Last week, the Josh Powell story exploded in the media. Powell, of Graham, Washington, was supposed to have a supervised visit with his two young sons. Instead, he slammed the door in the face of the social worker, hacked the boys with a hatchet, and then blew up his house. Powell and the two sons died.
I watched three news shows about the tragedy—Dateline on MSNBC, 20/20 on ABC, and Dr. Drew on HLN (Headline News). All of the programs reflected shock, horror and outrage. Dr. Drew Pinsky did actually call Josh Powell a psychopath. But what struck me about the coverage was that this tragedy was almost predictable. All the warning signs were there, if anyone had a complete picture of what was going on, and if appropriate people had known what they were looking at.
The lessons boil down to three: Knowing how to recognize a sociopath, knowing what sociopaths are capable of doing, and acting on intuition.
Josh Powell, the sociopath
Josh Powell clearly exhibited sociopathic behavior. He first came into public view with the disappearance of his wife, Susan, on December 7, 2009. Josh Powell’s ludicrous story was that he left the family home at midnight to take his two sons, aged 2 and 4 at the time, camping in the freezing desert, and when he returned, Susan was gone. He assumed that she went off with another man.
Before then, however, Susan had confided in several friends and family members that Josh was controlling. He was psychologically and emotionally abusive. Susan was asked why she didn’t take the boys and leave. She was afraid to—Josh had threatened that she would have the boys “over my dead body.”
So where did Josh’s sociopathy come from? It appears to be the classic volatile mix of heredity and upbringing.
Last September, Steve Powell, Josh’s father, was arrested and charged with child pornography and voyeurism. Josh and his sons were living with Steve Powell at the time, which prompted the court to take the boys away from Josh and put them in the custody of Susan’s parents, Chuck and Judy Cox.
But that was just the latest, most apparent display of Steven Powell’s personality disorder. Court documents from the 1992 divorce case of Steven and Terrica Powell indicate that Steven Powell had always been a sexual pervert, and taught his sons to disrespect women.
The documents also reveal that at 16, Josh Powell was already heading down the same path. He threatened his mother with a butcher knife. He killed his sister’s pet gerbil. He attempted suicide. And as Josh grew bigger and stronger, even Steven Powell admitted that he didn’t know how to handle his son.
Read: Divorce documents shed light on Josh Powell’s troubles, on SLTrib.com.
Here’s the point: Based on both documentary evidence of the past, and the abusive behavior Susan Powell disclosed to friends and relatives, Josh Powell was clearly a sociopath. It doesn’t matter how he became a sociopath. All that matters is that he was one.
Sociopaths and custody battles
So what does it mean when one party in a child custody battle is a sociopath? Here’s what courts and child protective agencies should know:
• Despite their proclamations to the contrary, sociopaths do not love their children. They view children as possessions, and they feel entitled to do what they want with their possessions.
• Sociopaths are accomplished actors. They are capable of keeping up a charade of appropriate, even loving, behavior, as long as it suits their purpose.
• In child custody disputes, sociopaths are not interested in the welfare of the children. They are only interested in winning.
• If sociopaths have been violent in the past, chances are good that they will be violent in the future.
• Sociopaths do not want to submit to authority. Some sociopaths would rather lash out violently than submit. Therefore, it seems to me that one of the most dangerous times in a child custody case is when a sociopath loses in court.
Losing a round
I don’t know everything that went on in the custody dispute between Josh Powell and Chuck and Judy Cox, the parents of his missing wife. But from the media reports, I see two glaring problems.
First of all, Josh Powell had just lost a round in the custody battle for his sons.
In a status hearing on February 1, 2012, the court was told that a psychologist who completed an evaluation of Josh believed he had made improvements in his life, because he no longer lived in his father’s home and had been cooperative with visitation requirements. Still, the psychologist had become aware of disturbing information about Josh, and had recommended a psychosexual evaluation. The judge ruled that Josh’s sons would remain with the Coxes, and he was ordered to undergo the evaluation, which would include a polygraph test.
Read Josh Powell to undergo psychosexual evaluation; 2 boys will remain with grandparents, on DeseretNews.com.
Yet the court made no changes to the visitation arrangements. Initially, when the Coxes were first awarded custody, Josh had to see his children at a secure childcare facility. But apparently, because of the notoriety of the Powell case, his visits became disruptive to other families, so Josh was allowed to have supervised visits in his home.
And who was the supervisor? She appeared on 20/20. Although she may have been nice, dependable and competent, she was also a middle-aged, out-of shape woman who would have been no match for a young man if things got ugly. Even Chuck Cox worried about her, and stated on TV that perhaps she should have had extra security with her.
The second glaring problem in this case: The court’s goal was to reunite the boys with their father.
The judge reaffirmed this goal in the last custody hearing. The case plan developed by Washington’s Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) was geared towards reunification of Josh Powell and his sons.
The question is: Why?
Josh Powell was the only “person of interest” in the disappearance of Susan Powell. Rumors were flying that he would soon be arrested for her murder. Josh was known to be abusive. Police in Utah had found disturbing information about him that caused them concern about the welfare of the children. The man was likely dangerous.
DSHS representatives were interviewed by Dori Monson of KIRO-FM radio in Seattle, Washington. They defended their actions and procedures. The bottom line? They were following court orders. Listen to the interview:
The main problem, at least in this case, appears to be that judges don’t comprehend how dangerous sociopaths can be, and how court decisions can turn deadly.
Many warnings were available in this case, but were not recognized and acted upon. Perhaps the biggest warnings were the gut feelings, the sense of dread, the intuitive fear, experienced by many, many people.
In the TV interviews, several friends and relatives of Susan Powell described being creeped out about Josh Powell. And both Judy and Chuck Cox, the grandparents, said that they had “bad feelings” before that last fateful visitation. Chuck wondered that perhaps the visit should be skipped. Judy felt the same way, but was worried that they’d “get in trouble” if they didn’t send the boys to their father.
Even the two boys didn’t want to see their father on February 5, 2012. But the grandparents did what they thought they should do. The boys went to see their father, and we all know what happened next.
I am not blaming the grandparents at all. They are heartbroken. But perhaps they should have risked “getting in trouble” and kept the boys home. I’m sure they wish they did.
Here’s what we all need to know: Our intuition is designed to protect us. Fear is our friend, and it is based on intuition. If we ever have a really bad feeling about anyone or anything, we should trust ourselves and take appropriate action to get away.
If the court really knew what sociopaths were capable of, and if many people had listened to their instincts, those boys might still be alive.
More about the case
Steve Downing, the lawyer for Chuck and Judy Cox, talked to local media about his impressions of Josh Powell. He is obviously describing a sociopath.