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Originally published February 8, 2012 at 10:57 AM | Page modified February 9, 2012 at 2:18 PM

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Agency set to investigate handling of 911 call about Josh Powell

The Pierce County Sheriff's Department says a dispatcher's extensive questioning of a caseworker who tried to summon help to Josh Powell's home was inappropriate.

Seattle Times staff reporters

New time, location for boys' funeral

The funeral for Braden and Charlie Powell has been moved to a larger church. It's now scheduled for 11 a.m. Saturday at Life Center Church, 1717 S. Union Ave., Tacoma. A private family interment will take place on Monday at Woodbine Cemetery in Puyallup.

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The Pierce County Sheriff's Department is unhappy with the way a 911 call taker handled a call from the caseworker who tried to summon deputies to Josh Powell's home in the agonizing minutes before he killed his children and himself.

The caseworker's call resulted in nearly seven minutes of questioning by the call taker — who even asked how to spell Powell's name — and about one additional minute before Pierce County sheriff's deputies were dispatched. A short time later, the Graham house erupted in flames, killing everyone inside.

"We're not happy with the way that (call taker) is bantering (with the caseworker)," sheriff's spokesman Sgt. Ed Troyer said Wednesday. "We understand that could have been handled better."

But more than twice that time elapsed between the time deputies were dispatched and their arrival at the home.

According to the sheriff's office, the caseworker called 911 at 12:08 p.m. Deputies weren't dispatched until 12:16 p.m.

The recordings of the 911 call didn't make clear when deputies were dispatched. Emergency-call logs obtained by The AP show that apparently happened about a minute after the caseworker's call ended.

It wasn't until 12:29 p.m. that deputies arrived at the home, which by then was in flames.

It's not known if a quicker response could have saved the boys, who were attacked with a hatchet before Powell set fire to the home.

Troyer said the call was dispatched to deputies as routine. Deputies weren't told that the home belonged to Powell or that the caseworker had smelled gasoline, he said.

Had they been given that information, and had the call been deemed a priority call, he estimated the deputies could have shaved about five minutes from their response time. Troyer said additional time could also have been saved had the call taker handled the 911 call differently.

Tom Orr, who directs the Law Enforcement Support Agency, where the call taker works, said Wednesday the agency will investigate how the call was handled and determine whether any changes in procedure or discipline are necessary.

"We will investigate all aspects of this incident, and if there is a need to refine our processes (as we do continually) we will do so," Orr said in a statement. "If there is a need to investigate from a disciplinary perspective and assign individual responsibility, we will do that as well."

Orr's statement added: "What happened with this call first comes to us blindly on the other side of a phone; it is only in hindsight that we see things that are not apparent to the call takers." The caseworker had driven Powell's sons, Braden, 5 and Charlie, 7, from their grandparents' home to their father's house on Sunday. Powell had lost custody of the boys last fall, after his father, with whom they lived, was arrested in a child-pornography and voyeurism investigation.

The caseworker called for help just after noon after Powell whisked his two sons into his house and shut the door in her face. Fearing for the boys' safety, the woman dialed 911 to report what happened in a case involving a man who she reported was "on a very short leash with DSHS ... ."

Initially, the caseworker was unable to locate the exact address of Powell's house and it took more than a minute for her to get into her car and find it.

In the ensuing six minutes, the call taker and caseworker are involved in a lengthy question-and-answer session as she tries to explain the situation. The call ends with the caseworker asking how long it would take for a deputy to arrive. The call taker replies: "I don't know, ma'am; they have to respond to emergency, life-threatening situations first."

"Well, this could be life-threatening," said the caseworker. "He went to court on Wednesday and he didn't get his kids back and this is really ... I'm afraid for their lives."

During the call, the caseworker frantically tried to explain who Powell was.

"... he is the husband of missing Susan Powell ... This is a high-profile case ... "

Susan Powell vanished while the family was living in Utah in December 2009. Her husband had long been considered the key suspect in her disappearance.

In a second call to 911, the caseworker breaks down when she's asked for her name after she reports that the house exploded with the children in it.

The Law Enforcement Support Agency, a joint city-county agency that employs workers, who take 911 calls from the public, as well as dispatchers, who dispatch police throughout Pierce County.

While Troyer said that it's likely deputies could have arrived sooner had the caseworker immediately provided Powell's address, he doubts that the children could have been saved.

"Once that fire started, it was all over," he said.

Orr, in his statement, said that five to six minutes elapsed between the time the caseworker's call came in and a deputy was dispatched to the Powell home. When the caseworker couldn't immediately recall the address of Powell's house, she asked the call taker if he could use GPS to track her location via her cellphone. The call taker said no.

Kris Dessen, spokeswoman for the Law Enforcement Support Agency, said that Pierce County has enhanced 911 services, which allows GPS tracking. But, she said, the tracking system is not always accurate. She said that call takers always ask a caller for the address of the incident location, as well as use GPS technology to track the location. Dessen said whether the 911 technology was able to track Sunday's call is under investigation.

He said his department is still waiting to receive a copy of the "call-and-dispatch" log from the 911 center to see exactly how long it took for deputies to respond.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

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