‘Cold’: Police plotted to introduce Josh Powell to woman undercover

Jan 16, 2019, 4:45 PM
This photo of Puyallup Station was included in West Valley City operational plans for a Nov. 2010 u...
This photo of Puyallup Station was included in West Valley City operational plans for a Nov. 2010 undercover operation. Police intended for the female undercover officer to strike up a relationship with Josh Powell on a commuter train. (Photo: West Valley City, Utah police)
(Photo: West Valley City, Utah police)

Editor’s note: This is the ninth of a weekly series featuring highlights from a KSL investigative podcast series titled “Cold” that reports new information about the case of missing Utah woman Susan Powell.

PUYALLUP, Wash. — West Valley police planned to facilitate a meeting between Josh Powell and a woman on a Washington commuter train in November 2010, in the hopes of learning new information about the disappearance of Powell’s wife nearly a year earlier.

The woman was an undercover officer. She intended to gain Powell’s trust and use friendship or possibly even romance to gain new information about the presumed murder of Susan Powell.

This photo of Puyallup Station was included in West Valley City operational plans for a Nov. 2010 undercover operation. Police intended for the female undercover officer to strike up a relationship with Josh Powell on a commuter train. (Photo: West Valley City, Utah police)

Details of the plan were never made public. They are coming to light for the first time in Episode 10 of the investigative podcast series “Cold.”


Powell had struggled to maintain employment in the months following his wife’s disappearance on Dec. 7, 2009. He’d lost his job at Aspen Logistics, where he’d worked as a computer programmer, for repeatedly failing to show up for shifts or check in with his manager.

At the start of 2010, Powell relocated from West Valley City to his father Steve Powell’s home in South Hill, Washington. He discussed his unemployment situation in a conversation with his estranged older sister, Jennifer Graves, when she visited the home on Jan. 22, 2010.

Graves, unbeknownst to her brother, was wearing a hidden microphone as part of an operation with police designed to draw a confession from Josh Powell.

“My only thought right now is it would be pretty stupid to take a pay cut, to go to work for a pay cut, compared to unemployment,” Josh Powell said on the recording. “I figure I’ll look for IT jobs.”

Steve Powell wrote this journal entry on Sept. 2, 2010, describing his son Josh Powell’s new job working for Microsoft in Bellevue. West Valley police seized Steve Powell’s journals while serving a search warrant at his house on Aug. 25, 2011. (Photo: West Valley City, Utah police)

On Sept. 8, 2010, Steve Powell wrote in his journal that his son had at last secured work.

“This is Josh’s second week at Microsoft,” Steve Powell wrote. “He is quite happy there, but incessantly worries that someone will confront him on his wife’s disappearance and he will be let go. He lost the first job that hired him the day before he started, after signing contracts and passing their background check.”

The Microsoft job required Josh Powell to commute between South Hill and Bellevue. He took the Sounder train from Puyallup to Seattle, then used a shuttle to get between Seattle and Bellevue.

Detectives soon learned of his new job but became more interested in the question of how Powell spent his free time. Their surveillance suggested that he had not become romantically involved with anyone since his wife’s disappearance.

Josh Powell briefly worked for Microsoft in 2010. His commute required him to take a train from Puyallup to Seattle, then transfer to a bus for the ride between Seattle and Bellevue. (Photo: Dave Cawley, KSL)

Tammy Forman taught Powell’s oldest son Charlie in kindergarten at Carson Elementary.

“I didn’t feel like Josh was interested in me romantically. I guess our administrative assistant felt that from him and was creeped out,” Forman said. “She started wearing a fake wedding ring because she didn’t want him to be interested in her.”

Undercover operation

Retired West Valley police detective Ellis Maxwell, who served as lead investigator on the case, believed Powell might respond to an advance from a sympathetic woman.

“We had to be creative and try to get Josh to disclose and give us some information,” Maxwell said. “Obviously you’re going to get more intel, get more information, he’s going to be more open and receptive to a female.”

Maxwell and two other detectives, as well as a West Valley police lieutenant, traveled from Utah to Washington in early November 2010 to carry out the undercover operation. Their plan immediately went awry.

Powell had not said much to the media since December 2009. On Nov. 3, 2010, he broke his silence in an interview with the Salt Lake Tribune. He said that his wife was “extremely unstable” and would be “chewed up like hamburger” when she returned.

The Tribune published a story including those quotes days later. Powell lost his job a short time later and stopped making the commute to Bellevue.

Detective Ellis Maxwell wrote this report about the failed Washington undercover operation in November of 2010 without specifically mentioning West Valley City police intentions to introduce Josh Powell to a female undercover officer.

“Josh basically got himself fired from his job because they learned who he was and he’s in front of the media,” Maxwell said. “That happened literally, like the day before our operation.”

Powell went into seclusion upon losing his job. In a formal report, Maxwell wrote that Powell’s behavior was “lower key” and that he “didn’t move around much.”

Powell ultimately killed himself and his sons, Charlie and Braden, on Feb. 5, 2012. He was never arrested or charged with a crime in connection with Susan Powell’s disappearance.

Maxwell believes the undercover operation could have helped avoid that outcome, if not for a stroke of bad luck.

“It was a great plan,” Maxwell said. “I think it would’ve gave us some information. Who knows how much Josh would’ve disclosed over the period of time?”

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‘Cold’: Police plotted to introduce Josh Powell to woman undercover