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Standing at the top of Blowhole Hill, I can see storm cells sliding south across the Cedar Valley, off to the west, the Tinta Mountains obscure my view of Rush Valley. Beyond that, a sea of basin and range stretching on across Utah and Nevada. It's early March. Rain has already softened the ground. We are eight miles off the pavement down a muddy, rutted dirt road you saw coming out here.
There's no fast way to get here. It takes the better part of an hour from Spanish Fork to get here. Anybody from anywhere in Utah County to the closest anybody would be in arrival time would be 35 to 40 minutes at the very best, if somebody was coming from, say, Saratoga Springs or or Goshen or Eureka or something like that.
But if you're not familiar with any of this geography, that's OK. All you need to understand is we are way off the beaten path. Standing on the fringe of Utah's west desert, next to a hole in the ground known as Netty Pudi Cave.
The opening to the cave, it starts up on flat ground up here will flat rocky ground. Then you go down into the ground about fifteen feet and from there you have to go horizontal. And the only way to get through the first part of the opening, which is 10 or 15 feet long, is to either go flat on your back or flat on your stomach and just kind of move your way through carefully like that. And then the cave opens up into smaller, larger caverns.
West Valley City police case files indicate they received the first of many tips about Netty Pudi Cave on December 14th, 2009, exactly one week after the date of Susan Powell's disappearance. People wondered if her husband, Josh Powell, might have disposed of Susan's body not in a mine, but in the cave.
This is a bonus episode of Cold Nutty Putty Cave. I'm Dave Colly. Before looking at the plausibility of the nutty putty cave idea, we have to determine if Josh was even aware of the cave.
I can tell you with 100 percent certainty that the answer is yes.
Here's why. While sifting through hundreds of Josh Powell's digital files, I came across a scanned copy of a postcard. The front showed a picture of the heart of timpano Iraq feature inside Utah's timpano Gus Cave National Monument.
The postcard had never been mailed. I could see the address lines on the back were blank. There was no stamp or postmark. What made this postcard curious were two lines scribbled on the back. In Josh's handwriting, they read Nazi Party caves in Eureka South, the Spanish fork hole in the ground with Maise. Now, I don't know when Josh wrote those words or why. The postcard wasn't dated. But it proved he was at the very least aware of nutty putty.
In addition, West Valley police located a few small thumbnail images on Josh Powell's laptop computer, the one they seized with a search warrant the day after Susan's disappearance. One showed the opening of Nuti Putty, a time stamp showed it had been accessed on December 4th, three days before Susan's disappearance. Another showed a man named John Edward Jones, who had died in Nazi party cave the night before Thanksgiving, the time stamp for that photo showed it was accessed at 525 p.m. on December 6th, about the same time Josh was looking at the weather and information about Ely, Nevada.
John Jones death in Nuti Pudi was along with the disappearance of Susan Powell, one of the biggest Utah news stories of 2009 since Tuesday night, rescuers struggled against the unforgiving topography of Nuti Pattycake we've never seen.
John had grown up in Utah, attending Brigham Young University before leaving for medical school at the University of Virginia. He was 26 and in his second year there when he, his then pregnant wife and their 14 month old daughter came to Utah to visit family over Thanksgiving. John enjoyed spelunking. He's been in caves.
I've got pictures of him at the bottom of the Bloomington caves in a tight spot.
He'd explored other caves for fun. So on the evening of Tuesday, November 24th, 2009, he and several friends entered Nuti Putty to probe its narrow passageways. But while wriggling through one such stretch at about eight, 45 p.m., John became stuck. He couldn't go forward, he couldn't go backward. It took some time for other members of his party to discover his predicament and exit the cave where they could call for help.
We got notified late at night. It was after 9:00 p.m. That's not uncommon that that happens. But where it was, we we knew right away that there were a certain set of challenges that we would have to defeat right from the very beginning, you know, getting here, getting any resources here that we needed to try to effect a rescue. So there's a major concern there.
That's Utah County Sheriff Sergeant Spencer Cannon. Nuti Putties remote location meant it took some time just for the first responders to get there, let alone to begin the rescue. The rescuers knew a thing or two about nutty putty, it had a troubled history. In fact, Nutty Putty had been closed for several years prior to 2009 due to some close calls.
After those earlier incidents, authorities considered closing the cave. Instead, they've allowed a caving group to manage it.
We had two rescues within about a week of each other about four years earlier. One was, I don't know, maybe six or seven hours long. The other one was about 11 hours long. It wasn't the exact same spot. John was stuck quite a bit further in along the same route where the other two had been rescued from.
The sheriff's office called out its volunteer search and rescue team for search and rescue team, has a number of members who are experienced cavers. And we had experience rescuing people from this cave relatively recently prior to this incident. The good thing about it is that if there is any good thing about having experience here is that we knew what we were facing, so we knew at least at the outset, exactly what equipment had to be here, what resources had to be here.
