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Tape shows 8-minute lag between 911 call and emergency response in case of killer dad

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TACOMA, Wash. >> Emergency call logs show that nearly eight minutes elapsed between when a social worker called 911 to report that Josh Powell’s children were in danger and when sheriff’s deputies were dispatched. It took another 14 minutes for a deputy to get to the home, but by then, the home was engulfed in flames with Powell and his two young sons inside.

The Associated Press obtained the logs tonight under a public records request.

Recently released audio tapes of the 911 calls raised questions about the dispatch center’s handling of the social worker’s calls. She detailed how Powell, the husband of a missing Utah woman, had locked her out of the house during what was supposed to be a supervised visit with his sons.

Minutes later, Powell torched the home, killing himself and the boys.

The recordings showed that the man who took the worker’s 911 call engaged in nearly seven minutes of questioning that ended with him saying he didn’t know how long it would be before deputies could respond. 

The audio didn’t make clear when the deputies were dispatched. The logs show that apparently happened about a minute after the call ended.

Authorities said it seemed unlikely a quicker response could have saved the boys, who had also been attacked with a hatchet.

The logs show the social worker called 911 from her cellphone at 12:08 p.m. Sunday. Five minutes later, the man who took her call transferred the information to a dispatcher, who alerted two deputies about 2 1/2 minutes later, at 12:16.

But at precisely that time, calls began pouring in to report explosions at the house — apparently from the gas-fueled inferno blowing out windows.

Deputies arrived on scene at 12:30 to find the home engulfed in flames.

Pierce County sheriff’s Detective Ed Troyer said his department was disappointed in the manner of the initial call-taker, saying it left the impression that help wasn’t immediately on the way. But he said he did not believe the conversation created any unnecessary delays.

“Are we unhappy with the etiquette and the manner? Yes,” Troyer said. “Did it affect the response time? No. Dispatchers are typing information and addresses while they’re on the phone with callers.”

It took almost two minutes from the start of the call for the dispatcher to learn Powell’s address and more than three minutes to understand that she was there to supervise a child custody visit. Near the end of the call, she asked how long before officers could get there.

“I don’t know, ma’am,” he said. “We have to respond to emergency life-threatening situations first.”

She responded: “This could be life-threatening … I’m afraid for their lives!”

The agency that runs the call center said it would review the handling of the case and start a disciplinary investigation if necessary.

Powell’s wife, Susan, vanished in Utah two years ago. He has long been a person of interest but maintained at the time that he had taken his boys — then 2 and 4 — camping in freezing temperatures.

The social worker had driven the Powell boys, 5 and 7, from their grandparents’ home to their father’s house outside Puyallup on Sunday. Josh Powell lost custody of the boys last fall, after his father, with whom they then lived, was arrested in a child pornography and voyeurism investigation.

When they arrived at the house for a regular supervised visit with their dad, the boys ran into the house, and Powell slammed the door in the social worker’s face, locking it.

She called her supervisor and 911 using her cellphone, reaching the call center in Tacoma, about 10 miles away from Powell’s house just outside Puyallup, authorities said.

In the first minutes of her first 911 call, the woman quickly laid out the situation: 

“Something really weird has happened. The kids went into the house and the parent — the biological parent — whose name is Josh Powell will not let me in the door. What should I do?

“… I could hear one of the kids crying, and he still wouldn’t let me in.”

Nearly 20 seconds into the call, the dispatcher asked her for the address. The social worker didn’t know and needed to look for it. It took her about 90 seconds to find it in her car.

At one point, she asked, “You can’t find me by GPS?”

He responded: “No.” And then there was a pause of approximately 10 seconds.

Pierce County, the second largest in the state and home to about 800,000 people, has an enhanced 911 system that is designed to give police an approximate location of a cellphone caller. It wasn’t immediately clear if the call center used that feature to locate the social worker. 

While she was still looking for the address, she said, “But I think I need help right away.” 

The dispatcher proceeded to question her repeatedly about who she was and her role.

“Who is there to exercise the visitation?” he asked.

“I am,” she said. “The visit is with Josh Powell. And he’s the husband of …”

“And who’s supervising?” he asked.

“I supervise.”

“So you supervise and you’re doing the visit? You supervise yourself?” he asked.

“I supervise myself. I’m the supervisor here.”

“Wait a minute. If it’s a supervised visit, you can’t supervise yourself if you’re the visitor.”

After getting it straight, the dispatcher told her: “We’ll have somebody look for you there.”

“OK, how long will it be?” the woman asked.

That’s when the dispatcher responded by saying he didn’t know. 

Moments later, the house erupted in flames.

The woman screamed in a separate call: “He exploded the house!” 

Authorities also released a 911 call Josh Powell’s sister made Sunday, saying she received emails from her brother explaining what to do with his property and saying he couldn’t live without his sons.

Alina Powell told a dispatcher she feared her brother was going to do something because of pressure he faced after his wife, Susan, disappeared two years ago in Utah. Authorities considered him a “person of interest” in the case. It’s unclear what time Alina Powell’s 911 call was Sunday, but it appears the dispatcher had some knowledge of who Josh Powell was.

Crying, Alina Powell told the dispatcher: “I’m terrified to drive over there. I’m not afraid of him. He’s never hurt me. I’m afraid of seeing something I don’t want to see.”

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