Dave Cawley has covered everything from presidents on Air Force One to a guy walking across the country with his pet goat during his journalism career. But there is one assignment he says can’t be compared to anything else.
In December of 2009, 28-year-old Susan Powell went missing from her home in West Valley City. To this day, she has never been found. Her husband, Josh Powell, ended up killing himself and their two little boys a few years later in 2012. Josh was never arrested, and it’s believed that he likely took the answer to where Susan is to his grave.
Cawley started reporting on the Powell case as early as 2010 when he was working for Utah radio station KNRS. Cawley’s interactions with the Powell case back then consisted of phone interviews with people like Susan’s parents and some conversations with West Valley Police.
In 2013, the West Valley Police Department gave a 30-gigabyte flash drive to Cawley saying that the Powell case had gone cold. Cawley said as he looked through the flash drive he quickly noticed that there was a lot of information that had never been disclosed to the public.
Cawley took the flash drive and ran with it. “The news just kind of moved on after that, but Dave didn’t move on,” said Keira Farrimond, one of Cawley’s colleagues at KSL. “He looked at every single document in there, and there were thousands.”
The idea for a podcast
The extensive reporting on this case started for Cawley in 2015 when he went to a conference called IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors). “I was listening to a newspaper reporter talk about how she turned her investigative story into a podcast,” Cawley said. “It was kind of this lightbulb moment for me where, as somebody who worked in radio I thought, ‘Wait a minute, I’ve got an incredible story that I know has a lot of rich audio that will help bring it alive.'”
Cawley had never done a podcast before, but he saw potential in this story and he had a lot of elements to add to it. When he approached his boss, Sheryl Worsley, director of audience development at KSL, she was in favor of the idea but saw a problem with the time and resources. He was told he needed to continue producing the afternoon news segment and reporting on-air every day, so with his full schedule there just wouldn’t be time to start a podcast.
Instead of dropping it, Cawley started investigating on his own. “I would do my full time, eight- to ten-hour day, come home, have dinner, and then I would sit down and start working on it at home,” Cawley said. He did this from 2016 to 2018, when KSL ultimately offered him a job to do it full time.
Cawley worked on this project day and night for years. “He and I did a lot of really late night digging through the case file, just looking for elements,” Farrimond said. “He is so smart, and he doesn’t stop.”
When people ask Cawley how many total hours he has spent on the project, he doesn’t know how to answer. “Do you count all the hours when you say, I’m out for a run and what’s going through my mind is ‘OK, I’m working over things in the case?'” Cawley said.
Throughout his career as a journalist, Cawley said he had tried to leave things at work at the end of the day and put it away, but working on the Powell case and “Cold” project was different for him.
“It really became all-consuming,” Cawley said. For a few months when the podcast was first released, Cawley was working 10 to 12 hours a day because of the demands of production. “I literally had no other life beyond ‘Cold’ for that period of time,” he said. “I completely lost track of how much time I spent.”
“Cold” launched in November 2018. “On the first day of release, Cold appeared not just in the top 100, but in the top 10,” Cawley said.
By the afternoon of the first episode’s launch day, it had reached the number one position on the podcast charts. “I was stunned and humbled,” he said.
Worsley said they anticipated it would do well, but it did a lot better than anyone expected. “I expected it to do well locally, and it did excellent locally,” Worsley said. “We were hoping to be in the top 100, we were ecstatic when it hit number three, and it blew our minds when it hit number one.”
Cawley said he hates to call it a favorite, but working on “Cold” has definitely been the most fulfilling project of his entire 17-year career.
“The process of putting this podcast together has taught me so much,” Cawley said. “It has given me a lot of confidence in my ability to take voluminous amounts of information and data and parse that to stand up and report facts that might be unpopular.”
Although he hadn’t had any training in digital forensics, Cawley started working with professional digital forensics experts. As a result, he was able to do a very detailed review of digital data that was taken in the case and find information that had not been found previously.
“The investigatory side of digging into large stories, I find to be very gratifying,” Cawley said. “When you are uncovering information that is not known publicly, and you have the ability to drag that information into the light, that for me personally is very gratifying.”
Cawley said he discovered Susan’s case was a story about domestic abuse, non-violent forms of domestic abuse, coercive control and financial control. “For me, it became an opportunity to dive into the larger social issues around the story, not just a drama of cops and killers and some of these tropes that I think kind of fill this true crime genre,” he said.
But where is Susan, or Susan’s body, and will it ever be found? Although Cawley can’t say for sure, he said he’s seen stranger things happen. He said bodies being found years later can happen, but it usually happens on accident when someone stumbles upon it.
“I think, sadly, that is probably what will end up happening with Susan,” Cawley said. “If she’s to be found, it will likely be just a random happenstance occurrence.”
Cawley is now working full-time on season two of “Cold.” It’s a different case this time, but he’s continuing to focus on the theme of domestic abuse and other themes related to Susan’s case.
After evaluating over one hundred cases, tips and requests, Cawley and his team settled on a case for season two. “We’re not publicly disclosing it at this point,” he said. “It was one that nobody had suggested, and in my personal view it’s a story that has not been well-told anywhere.”
Worsley said Cawley is probably the best crime reporter she has on staff. “If he wants to figure something out, he’s going to figure it out,” she said. “I have every confidence in him. He’s always surprising me, and just when you think you’ve figured everything out about a case, Dave finds more.”