An Interview with Josh Powell’s Psychologist

Kirk Honda, M.A., LMFT

July 12, 2013

.

Dr. James Manley was initially a guest on my podcast, The Psychology In Seattle Podcast (Honda, 2011), during which I interviewed him regarding his forensic work in Washington State.  Later, in 2012, Dr. Manley asked to come back on the podcast to talk about his involvement with Joshua Powell.  This paper provides detail and commentary on that 2012 interview.

The Murder-Suicide

According to Baker and Johnson of the Associated Press (2012) and KIROTV.com (2012), on February 5, 2012, Josh Powell sent several suicide notes to friends and relatives.  He then drenched his house in gasoline as a social worker was bringing Powell’s sons, Braden and Charlie, to Powell’s house in Graham, Washington, for what was to be one of Powell's several supervised visits that month.  Even though the social worker was supposed to supervise the visit, as she had done before, Powell took his sons into the house, pushed her back, slammed the door in her face, and locked the door.  Powell injured and disabled his sons with a hatchet.  Powell then ignited the gasoline and the house exploded, killing himself and his two sons.

The Podcast Interview

The following account is from Dr. James Manley’s interview on The Psychology In Seattle Podcast (Honda, 2012) in which he revealed information about his work with Joshua Powell.  After consulting with the Attorney General and the American Psychological Association regarding confidentiality and ethics, Manley decided to tell the public the facts he knew about the events that led up to the murder-suicide to mitigate media misunderstandings.

Susan Powell’s disappearance. Prior to working with Manley, Powell had been identified as the only person of interest in the disappearance of Powell’s wife, Susan Powell, who disappeared on December 7, 2009.  Even though the authorities had evidence of Josh Powell’s involvement in Susan’s disappearance (e.g., Susan’s note in a safe deposit box stating “If I die, it may not be an accident, even if it looks like one” (Vedder, 2013)), the authorities apparently concluded they did not have enough evidence to charge Josh Powell with murder.  Thirty days after Susan’s disappearance, Josh and his two sons moved in with his father, Steven Powell, in Puyallup, Washington, where Josh had spent his teenage years.  To this day, Susan’s disappearance remains unsolved.

DSHS concerns. The Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) in Washington State was concerned for the health, safety and welfare of the two sons because Powell was a person of interest in Susan’s disappearance, and the boys made odd statements such as (paraphrased) “The Mormons are going to kill us” and “I know how to bury an animal in desert where no one could find it.”  DSHS was also concerned because Josh seemed loyal to his father, Steven Powell, who, at that time, was charged with voyeurism and possessing child pornography and was therefore a potential threat to the children.  Due to these concerns, DSHS removed the boys from Powell’s care in September, 2011, placing the boys temporarily with Susan’s parents, and proceeded with a dependency action. 

Parenting evaluation. Since Dr. James Manley is an expert, having completed approximately 500 such assessments, he received a referral from DSHS to evaluate Josh Powell’s parenting and mental health.  Manley interviewed Powell twice for a total of eight hours.  Manley administered measures of personality (PAI), intelligence (WAIS-IV), and parenting (parenting stress and the potential for child abuse).  Manley found Powell to be defensive during the interviews.  The test results also showed defensiveness.  However, Manley found no elevations on the PAI, meaning the personality test did not detect any psychopathology.  Powell’s IQ tested at 128, which is higher than about 97% of the population.

Manley interviewed Powell regarding his history.  He learned that: 1) Powell was a successful computer software contractor; 2) his parents went through a highly polarized divorce when Powell was a young teen; 3) Powell was in therapy for self-destructive tendencies as a teen; 4) Powell attempted suicide as a teen; 5) Powell denied experiencing any abuse, sexual or physical, as a child; 6) Powell had no substance abuse background; 7) Powell had no domestic violence background; and 8) Powell had no history of violence or maltreatment of this children.

