From news accounts, Josh Powell saw his world closing in and his ability to continue to dodge charges of uxoricide shrinking more and more. The media and his in-laws were hounding him as the most likely suspect in the disappearance and presumed murder of his wife, Susan. His alibi strained credulity. Why would one parent take two toddlers camping in freezing weather on the day of his wife’s disappearance? More recently, in-laws were claiming that Powell’s children were starting to verbalize damning clues of skullduggery, with the elder son referring to that fateful camping trip as one in which mommy traveled in the trunk before disappearing. Even a judge denied Powell’s petition to gain child custody, opting instead for supervised visitation. So Powell prepared for this event by saying goodbye to his lawyer in an e-mail and by slamming the door on the contract social worker who came along to supervise what was the last visit Powell would have with these children. The contract worker, in reporting this surprise to her boss and 911 also said she smelled gas. Moments later, the residence exploded in flames, taking the lives of Powell and the two children.
It is now a moot point to argue that Powell murdered his wife and, seeing authorities steadily closing in and his children about to be taken away permanently, added the murder of his children to his ignominy. However, one of the first stories to carry this news also carried with it Powell’s own words which should have sent not only red flags but signal flares highlighting deception from Powell’s statement half a year ago issued in apparent denial of having murdered his spouse. The statement in question appeared only in an early Associated Press story, but not in subsequent news clippings focusing on the death of these children. What was it and what were the telltale indicators of deception?
The Damning Denials
"I would never even hurt her," a tearful, red-eyed Josh Powell told CBS' Early Show in August. "People who know me know that I could never hurt Susan." (Available on February 5, 2012 at http://m.apnews.com/ap/db_16026/contentdetail.htm?contentguid=QvhbZOTV
Indicators of Deception
First, note how Powell did not directly deny having actually injured or even killed his wife Susan at a given point in time. Instead, he appeared to have answered a direct question or accusation with a policy statement and then amplified it with an implied testimonial. The policy statement is a deceiver’s tactic to avoid the stress of replying to a direct question by shifting the conversation to theoretical terms. This is like hearing someone who fears malaria and has just swatted a handful of mosquitoes tell an animal-rights activist that he “would never hurt a fly.” The theoretical “would never” position is far removed from an explicit, “did not do it” kind of denial.
Second, innocent people do not need to summon character references before stating categorically that they did not inflict harm. However, when a trust betrayer gratuitously calls on unidentified “people who know me” to testify to his character, this represents another indicator of deception.
Finally, note how even this testimonial lacks the strength of specificity or of a clear alibi, such as one would expect of actual witnesses who can account for the deceiver’s movements at a particular time and place. Instead, by saying such “people” can only attest that Powell “could never hurt” his wife, vagueness again replaces specificity. How can any outsider “know” whether one person “could” hurt another, unless the first person is disabled and physically incapable of doing so? Again, this is a sign of deception and the kind of attempt to avoid an outright denial while redirecting the focus of questions elsewhere. Deceivers consistently use such tactics for two reasons: (a) avoiding the stress of a direct denial and the probing questions that might accompany it, and (b) avoiding the chance of falling into a trap where they worry about what investigators or witnesses may have discovered and therefore do not want to dwell on topics of location, time, and circumstances where prolonged discussion could result in giving themselves away.
When dealing of a trust betrayer of the worst kind in a critical situation that shows every sign of being a matter of life or death, it is important to anticipate the worst case. Authorities were closing in on Josh Powell, and he knew it. His in-laws were keeping up enough pressure to keep alive negative press. There were no other suspects. Anyone schooled in the detection of deception could see that Powell was at least being deceptive about the circumstances of his wife’s disappearance. As the wheels of the justice system rolled cautiously forward, the concern for making an unshakeable case for a successful murder conviction probably resulted in a self-donning of blinders to the ramifications of waiting to make the perfect case for prosecution. Hindsight is always easier to invoke, but it would have been an act of common sense and bureaucratic courage to weigh the signs of deception and keep those kids out of the reach of Josh Powell when the latter had nothing to lose and every sign of homicidal and suicidal tendencies. In retrospect, any visitation should have been at a controlled facility with Powell fully searched and supervision provided by armed and able-bodied police capable of intervening before Powell could inflict harm on defenseless innocents.
-- Nick Catrantzos