What Happened to Susan Powell?

updated 06/07/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/07/2010 AT 01:00 AM EDT

Each morning before heading off to her job as an assistant at a brokerage firm, Susan Cox Powell would leave her two young sons with a daycare provider in West Valley City, Utah. So when Susan, 28, neither made the drop-off on Dec. 7 nor called to say that Charlie, 5, and Braden, 3, would be absent that day, the provider phoned, then drove to the Powell house and, after knocking in vain, dialed the number on Susan's daycare contact card. "My mom and I hurried over and pounded on the door," says Jennifer Graves, Susan's sister-in-law. "Nobody was there." Alarmed, they summoned the police, who, she says, "broke a window and went in," finding Susan's cell phone, purse and keys-but no trace of Susan. Graves, meanwhile, repeatedly dialed Susan's husband, Josh, and left frantic messages on his cell phone. That evening, when he finally got back to her, she says, "he was like, 'I have no idea where Susan is.' "

Six months later Susan's loved ones fear the worst. As police, rescuers and former military personnel continue to search for the good-natured mom, suspicion swirls around Josh, 34, whom police have identified as a "person of interest." Josh is offering little beyond telling police he last saw Susan right before he took off with his two sons around 12:30 a.m. on Dec. 7 to go snow-camping. His lawyer did not respond to PEOPLE's requests to comment for this story. "We would love to talk to Joshua," says local police captain Tom McLachlan, "but he's still refusing to speak to us." So far cops have collected a sample of Josh's blood for DNA testing and, armed with warrants, removed boxes and a computer from the Powell house and impounded the blue minivan Josh drove the night of Susan's disappearance.

Among the many questions police, Susan's family and friends and members of her Mormon congregation want answered: Did Josh really take his sons camping on that frigid, snowy night? "You want me to believe my daughter let Josh take those boys out at night in a snowstorm?" Charles Cox, 55, Susan's father, told PEOPLE. "I'm not buying it." And why, after a stressful months-long period of unemployment, did Josh play hooky from his new computer-programming job in Salt Lake City? (Soon after, he was fired.) Why did Josh rent a car two days after Susan's disappearance, then clock several hundred miles on the odometer? And why has he moved back with the boys to his childhood home of Puyallup, Wash., instead of staying in Utah to look for his wife (see box)? "I want to yell at him, 'Help us find her!' " says Susan's friend Jennie Hansen. "His actions, even if he is innocent, make him look guilty."

Talk in their middle-class neighborhood centers on the Powells' nine-year marriage. "Josh and Susan's relationship was adversarial," says Shelby Gifford, a Cox family spokeswoman. "She was subject to a great deal of control on a daily basis." On at least one occasion, Gifford alleges, Josh became physically abusive, though police were never called. Even when they were dating, says Susan's sister Denise Gordon, Josh kept Susan on a tight leash, forbidding her from walking down the aisle with the groom's 12-year-old nephew at Gordon's wedding. "He had a problem with Susan holding his arm," she says. After Susan's 2001 marriage, Gifford says, Josh would secretly change the PIN on their joint bank account and held on to her car keys. Friends say Susan, a licensed cosmetologist who at one point worked at a local salon, was allowed to buy just one bottle of hair product at a time and had to get Josh's approval to buy groceries.

While some of Susan's loved ones discount such tightfistedness as the toll of the economic downturn, which forced the Powells into bankruptcy in 2007, they are less willing to dismiss other aspects of Josh's behavior. An affectionate, observant Mormon when he married Susan after a five-month courtship in Puyallup, he had stopped going to church regularly over the past five years and would turn casual conversation into heated political debates. "He was constantly trying to bait people into an argument," says Susan's friend Kiirsi Hellewell, who adds that Susan had confided, "Josh wasn't the person she'd married, and she wanted that guy back." According to Gifford, Susan told some family members and friends that if things didn't improve with Josh, she would take steps to end the marriage by their April 6 anniversary. Whether Josh was aware of this, "we don't know," Gifford says.

But Josh's father, Steven Powell, and his brother Michael deny allegations that Josh had changed or was controlling and abusive toward his wife. "There's no basis to any of the stuff they're saying. It's just a bunch of baloney,'' said Michael. And there were indications things were looking up for the couple. They were in marriage counseling-"Susan went more than Josh," Hellewell says-and some strains appeared to ease last fall after both landed jobs. "It wasn't better better, but it was going that way," Susan's mom, Judy Cox, told PEOPLE. "He had a full-time job; they were paying their bills." Another positive sign: "Josh was coming to church again and being more friendly," Hellewell says.

Josh's father told PEOPLE that his son and the Powell family are devastated. "This tragedy has undone our lives," he said in e-mailed comments. He sees nothing odd about his son's return home. Without an income, Josh has been unable to make payments on the Utah house and wants to protect his young boys from the "spooky spectacle" of reporters camped on their doorstep. Nor does he think it odd that Josh took his sons camping in a snowstorm. That outing, he says, is "identical to a campout Josh described to me a year ago."

He also supports his son's decision to remain silent, given what he says transpired during Josh's conversation with police the night after Susan's disappearance. "The 'interview' turned into a marathon interrogation of about 10 hours," Steven says. "He told them everything he knew." Steven suggests Susan may have left for "a fling or respite" and asks why police haven't looked at other possible suspects. "I have seen Josh cry in frustration because he is praying for her safe return," he says. Josh's friend Wayne Hamberg says Josh is innocent and "he's emotionally drained, and everybody's attacking him."

Until the mystery of Susan's disappearance is solved, the ping-pong charges are likely to escalate. "There is a lot of tension, a lot of concern," says Larry Richman, bishop of the West Valley City church where Susan and Josh attended services. Meanwhile, Gifford says, Susan's family has begun to contemplate the agonizing possibility she may never come home. "There's a fine line between hoping she'll walk through the door and preparing ourselves for the reality she won't," Gifford says. "I don't want to say we don't have hope. You have to in order to endure this."

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