Since the standard protocol is to follow the forensic interview with a parenting observation, Manley observed Powell and his two sons during two of the supervised parenting visitation sessions, one of which was at the house of the murder-suicide.  Manley observed that: 1) the sons seemed happy to be with their father; 2) the boys were not exhibiting fear or apprehension; 3) Powell had a good rapport with the boys; 4) they interacted like a normal family; 5) Powell was appropriately vigilant about the boys’ safety; 6) Powell did a good job parenting his kids; and 7) he clearly loved his children and they loved him.  However, Manley also observed that Powell subtly tried to control his children, which was Manley’s only concern.

During the podcast interview, Manley recalled feeling anxious, troubled, and fascinated with Powell.  Manley recalled being preoccupied with the disappearance of Susan Powell which led to Manley having trouble staying focused on the referral question – Powell’s parenting capacity.  Dr. Manley reported being suspicious that Powell had something to do with Susan’s disappearance, but Manley knew it was not his job to investigate that issue.

Manley then completed his report but did not submit it because the Utah police communicated they were going to send information about Josh Powell possessing child pornography.  Manley waited as long as he could but the information was not received, so he submitted his report at the next court hearing without the child pornography information.  Manley reported to the court that: 1) Powell had basic, solid parenting skills; 2) aside from some traits of narcissism, Powell had no mental health problems; 3) Powell was defensive during the forensic assessment which was not unusual for a parenting assessment; and 4) Powell was a bit overbearing and needed to let his children have more autonomy.  Even though Manley had suspicions of Josh Powell being involved in Susan’s disappearance, he did not comment on it because: 1) there was no direct evidence linking Josh to her disappearance, 2) Josh was not charged with a crime, and 3) it was not within the scope of the parenting evaluation for Manley to speculate. 

A court hearing was set for the week of February 6, 2012, in which it was expected that additional parental rights would be given to Powell since he was compliant with the system and since the parenting evaluation did not find any major concerns.  Based on how things were progressing, it would have been reasonable for Powell to assume his sons would soon be permanently placed with him and the whole matter would soon be over.  However, this expectation was altered by the discovery of cartoon incest pornography on Powell’s computer in Utah.

Cartoon incest pornography. After that important court hearing, the Utah authorities sent the images from Josh Powell’s computer to Dr. Manley.  The pictures were depictions of cartoon characters involved in incest, such as Bart Simpson and his mother having sex.  (During the podcast interview, Manley stated that in Washington State, it is not illegal to possess such pictures since the legal definition of child pornography does not include drawings, only photographs.)  Manley then interviewed Powell on the phone and asked for Powell’s comment on the depictions of incest.  Powell denied having knowledge of the existence of the pictures on his computer, and he speculated that a houseguest might have downloaded those pictures without his knowledge.

After this phone interview, on February 1, 2012, Dr. Manley submitted his recommendation that Powell participate in a psychosexual evaluation by a sex offender treatment provider which typically involves an in-depth sexual history interview and a polygraph test.  Manley speculates that Powell may have been concerned about potential discoveries of the polygraph, prompting Powell to take severe action before the court hearing scheduled the following week. 

Murder-suicide. On February 5, 2012, based on the evidence gathered afterward, it appears Powell emptied his bank accounts, sent a number of suicide notes via email, spread gasoline around his house, and waited for the arrival of his sons.  When they arrived, he pushed the social worker out of the house and struck the children with a hatchet on the head and neck.  Powell then ignited the gasoline, and the house exploded, ending the lives of Charlie, Braden, and himself.

The Utah police then dispensed additional information related to the case of Susan Powell’s disappearance.  For example, the Utah police did not notify Dr. Manley or the Washington authorities about the presence of blood in the carpet of the Powell home until after the murder-suicide.  This raises the question as to whether this information would have helped in preventing the murder-suicide.

The aftermath. Upon reflection of the murder-suicide, Manley concluded that Powell had a narcissistic personality based on the following data: 1) Powell’s vehement and intense reaction to the accusations made by Susan’s parents and the media; 2) Powell did not protect his sons from his opinions such as “the Mormons are going to kills us”; 3) Powell was mainly focused on himself, 4) he exhibited controlling and narcissistic behaviors during the family visits; and 5) in the absence of mental illness, anyone who commits a cold and calculated murder-suicide must have an abnormal personality.  Manley speculates that due to Powell’s narcissistic personality, Powell considered his children as extensions of himself and could not live without them.  Powell may have thought the polygraph would discover facts that would result in his children being permanently taken away from him, so he preemptively killed them instead.

