This Day In History: February 5

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On February 5, 2012, 36-year-old Josh Powell, who had been in the public eye since police labeled him a person of interest in the 2009 disappearance of his 28-year-old wife, Susan, locks out a social worker then kills himself and his two sons, ages 5 and 7, by setting fire to his Graham, Washington, home.

Susan Cox Powell was last seen alive by someone other than her immediate family late on the afternoon of December 6, 2009, when a friend who had just eaten a meal of pancakes and eggs with the Powells left their West Valley City, Utah, home. The friend later told authorities Susan Powell felt tired after the meal, which was made by Josh, and lay down for a nap. After the Powells failed to drop off their sons Braden and Charlie at daycare the following morning, and did not show up at their jobs or answer their phones, relatives contacted police. Later that same day, Josh Powell and his sons, then ages 2 and 4, returned home. When questioned by police, Powell claimed he had left with the boys around 12:30 a.m. on December 7 for an overnight camping trip. Asked by authorities why he would take his young children camping on a freezing night, Powell said he wanted to test his new generator.

Law enforcement officials soon began treating the disappearance of Susan Powell, who friends and family said would never voluntarily walk out on her sons, as a criminal investigation. There were no signs of robbery, forced entry or struggle at the Powell home, but investigators found traces of Susan’s blood on a sofa. They also learned the Powells had been having marital and financial problems. In mid-December, Josh Powell, who had been less-than-cooperative with the investigation, according to police, was named a person of interest in his wife’s disappearance.

In early January 2010, Powell packed up his Utah home, and he and his sons moved in with his father, Steven, in Puyallup, Washington, where Josh and Susan had grown up. That same year, Josh Powell publicly speculated that his wife had run away with a Utah man who went missing around the same time she did, but police found no evidence to substantiate this theory. In September 2011, Steven Powell was arrested in Washington and charged with multiple counts of voyeurism and possession of child pornography. Soon after, a judge granted Susan Powell’s parents custody of Braden and Charlie.

On February 1, 2012, a Washington judge ordered Josh Powell to undergo a psychosexual evaluation, including a polygraph test, before he could regain custody of his boys. Around noon on February 5, a social worker brought Braden and Charlie to their father’s rental home in Graham, where he had been living following Steven Powell’s arrest, for a supervised visit. Powell let his sons into the house but blocked the social worker from entering. She called 911 and reported smelling gasoline and hearing the boys crying. Moments later, Powell ignited a massive blaze that killed him and his children. Later, it was discovered he had attacked the boys with a hatchet before starting the fire.

Authorities determined Powell had planned the murders in advance, giving away boxes of his children’s toys to Goodwill on the weekend of the tragedy and, minutes before setting his house ablaze, emailing his pastor and several family members with instructions about how to take care of some of his final business. None of the emails mentioned Susan Powell.

A lawyer for Susan’s parents said that before their deaths the Powell boys had begun telling their grandparents more of what they remembered about the night their mother disappeared. According to the Associated Press, the lawyer said: “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.”