A Labor Day family camping trip in Southwest Oregon launches one of the largest search and rescue operations in the country after the Cowden family fails to show up for a scheduled holiday weekend dinner. Months into the investigation, police uncover a massacre hidden in a cave and a prime suspect emerges but to this day authorities are no closer to catching a suspect still at large.
- “Ride On Horseback Leads Girl To Death” by the Associated Press
- “Dwayne Little Sentenced to Life Term” by the Eugene Register-Guard
- “Oregon v. Little” Find A Case September 20, 1967
- “Campers Lost Near Medford” by staff for The Capital Journal
- “No Trace of Family Is Found” by The Associated Press
- “Hunt Widens For Missing Family of 4” by staff for The Statesman Journal
- “The Family ‘Just Vanished;” by The Associated Press
- “Abandoned Gold Mines Searched For Family” by Staff for The Capital Journal
- “Police Call Off Hunt For Family of 4” by The Associated Press
- “Search Called Off For Missing Family” by The Associated Press
- “Police Still Seek Clues to Cowdens” by The Associated Press
- “Food On Table, Family Missing For 10 Days, Fear Dead” by staff for Greater Oregon
- “Man To Be Questioned About Vanished Family” by staff for The Capital Journal
- “Location of Family Remains A Mystery” by The Associated Press as published in The Statesman Journal
- “FBI Won’t Probe Vanishing Family” by The Associated Press
- “Missing Family-The Mystery Still Unsolved” by Joe Frazier for The Associated Press
- “Missing Cowden Family Becomes Case No. 655244” by Peggyann Hutchinson for The Medford Mail Tribune as published in The Capital Journal
- “Police Clear Man In Murders, Lost Family” by The Associated Press in the Albany Democrat-Herald
- “Authorities Are Still Seeking Clues To Missing Family” by Peggyann Hutchinson for the Medford Mail Tribune
- “Police Say Bodies of Medford Family Found” by The Associated Press
- “Mystery Continues To Surround S. Oregon Deaths of Family of Four” by The Associated Press
- “2 Cowdens Shot in Head, Says Examiner” by The Associated Press
- “State Police Lack Leads in 4 deaths” by The Associated Press
- “Skeletons Found Of Medford Family” by staff for Greater Oregon
- “Mourned” by The World
- “Police Seek LA Family To Aid In Murder Case” by The Associated Press
- “Gold Seekers Uncovered The Grisly Remains of Family” by Peggyann Hutchinson for the Medford Mail Tribune
- “Police Still Active on Bizarre Case of Murdered Family” by The Associated Press as published in The Corvallis-Gazette-Times
- “Hunt Goes On In Family Murder Case” by Joe Frasier for The Associated Press
- “Rape Suspect Is Also Suspect in Deaths” by The Associated Press
- “Man Accused In Recent Case Is Suspect in 1974 Deaths of Camper Family” by The Associated Press
- “Inmate Claims Dwayne Little Admitted Killing Family” by The United Press International via the Eugene Register-Guard
- “Convict Admits Hoax In Confessing Crime” by The Associated Press
- “The Cowden Family – Strange and Disturbing Murders In The U.S. Wilderness” by Strange Outdoors
- “Unsolved So. Oregon: Mystery In the Woods Pt. 1” by Amanda Rose for KOBI NBC5 News
- “Unsolved So. Oregon: Mystery In the Woods Pt. 2” by Amanda Rose for KOBI NBC5 News
- Universally Frustrating For Police Officers, Family Members and The Community Are Southern Oregon’s…Unsolved Murders by Sarah Lemon for the Mail Tribune,
- Dwaine Lee Little Inmate Profile, Oregon Department of Corrections
- Applegate Lake Carberry Creek Information
- Applegate Lake History
Hi park enthusiasts…
I’m your host Delia D’Ambra and today I’m going to tell you about not one murder, not two murders, but four murders deep in the mountains of Oregon that for 47 years have gone unsolved.
