Susan Powell was 28 when she was reported missing Dec. 7, 2009, after she failed to show up for her stockbroker job. The case has cast a harsh spotlight on Powell's husband, who remains the only person of interest but has never been arrested or charged.
It wasn't immediately known if the remains found Wednesday belonged to Powell, or if they were even female. Authorities planned to resume their investigation Thursday morning.
"It's a game of patience at this point," West Valley City Sgt. Mike Powell said. "We need to slow down a little bit and identify what it is we found."
Meanwhile, friends and family waited and prayed.
Kiirsi Hellewell, a close friend of the missing woman, said the discovery of remains brought a sense of hope that the case might finally move forward but also sadness that she might really be dead.
"It's always a mixture of emotions because we've been down this road before with the discovery of bodies and remains," Hellewell said. "It's like a seesaw because we also don't want to find out that she's dead."
In May, speculation swirled that remains found in the desert about 50 miles southwest of Salt Lake City might have been those of Susan Powell, but authorities later said it was a young adult male.
Authorities have been searching since Monday in the area near Topaz Mountain in Juab County. The site is about 135 miles southwest of Powell's West Valley City home, where she was last seen.
Last month, investigators searched mine shaft-dotted mountains near Ely, Nev., and later served a search warrant at the Puyallup, Wash., home that her husband, Josh Powell, shares with his father, seizing computers and journals.
The Powell family put out a statement late Wednesday saying urging police to put out details about the remains.
"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. In the meantime, we continue to hope for Susan's safe return," it stated.
This latest search is in an area popular for gem and rock hunters. Police have said Josh Powell liked to rock hunt in the area.
"From the very beginning, he clearly indicated he had been in and around the area," said Sgt. Powell, who is not related to the family of the missing woman.
Susan Powell's father, Chuck Cox, expressed doubt that the remains belonged to his daughter. He said that would mean whoever took her would have had to dump her body in the middle of a high desert freezing winter where the ground would have been covered in snow and frozen solid.
"We're just waiting," he said Wednesday evening.
Josh Powell has said he believes his wife ran off with another man and has told police he left her at home about 12:30 a.m. on that Dec. 7 to go winter camping in freezing temperatures with their young sons - then 4 and 2 - about 80 miles west of Salt Lake City. The 4-year-old confirmed the trip to police.
Over the past weeks, the case has taken salacious turns as family members on both sides sparred over truth and fiction, and accusations of sex and lies.
Josh Powell's family claims Susan Powell was sexually promiscuous, emotionally unstable and suicidal. They were offering as proof several diary pages from the missing woman's teenage years. Her family says the entries were written by a young girl still growing up and have no bearing on her disappearance. They got a temporary order in a Washington court prohibiting the Powells from distributing them.
Josh Powell has mostly remained quiet throughout the investigation, and police said he hasn't been cooperative.
But in a string of national television interviews in August, Josh Powell denied having anything to do with her disappearance.
In another strange twist, Steve Powell, Josh's father, said he and Susan Powell were falling in love and even implied a sexual relationship had occurred.
Susan's father, Chuck Cox, said the allegations are false. He claims it was Steve Powell who initiated unwanted sexual advances, and that his daughter had no interest in her father-in-law.
The feuding between the two sides got so heated that a court commissioner in Washington state ordered Chuck Cox and Josh Powell to keep 500 feet apart.
Associated Press writers Lynn DeBruin and Brian Skoloff contributed to this report from Salt Lake City, Eugene Johnson from Seattle, and Ted S. Warren from Puyallup.