Richard Cowden (28), his wife Belinda (22), their children, David (5) and Melissa (5 months) and dog Droopy, went camping in the Siskiyou Mountains near Carberry Creek, Copper, Oregon, on August 30th to September 1, 1974, over the Labor Day weekend.
Seven months later, in April 1975, their bodies were discovered around 7 miles (11 km) from their campsite. The case remains unsolved and has been described as one of the most mysterious murder stories in American history.
The Cowden family lived in White City, Oregon and Richard worked as a logging truck driver. They travelled to the campsite in their 1956 Ford pickup truck.
The Cowdens loved to camp, but they had not planned to go camping that Labor Day weekend of 1974. Richard had planned to haul a load of gravel for his driveway and spend the weekend getting the job done. Unexpectedly, the truck broke down, so instead they decided to go up to the Siskiyou Mountains for a family trip away.
On Sunday, September 1, Richard and David went to the Copper General Store on foot at approximately 9 am to buy some milk. They left the store and headed back to their campsite. This was the last sighting of the Cowden family.
That evening, Belinda's mother, who lived less than 1 mile from the campground, was expecting the family to come over for dinner on their way home. They failed to show and she went to the campsite to see if there was a problem. When she arrived there was no sign of the Cowdens and the truck was parked up with the keys on a picnic table. A plastic dishpan full of cold water lay on the ground and Belinda's purse was in plain sight on the table. A diaper bag and camp stove were set up and a half-finished carton of milk was also present, which matched that bought at the store earlier in the day. Richard's expensive wristwatch and wallet were on the ground. There was also an opened pack of cigarettes, which were the brand that Belinda smoked. The truck appeared untouched and contained their clothing, with only the bathing suits missing.
After waiting for about an hour, Belinda's mother left the campground to notify the authorities after which the sheriff, troopers, and the District 3 Office of the Oregon State Police arrived at the scene. Officers searched the area until it grew so dark they couldn’t see a thing. Lieutenant Mark Kezar who headed the case would later state that the investigation had been "delayed for maybe a day" because of the lack of indication that anything violent may have occurred at the campsite. A state trooper, Officer Erickson, recalled: "That camp was spooky; even the milk was still on the table."
The following morning, on September 2, the Cowdens' pet Basset Hound, Droopy, was found scratching at the front door of the Copper General Store.
The search for the Cowdens was one of the largest in Oregon history and included state and local police, Explorer Scouts, the United States Forest Service, and the Oregon National Guard as well as hundreds of volunteers. The U.S. Forest Service searched 25 miles of roads and trails surrounding the campsite, and helicopters and planes were flown over the area equipped with infrared imaging. Despite this very large search effort, no sign was found apart from the dog. The official search of the area was suspended on September 7, but friends and relatives of the family spent many weekends and vacation time to continue looking.
The family had little debts, they were not behind on any payments and Richard made more than enough money to support his family. So it seemed unlikely they had voluntarily disappeared. If didn't seem like robbery as the wallet, watch etc. were left behind. No bodies were found in the creek which ruled out accidental drowning. What happened to the Cowden family? Kezar and his colleagues were baffled.
Then seven months after the family vanished, on April 12, 1975, two gold prospectors were hiking through the woods near Carberry Creek when they discovered the decomposing body of an adult male tied to a tree on a steep hillside around 7 miles from the location of the Cowden's campsite. In a small cave nearby, the bodies of an adult female, a child, and an infant were discovered. The entrance of the cave was sealed with rocks to disguise it and hide the bodies. Positive identification of the bodies as those of the Cowden family was made via dental records.
Autopsies revealed that Belinda and 5 year old David had died as a result of .22 calibre gunshot wounds, baby Melissa had died from severe head trauma. Medical authorities were unable to determine the cause of Richard Cowden's death.
Thinking of the possibility that Richard could have murdered his own family, detectives searched the area for a gun or other weapon. If Richard was indeed responsible for the death’s of his family and his own suicide, then some sort of weapon would still be around. No gun or weapon were ever found, not even the smallest clue to give police a lead.
Lt. Mark Kezar said afterwards that "The whole nature of the thing smacks of a weirdo," adding that the police know a lot they didn't feel free to discuss at that point.
The authorities believed that Richard and David returned to the camp after their trip to the store and the family went swimming in adjacent Carberry Creek later that morning. A short time later, probably before noon, the family was abducted at gunpoint, and most likely by someone they did not know. Kezar hypothesized that they were probably driven some distance away, forced up the steep slope where they were found, and at least three of them were shot.
One family from Los Angeles, California had arrived at the campground at 5 pm on September 1 and whilst walking in the park that evening, they witnessed two men and a woman parking nearby in a pickup truck. They said, "they acted like they were waiting for us to leave, and frankly, they made us nervous, so we moved on."
Based on the location of Belinda and the children's bodies inside the cave, Lieutenant Kezar suspected that the person responsible was a local resident who knew the area and was aware of the cave's location. After the family's remains were recovered, a resident of Grants Pass who had volunteered in the search told police that he had searched the cave where Belinda and the children's bodies were found in September 1974 and that they were not there at that time. To confirm the story, police had the man take them to the cave he had searched; it was the same cave where the bodies had been discovered.
Dwain Lee Little, has been implicated but never charged with the murders. Little had been paroled from the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem on May 24, 1974, three months prior to the Cowdens' disappearances. On November 2, 1964, he had raped and murdered teenager Orla Fay Fipps, then aged only 15 years of age. State police were able to determine that Little had been in Copper over the Labor Day weekend at the approximate time the Cowden family were killed.
Little's girlfriend told law enforcement that she had seen him with a .22 caliber gun during Christmas 1974 and on January 12, 1975, his parole was revoked after she informed police. Little was paroled again on April 26, 1977 and on June 2, 1980, he picked up a pregnant twenty-three-year-old named Margie Hunter, whose car had broken down near Portland, Oregon. He sexually assaulted and beat her but she survived. and Little was charged and convicted of attempted homicide and sentenced to three consecutive life sentences. He was never cooperative with mental health treatment and refused to discuss any of the murders he is accused of.
Police believed that the two men and woman in a truck reported by the Los Angeles family at the campground were in fact Little and his parents, as their truck matched the description provided by the family. Little and his parents denied any knowledge of the Cowdens' disappearances; however, a miner who owned a cabin nearby claimed that Little and his parents had stopped by on Monday, September 2, 1974, and signed a guestbook he kept for visitors.
Floyd Forsberg, an inmate who at one time shared a cell with Little, would later claim that Little confessed to the Cowdens' murders.
Richard Cowden's father committed suicide a few months after the bodies were discovered but he was cleared of any involvement.
Over four decades on, the facts behind the Cowdens' murders remains unknown. Foul play for certain but was it Dwain Little or someone else. A brutal murder in America's wilderness.