It’s a chilling reality that homicide investigators know all too well: the last face most murder victims see is not that of a stranger, but of someone familiar. Whether only an acquaintance or a trusted intimate, such killers share a common trait that triggers the downward spiral toward death for someone close to them: they are masters at hiding who they really are. Their clever masks let them appear safe, kind, and truthful. They are anything but ― and almost no one can detect the murderous impulses buried deep in their psyches. These doomed relationships are the focus of Ann Rule’s sixteenth Crime Files collection. In these shattering inside views of both headlined and little-known homicides, Rule speaks for vulnerable victims who relied on the wrong people. She begins with two startling novella-length investigations. In July 2011, a billionaire’s Coronado, California, mansion was the setting for two horrifying deaths only days apart ― his young son’s plunge from a balcony and his girlfriend’s ghastly hanging. What really happened? Baffling questions remain unanswered, as these cases were closed far too soon for hundreds of people; Rule looks at them now through the eyes of a relentless crime reporter. The second probe began in Utah when Susan Powell vanished in a 2009 blizzard. Her controlling husband, Josh, proved capable of a blind rage that was heartbreakingly fatal to his innocent small sons almost three years later in a tragedy that shocked America as the details unfolded. If anyone had detected the depth of depravity within Josh Powell, perhaps the family that loved and trusted him would have been saved. In these and seven other riveting cases, Ann Rule exposes the twisted truth behind the façades of Fatal Friends, Deadly Neighbors.
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Ann Rule is a former Seattle policewoman and the author of more than two dozen New York Times bestsellers. She is a certified instructor for police training seminars and lectures frequently to law enforcement officers, prosecutors, and forensic science organizations, including the FBI. For more than two decades, she has been a powerful advocate for victims of violent crime. A graduate of the University of Washington, she holds a Ph.D. in Humane Letters from Willamette University. She lives near Seattle and can be contacted through her website AnnRules.com.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Fatal Friends, Deadly Neighbors
One of the questions I am asked frequently is “Don’t you have nightmares about the cases you cover?” Usually, I don’t. There is nothing as cathartic for me as emptying my brain of the awful details I learn about murders and pouring them onto a blank screen. Yes, I have had nightmares over the last forty years—but only a handful.
The twisted maze of horrendous events that began on December 6, 2009, in West Valley City, Utah, however, has given me dark images as I slept. I will never forget writing about what has been deemed “pure evil.”
Only in retrospect can I see where many of the tragic aspects of this story could have been and should have been prevented. If only they had been.
Of the nine cases in this book, I have put off writing this one until the very last. I know why. I didn’t want to think about it day after day, as I knew I would have to once I began to dig into the mental cesspools of two depraved minds.
* * *
Loving parents treasure their babies and watch over them as they grow. The irony of parenthood is that as much as we want to protect our children from any kind of harm, we have to prepare them to leave us and enter a world where there are dangers we can neither perceive or prevent. It can be so worrisome the first time children walk to school by themselves, or have a sleepover at a friend’s house. And, before we know it, they are old enough to date and to drive a car, or ride in a car with drivers we don’t really trust.
But we bite our tongues and give them wings to fly by themselves. When grown children fall in love and choose someone to marry, we hope that person will be good to them. Sometimes we can see trouble ahead, but the more we find fault in whom they’ve picked, the more likely they are to cling to them. Our eyes are not blinded by infatuation or love, and we can see personality traits that give us cause to worry when we know in our bones that our beloved children may end up with broken hearts and broken marriages. But, again, we keep our mouths shut and hope for the best.
* * *
Chuck and Judy Cox, who currently live in Puyallup, Washington, married for love, and they raised their four daughters in a happy and safe home. Mary was their firstborn in 1977, then Denise in 1979, Susan in 1981, and finally, Marie in 1984. Although many men might have been disappointed that they had no sons, Chuck was quite happy with his quartet of daughters. From the moment they were born, he was a protective father, doing his best to look after his girls.
The Coxes are devout members of the Mormon faith. They met in eastern Washington, at Medical Lake, and Chuck soon decided the pretty young woman with long dark hair was the one for him, and it’s obvious that he sees Judy today as he did then. He finds her as lovely as she was when she was a teenager, and she clearly cares for him the same way. As often happens, Chuck is the extrovert and Judy is the quiet one. Their likenesses and differences have bonded to make their marriage very successful over the years. At this point in their lives, they should be enjoying the retirement years most couples look forward to.
Instead, they have lived with terror and despair.
Chuck Cox is a pilot and a flight instructor, and Judy has made a home for him and their girls in many places around America: Denver; Minot, North Dakota; Holloman Air Force Base in Alamagordo, New Mexico; and Anchorage, Alaska. When he was in the air force, Chuck was an air traffic controller—a “Tower Flower,” as he puts it—and he scanned the boards constantly when he was on duty to be sure that all the planes he was responsible for were “laddered,” and that no two planes were ever on the same altitude and flight path at the same time.
