Demons and Saints: The Murder of Josh and Susan Powell’s Family

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Josh, Susan, Braden and Charlie Powell in happier days

[Complete timeline on my blog]

Asianweek is supposed to be about Asian American stories, not about Ex-Mormon Dads from Hell. Yet  as a Seattle resident, and a Christian Asian American Dad who feels a bit of a friendly rivalry with the Mormons, I feel compelled to write about the the case of Josh and Susan Powell and their boys which started with the suspicious disappearance of a beautiful mother and stock broker after an odd camping trip, and ended in the horrific explosion and fire which killed the prime suspect, the father and the two boys.

This case reminds me of the obscure case of  the unsolved Murder of Robert Eric Wone whose murder(s) also got away despite obvious clues, as well as the many Angry Asian Men who blew a fuse as the Virginia Tech Gunman or the Discovery Channel hostage bomber. To those who don’t think the Mormon / LDS aspect of this crime should be highlighted, I’m one who has looked into many different groups of people to help explain and contrast the experiences of Asian Americans. People of all places, ethnic and religious groups commit all kinds of crimes, but I don’t think such ties should either be stereotyped, nor ignored. I can almost certainly assume that the “good guys” in this case, the Cox family are also observant Mormons, and judging by the outcome, it’s hard to argue that either his or his father’s leaving the LDS church that he was once observant enough to qualify for a “recommend” (kind of like an official Good Mormon Housekeeping Seal of Approval) was helpful to anybody’s life outlook except to lead to his ultimate demise, spiritually and otherwise.

As my own survey of over and underachieving groups go, the Mormons compare well with Asians in just about everything with the exception of math test scores and admissions to elite colleges, whose values are an anathema to traditional Mormons and probably SHOULD be an anathema to Asian parents who should not be surprised if their children grow up into Obama / Clinton Democrats. Ignoring group membership, or worse, being a member of a group for which it is taboo to make accusations is especially important in cases such as Robert Eric Wone which was mostly followed by the DC, Asian and the LGBT community, but never got any national attention despite the outrageous nature of the crime, and the suspects who were cleared of all charges, most likely precisely which protected group they represented.

In contrast to Asians who put academic achievement on a pedastal, Mormons put very high traditional expectations on husbands and wives. I suspect just as Asians who normally do very well on average may have a tendency to go very, very bad when they do go bad, we may have case here of a serious fatherhood failure (or two, man Steven is another piece of work, also named as a person of interest now).

Mormon attitudes toward mental illness and obligation  to marriage didn’t seem any more helpful in this case than the way Asians do it in America. Josh’s Christian Pastor Timothy Atkins of First Bible Church didn’t have his demon detector working either when he told the press he saw “no sign of a problem”. If only everybody could be as hysterical as Nancy Grace who was ranting about warning signs left and right on her shows. I see a failure not only in Josh, and his side of the family which still views him as an innocent victim, but a system which seems to go out of the way to punish obviously innocent people (as in the case of the Wenatchee sex/witch trials) also bends over backwards to protect the obviously guilty. It is incredible the amount of effort that federal, state and local authorities put into trying to remove every child and jail every father in the FLDS community in Eldorado on the basis of a crank phone call to protect children from… underage marriage. Contrast that to the number of ignored red flags in the case of Josh Powell where the worst thing that could happen was a midnight murder of his wife and the firey doom for himself and his sons when every level of government from local and state police to the Child Protection System gave the green light that enabled Josh to execute his last act.

As Newt Gingrich contrasted Ron Paul’s approach to terrorists which is to put them on trial AFTER they’ve blown something up, we need to spot, and stop these people BEFORE somebody gets hurt AND make sure nobody else gets hurt once it’s obvious we’re dealing with somebody who is a murder with the the worst alibi in the world. The psychology of Josh’s few supporters seems very similar to terrorists who theorize that they are the victims, and call for a defensive holy war against the the ones who got hurt, such as the Israelis and Jews who are painted as the true villians in this world, and Freudian-project their own crimes and conspiracy theories on others.

I also wrote about a story of Fundamentalist Mormons vs Child Protective Services in a book called “The Flowers Cried in Texas” at the Yearning for Zion polygamist compound in Texas. That was a case in which the children feared the CPS more than their polygamist parents or their prophet and authorities feared another fiery apocalyptic end like the Waco siege. Officials here made the opposite error of not imaging how much evil could come from one guy as Warren Jeffs proved to be perhaps crazy and criminal, but  not violent. It was  Josh Powell (and perhaps with help from his father) who effectively their own variant of an ex-LDS world who  indeed staged his own fiery end for him and the surviving boys of the family of Josh and Susan Powell and boys Braden and Charlie. Josh  was clearly driven by demons, the Mormons often like to call themselves “saints” as in “latter day”, and victims were certainly angels if not  saints. One book of interest is “Under the Banner of Heaven” which is unfortunately an unbalanced hit piece on the Mormon Church and all its marginal variants. But it does compile just about every Mormon horror story (which will  need a new chapter for this case) as long as one doesn’t try to judge a church by the most spectacular crimes of it members and offshoots.

The story of a couple who met at a LDS singles group, married in a Temple wedding (which is the highest kind they have) and have two beautiful boys. Of all American religions and ethnic groups, the Mormons perhaps have the most to brag about upholding model marriages and families. But in this case the marriage heads for the rocks through disputes and even bankruptcy which first attracts national attention when who Nancy Grace describes as a “gorgeous 28 year old stock broker mother two” goes missing when the father Josh Powell returns from a midnight camping trip in subfreezing cold with a story about taking the boys for sledding and s’mores. There are suspicions, but authorities claim they don’t have enough evidence to name Powell as more than a person of interest after searching his house, asking for numerous interviews, and seizing property from his house. Now in 2012, questions in the mind of many of his possible guilt are answered when the boys start drawing pictures of their mother in the back of the van on the camping trip, that she was looking for gems in the mines but didn’t come back with dad, and point to a woman’s chest saying “oweee”. The Dad From Hell slams the door on a worried social worker who frantically dials 9-11, while Josh says “I have a surprise for you” and takes a hatchet to his screaming and crying boys, sends out e-mails saying “I’m sorry goodbye” and blowing up his boys and himself in a blazes that sends debris flying all over the Puyallup neighborhood as Josh Powell’s family condemn how Josh was the one who was bullied and abused into an apparent suicide double murder.

I’ve put together a timeline that puts the puzzle pieces in a line here:  timeline on my blog

About the Author

MIT electrical engineering computer science graduate has written conservative columns on politics, race / culture, science and education since the 70s in MIT The Tech and various publications in including New Republic and National Review.