Chuck Cox refuses to give up the search for his daughter

By John M. Glionna, Los Angeles Times

Photo courtesy of John M. Glionna/Los Angeles Times

Chuck Cox was leaving home again. In early summer, he loaded up his black Dodge Ram truck with the big V-8 engine and headed southeast. This time, one of his three surviving adult daughters rode shotgun to answer nonstop calls on his cellphone, with two volunteer private investigators trailing in a van.

Anything to find Susan.

With the certitude of an old investigator, Cox recently sat inside his living room in this Pacific Northwest town, recounting his relentless life on the road, part of the four-year quest to find his third-born daughter.

For a week, after reaching northern Oregon on that June trip, the search party leapfrogged its way along Interstate 84, stopping at every exit on the 485-mile stretch between Pendleton, Ore., and Tremonton, Utah — consulting local police, distributing fliers at gas stations. They examined roadside ditches and woods, trying to think like criminals looking to get rid of a body.

Cox looked strangers in the eyes, shook their hands and introduced himself as the father of Susan Powell, the 28-year-old Utah stockbroker and mother of two whose disappearance in December 2009 made national headlines.

The 58-year-old Cox believes his daughter was abducted and says evidence suggests her husband, Josh Powell, may have disposed of her body somewhere along this mostly isolated stretch of I-84.

The investigator in him surmises that Susan is dead, but the father in him carries on, holding out hope she's somehow still alive. He wants hikers, road crews and everyone else to be looking for her. "I got a lot of support," he recalls of the trip. "Most people had heard of Susan. They remembered what happened to her."

Cox was a veteran crash investigator with the Federal Aviation Administration who retired early to assume a new role: that of a tireless inquisitor using his skills to assist police in the most emotionally freighted case of his life.

Along the way, Cox has lost 60 pounds, and the stress of the hunt has divided his family. His wife, Judith, is weary of the media circus. His daughters want their father back. Two of the remaining three want him to give up the chase.

But Cox isn't ready. He's been deprived of closure. He's had no bittersweet satisfaction of a conviction, nor the catharsis of a funeral.

"If it were up to me, I'd pack up and be gone. I'd buy a camper and stay on the road until I found her," he said. "I tell my daughters I love them, but that I'm going to find Susan. I'm not going to give up on her. I can't."

Rose Winquist, a private eye who accompanied Cox to Utah in June, says she's amazed at his doggedness to follow every lead: "There have been psychics who claim to have gone to the other side to talk to Susan. I pass every one of those tips on to Chuck. He believes every lead that comes to him was meant to come to him."

Denise Olsen, 34, who joined her father on the recent I-84 search, says he's a different man today. "After losing Susan, he's been a lot more open and understanding," she says. "But every time he talks of not stopping until he finds her, his eyes tear up. And you just have to change the subject."

Quiet and compact, with oversize glasses, Cox also remains tormented by the killing of Susan's two boys.

For years, he implored detectives in the community of West Valley City, just outside Salt Lake City, to arrest his son-in-law in Susan's disappearance. He said Josh considered Susan a thing he owned and probably became angered when she told him she was considering a divorce.

He pointed to inconsistencies in Josh's alibi that he and the couple's two toddlers went camping in the middle of winter while his wife inexplicably ran off, deserting her family. A day-care provider had reported Susan missing when the children did not show up at her home.

Lacking sufficient evidence, police said, they couldn't detain Powell, their only "person of interest" in the case. Years later, Susan's sons began to share recollections of the night their mother vanished, stories Cox believed would implicate Powell.

Then in 2012, police say, the son-in-law used an ax to cut the necks of 5-year-old Braden and 7-year-old Charles before killing himself in a fire he set in his Seattle-area home.

This year, Michael Powell, who Cox believes helped his brother dispose of Susan's body, committed suicide, jumping off a Minneapolis parking garage. Steven Powell, Josh's father, is serving time in prison in Washington state for voyeurism of young girls. He was sexually obsessed with Susan long before her disappearance, police say.