It is a high-stress job, of course, but Chuck was good at it. He learned to live with having the responsibility for so many lives in the air, and he never lost his cool. Back in civilian life, he had to choose whether to be a full-time pilot or a civilian air traffic controller. He chose the latter and worked at Portland International Airport and Troutdale Airport in Oregon. After that he was an Aviation Safety Inspector in Renton, Washington.
Cox investigated crashes and near-crashes, and all of his jobs involved one aspect of flying or another. He recalls examining the circumstances of a particular collision in Moses Lake, Washington, where navy jet pilots in training routinely practiced low-level, high-speed flying maneuvers.
“A navy A3 jet flying low and at high speed collided with a crop duster. The A3’s right engine impacted the biplane’s left wing, and the propeller of the crop duster scratched and punctured the external fuel tank on the navy plane,” Chuck explained. “Both of the military pilots ejected safely, and the crop duster plummeted to the ground, which was freshly plowed and soft. A local man heard the crash and he was able to pull the biplane pilot out and call for help.
“While I was investigating the accident, some military investigators claimed, ‘That agriculture plane hit our jet.’
“I asked them how a hundred-mile-an-hour crop duster could catch up with and hit a five-hundred-mile-an-hour jet. They didn’t have an explanation for that. I was just happy that all three pilots lived!”
Chuck Cox was always able to keep a level head when he had to, something that is a prerequisite for both a pilot and an air traffic controller. Those jobs, however, involved people he didn’t know well—or at all. They didn’t deal with the people he loved and devoted his life to.
Cox speaks his mind, and he can be stern when he needs to be. Lesser men would have broken long ago—but not Chuck Cox. When he commits to a cause, he is a bulldog and nothing can shake him. His cause now is one that no one on earth would envy.
Before Chuck Cox retired in February 2011, both he and Judy looked forward to a serene life. His father suffered from heart disease, but with a pacemaker, he was expected to live at least ten years. Chuck and Judy and his parents considered creating one household to reduce living costs so both families would be able to travel while they were still young enough to do so. Sadly, events involving Susan Cox Powell, Chuck and Judy’s daughter, would put unbelievable stress on both couples and end their hopes for rewarding retirements.
“My dad died suddenly in January 2011,” Chuck said. “I think what happened to Susan put so much worry on his heart that it killed him. There were so many things that we all needed to say in response to attacks on us—but we couldn’t. We had to remain silent.”
Since the Christmas season of 2009, the Cox family has lived with huge anxiety about Susan, their third daughter. Chuck and Judy have no idea if Susan is alive or dead. She vanished from the Utah home she shared with her husband, Josh, and their two little boys—Charlie and Braden. She had allegedly left home in a blizzard on a frigid Sunday night. There was no word at all from her, no sightings, nothing. She was simply gone.
The circumstances of her vanishing defy any rational explanation. For her family, dealing with them was excruciating. Susan’s parents and sisters wanted to believe that she was alive and would come home again, but as the days and weeks passed, they sought for her in vain. Her case was so bizarre that the search for her spread across America. Dozens of publications, including People magazine, covered the story, which was picked up by the Associated Press. Surely, the Coxes thought, if Susan was able to she would have come forward. In a way, it’s harder for families not to know where someone they love is than it is to accept their death and begin to recover.
Judy, Chuck, and Susan’s sisters were in limbo.
Josh Powell was quite sure that his wife was safe and well, and he reassured those who were baffled and grieving. Indeed, Josh explained that he hadn’t wanted to raise an alarm when Susan left their home on the night of December 6, 2009, because he didn’t want to upset anyone prematurely.
He was positive she was okay, even though she had seemingly disappeared into the whirlwind of snow and ice. Josh appeared to be embarrassed as he confessed that he believed Susan had run off with another man, leaving him alone to care for Charlie and Braden, who were only four and two.
Although the Josh Powells sometimes seemed an unlikely couple, and had their share of problems, most of which they kept between themselves, the idea that Susan would have an affair with another man and desert her family to be with him was mind-boggling.
Susan was a devout member of the Church of Latter-day Saints and she adored her little boys. She believed in her religion’s tenets that marriage was for life—and beyond—and she had fought to save her own union. To everyone who knew her, the thought that she would abandon her children for a sinful affair was unbelievable.
* * *
Susan Cox was a bubbly, happy little girl and she remained that way into adulthood.
She was a romantic who wanted to make the world better—or, in her case, “prettier.” When the Coxes were living in Alaska, and she was four or five, she once used crayons to draw a flower on a newly painted wall. She explained why to her perturbed parents: “I wanted to make it prettier.”
Hearing that, they couldn’t punish her. Chuck cleaned the wall and Susan helped.