During the podcast interview, Manley told me these events have greatly impacted him.  He said, “I was struck down over the horror.”  During the first week after the incident he had trouble sleeping due to a persistent visualization of the hatchet injuries.  He said, “Emotionally, as a forensic psychologist, it has impacted me by being more conservative. In other words, I’m looking far more closely at the parents.”  He also said all the involved professionals (i.e., DSHS, family court, etc.) wanted the children to thrive, so the murder-suicide had greatly impacted them as well.

Manley told me about his efforts to recover from the event.  He said it helps to talk about it.  It also helped to attend the funeral.  He plans on writing a case study so that other such cases can be prevented.  He said he wants other psychologists to learn from his experiences.  He wants us clinicians to not underestimate what troubled clients might do when they are stressed and cornered. 

Conclusion

From my knowledge of forensic psychology, I can see myself making similar decisions as Manley.  Also, I can see myself feeling similarly horrified by the murder-suicide.  If I were him, I would wonder if I could have prevented it.  I would wonder if I catalyzed the murder-suicide by recommending the psychosexual evaluation. 

But then I ask myself: What else could Manley have done?  Josh Powell was merely a person of interest in the disappearance of his wife – without a conviction or some other indication of guilt, Manley could not use this as the basis for a recommendation to separate Powell from his children.  Also, under close and careful observation, Powell exhibited adequate parenting skills and his sons enjoyed his company.  There was no indication that Powell would later murder his children and commit suicide. 

DSHS followed the standard, prescribed procedure for such cases by involving family court and requiring assessments, counseling, and other services.  Numerous families move through the family court system every day without incident.  Dr. Manley’s forensic assessment procedure and practice are consistent with standards and recommendations found in established forensic psychology texts such as Archer (2006), Benjamin and Gollan (2003), Jackson (2008), and Melton, Petrila, Poythress, and Slobogin (1997).

I hope Jim has friends and family who can support him and help him recover from this horrifying trauma.  And I hope he does not blame himself since it appears to me that he did all he could for those children.

References

Archer, R. P. (2006), Forensic uses of clinical assessment instruments. Mahwah, N.J: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.

Baker, M. & Johnson, G. (2012). Josh Powell, 2 sons killed in house explosion. Retrieved on May 24, 2013 at http://www.ksl.com/index.php?nid=148&sid=19132089&title=3-die-in-powell-home-explosion-family-says

Benjamin, G. A. H., & Gollan, J. K. (2003). Family evaluation in custody litigation: Reducing risks of ethical infractions and malpractice. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Honda, K. (2011). Psychopathy, Sociopathy, Antisocial. Retrieved on May 27, 2013 at https://psychologyinseattle.squarespace.com/2011-episodes/

Honda, K. (2012). An interview with Josh Powell’s psychologist. Retrieved on May 24, 2013 at https://psychologyinseattle.squarespace.com/episodes/

Jackson, R. (2008). Learning forensic assessment. New York: Routledge.

KIROTV.com (2012). Police piecing together timeline of Powell’s movements before explosion. Retrieved on

May 24, 2013 at http://www.kirotv.com/news/news/crime-law/police-piecing-together-timeline-powells-movements/nHZKB/

Melton, G. B., Petrila, J., Poythress, N. G., & Slobogin, C. (1997). Psychological evaluations for the courts: A handbook for mental health professionals and lawyers (2nd Ed.). New York: Guilford Press.

Vedder, T. (2013). Chilling video Susan Powell made before disappearance released. Retrieved on May 27, 2013 at http://www.komonews.com/news/local/Police-release-chilling-video-Susan-Powell-made-before-disappearance-208583251.html?tab=video&c=y