The Cowden Family Murders is one of the most terrifying murders to take place on US soil. On September 1, 1974, Richard Cowden, his wife Belinda June Cowden, 1952, and their kids David James Phillips, and Melissa Dawn Cowden, vanished from their campsite in the Siskiyou Mountains close to Copper, Oregon, in the United States.
Their bodies were recovered around 7 miles (11 km) from their campground in April 1975, seven months later. Although Dwain Lee Little, a convicted murderer, has been linked to the killings, the case has not yet been solved.
One of the greatest search operations in Oregon history was launched after the family vanished, and their killings have been dubbed one of the state’s most “haunting and mystifying” mysteries.
The case garnered widespread notice at the time of its occurrence, and various national media outlets, including the New York Post and others, have covered their murders. The murders were also the focus of a chapter in Ann Rule’s 2009 crime novel, But I Trusted You.
Background to the Cowden Family Murders
Living in White City, Oregon, were Richard Cowden (age 28), his wife Belinda (age 22), and their kids David (age 5) and Melissa (age five months). Richard drove a logging truck to provide for his family.
Over Labor Day weekend in 1974, the Cowden family decided to set up camp next to Carberry Creek in Copper, Oregon. On August 30, the family went to a campground next to the stream, a place they had previously frequented, along with their beloved Basset Hound, Droopy. A short way from the campsite, they parked their 1956 Ford pickup truck on Carberry Creek Road.
The disappearance of the Cowden Family
Around nine o’clock in the morning on September 1, 1974, Richard Cowden and his son David visited the Copper General Store, where Richard made a milk purchase. The two then made their way outside the shop on foot in the direction of their campsite.
This was the last time anyone from the Cowden family was seen alive.
Belinda’s mother, who lived less than a mile (1.6 km) from the campground, was anticipating the family’s arrival for dinner later that evening as they made their way home.
When they didn’t show up, she went to their camping by the creek, but nobody was there; all of the family’s goods were there, though: The keys to the family’s truck and Belinda’s handbag were visible on a picnic table, and a plastic dishpan filled with cold water was on the ground.
The camp stove and diaper bag were in plain view, and the half-full carton of milk Richard had bought earlier that morning was on the table.
Belinda’s mother panicked when she couldn’t find her daughter, son-in-law, or grandchildren and saw a number of Richard’s belongings lying on the ground: She discovered several items, including an expensive Rolex, his wallet, which had $21 (which would be worth $115 in 2021), and an opened pack of cigarettes, which she recognized as belonging to the brand Belinda was known to consume.
Only their bathing suits were taken from the family’s pickup, which was parked on the highway. The rest of their clothing was still inside.
The sheriff, troopers, and the District 3 Office of the Oregon State Authorities arrived at the site after Belinda’s mother left the campground to call the police. The inquiry was “delayed for maybe a day,” according to Lieutenant Mark Kezar, who oversaw the case because there was no sign that anything violent may have happened at the campsite.
Officer Erickson, a state trooper, recalled: “That camp was eerie; even the milk was still on the table.”
Droopy, a pet Basset Hound owned by the Cowdens, was discovered clawing at the Copper General Store’s entrance the following morning.
Search for the Cowden Family
The search for the family was one of the greatest search investigations in Oregon history, involving the Oregon National Guard, state and local police, countless volunteers, Explorer Scouts, and the United States Forest Service.
The US Forest Service conducted a 40-kilometer (25-mile) search of the roads and trails that surround the campsite, and infrared photography-equipped helicopters and planes were used to fly over the area and look for recently spilled dirt. Law enforcement searched extensively but could not uncover proof of a crime.
Over 150 people were questioned by the Oregon State Police and Jackson County Police during the initial phase of their inquiry into the family’s disappearance. The family’s disappearance is being investigated in exchange for a $2,000 reward equal to $10,989 in 2021.
Richard Cowden’s sister urged hunters to be cautious as the hunting season approached in a letter to the Medford Mail Tribune “anything that might be related to a man, a lady, a kid older than five or a baby younger than five months. Even though we make an effort to maintain optimism that they will be discovered alive, we kindly ask you to examine recently turned piles of earth. We will be eternally grateful for any tip or assistance a hunter may provide.”
The Federal Bureau of Investigation started investigating the issue, more than 200 people said in letters to Mark Hatfield, an Oregon senator at the time. But the petition was turned down because there was “no indication that the Cowdens had been kidnapped or carried over state boundaries,” according to the justification.
Law authorities tried to look for a connection between the Cowdens’ disappearance and the other eight reported missing women in Washington and Oregon at the time (the disappearances of these eight women, however, would later be linked to serial killer Ted Bundy).
Finding the Bodies of the Cowden Family
Two gold prospectors from Forest Grove, Oregon, were wandering through the woods on April 12, 1975, when they came across an adult male’s decaying body tied to a tree on a steep hillside. The bodies of an adult female, a toddler, and a newborn were found close in a small cave.