In high school, one of her teachers asked her what her philosophy of life was.
“What do you mean?” Susan asked.
“What do you want to do with your life?” the teacher explained. “How do you look at the world?”
“I want people to be pretty,” she said. “So they will be happy.”
After graduation, she attended the Gene Juarez Academy of Beauty in Seattle, preparing for a career in that field. Her dream was to have her own beauty salon one day.
Susan herself was attractive—in a young Debbie Reynolds sort of way. She had bright blue eyes, wavy brown hair, and dimples. Dozens of photographs of her have been published and it’s hard to find one in which she isn’t smiling.
Conversely, there are few pictures of Josh Powell where he is smiling. Once Susan’s goal was to make Josh happy, to help him forget his abusive childhood.
She was sure she could do that.
Like many young Mormon singles in their late teens and twenties, she and her sisters often went to an LDS Stake Center at Twelfth and Pearl streets in Tacoma to interact with their peers in the single adult ward who were eighteen to thirty.
“It was a marriage pool,” Chuck Cox explains. “She met Josh Powell there. She was nineteen and he was twenty-six. We felt he was hunting for someone who believed that the husband was the head of the house. Susan was in love—you know, like the songs ‘I Am Sixteen Going on Seventeen’ or ‘They Tried to Tell Us We’re Too Young.’ She was in love with Josh Powell, and no one could change her mind.”
On the surface, Josh didn’t seem that bad a choice for Susan. He gave the impression that he believed in all the Mormon tenets, and Susan saw him as a very mature “older” man.
While she was very well liked by the group at the Stake Center, Susan was aware that Josh lacked social skills: He had trouble fitting in. That didn’t make her like him less; she actually felt a little sorry for him and tried to draw him into her circle of friends. It wasn’t that Josh was shy; it was more that he talked too much about himself and his many accomplishments, and didn’t seem very interested in other people. His affect was awkward, even a little peculiar. At first, of course, Susan didn’t find him odd.
Chuck and Judy couldn’t understand Susan’s fascination with Josh, and sometimes they argued about it, although they tried not to—aware that the more they criticized Josh, the more their daughter would be attracted to him. She was a teenager and parents’ opinions aren’t usually appreciated at that stage of life.
“I asked her once ‘Why Josh?’ ” Judy Cox recalls, of when Susan started dating him seriously. “And she wouldn’t answer me. I think she wanted to help him.”
Although judging others’ attractiveness is a most subjective position, most people would not describe Josh Powell as prepossessing. Rather than being a handsome, dynamic man, Josh looked like he was no older than sixteen or seventeen. At five feet, ten inches, he was slender and somewhat weak appearing. He had bright blue eyes and rosy cheeks, and scarcely any beard. Even though he was seven years older than Susan, he looked younger.
Maybe he seemed so full of himself because beneath the surface he felt he didn’t really measure up.
Everything about Josh seemed weak. No one realized then that he was a “control freak.”
But he was.
To her family’s continuing bewilderment, Susan Cox saw something in Josh that others didn’t see. He had originally tried to date Susan’s oldest sister, Mary, who didn’t care for him at all. On the night of one of Mary’s dances—where she had a date with someone else—Josh came over to the Coxes’ home to ask her for a date, unaware that this was totally inappropriate. He hung around her house, waiting for her until she came home. It was an awkward situation.
Mary didn’t want to go out with him, and she was alarmed when his attention turned to Susan. She kept warning Susan about Josh and advised her not to date him; there was just something about him that Mary neither liked nor trusted.
Josh Powell often exaggerated or told outright lies. Susan was so thrilled with her new romance that it never occurred to her to check out some of the things he said. He told Susan and her parents that he had a degree in business administration from the University of Washington. But he complained about his professors, saying that he knew more than any of them did.
Years later, when Nate Carlisle, a Salt Lake City reporter, attempted to verify Josh’s degree from the University of Washington, he found there was no record of it. Josh countered by saying he was on a “special list.” That was a lie, but he would never admit it.
Susan wanted to marry and have a family; her parents had been young when they wed and she had never known anything but a happy home. She was in love with love. When she looked at Josh, she was impressed that he had a job, his own apartment, and his own car. She either didn’t know that he’d lived with his father, Steven Powell, until he was twenty-six—just before they started dating—or it didn’t seem important.
To her, Josh seemed stable and ready to settle down.
“Josh wasn’t stable,” Chuck Cox says. “After ten minutes, anyone could see there was something wrong with him. He talked all the time.”
And it was mostly about himself. He was a braggart, and Susan’s parents didn’t agree with her that all he needed was love. And then he proposed to her.
“I tried to tell her that you don’t marry a ‘project.’ ”
Judy Cox and Susan’s friends threw a bridal shower for her. There weren’t many there—only her friends Rachel, Terry, Jody, and Josh’s...
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