They went right to work. The members of John's group told the rescuers where they would find their pend friend.
He was originally described to have been in an area called Bob's Push, which is just near the birth canal area. Both restricted physical features inside the cave that are challenging. But it's where a lot of people want to go when they go in the cave. He was actually beyond that and an unnamed, really unexplored part of the cave that as far as we know, nobody had been to. We know now that John had been there, but we don't know that anybody else ever had been there.
Any hope they might have had for a quick and easy rescue evaporated once they reached John's location, where he is trapped.
He is on a band. So there's no way to really get a hold on him to be able to pull him directly, straight back.
Constricted doesn't begin to describe the narrow space.
We've never seen anything this technical, this tough to get in and get this person out.
The rescuers had to squeeze through narrow twisting passageways. John Jones feet were sticking out, his head down his body, completely plugging a narrow tunnel 10 to 14 inches wide.
We were fully confident when we got here that we'd be able to affect the rescue. That's what that's what our search and rescue volunteers do. They they don't go someplace expecting to not have the kind of success they want. And it took quite a few hours, even even 15, 20 hours into it. We were still confident that we'd be able to get John rescued.
And out of there, John had become stuck while angled downward about 70 or 80 degrees. With his arms under his chest, the rescuers could see little more than his ankles.
Only the smallest members of the rescue team could even reach the spot areas where they were down in there.
Sometimes you were making another turn before you even finished the other one you just came through. And in confined areas like that, you had to have small people.
The rescuers worked straight through the night and into the next morning, nothing they tried seemed to work as they tugged at John, his rib cage caught on a slip of rock. It was as if he had been ratcheted into place.
State Senator John Valentine has been a volunteer search and rescue worker for 30 years.
He says the problem rescuers could not overcome was a small slip of rock at a critical bend in the narrow tunnel.
The lip basically captured the center part of his body so that as you pull against it, you were pulling like against a fishhook.
John was able to communicate with his rescuers but not see them. They kept up a constant dialogue with him, seeking to buie his spirits. Meantime, his family waited hour after hour outside the cave.
John is an incredible young man. And as an old guy, I look up to John and I realize that this is a great example to me.
We let them know that he was talking. He was singing church songs. We let them know that we had set up a communication line into the cave so that he could talk to his wife, I think even talk to some other family members as well. We had that communication line up partly already in there for for the rescue operation.
The volunteers that were conducting it, most media trucks couldn't make the final climb up the rocky slope of Blowhole Hill. So Spencer met reporters partway down the side.
Time you're you're in a position where you don't have control over when you come and go. It's got to have an effect on on a person emotionally.
You know, we were doing the best we could to make sure that the media and then along that with the public knew exactly what was going on.
The rescue effort continued straight through the day on Wednesday. At one point, the rescuers rigged up a pulley system along the walls of nutty putty. They made progress, inching John back up over the lip.
He's free of the tightest spot where gravity was really working against him and he didn't have any leverage. There's still some more tight spots in the cave. Actually, I think I think they've got him past all the hard spots now.
But a rope failed. And when it did, John dropped back into the trap more tightly than before.
They had him to a level spot where he wasn't heading downhill with his head below his feet. During the course of that, they have a raising system that that was helping to hold him in position. One of the devices is part of that system failed. And Mr. Jones actually ended up falling back into the area where he had been stuck for so long.
Best anyone could figure, John was about 125 feet below the surface. Pinpointing his position from above, though, proved tricky. The place he was stuck was unmapped. Drilling down to him might missed the mark entirely as Josh Powell was at air gas that same afternoon, pounding employees about buying and oxy acetylene torch exhausted search and rescuers were struggling with an unsolvable problem at Nuti Pudi.
I think that there were no options available that were not considered even seriously considered.
Time and gravity conspired against them. John's head down position was precarious because it meant blood pooled in his head, his heart had to work extra hard to push that blood away from his brain, consider it the cardiac equivalent of running a marathon while pinned in place. The strain hour after hour proved too much. We were able to send some one of our cavers in close enough to him that they were able to check him and determine that he did pass away.
John died just before midnight on November 25th, 2009.
That was 1056 p.m. on Wednesday night, just before Thanksgiving Day.
His death came just over 27 hours from the point at which he had first been stuck. Even then, the fatigued rescuers questioned how they would ever manage to free him.
Once John had been declared dead, there were discussions about how do we get him out? There were some rather distasteful discussions as well, things that nobody really wanted to do. But ultimately, the decision was made that it was too much risk for the rescuers to remain there in an effort to try to get him out. And the decision was made to leave in place. Leaving John's body in the cave presented some unique considerations for one, what would keep anyone else from disturbing his final resting place?