In September 1974, Richard Cowden, his wife Belinda, and their two small children David and Milisa camped at Carberry Campground in Copper, Oregon for a fun holiday weekend of fishing and family time.
Their disappearance into the woods of the Siskiyou Mountains that straddle the Oregon and California border is one of the most baffling crimes in American missing persons history.
The secret to finding out who really stalked…kidnapped and killed them on that Labor Day weekend nearly 50 years ago might be sitting beneath the waters of Applegate Reservoir.
The United States government intentionally flooded over the town of Copper and created the 988-acre, 200-foot deep water feature that engulfs half of the valley to this day.
Beneath its calm milky-blue waters lies a mystery so baffling…and a story so huge that I’m not sure anyone will ever be able to get to the bottom of it.
This is Park Predators.
SFX of crickets
On Sunday night, September 1st, 1974, Ruth Grayson was sitting at her home in the small town of Copper, Oregon. It was dinner time and she was waiting for her daughter 22-year-old Belinda Cowden and her husband 28-year-old Richard and their two kids, five-year-old David and five-month-old Milissa. Ruth was expecting them to arrive any second.
Minutes passed and then a half-hour turned into an hour and the pleasant Labor Day evening turned to night.
Ruth started to worry and felt something was definitely wrong. She knew Belinda and the whole family was camping about a mile away in Carberry Creek. It shouldn’t have taken them very long to make it to dinner.
The Cowdens had been in the area since Friday, August 30th. Sunday was going to be their last day camping before making the hour and a half drive back to their home in White City, Oregon.
According to the blog Strange Outdoors, the Cowdens’ trip to the mountains was actually planned last minute. Originally Richard was going to spend the holiday weekend working around the house, hauling gravel for his driveway but plans to borrow a big enough truck fell through, so he and Belinda decided to pack up the family and enjoy the weekend camping.
The mountain range they were visiting was in the Applegate region of the Siskiyou Mountains. According to the U.S Forest Service the Siskiyous are a smaller range of mountains inside the Klamath range.
The steep terrain stretches for about 100 miles and covers Northwest California and Southwest Oregon. The Klamath River and Rogue River are on each side of the range.
On the Sunday night the Cowdens were late, Ruth, eaten up with worry about where her daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren were, called a friend for help, a man named Guy Watkins. The two decided to go down to the Cowdens’ Carberry Creek campsite to look for them and figure out why they hadn’t shown up for dinner.
Ruth and Guy pulled into the sandy campsite and found no one in sight.
It was completely abandoned but everything the family-owned was still sitting around. Richard’s 1956 Ford pickup truck was parked near the still-pitched tent and all of the family’s clothing was neatly folded on a cot inside the canopy.
Along with those items were David’s shoes and a diaper bag for Milissa. The only articles of clothing missing from the campsite were the family’s swimsuits.
Ruth figured wherever the family was, they must have gone swimming. That would also explain why David left his shoes behind.
When she and Guy looked over the rest of the campsite, they found a small jug of milk and food set out on the picnic table. They also saw dishes and utensils neatly laid out on a small stove nearby.
A few of Richard’s fishing poles were leaning against a tree and a plastic dishpan with cold water and soap was sitting on the ground. It literally looked like the family had just been there or that they’d be walking up any minute.
Ruth also found Richard’s gold watch, wallet, keys, and Belinda’s purse at the campsite. According to Joe Frazier’s reporting for The Associated Press, Richard’s wallet had $23 dollars in it and Belinda’s purse had half of a pack of cigarettes inside. So, from the looks of it, it didn’t appear that the family had been robbed.
From everything Ruth and Guy saw they didn’t immediately think something really bad had happened to the family, but they were concerned.
The only thing that stuck out to Ruth was the state of one of Belinda’s blouses. Ruth had gone back into the tent to search for clues and found the shirt on a cot and it was the only item not folded. Ruth saw that the blouse had been torn completely in two. Like physically ripped in half.
There weren’t any stains or anything on it though like blood and Ruth figured Belinda may have been using it as a rag or something for the baby.
