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Police Dig in Utah Desert in Hunt for Missing Mom

This undated photo shows missing Utah mother Susan Powell, who was reported missing on Dec. 7, 2009.

This undated photo shows missing Utah mother Susan Powell, who was reported missing on Dec. 7, 2009.  (AP )

DELTA, Utah -- Authorities have been hampered by weather while digging through what they say is a shallow gravesite in the central Utah desert as part of a nearly two-year investigation into the disappearance of a missing Utah mother.

Cadaver dogs led police to the site just off a dirt road near the base of Topaz Mountain, a popular rock-hounding area north of Delta. The site is more than 130 miles from where Susan Powell was last seen at her West Valley City home on Dec. 7, 2009.

Excavation and forensic inspection of the soil removed from the site was halted abruptly Friday afternoon by a rainstorm and heavy winds that moved through the area. The search is expected to resume Saturday.

Authorities have been in the area since Monday searching for any clues in Powell's disappearance, but won't specifically say what led to the decision to search this corner of southern Juab County.

The area is about 30 miles south of where Powell's husband, Josh Powell, told police he took his two young children camping on the night she vanished. He told police he and their young 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.

She was 28 when she was reported missing after she failed to show up for her stockbroker job.
Investigators began excavating the site on Thursday say they've dug down about two feet, but won't go further until the removed soils have been closely inspected and sifted.

So far, no bones, tissue or other evidence that would clearly identify the site as a grave have been discovered, West Valley City Lt. Bill Merritt said. Instead a forensic team of two women were finding dozens of small items that could be rocks or bone fragments.

The soil inspection process had proved so slow on Friday, that Merritt said additional officers would join the effort. In addition, West Valley City had sought the assistance of a forensic anthropologist from the state medical examiner's office who is an expert in identifying human remains.

Merritt said investigators remain confident that they have focused their attention on the right place, but acknowledge that they don't know for certain whether the site is directly related to Susan Powell's disappearance.

"We don't know. We're all very hopeful," Merritt said on Thursday. "I guess it's 50-50 at this point."

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

Cox said he believed the area where authorities are working -- a rugged remote section of central Utah's sagebrush-dotted high desert and jagged mountains -- is a logical place to conduct the search because Josh Powell had camped the nearby Simpson Springs.

The site visit triggered an emotional response from Cox, a former investigator for the Federal Aviation Administration, who said he had long-believed the search for his daughter would be a long process.

"There's no real false hope, it's just another step in the investigation," Cox said on Friday. "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."

Josh Powell's family, which is estranged from Cox and other relatives of Susan, has issued its own statement about the search, urging police to release more details to the public.

"With very little information available to the public, we can only hope that additional information is released quickly to minimize heartache to those of us who love Susan," it said. "In the meantime, we continue to hope for Susan's safe return."