By Nicole Neroulias
TACOMA, Wash (Reuters) - Hundreds of mourners were expected to attend a memorial service in Tacoma, Washington, on Saturday for two young boys killed when their father burned their house to the ground with himself and his sons inside.
Sunday's murder-suicide arson, which claimed the lives of Josh Powell and his sons, Charles, 7, and Braden, 5, capped a grim family saga that began more than two years ago with the disappearance of the boys' mother under suspicious circumstances in Utah.
The two brothers were at the center of a bitter custody dispute between their father and the parents of his missing wife, Susan Powell. Investigators now presume she was slain by her husband, though her body has yet to be recovered.
"These were two happy little boys caught in the middle of a family dispute, caught in the middle of evil that some other people were doing," said Dean Curry, lead pastor of the Life Center church in Tacoma, an Assemblies of God congregation.
"But they were innocent and they deserve a moment ... so we're going to give it to them," he told Reuters by telephone on Friday.
At the family's request, members of the public were invited to attend the memorial, scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. local time. Curry said he expected as many as 2,400 people to turn out for the service.
"People from around the country were following this story even before the tragedy Sunday night," he said, adding that both sides of the boys' family "have notified us that they're going to have people here."
Last week, a judge denied Josh Powell's bid to regain custody of his sons, citing the "extreme child porn" found last September in the house he rented near Tacoma.
That discovery had led to the arrest of the boys' grandfather, Steven Powell, who had been living with them and whose vast pornography collection included images of their missing mother. He now awaits trial on criminal charges related to the photos.
The boys were ordered on February 1 to remain in the custody of their maternal grandparents, Charles and Judy Cox, at least until Josh Powell, 36, submitted to a psycho-sexual evaluation.
Four days after that decision, a child welfare case worker delivered the two boys to their father's home for what was supposed to be a supervised visit. But he abruptly locked her out, then set off a fiery explosion that consumed the house as the worker, herself uninjured, watched in horror and called authorities by phone.
Medical examiners later said the two brothers had suffered chop wounds from hatchet blows inflicted by their father moments before all three died from smoke inhalation.
Pierce County prosecutor Mark Lindquist said earlier this week that he considered "the murder of those children a confession to the murder of Susan Powell" and that he viewed the ongoing investigation into her fate as a murder investigation.
Family lawyers have said the boys had recently begun to speak about their mother's disappearance, which took place in December 2009 when the brothers were 4 and 2 years of age and the family was living near Salt Lake City.
In recent months, one of the boys drew a picture for his first-grade teacher depicting his father driving a van with the brothers in the back seat and their mother in the trunk, according to Steve Downing, an attorney for Susan Powell's parents.
When the teacher asked the boy about the drawings, "Charlie told her, 'Then my mom and dad got out of the car and my mom got lost,'" Downing told Reuters.
At the time his wife was reported missing, Josh Powell told police he had taken his sons camping in subfreezing temperatures just after midnight on December 7, leaving his wife at home, and that she had vanished by the time they returned that afternoon, according to court documents.
The grandfather, Steven Powell, 62, was charged in September with 14 counts of voyeurism and one second-degree charge of possession of child pornography. Shortly after that, the boys were placed in the custody of their maternal grandparents.
(Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and David Bailey)