Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Six Minutes.

"Is that him?" I peer through the window or our news car, eyes squinting to shade the blinding glare of the sun refracting off the stark white snow, "It is.  That's Josh!"  The sun crashes into my pupils, unprotected by eyes popped open with utter surprise.

Josh Powell
Josh Powell's car, or rented car as it turns out, is crunching through the cold, dry, icy snow on this unseasonably frigid December day, and parking in front of his sister's West Jordan home.  The man every journalist wants to talk to, is about to do an infamous 6 minute interview with me, that will provide essential evidence to police, send other news crews scrambling, and will cause Internet sleuths from around the world, to analyze every word, tug of the cap, and hesitation.

After all these tragic, perplexing, twisting years, you likely don't need a primmer on the sad mystery of Susan Powell, but I'll give you the thumbnail sketch.

The West Valley, Utah mom of two little boys disappears December of 2009.
Her husband Josh, inexplicably says he and the boys went camping in unbearable subfreezing temperatures, at midnight the night before, and when he returns his wife is gone.  Everyone suspected him of having something to do with Susan Powell's disappearance  the police (although he was always officially just a person of interest) his neighbors, and eventually, even members of his own family.

Susan Cox-Powell

Susan has never been found, and last year, on Super Bowl Sunday, Josh, hacked his boys with a hatchet and burned his home to the foundation, killing himself, and snuffing out the lives of those two little guys.

On December 10th, 2009, when I meet a meek Josh Powell, in his blue cap and long out-of-style black leather jacket, I can't begin to fathom, that this story will erupt like a volcano into the nation's most tragically twisted tale of mystery and death.

Back in 2009, the story of Susan Powell is in it's infancy.  We know very little, simply that there is a woman from West Valley City, who hadn't been seen in a few hours.  Although things seemed odd, there is a conventional wisdom, based strictly upon conjecture, that Powell might have galloped off with an old flame, perhaps dozed off on a girlfriend's chaise lounge, or simply needs a breather from the pressures of marriage, work, and children.  All of these explanations seem reasonable, since as a member of the media, I've witnessed all three scenarios, and them some, play out in the past.

I am among those who assume Susan might wander home by the cold open and theme music of the 10 PM newscast.

As my colleagues and I discuss the case in our afternoon editorial meeting, questions are asked, and personal theories casually tossed out, but a laundry list of other stories need attention as well, and after some wrangling I insist that I should at least head to West Valley, and "check it out," I get feigning approval, couched with the caveat that, "if something bigger comes along we might move you."

"She would never just walk away from her kids, unless something was wrong," pleads Kiirsi Hellewell, one of Susan's Friends.
Kiirsi Hellewell

Hellewell, continues, off the record, that Josh and Susan are struggling with marital strife and in an aside, tips her glasses downward and confesses, that Josh's father has "problems."

Hellewell convinces me that Susan is not "OK," and she intimates that Josh might be responsible.

It turns out police are already focusing their attention on Powell, and are beginning to think, as you might expect, that Josh might have know more than he is telling police.  Which, as we will later learn, is nearly nothing.

"a small plane has crashed in Utah County," barks executive producer Jeremy Laird, as I click the "answer" button on my cell phone, minutes after stepping out of Hellewell's modest, kid evident, living room.  "You're the closest, we need to get you there immediately!" he demands.

"I don't know about that," I question, " I think I need to stay on this,"  Not willing to debate, and watching the clock, Jeremy, presses as he raises his voice, something he has rarely done with me in the past, "You're the only one, right now!  We need to get you on the road!"  his patience is thinning.  "Jeremy, this is going to be a big story, and if we miss it today, we will be playing catch up tomorrow, caught with our pants down, I guarantee it!"  I snap into my cell.  "Alright!" his voice, cutting through the airwaves, "we'll send Fields Moseley!"  He isn't happy, and is likely wishing he is jousting with me on a traditional land line so he can drive the clunky plastic receiver loudly down into  it's base.

