan by just 10 minutes in COLD Episode 5 available now here.