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Grandparents of dead boys saw omens

More grim details emerge about a fiery murder-suicide that authorities say the father had planned.

February 07, 2012|Kim Murphy
  • Charles Cox and his grandsons, Charles, left, and Braden, at the Cox home in Puyallup, Wash. The boys died in an explosive house fire police say was started by their father, Josh Powell, in a murder-suicide.
Charles Cox and his grandsons, Charles, left, and Braden, at the Cox home… (Charles and Judith Cox )

SEATTLE — Charles and Judith Cox knew what the professional psychologists said -- that their grandsons would be safe with their father, that Josh Powell would present no threat during the boys' court-ordered visits.

And yet. Could the professionals not see what the Coxes saw? That their daughter had been missing since 2009, and Powell was the leading person of interest in the case? What about the family stories that Powell, as a teenager, had smashed his sister's hamster to death, had threatened his mother with a knife?

Charles Cox said he had been on the verge many times of confronting his son-in-law with the blatant conflicts in his stories about what happened when Susan Powell disappeared. But he stopped every time with a nagging fear that Powell might react unpredictably -- might even take it out on the children.

"I had this feeling that if he felt he was going to actually lose, that he was going to go to jail and not have a chance of freedom, he had the capacity to tell the kids, 'Here's some special Kool-Aid' or something, and just kill them and everyone in the family," Cox said Monday, a day after Powell apparently attacked his boys with a sharp object during a court-ordered visit and then set a raging, fatal fire.

The Pierce County medical examiner's office said all three died of carbon monoxide poisoning, but the younger boy, 5-year-old Braden, also suffered a "chop injury" to the head and neck, and Charles, 7, had a similar injury to the neck. The medical examiner's spokeswoman refused to elaborate.

But Pierce County Sheriff's Det. Ed Troyer said investigators found a hatchet they believed was used on the children.

"We found a small hatchet in the same room with the bodies," he said.

The Coxes say they want to know why the boys were allowed to visit their father with only a single female social worker present, and why state officials allowed visits to occur in Powell's home.

"The psychologists said he's strange but not threatening to the children," Charles Cox said in an interview. "But I felt sure. I knew he was capable of killing himself and the children if he felt cornered enough. I was afraid of that, and I think the police were afraid of it. The plan was we would get the kids before they arrested him [if a case were made connecting him to Susan Powell's death] so he couldn't hurt them.

"But the [Child Protective Services workers] said, 'Don't worry, we've got it covered.' Well, they didn't."

The Coxes invited reporters into their home in Puyallup, Wash., to see the room the boys had shared since being removed from Powell's custody in September -- the bins of toys, the small wood frame beds covered in animated-movie quilts.

"He did not want anyone to have control of his kids. Those were his kids and no one else should raise them or take care of them, especially us," Judith Cox said. "But we know that the boys are with their mother in heaven, and that gives us a lot of purpose."

Powell lost custody of the boys when his father was arrested in a voyeurism and child pornography case. Steven Powell remains behind bars under suicide watch. Police from West Valley City, Utah, hope to interview him.

The Utah police arrived Monday to examine the charred hulk of Powell's rented home in Graham, Wash., to see whether it might hold clues to his wife's disappearance.

Josh Powell told authorities he left Susan at the couple's former home in Utah on a snowy night in December 2009 to take a middle-of-the-night camping trip with his sons. When he returned, he said, she was gone.

In recent months, the boys "did begin to talk about their mother. And certain things that they remembered," said the Coxes' attorney, Steve Downing. One of the boys, he said, made a drawing in which he depicted himself and his brother in the family minivan with Josh at the wheel and Susan in the trunk.

"I think they were starting to remember, and maybe he was afraid for that. They had said things to us and other people, and it was reported to the West Valley police," Judith Cox said.

"It was very hard because they were very devoted to their father. They love him ... but I think they were realizing that their dad was doing things wrong or saying things wrong. Josh did not seem to care about finding his wife, and Charlie, the oldest, wanted very much to start looking for his mom."

On Sunday, the boys expressed reluctance to go to their father's home for their twice-a-week visit.

"The boys were playing with their cousin Patrick, and they said to me they didn't want to go see Dad, and I know with the law they're supposed to go, so I talked them into it," Judith Cox said. "I said, 'Let's go, and you'll be able to play with Patrick when you get back.'

"But that didn't happen."

Police said they discovered two 5-gallon gasoline cans inside Powell's home that were apparently used to set the blaze -- one of them found in the center of the house near all three bodies.

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