Image: Screening soil in Susan Powell search
Jim Urquhart  /  AP
Investigators screen soil from a hole excavated by law enforcement near the base of Topaz Mountain on Saturday. They're searching for evidence in the 2009 disappearance of Susan Powell.
msnbc.com staff and news service reports
updated 9/17/2011 8:27:21 PM ET 2011-09-18T00:27:21

About 100 pieces of charred wooden chips were uncovered Saturday as investigators dug through what they have described as a shallow grave during their search for evidence in the disappearance of a missing mother.

Authorities suspended the digging at a site in the rugged Utah desert and said it would resume Sunday. They are searching for the remains of Susan Powell, who disappeared on Dec. 7, 2009.

At least seven cadaver dogs have positively indicated that there might be human remains buried at the site, NBC station KSL of Salt Lake City reported..

But three days of digging have turned up no evidence of remains. On Saturday, investigators uncovered blackened pieces of wood ranging from dime to golf-ball size, KSL said.

The wood chips were being brought back to Salt Lake City for further examination.

"They obviously have some type of human decomposition on them because that's what the dogs are hitting on," West Valley City Lt. Bill Merritt said.

But police have had to backtrack on such statements before. On Wednesday, they said they found human remains but later backtracked, clarifying that cadaver dogs had alerted them to the site but no remains had been found.

Police have been searching the area around Topaz Mountain, a popular rock-hounding spot in remote central Utah, since Monday. Cadaver dogs led police to the site Wednesday just off a dirt road near the mountain's base. The area is more than 130 miles from the location where Powell was last seen at her West Valley City home on Dec. 7, 2009.

The spot is about 30 miles south of where Powell's husband, Josh Powell, told police he took his two sons camping on the night his wife vanished. He told police he and their sons — then 4 and 2 — left his wife at home about 12:30 a.m. The 4-year-old confirmed the trip to police.

Josh Powell is the only person of interest in the case, although he has never been arrested or charged. He has denied having anything to do with her disappearance and said he believes his wife ran off with another man.

On Saturday, the forensics supervisor for the West Valley police arrived on the scene, KSL reported. The station said the supervisor has a degree in anthropology but had been unable to join the search until Saturday.

KSL said that the hole that is being excavated was about 2 feet wide and 3 feet long, and about 2 1/2 feet deep as of Saturday morning.

Susan Powell was 28 when she was reported missing after she failed to show up for her stockbroker job.

Susan Powell's father, Chuck Cox, was escorted to the scene Friday for a look at the excavation effort.

He believes the area amid central Utah's sagebrush-dotted high desert and jagged mountains is a logical place to conduct the search because Josh Powell had camped at nearby Simpson Springs.

Cox, a former investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration, said he had long believed the search for his daughter would be a lengthy process.

"There's no real false hope, it's just another step in the investigation," Cox said. "Every day is hard for the family. Life goes on, and so you go on the best you can. It's something you have to live with."

Msnbc.com staff contributed to this report from The Associated Press.

Video: New twist in hunt for missing Utah mom

  1. Closed captioning of: New twist in hunt for missing Utah mom

    >>> developments in the search for missing utah mother susan powell as police now say they have yet to find any human bones or body fragments. nbc's miguel almaguer is in utah with the latest. miguel , good morning.

    >> reporter: carl, good morning. though investigators have yet to unearth bones they say there is a 50/50 chance they have found the remains of missing mom susan powell . search teams with cadaver dogs and atvs made the discovery in the utah desert -- a shallow grave that investigators say was recently disturbed. but after a day of digging through the site, investigators say they have found no human bones , no body fragments, no clothing. still, police say two different sets of cadaver dogs have hit on something.

    >> they are smelling something. it's human decomposition. it could be coming from blood, could be coming from tissue, could be coming from bones, any variety of different sources, but it is human decomposition, human remains .

    >> reporter: this week's discovery comes 30 miles from where susan 's husband, josh powell , told police he took their children camping overnight in a snowstorm the night susan vanished. while josh has denied any involvement in his wife's disappearance, police say he won't cooperate with investigators and remains the only person of interest.

    >> it's taken them a while to move away from ground zero , which was the house she disappeared from and to move out into the desert now in an area where they know he has traveled.

    >> reporter: though detectives say susan 's case has never gone cold, there was a lack of known activity for nearly a year. in recent weeks there has been a flurry of new developments. police scoured mine shafts for new clues. then last month susan 's father-in-law said she may have run off with another man, claiming the missing mom was promiscuous, even flirted with him.

    >> i wasn't going to turn down an opportunity with this beautiful woman even though she was my son's wife. i'm sorry. she is just a wonderful person and i enjoyed it.

    >> reporter: after those comments, investigators hauled away susan 's journal from her father-in-law's home. today susan 's father joins detectives at the utah search site.

    >> now they're here with a large contention doing the search and i just felt i needed to be closer.

    >> reporter: calling this week's discovery, quote, what we've been looking for, detectives caution there is more work to be done in the utah desert. it's still unclear what cadaver dogs may have found or who may have been at the site not so long ago.

    >> they said they can tell there's definitely been a disturbance there in the recent little bit.

    >> reporter: a recent disturbance and an unfolding mystery in the utah desert. investigators say they'll be back at the search site later today looking for human remains . meantime susan 's husband josh powell has released a statement saying he hopes for his wife's safe return. carl?

    >> nbc's miguel almaguer, thank you for that.

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments