There are lots of reasons to be happy these days. The economy is rumbling back to life, the lottery is kicking out millions to several lucky folks and Spring, finally, is in the air. I doubt any of that will help the mood of Buzz Nielsen, the police chief in West Valley City, Utah.
Nielsen’s department spent a great deal of time, energy and resources on the Susan Powell disappearance. Detectives conducted a painstaking crime scene investigation. They traced potential sites to find her body. Then they searched each location with shovels, dogs and determination. The intent of their efforts was to provide that final piece of the puzzle and wrap up the case against Susan Powell’s husband, Joshua.
That was how Chief Nielsen portrayed the department’s investigative efforts in an interview this week. As we already know, to our utter dismay, Josh Powell beat them to the punch.
In my last column I expressed the view I believe most people now hold: The recently released evidence against Josh Powell was more than enough to arrest and likely convict him for the murder of his wife. As such, West Valley City’s police department owed the Cox family, and a concerned community, an explanation for their decision to allow Josh Powell to remain a free man. With media pressure building, Chief Nielsen finally provided it.
As many surmised, his investigators made the decision to hold off on the arrest until her body was found. This discovery, as tragic as it would be, would bring closure to the family and stack the legal deck against Josh Powell.
As it turned out, this was an all-or-nothing gambit in which the cops and prosecutors in Utah were the definitive losers. Despite the reports from the court, psychiatrists and child protection workers that Josh Powell’s behavior was an increasing cause for concern, Utah authorities continued to press on with their game plan.
It was a difficult decision. Had West Valley City cops made a quick arrest, the possibility of a plea bargain or acquittal – due to insufficient evidence – was at least conceivable. In that event the scrutiny would have been just as focused as the microscope through which their actions are currently being viewed. Fair or not, that is how it plays out sometimes.
Chief Nielsen’s game plan allowed for one tragic error – it gave Josh Powell the opportunity to be himself, a sociopathic killer intent on bending reality around his selfish needs. As a result the field of battle, such as it was, is littered with losers. The West Valley City Police Department (despite a well-orchestrated investigation) took a hit to their reputation; the affected communities lost a little faith in law enforcement; the family and friends of Susan, Charlie and Braden Powell lost a loved one. And most importantly, three innocent people lost their lives to a sociopathic killer.
It is obvious that Chief Nielsen and the West Valley City Police Department worked with passion and diligence in order to solve the Susan Powell case. It is also clear that mistakes were made. Admitting that fact would be a noble gesture.