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Susan Powell's brother-in-law went from affable to suspicious

Published May 22, 2013 1:01 am

Investigation • Police evidence against Susan Powell's brother-in-law came as a shock to many.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

Tacoma, Wash. • Of the Powell men, Michael Powell was the one people liked, and often trusted.

Steve Powell wrote of missing his son Michael while he was gone. Josh Powell relied on Michael, his brother, to help him move and later to watch his children.

Susan Powell's father, Chuck Cox, wrote West Valley City police worrying his missing daughter was held prisoner by Steve Powell. But Cox specified that Michael Powell probably wouldn't go along with it.

Kiirsi Hellewell on Monday told reporters Michael Powell was nice to Susan; that he did not "ogle" her like Steve Powell did.

"So it was really shocking to us that he might be involved," Hellewell said.


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West Valley City police made their suspicions about Michael Powell public last week when they searched a wooded acreage near Scotts Mills, Ore., looking for his sister-in-law's body. The entire Powell clan had access to the property, where relatives once lived, but Michael Powell's concern over a broken down car helped focus police interest in the area.

The evidence against Michael Powell, articulated in documents released Monday, is circumstantial, and his February suicide at age 30 in Minneapolis ensures many questions will never be answered.

Unlike his immediate family, Michael Powell spent five years in the Army and received an honorable discharge in 2007. He lost a race for the Washington Legislature in 2008 as a Democrat. At the time of his death, Powell was a doctoral candidate studying cognitive sciences at the University of Minnesota while three of his four siblings — Josh, another brother John and sister Alina — lived with their father. The documents released Monday do not describe Michael as rigid or demeaning, like they often do Steve or Josh.

"My impression of Michael is that he was a serious student, cared about his family, did not hate the Coxes, didn't really understand when [the Coxes] did say things, why they're picking on him," said attorney Thomas West, of Tacoma, in an interview Monday.

West represented Michael Powell and now represents his estate in an ongoing legal fight over insurance policies issued to his brother and nephews.

West said Michael Powell wasn't there when his sister-in-law disappeared.

"Of all the Powells, he was probably the least involved and tried to keep at arm's length all this stuff, tried to keep his head on straight while living through this terrible tragedy," West said.

Ann Bremner, an attorney representing the Coxes, has said no one seems to know Michael Powell's whereabouts from Dec. 4 to Dec. 12 of 2009. Susan Powell disappeared on Dec. 6.

The same month Susan Powell disappeared, Michael Powell's 1997 Ford Taurus supposedly broke down near Pendleton, Ore., and he sold it to a salvage yard in that town. On Monday, police said they became suspicious of Michael Powell's involvement in 2011 and learned about the car. West Valley City police documents show a detective was at a Boulder, Colo., imaging company when Michael Powell called wanting to buy a high-resolution satellite image of the salvage yard so he could see whether his car had been destroyed.

It hadn't. But when West Valley City police searched it for evidence of Susan Powell in September 2011, the DNA markers did not match her.

Michael Powell's suicide seemed to surprise everyone.

"At first, I didn't believe it," West said.

Meanwhile, the insurance case continues. A federal judge in Washington state last week ruled that Josh Powell did not violate his fiduciary duty under a trust he and his missing wife set up when he made only his family beneficiaries on his $1.5 million life insurance policy.

U.S. District Court Judge Ronald B. Leighton said in the May 16 decision that the trust did not extend to the insurance policy and, based on that finding, denied a motion for partial summary judgment filed by Chuck and Judy Cox, parents of Josh Powell's wife Susan.

"What we would like to do is try to resolve the case, which is my goal and is probably [the Coxes] goal ultimately as well," West said.

West initially represented Michael Powell, who was to receive 93 percent of the $1.5 million policy. He did not leave a will and his mother Terrica and sister Alina are now acting as conservators of his estate.

Bremner said a trial on the matter is set for October.

"This is a complex case, one that is unparalleled in terms of facts, and we appreciate the careful consideration [the judge] gave the facts," Bremner said.

In August 2007, Josh Powell took out a $1 million insurance policy that initially named Susan Cox Powell as the primary beneficiary. The policy also included riders worth $500,000 that covered their sons.

The couple set up a revocable trust in February 2009 that named Chuck Cox and Michael Powell, Josh's brother, as successor trustees; Josh Powell also listed the trust as secondary beneficiary of his life insurance policy.

In October 2011, Josh Powell removed Susan and the trust from his policy, and named his family members as beneficiaries; two months later, he revised the policy again, giving 93 percent to his brother Michael Powell and the remainder to his other siblings, Alina and John Powell. Josh Powell listed his father Steven as the secondary beneficiary.

In a letter written to his family, Josh Powell said he was giving the bulk of the money to Michael Powell because he considered him most capable of managing it well and of looking after his sons.

Josh Powell and the couple's sons Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5, died on Feb. 5, 2012, in an intentional fire the 36-year-old man set at a rental home in Graham, Wash.

An insurance agent contacted Josh Powell's siblings about the policy and they subsequently filed a claim on the policy, which the Coxes, as conservators of their daughter's estate, are fighting. They argue Josh Powell violated his fiduciary duty to the trust by removing his wife as the primary beneficiary and that their daughter should still be entitled to the proceeds.

But the judge said not so.

Josh Powell, not the trust, paid the policy's premiums, and as owner of the policy was free to make changes to it, the judge said.

While ruling only on that point, the judge also discussed several other contested issues in the decision. He said the policy qualifies as community property under Washington law because the last premium payments were made while Josh Powell was living in the state. That means Susan Cox Powell is entitled to half the proceeds, the judge said.

He also said that the Coxes, as conservators of her estate, have standing to represent their daughter's interest in the litigation.

Josh Powell's family argued that in addition to being owner of the policy, he had power of attorney to act for his wife if she became incapacitated. But the judge said Josh Powell was not authorized to act under the power of attorney when he changed the beneficiaries of the insurance policy because his wife had not been legally or medically declared incapacitated.

Finally, the judge said the Coxes had sufficiently rebutted the argument that their daughter would have consented to the beneficiary changes, as the Powell siblings contended.

"Susan disappeared under suspicious circumstances before Joshua changed the beneficiaries in his policy," the judge noted. "Indeed, Susan's absence made it impossible for her to be aware of and consent to Joshua's beneficiary changes."

Josh and Susan Cox Powell also had insurance policies with Beneficial Life police worth $1 million, and a separate legal battle is underway over those proceeds.

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