Five minutes after Kiirsi Hellewell returned from the Latter-day Saints ward near her home in West Valley, Utah, last Sunday, Feb. 5, a reporter called with devastating news. Her former neighbor Josh Powell had locked his two young sons inside his house in Washington State and then started a fire with 10 gal. of gasoline that engulfed the home in moments, killing himself and the children. An autopsy would later reveal that before the conflagration, Powell had taken a hatchet to the necks and heads of Charles, 7, and Braden, 5. "I didn't believe it. I was hoping it was just a rumor, that it wasn't true. I screamed no, and then I hung up and called [Chuck Cox] right away," Hellewell says.
Chuck Cox is the father of Powell's wife Susan, a missing person since December 2009 and Hellewell's best friend. Shortly after Susan vanished, Hellewell launched a blog called Hearts Knit for Susan as well as a Facebook group and a Twitter account to aid in the search for her. She also maintains a findsusan Gmail account. Hellewell says she hoped she could increase awareness about her missing friend through the use of the social-networking sites. But she admits she was always suspicious of Josh Powell.
The last time Hellewell ever saw Susan was while walking away from church on Dec. 6, 2009. The next day, her friend did not show up for work, having vanished without a trace. Hellewell says she immediately was apprehensive about Josh's tale that Susan had vanished while he and the boys were on a camping trip. "He came back without Susan and claimed to not know where she was. When I heard his ridiculous stories that he supposedly woke his children up at midnight Sunday night, took them out of their warm beds and went camping in the desert in a snowstorm, I just knew that was a total lie," Hellewell says. "Susan would have never allowed that to happen. She put her boys' safety above everything, and she would never let [Josh] do that. I knew that if he was claiming to have done that, he was either telling a complete lie or she was dead or incapacitated."
Late last year, after the boys were placed in the care of Susan's parents, the children reportedly indicated that they were indeed taken on a car trip into the countryside but that their mother was in the trunk of the car.
Hellewell first met the Powells when they moved to West Valley from Washington in 2004. Hellewell describes the families as being pals. She spent a lot of time with Susan and her husband a lot of time with Josh, playing board games together, watching movies and going on picnics and bike rides. Both families, like many in Utah, were active in the LDS church. In fact, Josh Powell had met Susan Cox at an LDS singles' ward before marrying in 2001 in Oregon. However, Hellewell says, by 2006 Josh had stopped attending church.
Susan told Hellewell the reason Josh stopped attending church was his father Steven Powell, a former LDS member whom Hellewell described as being "anti-Mormon" and as "infecting Josh with his poison." (In September 2011, Steven was arrested and charged with voyeurism and child pornography; he denies any wrongdoing and is likely to go on trial in March.) Although Josh stopped going to church, Hellewell says Susan remained strong in her faith despite constant harassment from her husband. Hellewell remembers that Susan told her how Josh would belittle her and tell her she shouldn't pay her tithes or go to church. "[He would] fight over everything she did as far as her faith," says Hellewell.
"When she was trying to get the kids up and get them ready for church by herself, [Josh] would say things like, 'You want to go to boring, boring church with Mommy, or do you want to stay home and have cake with Daddy?' " Hellewell recalls. "He was constantly trying to undermine her when she tried to do what was right."
By 2008, the fighting had gotten unbearable, and Hellewell says Susan began considering a divorce something that is rare in LDS culture because, as Hellewell explains, the church believes families are forever. However, Hellewell remembers the LDS community as being supportive of Susan's plans to divorce Josh. "We saw how controlling Josh was and the horrible way he was treating her. She just kept saying, 'I don't want to live my life being miserable, but I want to make sure I have done everything I absolutely can to save my marriage before I walk away. But if it comes to that point and I know that I do have to leave, that I have a clean conscience and I did everything I could to try and make it work,' " Hellewell recalls her friend saying.