The only other member of the Cowden family missing from the campsite was the family’s basset hound puppy named Droopy. He was nowhere to be found.
The more time that went by where the family didn’t return, the more Ruth began to think that something was very, very wrong. It was getting dark, the kids would need to get to bed, she thought, why hadn’t Belinda canceled dinner plans? All of them, including the dog should have been back by now?
After an hour poking around the campsite, Ruth went back into town and called the Jackson County Sheriff’s office and Oregon State Police. When deputies and troopers arrived at the campsite they saw the same bizarre scene Ruth and Guy had.
Ruth told police that the last time she’d seen anyone in the family was around 9:00am that very morning. She’d been managing the general store she owned in Copper when Richard and David came inside.
She said they’d walked to the store from their campsite to get a quart of milk.
Investigators immediately realized that the fact that a jug of milk had been found at the campsite meant that Richard and David likely made it back from the store before vanishing.
So, a potential theory that maybe David and his dad had gotten lost on their walk back to the campsite and Belinda and the baby had gone out looking for them, didn’t really make sense.
The Cowdens were familiar with the area. Newspapers at the time reported that they’d visited Carberry Creek many times. According to Ruth, Belinda and Richard had taken several trips to that exact campsite with the children before and knew the trails well.
The sandy campground was located near the California- Oregon border. A lot of old logging roads crisscrossed the woods there and Richard knew which ones led to town and which ones didn’t.
Police searched the campsite and surrounding trails well into the night on Sunday but they didn’t find a single trace of the family. They called it quits when it got too dark and regrouped the following morning.
The next day, a clue turned up at Ruth’s front door. Well, the front door of the general store that is.
And this clue was a living, breathing lead for law enforcement.
SFX of dog sniffing
Early in the morning on Monday, September 2nd, Ruth heard a whimpering and scratching sound at the front door of her general store in Copper.
When she opened the door, she saw the Cowden’s basset hound Droopy standing there wagging his tail. He was completely unharmed, looked hungry, and had seemingly showed up out of nowhere.
She scooped up the dog and immediately alerted the police.
Droopy showing up at the store without the family didn’t ease anyone’s worries.
They had no idea where he’d been since the day before but after asking around and talking with other campers and hikers in the area they quickly gathered a timeline of Droopy’s movements.
According to an article from the Medford Mail Tribune, one witness came forward to report that around 2:30 pm on Sunday, September 1st they’d noticed Droopy wandering alone about four miles from the Cowdens’ campsite. Then at 6:30 pm that same day another witness reported they’d seen Droopy walking alone even further away from the campsite.
Despite all of his mileage and aimless walking, Droopy obviously knew his way around the area enough to be able to find his way to the general store and scratch at the door. The police took impressions of his paw prints and added them to the growing case file.
They figured if someone out searching stumbled upon lone pawprints that matched his, maybe that could help police figure out more specifically where he’d been with the missing family and at what point he’d parted ways with them.
That never really went anywhere though, because as authorities and volunteers spread out to search Carberry Creek and the woods and gullies surrounding it they brought in bloodhounds to try and track the family’s scent and a lot of the areas Droopy would have been were disturbed.
Everything with the search for the Cowdens was happening so fast, it was hard to keep track of what crews were where.
According to Strange Outdoors, the search that unfolded for the Cowdens was one of the largest in Oregon State History. Police, explorer scouts, U.S. forest service workers, and the national guard flooded to Copper to help.
Searchers spread out and covered 25 miles in every direction of the family’s campsite looking for clues.
A lot of the terrain included abandoned gold mines which, as we all know, can be easy places to fall into. Investigators enlisted the help of a few geologists to help guide searchers to the mines and probe them for any clues.
Despite hours and days of doing this, nothing turned up in the mines.
Law enforcement even used airplanes equipped with infrared technology to try and get a better aerial view of the forest floor but that had its challenges too. All of the tall timbers throughout the Siskiyou mountains obscured a lot of the landscape.
