A high-profile case receives the most attention when the actions last taken are brought to the limelight. This is what happened after Josh Powell had orchestrated the premeditated murder of his two sons.
Law enforcement learned from school shootings and changed the way it responds. We took steps to understand such incidents. Lt Dan Marcou developed the theory of the Five Stages of the Active Shooter.
1. Fantasy Stage
2. Planning Stage
3. Preparation Stage
4. Approach Stage
5. Implementation Stage
We need to do the same with killers like Josh Powell. Until recently, little has been known about the qualities and the risk factors of so-called family annihilators, which is the category Powell falls under.
Family annihilators are overwhelmingly white and male. These killers fall into two types, the coercive/abusive killer and the so-called “civil reputable” type. Richard Gelles, Dean at UPenn’s School of Social Policy reports that these family annihilators are motivated by a sick sense of caring for their families. Gelles reports that, “his (the killer’s) entire identity is in his family.” From Powell’s twisted world view, he was protecting the remainder of his family from its disintegration when he was charged with his wife’s murder. Research indicates that family annihilators are increasing as the economy continues to stagnate.
Powell never should have been in a position to take on the role of a killer. He brutally murdered his children and committed suicide in sync with burning his house to the ground during a scheduled supervised visitation with his children. This incident is a new lesson to be learned by those entrusted to protect children from harm.
News coverage of the Powell’s premeditated murder of his sons, Charlie, age 7 and Braden, age 5 along with his suicide ended much like an active shooter incident typically ends. This concerns me. The one way to defeat the active shooter or in this case, Powell’s role as a family annihilator, is to defeat their efforts before the killing begins. The question in this case has to be, why was the visitation made in Powell’s home rather than a neutral location where the social worker could control the surroundings?
The 911 communication during this call is being investigated. As troubling as those communications appear, Charlie and Braden did not lose their lives because of the police department or the social worker. The boys lost their lives when Josh Powell slammed the door closed, denying the social worker entrance into the residence. Powell ensured he would not be overcome.
By the time the police were contacted, Powell was actively in the process of murdering his children. After Powell attempted to behead his sons, he ignited the gasoline. The house burned like an inferno. The social worker screamed, “He blew up the house!” Clearly, Powell ended things as planned. He took his sons and his home with him leaving nothing behind aside an apology for those who he has hurt.
Powell could not live without his sons. This was his perverted self-justification in taking their lives. Some of the reports say that the children were talking about the fact that “Daddy put Mommy in the trunk.” Now that they could speak more clearly, it would only be a matter of time before he’d be charged. Powell’s lone alternative (in his own mind) was to complete a double murder/suicide. It is not unreasonable to consider he did not want his children taken from him knowing in time they would learn he, in fact, murdered their mother. The discovery of a bedspread with Amy Powell’s blood on it in a storage shed after Powell’s death confirms his guilt.
Since 2009, when Powell reported his wife, Amy, missing, he has been a person of interest in her disappearance. Regarding the 911 communications released the telling phrase to me is when the social worker stated, “You don’t understand, he is on a very short leash!”
How could Powell have been stopped? In reviewing the Five Phases of the Active Shooter, a guide is available for consideration which may apply for another type of heinous crime, that of the family annihilator.
Fantasy is the first phase. Prior to any action taken by Powell, he had to fantasize about what to do and how to do it. He considered how the incident would be portrayed by the media. Powell had the answer. By voicemail communication, he told the world that he could not live without his children. He apologizes to anybody he hurt. His final word spoken would be “goodbye!” The fantasy phase leads to the planning phase.
Planning deals with deciding the best time and place to accomplish the task. In this case, what is more perfect than having your children brought to you at home? Powell would complete his killing within the comfort of his home. All Powell needed to determine at this time was what tools he would need to successfully complete the double murder of his sons, his suicide, and arson of his residence once shared with his missing wife, Amy.
As Powell decided upon the items he needed, he entered the preparation phase. He purchased gasoline containers, donated his children’s toys and books, and made a significant withdrawal from his bank account. Reportedly, this was done to have money outside his account available to cover expenses. He was prepared and ready to take action.
Routinely, in the case of an active shooter, the shooter approaches his intended targets. Powell’s actions were anything but routine. Powell’s children were brought to him.
The approach phase is in place when the active shooter is committed to following through as Powell did. He held the door of his residence open for his children and then slammed it closed to deny the social worker access. Everything was now in place.
Powell began the final stage, the implementation stage. He initiated his surprise at a time the police had yet to be contacted. The Powell children were locked in the house; the social worker was locked out. Powell leaves his voicemail. Charlie and Braden were then slaughtered and left for dead as the house exploded and burned to the ground. Powell has completed his task of annihilating his family.
Law enforcement did not have a chance to save Braden and Charlie. The actions of all the players will be reviewed, but the question will not be to address law enforcement’s failure to respond as much as it will have to do with what legislative action will be introduced to strengthen a child’s right to safety over a parent who is innocent until proven guilty.
Jim Gaffney, MPA is LET’s risk management /police administration contributor. He has served with a metro-New York police department for over 25 years in varying capacities including patrol officer, sergeant, lieutenant, and executive officer. He is an ILEETA and ICAP member. Jim mentors the next generation of LEO’s by teaching university-level criminal justice courses as an adjunct professor in the New York City area.
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