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Charlie Powell’s Story

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah – In the hours after Josh Powell returned from a mid-winter camping trip with his two young sons, and without his wife, police were desperate for clues as to where she could be. When Josh wasn’t helpful, investigators hoped the boys could give them answers. But they soon found out that a 4-year-old’s memory and imagination can get very confusing.

“What did you do last night?” Detective Kim Waelty asked Charlie Powell on Dec. 8, 2009.
“Um, go camping,” he replied, before explaining the ins and outs of making s’mores.

When Josh Powell returned with the boys the day before, he told police he’d decided to take his sons, then ages 2 and 4, camping just after midnight. Temperatures were below freezing and a major snowstorm was about to start. He said they’d gone out along the Pony Express Trail in Utah’s West Desert and Susan Powell had stayed home, asleep. But when police asked Charlie who he’d gone camping with, he had a different story.

“My dad, my mom and my little brother,” he told Det. Waelty.

And the situation soon became even more alarming.

“When you guys came home from camping,” Det. Waelty asked, “who came home with you?”
“My dad,” Charlie replied.
“And?” she continued.
“And my mom stayed at dinosaur national park,” Charlie finished.

While statements like these were concerning, others were confusing. Charlie thought his family had gone camping to “Dinosaur National Park,” which isn’t really a national park at all. Dinosaur National Monument is, however, and the Powells had gone there just a few months earlier. It’s possible Charlie’s 4-year-old mind was mixing up trips.

Other things Charlie said seemed straight from his imagination.

Det. Waelty asked, “How did you guys get to where you were camping?”
“We got in a airplane and the airplane went to Dinosaur National Park,” Charlie told her.

Police knew for certain the family hadn’t taken a flight to eastern Utah the night before.

“When you were all done, what did you do?” Det. Waelty asked.
Charlie responded, “We went to a beach when we was all done last night.”

It’s easy to see why detectives didn’t have much to go on from Charlie’s answers. But there was one thing he said that really stuck out.

“My mom stayed where a crystals are.”

Charlie told Det. Waelty his mom had stayed behind to sleep where the flowers and crystals grow. A detail that pointed detectives to another place the Powell’s had also visited that prior summer: the Dugway Geode Beds.

Located near the Pony Express Trail, where Josh had claimed to have taken the boys camping that night, the Dugway Geode Beds are filled with geodes. They are rocks that look regular on the outside, but hide crystals on the inside.

Susan wrote once about the family’s trip to the Geode Beds, an adventure that didn’t go as planned. She written about how they’d taken a wrong turn and searched for geodes in the wrong spot on their first attempt. And on the way home from the trip, they’d gotten a flat tire in the family van.

Police hoped to pry more information about the crystals from Charlie, but his memories weren’t very useful. Even in later interviews, Charlie’s memories seemed more like fantasies.

In a follow-up interview in Washington during March 2010, Det. Waelty asked Charlie, “What was your mom doing the last time you saw her?”
Charlie replied, “She told me where she was going. She was just going into the North Pole.”

In this second interview, Charlie talked about his mom getting lost, a party at the North Pole and that his mom wouldn’t come back until it stops snowing. Other things he said seemed coached, as if he’d been told what to say and what not to say. He told police they “can’t do camping again” because “it’s not good for us”.

When Det. Waelty asked Charlie if he’d heard anyone at home talk about where his mom was, he got visibly irritated.

“Don’t ask me,” he said to the detective, “I can’t talk about her.” Saying also, during the interview, “we can’t talk about Susan or camping. I always keep things as secrets.”

During two different interviews, police spent a total of 60 minutes one-on-one with Charlie Powell. His comments about the crystals did trigger a search at the Dugway Geode Beds within days, as well as follow-up checks in 2010 and 2011.Police never found anything there.

KSL’s investigative true-crime podcast Cold continues this week with another search for Susan that appeared promising to the public. In September 2011, West Valley police told reporters during the search near Topaz Mountain that cadaver dogs had located “human remains”. After days of digging and samples sent to a lab, the remains weren’t what they seemed and through his investigation, Cold host Dave Cawley has learned even more about what police were really doing during that search. You can hear all of those details in episode 12 of Cold – available now.

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