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Social worker's 911 call released in Powell murder-suicide

MSNBC's Thomas Roberts talks to Chuck and Judy Cox, parents of Susan Powell, about their grandsons' deaths and their daughter's disappearance.

Updated at 8:35 p.m. ET: PUYALLUP, Wash. – A 911 recording reveals a social worker's attempts in a more than six-minute phone call to get a dispatcher to send authorities quickly to the home of Josh Powell after he locked himself and his two sons in the home he then set ablaze. 

Social worker Elizabeth Griffin-Hall brought the Powell boys, Charlie, 5, and Braden, 7, for their court-ordered visit with their father on Sunday. When she arrived, Josh Powell took the children and shut the door in her face, so she called 911. 


In the first minutes of the 911 call, Griffin-Hall laid out the situation briefly, then asked, "What should I do? Nothing like this has ever happened before at one of these visitations. I'm really shocked, I can hear one of the kids crying," Griffin-Hall said. "This is the craziest thing, he looked right at me and closed the door."

The dispatcher at one point asked her what address she was at. Griffin-Hall, who was calling from inside her car, spent about a minute and a half looking for the address, asking at one point, "You can't find me by GPS?" While still looking for the address she said, "I think I need help right away." 

Four minutes into the call, she said she smelled gasoline. The fear in her voice became increasingly apparent; she asked for police to be sent to the home.

"I'd like to pull out of the driveway because I smell gasoline, and he won't let me in," Griffin-Hall said.

After six minutes on the call, the dispatcher said: "We'll have somebody look for you there."

Police in Washington state released a 911 call placed by the social worker who dropped Josh Powell's two young sons off before he murdered them and took his own life in a house fire. NBC's Miguel Almaguer reports.

"OK, how long will it be?" Griffin-Hall asked.

"I don't know, ma'am. We have to respond to emergency life-threatening situations first. The first available deputy ..."

"This could be life-threatening," she said. "He went to court on Wednesday and he didn't get his kids back. I'm afraid for their lives."

Within moments, the house lit up in flames.

"He blew up the house and the kids!" Griffin-Hall screamed in a separate call.

"The kids and the father were in the house?" the dispatcher asked.

"Yes," said Griffin-Hall. "He slammed the door in my face. So I kept knocking. I thought it was a mistake, I kept knocking, and then I called 911.”

Excerpts from the call were obtained and broadcast Tuesday night by Washington NBC affiliate, KING5.

911 center's handling of call to be reviewed
Authorities said the call could have been handled better, and that it was unfortunate for the dispatcher to leave the social worker with the impression no help was immediately on the way. The agency that runs the call center said it would review the matter and start a disciplinary investigation if necessary.

Still, the recordings raised questions about an emergency response to a custody visit that ended with Powell killing himself and his boys.

Pierce County Sheriff's Detective Ed Troyer said deputies appeared to have been dispatched during the call, and he did not believe the conversation caused 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."

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

Griffin-Hall’s husband said she is "not doing very well" despite being offered counseling, KING5 reported. He told the station she was "devastated and traumatized" by the episode and had worked with the boys for a long time, forming a bond with them.

He said she made a distraught call to him after the fire, repeatedly saying about the boys: "They trusted me, they trusted me."

911 call from Josh Powell's sister: 'I'm afraid of seeing something'
A tearful 911 call placed from Josh Powell’s sister, Alina Powell, also was released from around the time of the fire. Alina had received an email from Josh implying the boys were in danger, reported KING5.

"I think my brother might be in trouble or something," she said. "He's sending weird emails, he's saying goodbye."

She later says on the call, "I'm not afraid of him, he'd never hurt me, I'm afraid of seeing something I don't want to see."

The double murder-suicide took place days after Powell, whose wife Susan went missing in 2009, was ordered to undergo a psycho-sexual evaluation as part of a bid to regain custody of his children from his in-laws.

Report: Powell left apologetic voicemail minutes before death

The Powell family was living in Utah when Susan went missing. Authorities in Washington and Utah are now effectively treating her disappearance as murder, even though her body has yet to be found.

 Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill acknowledged for the first time that investigators believe Powell is likely dead, but he said in an interview with the AP that the case remains a missing persons probe for now.

"I think when I talk about it as a missing persons case, that's because we haven't located the body of Susan Powell," Gill said. "Do we think that she may have met harm? Sure. I think that's been an ongoing assumption with law enforcement."

Investigators said Josh Powell withdrew $7,000 in cash from a bank the day before he killed himself and his two young sons in the house fire.

Pierce County Prosecutor Mark Lindquist said detectives obtained Powell's bank records Monday, and on Tuesday they searched a storage unit he rented. It isn't clear what happened to the money.

Josh Powell claimed that on the night Susan Powell vanished, he took Charlie and Braden from their then home in West Valley City, Utah, on a late-night camping trip. Authorities eventually searched the central Utah desert but found nothing.

Susan Powell's father said that when police went to the family home after she was reported missing, they found a wet spot in the house being dried by two fans. Police have not commented further on what they found.

Last September, authorities got a warrant to search the home of Josh Powell's father, Steve. Josh Powell and his sons were living there at the time. The documents obtained by the AP did not specify a suspect.

In addition to the charges, the warrant listed Steve Powell's work laptop computer as well as cars that he used.

Authorities found explicit images on his computers during the search, and he was jailed on voyeurism and child porn charges. The boys were later sent to live with Susan Powell's parents.

'Mommy's in the trunk'
Speaking to reporters Monday after the boys' deaths, their grandfather Charles Cox said the boys were emotionally distant when they first arrived at their home but recently had begun to open up.

That gave Cox hope that someday they would be able say what happened to their mom.

John Powell driven by revenge in killing sons, himself?

The boys had not recently made more comments about what may have happened to their mother, Cox said, though he related what Braden said nearly two years ago.

"The four ladies that were supervising that activity said, 'Well, what's this?' 'That's us going camping.' 'Who's in the car?' And Braden said, 'That's Daddy, that's Charlie, that's me.' Then he said, 'Well, mommy's in the trunk,'" Cox said.

"Well, if Mommy's in the trunk, why is she in the trunk?' He didn't know, he didn't say, I guess. Then, he said, l we stopped somewhere and mommy and daddy got out and mommy didn't come back," he said.

West Valley, Utah, police chief Buzz Nielsen said despite the death of the young boys and Josh Powell, the probe would continue.

"Our case is not closed," he said.

Lindquist, who is overseeing the voyeurism prosecution of Steve Powell but is not directly involved in the Susan Powell case, said it's clear to him that it's a homicide case.

"I don't think at this point I'm going to call this a missing person case," he said. "It's reasonable to call Josh Powell's decision to kill himself and his kids a confession to the murder of Susan Powell."

A memorial service for the boys will take place on Saturday in Tacoma, Wash. at 1:00 p.m. ET., NBC News reported. 

KING-5 News' Lindsay Chamberlain, msnbc.com's Alastair Jamieson and The Associated Press contributed to this report.