In a diary confiscated by detectives, Steven Powell wrote a year before Susan vanished: "What has driven me in the past year is primarily lust. I have never lusted for a woman as I have for Susan. I take chances sometimes to take video clips of her, which I watch regularly."

That obsession prompted Susan to move with Josh and the boys from Washington to Utah. The father-in-law has refused to talk to police.

In May, Utah police announced they had run out of promising leads in the case. Although detectives believe Josh Powell was probably responsible for his wife's disappearance, they say they have no choice but to wait for new information.

Even now, Cox says, Utah investigators refuse to release case files he needs for his investigation. He's considering suing the West Valley City police, who have from the start treated him more like an overwrought and meddling parent than a veteran investigator, he says.

From the start, he says, the detectives' vague answers to any question maddened him. Each tip he tried to pass along was met with "We're looking into it" or "There's nothing there."

"I was the victim's father, a parent," Cox says. "The idea was, 'We can't trust him. He's a civilian, not capable of grasping the intricacies of police work.' In reality, I was a veteran investigator. But I wasn't a cop. I didn't carry a gun. I understood why they didn't include me. They had to do the investigation. But their look always said, 'You're not one of us.'"

Mike Powell, a deputy police chief in West Valley City, acknowledges that police kept their distance from Cox. "Just because he was an FAA investigator doesn't make him part of this investigation," he says. "It wasn't prudent to tell him everything that was going on."

The police official, no relation to Josh Powell, says the case files should stay private. "There are aspects to this case that are not for public consumption," he says. "We have to respect the privacy of certain individuals."

These days, Cox has turned his Puyallup home, 35 miles south of Seattle, into his search headquarters, plotting his strategies in Susan's childhood bedroom, working at a desk littered with case files and Post-it notes. He also started a website to field tips.

The father has found people who knew Susan. He drove to Spokane to copy 300 pages of files on Steven Powell's 1992 divorce to flesh out unsavory aspects of Josh's childhood, such as his early violence toward animals. Once in a while, the police would relent and let Cox accompany them when executing search warrants.

After Josh returned to the Seattle area where his father lived, Cox continued to press police for his arrest. Yet he feared direct confrontation with his son-in-law. "I once asked him, 'Where is she?' But he wouldn't look me in the eye. To get him to talk, I would have had to use physical violence. That might work for Rambo or on TV, but it's not real life. He would have lashed out against the boys."

Cox says he respects the detectives who spent years grappling with a complex case. "You've got people who tried their hardest, and now some idiot is second-guessing them," he says. "But I believe some of those investigators took 'no' for an answer too easily. They didn't follow through on things."

One of the worst moments came after the deaths of his grandsons. That's when a Utah police official called Cox to say he'd been right: They should have arrested Josh. The admission filled him with a mixture of justification and profound sadness: "I just sat there thinking, 'I didn't want to be right. I just want to find my daughter.'"

In an early interview with police, older grandson Charles had talked about an outing he and his brother took with Josh the weekend Susan vanished.

"Mommy stayed with the dinosaurs," he told police.

Cox guessed this might have been a reference to Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado, and in July walked the rugged landscape there, searching for Susan's body. All he found was a woman's shoe that was not his daughter's and some animal bones. Nothing more.

The father still speaks of his daughter in the present tense. "She's a very happy person, the kind who'd find a roomful of manure and say all this means is there's got to be a pony in here somewhere," he says.

Yet he doesn't understand what Susan saw in Josh: "She wanted to be married. She wanted children. She wanted a husband and she figured they were pretty much all the same."

These days, Cox still receives tips through his website, on which he blogs about his search and encourages women terrorized by abusive husbands to get help. When he's not on the road, he thinks about the road — and all those leads yet to be tracked down.

Now Cox the investigator is considering a new search tool. He wants to buy a cadaver dog.