Dental records were used to positively identify the bodies as those of the Cowden family. The distance between the bodies’ discovery place and the family’s tent was roughly 7 miles (11 km).
According to autopsies, Belinda and David died from .22 caliber gunshot wounds, while Melissa, who was five months old, passed away from severe head trauma.
When Richard Cowden’s body was discovered, authorities believed he had died there, but they could not establish the exact cause of death. Investigators hypothesized that Belinda and their two children might have been slain somewhere and hidden in the cave.
Law police scoured the neighborhood for a murder weapon, but none was found.
Investigation into the Cowden Family Murders
Numerous people who were at the campground on September 1 were questioned. At 5 o’clock that day, one family from Los Angeles arrived at the campground. That evening as they were strolling through the park, they noticed a pickup truck parked nearby with two men and a woman inside.
According to the father, “They acted like they were waiting for us to leave, and frankly, they made us nervous—so we walked on.”
Lieutenant Kezar believed that the perpetrator was a local resident familiar with the area and was aware of the cave’s location based on the placement of Belinda’s and the children’s bodies inside the cave.
After the family’s corpses were discovered, a Grants Pass resident who had assisted in the search revealed to authorities that he had previously investigated the cave where Belinda and the kids’ bodies were discovered and had found nothing.
Law enforcement asked the man to accompany them to the cave he had searched, which was also the cave where the victims had been found, to make sure he was speaking of the same cave.
Little, Dwain Lee: Suspect in the Cowden Family Murders
Dwain Lee Little of Ruch, 25 at the time of the family’s disappearance, was regarded by law authorities as a suspect in their slayings. Three months before the Cowdens’ disappearances, on May 24, 1974, Little was granted parole from the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem.
He had raped and killed 16-year-old Orla Fay Fipps in 1964. The disappearance of the Cowden family occurred about the time Little was in Copper over the Labor Day weekend, according to state police.
When Little’s fiancée reported to authorities that she had seen him in possession of a .22-caliber gun during the holiday season of 1974, his parole was canceled on January 12, 1975. On April 26, 1977, Little was once more granted parole.
On June 2, 1980, Little picked up Margie Hunter, a pregnant 23-year-old whose automobile had broken down close to Portland, Oregon, and beat and raped her. Little was accused of attempted homicide, found guilty, and given three consecutive life sentences. Hunter and her unborn child survived.
Police then assumed that Little and his parents were the two men and lady in the truck that the Los Angeles family had reported at the campground because their truck matched the description given by the family.
The Cowdens’ disappearances were denied by Little and his parents, but a local miner who owned a cabin stated that on September 2, 1974, Little and his parents had dropped by and signed a logbook he kept for guests.
Little once shared a cell with Rusty Kelly, who later asserted that Little confessed to killing the Cowdens. Even though there is “voluminous” circumstantial evidence, Little has never been arrested for the Cowden family killings.
Later Developments in the Cowden Family Murders
Richard Davis, a former detective with the Oregon State Police, was interviewed in August 2020 to discuss his involvement with the Cowden investigation.
The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office, OSP, and Central Point Police all conducted months-long searches while “chasing their tails,” as Davis puts it. He brought in two recruits and said, “you should climb the Applegate and search for buzzards because they will direct us to the body.”
But this occurred in January. Since early November, there hadn’t been a buzzard in the Rogue Valley or Applegate Valley because they are migrating birds.
He claimed that some early candidates were swiftly ruled out. Officers lost hope as the case stayed cold for months without any fresh leads. “We received some of the most unusual calls, with information on where they were and what they were doing… they were observed in San Francisco and Seattle. They weren’t.”
Davis claims two campers from Washington made a terrible discovery seven months later when he took over the case as lead detective. There was a skull, Davis recalled, “and they started up a tiny game trail from the level camp place up the hill. “I immediately mobilized everyone I could find. I need aid. One man can’t search the jungle. Therefore, I won’t. I need assistance,” he said.
According to Davis, Richard Cowden’s skull was discovered around 7 miles from the campground. He had been a tree, bound.
Richard’s wife, son, and infant were hidden beneath a boulder on the slope about 100 feet distant. “That 22 rifle had fired a shot at the youngster. I can’t recall how Belinda passed away. According to Davis, the infant had suffered blunt force damage to the skull.”
According to Davis, everything was wrapped up, even the mineral soil. However, there was little evidence after being exposed to the outdoors for more than six months.
The soldiers “got a little euphoric during the actual search and recovery for bones and whatnot. But soon we were back in the cars, it was really gloomy. Realization dawns. What have I been doing, my God? When this family was cruelly killed, how could I have been euphoric up there on the hillside?”
Next, read about the case of Dr. Alfort, an American Doctor Hanged for Being a Vampire. Then, I suppose you’d love to read about the Russian Ghost Ship: Ivan Vassili!
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