On Friday, September 6th, five days after the family was last seen, a lieutenant for the Oregon State Police told the Statesman Journal that even though crews hadn’t found the Cowden family, law enforcement were working on information that indicated they were no longer near their campsite.
He didn’t say where this information came from or provide any further details…but just said that detectives were working a line of investigation that strongly indicated the family was no longer in the general vicinity of where they’d camped.
The next day, September 7th, an Oregon State Police sergeant told the Capital Journal quote — “It’s getting to look really strange. This is about the strangest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s not logical that a couple like that would take off with two young kids and leave all their belongings. If the National Guard doesn’t find anything, the only thing we can assume is that they were abducted.”
Now, this was the first time talk of abduction publicly came up in this case.
Up until this point, I think a lot of people, especially the Cowden’s family members, thought abduction was a possibility but for days law enforcement had only been saying the family was lost. So, this public statement establishing that police now believed the family had been taken really scared people.
And no one more than Ruth, Belinda’s mother.
After six days of searching without a single clue other than Droopy surfacing, the Oregon State Police essentially called it quits as far as ground searches for the family went.
The department told the Associated Press that they had no clues to go on and they had to refocus on investigating what had happened to the family…instead of just trying to figure out *where* they were. I feel like those two things are kind of one in the same but either way, September 7th was definitely a stopping point for the search and rescue effort.
Law enforcement was pretty confident in their theory that the family was not just lost in the mountains somewhere.
They batted around the idea that maybe the family just abandoned their life and Richard and Belinda wanted to start over but that quickly was dropped.
The lead investigators working the case felt certain that someone had kidnapped the family and driven them away from the campsite. It was the only thing that made sense when police considered how the campsite was left and the fact that no sign of the Cowdens had turned up around where they’d been on foot.
Just a side note here, where the Cowdens disappeared is sort of a gray area jurisdiction-wise between state forest and national forest land. Initially, local investigators thought about requesting the FBI to come in and help but the locals eventually decided to hold off because at that point there was no real proof that the family had been kidnapped or taken across state lines.
People in Copper and White City who knew the Cowdens did not like this at all.
According to the Associated Press, 200 people signed a petition asking Oregon state senator Mark Hatfield to intervene and call in the FBI, but that petition was denied. Hatfield released a statement saying that there was no evidence indicating a federal crime had been committed. Therefore, the FBI would only weigh in on the case if local law enforcement asked them to.
So, with that, state investigators forged ahead on their own and sent off Richard’s wallet and Belinda’s torn blouse to the state police lab for testing.
We’re talking 1974 here so I doubt they were trying to get anything like DNA off of those items, but from what I gathered police just wanted to know if any fingerprints or blood that didn’t belong to anyone in the Cowden family was present.
Investigators told newspapers at the time that the blouse wasn’t necessarily suspicious on its face. The way it was torn cleanly in two made them think what Ruth had, which was that perhaps the shirt was going to eventually be used as a dishrag or something. Again, this was just an assumption they were working off of, they didn’t know for sure.
One thing authorities began trying to figure out was motive. If the family was taken, who would have had the motive to want to kidnap or hurt the Cowdens?
To answer that police began looking at the family’s history and background.
They learned that Richard was the breadwinner of the family and worked as a logging truck driver for a company called Steve Wilson Logging. Belinda was a stay-at-home mom. She’d been married before meeting Richard and had David with her first husband.
By 1974 though she’d been divorced from David’s father for a few years. According to reports, police briefly looked into her ex-husband but detectives didn’t find anything that connected him to the family’s disappearance.
I mean I get why the cops looked at David’s biological father for a hot second. They had to wonder if maybe custody of David or something in the divorce would have driven him to want to take David away from Belinda either out of resentment for Richard or something like that, but there was zero indication that was the case.
According to everyone who knew Belinda and Richard, they were happily married and Richard loved David like he was his own. There was an amicable relationship between Belinda’s ex and Richard. The birth of baby Milissa only made the new family grow tighter.
Authorities also quickly ruled out a “kidnapping for ransom” scenario because neither Richard nor Belinda had much money and the same could be said for their families.
