Kitsap County writer Gregg Olsen made his bones writing true crime books, but more recently turned his attention to fiction, authoring several novels and one novella.
Olsen, who’s written nonfiction accounts of Washington criminals Ted Bundy and Mary Kay Letourneau among others, had no intention of turning back.
“I was thinking it was going to take a really good crime story to make me want to write a true-crime book again because it takes so much effort,” Olsen told The News Tribune, The Olympian’s sister paper. “I mean it’s multiple, multiple interviews. It’s trying to get everything right when you don’t have all the answers, and putting it all together in a narrative that will make the reader turn the page even when they know the outcome.”
One of Pierce County’s most notorious crimes pulled him back.
The story of missing Utah mother Susan Cox Powell, a Puyallup native, and the murder of her young sons at the hands of her husband, Josh Powell, in Pierce County in 2012 was too much to resist, Olsen said.
“This story is a really good example of the perfect storm of true crime,” Olsen said. “You have a very attractive victim in Susan. You have her adorable little boys. And there’s a family — a family coming undone by this circumstance that nobody could foresee how far it would go.”
The book, “If I Can’t Have You: Susan Powell, Her Mysterious Disappearance, and the Murder of Her Children,” which Olsen wrote with Rebecca Morris, went on sale last week.
The authors will join Susan Powell’s father, one of her sisters and family attorney Anne Bremner on Friday at Puyallup’s Pioneer Park Pavilion for a panel discussion on the case.
Olsen sat down with The News Tribune to discuss his book.
Q: What is it about true crime that attracts you as a writer?
A: I’m a mystery buff. I like a crime story that has a bit of a mystery to it, and when it is rooted in reality, it just really draws me in and makes me want to find out whodunit, or whydunit.
Then, as you’re writing it, you get drawn in by the people, and you make real connections with people who are going through extraordinary things, and sometimes tragic things, and you can’t help but want to support them by doing a really good book. …
And it gives you a passport into weirdness sometimes, and that’s appealing. You get invited into someone’s mansion or their mobile home … and they spill their guts and tell you their deepest, darkest secrets.
Q: Why do you think the Susan Powell story resonates so much with people?
A: The appeal of her story is it’s a genuine mystery. We don’t know what happened to Susan. But what we do know is she was sucked into a situation for which there was really no hope, and she was victimized by her relationship with her husband and his family for many, many years, and she kept it private.
When you look at her, she’s the All-American girl. She’s beautiful, and she could be your sister or your wife or, in my case, your daughter. You can’t help but be drawn to that image of that woman who is smiling in every single photograph. It’s heartbreaking.
The other part is Steven Powell (Josh Powell’s father), and his obsession with Susan and his constant documentation of his interest in her and his desire for her, his nattering like a schoolgirl over what she was thinking of him. … I mean it went on for thousands and thousands of pages. I’ve never seen anything like it. Can you imagine how much time that took?
Q: How did you go about researching the book?
A: Rebecca Morris did a lot of legwork. She went down to Utah and interviewed all the women down there who were close friends of Susan’s, which really helped the story. And then we conducted interviews here in Washington state, and we had a vast resource of documents — I don’t even know, 100,000 pages or more.
And we spent a lot of time with the Coxes (Susan Powell’s family). They were very, very helpful and forthcoming. It’s cliche to say, but they were an open book. They really did want us to do the story right. They were grateful that somebody was going to get in there and dig a little deeper.
Q: What did you find about the case that hasn’t already been reported?
A: It’s really on the personal side. There’s so much about Susan as a person and her friends and her life that gives her complexity and gives you a peek behind that beautiful smile. …
And there’s a lot about the boys (Charlie, 7, and Braden, 5), too, and how they were acting and reacting during the custody fight. There were some serious problems there that Chuck and Judy (Cox) had to deal with, and, when you read the book, you’ll be right there with them. How do we help these boys? And, of course, there is no help for them.
And West Valley City (Utah) police did apologize. That’s one of the big revelations in the book. They did apologize to Chuck that they made a mistake. They should have arrested Josh.
Q: What do you think happened to Susan?
A: The police think Josh’s brother Michael was involved. That’s the latest theory, of course.
But we don’t know. It is a little bit like the JonBenet Ramsey kind of a case in that we’re never going to know what happened. There will be theories for years to come, but I do have hope that some day we’ll hear the truth.
And I know if we do, it will come from Steve, because I think Steve does know something. I mean, he ruled that roost. He was in charge of those boys, even the one that escaped, Michael. He was the one that pushed the buttons to make things happen.
We didn’t get a chance to see Steve while we were writing the book. He was in prison (on voyeurism convictions) most of that time. We wrote to him, but we didn’t get a chance to do that interview.
Q: How do you feel about the way the book turned out?
A: Well, it’s unsatisfying to me when I really don’t know the answer as to what happened to Susan, that it’s going to take more than me and my research and Rebecca running around trying to dig up the truth when it just can’t be found. That will always bother me about this book. It was not the ending that I wanted.
But I’m proud of it, because I do think that as much (news) coverage as there’s been about Susan, I think when you read it as a narrative in this book you really get a sense of the person, and that’s all you can ask for.”
If you go
What: Panel discussion about the case of missing Utah mother and Puyallup native Susan Cox Powell. Panelists will include authors of a recent book on the case, Powell’s sister and father, and family attorney Anne Bremner.
When: 7 p.m. Friday.
Where: Pioneer Park Pavilion, 330 S. Meridian in Puyallup.
Tickets: Free tickets can be picked up in advance at the Puyallup Public Library, 324 S. Meridian. Limit is two tickets per person.