Those issues were part of the discussion. And if the decision was made that he would have to remain in the cave, it then becomes a sacred place for the families. We did not want it to be disturbed for for John's sake, for the sake of the families and their peace of mind, and to make it a place that they can come back with at least fond memories of John. The effort to rescue John had made headlines across the country. Deputies knew some people would be drawn to the site like birds to a pile of seed.
Initially, there had been a gate down to the main entrance to the cave that stayed in place initially.
Could that gate alone protect John's remains forever? The cave sat on public land owned by the state of Utah. The county sheriff floated the idea of closing the cave permanently.
There were a number of entities that were brought into that discussion. There was the officials from the School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, the sheriff's office, caving enthusiasts here in Utah County and around the grotto grotto clubs. We took input from everybody in making the decision. John's family was included in that discussion as well.
The idea met immediate resistance, including from the man who had first discovered and named Nati Pudi in 1960.
These cavers understand the tragedy, but think the cave could have eventually been reopened.
Just because of tragedy doesn't mean you have to close it down. I think we should have a say in whether or not we understand the risks and what we're doing, and it's something that we really love to do.
Those arguments did not prove persuasive. Think it was kind of a rash decision for them just to close it all at once at the end of the week.
The Utah County Sheriff's Office made the call.
The Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration, or CENTELLA, which owns the land, said in a statement. While Sittler recognizes that some in the Camy community disagree with this decision, Sittler believes that the consensus decision of the various government entities with responsibility for land management, public safety and search and rescue to close the cave was the correct one. Nutty putty would be sealed.
Exactly how to do that was under discussion of what we ended up doing as our EOD folks, our bomb squad went in. There's an opening not too far from where John was, that kind of constricted constrictor that you have to go through to where John is. And they took a large amount of explosives in there, placed them around that smaller opening, came out of the cave and then set that off. The idea was to cause all that rock to come down and close that part of the opening that happened on the 1st of December.
Then on the morning of the 2nd of December, they had a load of concrete come out here, I believe it was about 30 yards that was poured down into the main opening to give it as permanent of closure as you possibly could get for. You might be able to see where this is going, but there is a reason why I came out to Nuti putting myself to speak with Spencer Cannon about that tragedy more than nine years later, the idea that Susan Powell might also be inside Nutty Putty Cave has persisted.
It doesn't work for a few reasons, Susan was seen up until the 6th of December, the opening of a cave was permanently closed with 30 yards of concrete and explosives on the 2nd of December.
For the sake of argument, let's say that wasn't the case. I asked Spencer if he would ever attempt to take a low clearance front wheel drive minivan to the top of Blowhole Hill in December in a snowstorm, not a 100 years.
I would say it would be virtually impossible for a off the wreck off the showroom floor, a minivan or passenger car to get up here. Even a small four wheel drive SUV would be very, very difficult, something like a Nissan Rogue or even a Toyota forerunner would have a hard time, something bigger, a full size pickup truck or full size SUV. It's a challenge getting up here in those vehicles. But a passenger car or minivan like that, it's not going to happen.
OK, but what if Josh parked at the bottom of the hill and pulled Susan's body up the slope in a toboggan from the place that you could conceivably get close to it to carry something up and hike up here?
Your better part of a half mile at least, and then you still have to hike up another two or 300 feet in elevation to get to where the opening of the cave was.
Say he summoned Herculean strength to make that climb.
Could he then have managed to get past the locked gate and push or pull Susan's limp body through the narrow aperture of the caves mouth while flat on his stomach or back?
That first part of it would be extremely challenging, carrying something that is just a heavy mass, over 100 pounds strongest that people would have a hard time doing it in that kind of a configuration. Anybody who's been in this opening or been in the Nutty Buddy Cave knows how difficult it is to get in there by yourself, to get in there with somebody else or something else. It's just not reasonable, almost impossible to do given what it would take to haul weight in there that is completely unsupported.
If Josh had somehow managed to defeat all of those obstacles, he would have had to do it while avoiding the notice of deputies who were parked just feet away.
There are those smaller number who might want to go inside and do something or collect something. And so we had deputies here 24/7 from early on Thanksgiving morning until it was sealed on December 2nd with concrete and 24/7.
We had somebody here after that date, Josh would have had to chisel his way through solid concrete. So what I'm understanding is, in your mind, there is zero probability that Susan Balzary, zero probability Susan Powell cannot be in jeopardy. Cave. Thank you so much for listening to Susan Powell story in the Cold podcast, I am less than a month away from dropping the first episode of a brand new second season of Cold, bringing the same deep reporting to a new case.
At the same time, Cold will go exclusive on Amazon music. So now is the time to download the free Amazon music app and follow cold. They're no subscription required. You can visit Amazon.com slash cold podcast or just ask your echo device to play the Cold podcast.