According to Joe Frazier’s reporting, when police visited the Cowden’s home in White City they found everything inside in its rightful place. There was nothing to indicate that the family hadn’t intend to return. There were groceries in the refrigerator that were ripening and tons of food in the freezer.
One clue that really stands out to me though that is a strong indicator the Cowdens planned to come home after their camping trip was the state of little David’s bedroom.
According to newspapers published at the time, David’s room had just been newly redecorated. Belinda’s friends and family said the boy was super excited to have his space transformed. It didn’t make sense for the Cowdens to do that if they never planned to come home and let him enjoy it.
Ruth told police that like most families the Cowdens had some debt, but they weren’t living lavishly or well out of their means. They had no one who was after them for money or unpaid debts.
According to a listing of the family’s estate assets published by the Medford Mail Tribune, the Cowdens had a three-bedroom home with a mortgage, two cars, furniture, and two small savings accounts.
All of their debts equaled their assets. They had a few outstanding lines of credit on a car, a vacuum, some medical bills, magazines, and electric bills, but other than that, they had no major financial debts.
Ruth told the Associated Press that it was definitely strange that Richard and the family vanished at the beginning of September because that time of year was peak working season for Richard. It was the best time of year to earn income in the logging industry. So, Ruth was adamant that the Cowden’s did not voluntarily disappear when it was the best time for Richard to make money and keep his family afloat financially.
Ruth was convinced after a few weeks and no sign of the family turning up that her daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren had been abducted. She just had no idea why.
Investigators really got desperate for leads or clues by the end of September 1974. They told the Associated Press that they’d run down hundreds of tips and interviewed every resident in the area. They also checked telephone calls from all nearby homeowners but nothing got them any closer to finding the Cowdens.
At one point investigators even followed up on four visions psychics had called in with saying they knew where the family was. Those ended up being dead ends too.
One investigator spent several days looking into a report of a motorcycle group who’d been camping in the Carberry Creek area on Labor Day weekend. A lot of locals had pointed the finger at that group as possibly being persons of interest, but when authorities tracked the bikers down and interviewed them, they knew nothing about the Cowdens and all had alibis.
In late September, three weeks after the family vanished, authorities got a lead that a man arrested for a murder in Eureka, California, not far from where Cowden’s disappeared, could have done something to them.
The Capital Journal reported that Oregon State Police went to California to question 26-year-old James Arthur Doane about the Cowdens. James had been arrested while hitchhiking in Iowa. He was accused of stabbing to death a 24-year-old man in Northern California on September 1st, 1974…the same day the Cowdens disappeared.
California authorities believed James not only killed the guy in Eureka, but they also believed he’d murdered another man in Northern California on September 2nd, before fleeing to Iowa.
So, in this situation, you have a man accused of two murders back to back in the same area the Cowdens went missing in. Obviously it sounds super promising. I mean the victims are completely different but the crimes were close enough geographically and chronologically that Oregon State Police definitely spent time looking into James.
In October, while police were talking with James, Richard’s sister Laree Cowden coordinated a community reward of $2,000 for information in the case. By that point family members were preparing for the worst. They were fully expecting someone to find shallow graves or signs of foul play. Laree pleaded with the public saying quote — “Even though we try not to let our hopes dwindle that they will be found alive, we ask that you will even check freshly turned piles of earth”— end quote.
By November 1974, Oregon police had followed up on hundreds of leads and were able to rule out James Doane as a suspect. According to PeggyAnn Hutchinson’s reporting in the Medford Mail Tribune, after questioning James, Oregon State police determined that he was not in Oregon or the Copper area on September 1st.
James had no car when the Cowdens’ disappeared. He was a hitchhiker and had allegedly murdered a man in Eureka, California two hours away from where the family had disappeared on September 1st. Detectives did the math and realized that he wouldn’t have had time to get to Copper and abduct and murder the family on the same day he allegedly killed his victim in California.
He also passed a polygraph test, which according to reports, also cleared him of some other crimes he was accused of committing on Labor Day weekend and in the days after.