As more suspicions mount in the collecting hours, and days and local TV stations are beginning to dedicate more resources to the story, and national media outlets, are noodling the idea, in their news meetings, of ginning up, the cranking, creaking national media machine, and book a flight to Utah.

Most of the proverbial bases are covered, with the exception of Josh, no one had talked to, or even seen Susan's husband since she disappeared.

There are hushed conversations in the neighborhood, and in news rooms about his audacious silence. "If it was me," I remember one colleague suggesting, "I'd be shouting from the rooftops for help finding my wife."  It was time to find Josh.

My photographer and I do a round-robin of possible places Powell might be tucked away. his home, the West Valley police station, his sister's house.  I recall the monotonous circle we travel this day.  Powell home, Police, sister, Powell home, police, sister, Powell home police, sister, for hours.  As we roll up on the sister's home one last time, a nondescript Chevy rounds in front of the house and comes to rest.  I squint and see a face that resembles the pictures I'd been looking at of Susan's husband, smiling with their two boys, holding a plate of food, or wrestling with his kids in the couple's back yard.

"Start rolling," I command in a low voice, "Hi, Josh?" I walk softly toward him.  Josh stares at me, caught flat-footed in the cold Utah snow. "Hey, I'm Chris Jones from 2 News, How are ya?"  "OK?" he sputters reluctantly, and lifts his hand to meet mine and shakes it.  as I ask him how he's doing, he nervously glances over his shoulder, like a riverboat gambler, whose just cheated a couple of desperadoes out of a weeks wages.

Despite his reticence, he begins to answer my questions, and I can recall, the beat of my heart, pounding deeply enough that I can hear and feel it in my ears as I walk a proverbial mental tightrope.

To date, Powell has met only once with police, and on the advice of his attorney, given a physical description of his wife, and a vague laundry list of the items she might have been wearing, but remains silent as a stone, about where he was that night, and particularly where his wife might be right now.

I know I must be placid, I don't want to spook him, if I do he will potentially vanish into his sister's home, and likely disappear from the public eye forever, just like his now missing wife.

I keep my tenor low and attempt to level my energy with his.  I start by setting him at ease with a question about his kids, and his own well-being.

then I transition genially to a line of questioning about what happened the night his wife vanished, why he didn't call in sick to work, and suggest that people think he might have hurt his wife, it is the query that elicits the response that will be repeated on TV sets, radios, the Internet and newspapers across the country.   "I didn't do anything, I mean, I don't know where she's at.  I don't even know where to start looking," he utters pensively.

I begin to pepper him blandly with more pointed questions, as he tugs on his cap, shuffles from one foot to the next, and averts his gaze to the home in which he desperately wants to be.  I realize, he is wavering, "Basically I need to figure out what to do, get into my kids," he interrupts as he transitions  towards the door of safety. Then I ask: "Where do you go camping?" I'm not certain, but I'm told some time later, that his answer of, near "the Pony Express Trail," will send a team of officers combing the frozen deserts of Southern Utah.

This ends up being the most comprehensive interview with Powell, until he finally speaks to national media outlets two years later.

A few weeks after my interview, an investigator on the case, spots me at a movie theater as I patiently wait for my film to begin.   He grabs my hand shaking it vigorously, "thank you," he smiles, "That interview, with Powell, really helped us,"  "oh," I say gently, trying to level my energy with his so as not to spook him,  "how so?" I ask in dulcet tones.   He laughs, chomps his popcorn with gusto, and wanders off chuckling, to his movie.

1 comment:

  1. I remember watching this video (from a competitive perspective) and being simultaneously pissed that you got the interview and fascinated by his responses to you. You stone cold shocked him by coming out of nowhere and he wasn't prepared, but was smart enough not to tell you to suck it and walk away, so you caught him with his pants down, trying to act like the innocent husband and it was so telling. It was the interview that sealed the deal that the motherfucker was guilty. Everybody saw it, everybody knew it. The interview of a career, I think. In fact, just saw it on E! in their True Hollywood Story or something like that. Well done.