According to the Albany Democrat-Herald, in a strange twist of fate, in December 1974 Richard’s father, Robert Cowden was so distraught over his son’s disappearance and lack of progress in the case that he
took his own life. For a quick minute, Robert’s suicide raised eyebrows, but police quickly determined that he truly had just reached a breaking point and could not bear the thought of his son and grandchildren just vanishing. There is no indication, at least according to reports, that Robert had anything to do with the family’s disappearance.
From December 1974 until spring of 1975 there was pretty much radio silence on the Cowden case.
I found a few reports here and there that talked about community search groups going back out to look again for the family and police keeping an eye out for buzzards…but that was about it.
At least two Oregon State police troopers were assigned solely to the case, but their efforts to understand what happened to the Cowdens fizzled by late December.
It wasn’t until April 1975 that the investigation had a major breakthrough, when the cold winter weather lifted and gold miners in the woods miles from Carberry Creek Campground made a huge discovery.
SFX of nature sounds & boots crunching
On April 12th, 1975, A couple of 20-something friends named Marvin Proctor and Roger Allan West were metal detecting in the woods near Copper, Oregon.
They were looking for gold that some amateur prospectors in the area had told them was supposed to be near Copper. Back then it seems like it was totally legal to just go treasure hunting on state or federal land. Nowadays prospecting is usually frowned upon or outright banned by park authorities, but in the 1970’s Marvin and Roger were gold hunting everywhere they could.
They’d originally planned to pan for gold in the Rogue River but the water from melting snow and recent rainfall made the river’s water level too high to safely sift along the bank.
After a few hours of searching in the woods, they’d struck no luck in finding gold but instead of giving up and leaving the area, the men decided to change tactics.
They switched gears and started rooting around washed-out tree roots and gullies looking for gold nuggets. According to an interview they did with The Capital Journal, the men had been told that gold nuggets often get caught in roots and veins of soil that get washed down steep slopes.
The men started a trek up a hill, each going a different direction when Roger noticed a fallen down tree.
SFX of feet walking/twigs snapping
When he was almost to it, he saw a few pieces of quartz where the tree had once been rooted and started picking up the stones. He figured it was possible he could tweeze out some gold from the veins of the quartz.
As he bent down to get another piece, he tripped over a log and landed flat on his stomach face first. When he lifted his head he saw a gleaming white human skull staring back at him.
Roger yelled for Marvin and the two men quickly bolted away from the spot. A couple hundred yards away on Carberry Creek Road they spotted a sheriff’s deputy car and within minutes law enforcement knew about what they discovered.
That same day dental records for teeth found in the skull confirmed that it belonged to Richard Cowden. Not much else of his body remained but police stated that based on the skull’s location near the base of the fallen tree and other evidence found at the scene, it appeared that Richard had been tied to the tree at some point.
Authorities have never said for sure what exactly indicated Richard was tied to the tree but if I was going to guess I’d say it was probably rope or some kind of binding that prevented him from using his feet or hands to getaway.
About 100 feet from where Richard’s remains were found, authorities searched a nearby rockface and discovered three more sets of remains. Dental records confirmed the bones belonged to Belinda, David, and baby Milisa. Their bodies had been stuffed into a small cave in the hillside.
Oregon State Police told reporters that the mouth of the cave had been covered with rocks and brush but there was enough of a clearing to peer in and discover the skeletons inside.
The location of the makeshift graves was roughly six miles from the Cowdens’ campsite.
Something really strange that I read while researching this case is that a local man from Copper who’d searched the cave back in September 1974 told police that he’d been to the exact spot in the initial days volunteers were combing the mountainside. He said no bodies were inside it and no rocks were stacked in front of the mouth. To confirm his story, authorities asked him to take them to the cave and he did so without any problems.
What is wild is that official search crews couldn’t corroborate his story. Everyone in government dispatched parties who’d walked close to the eventual graves told police they’d never thought to climb up the steep hill and look. They had no idea the cave was even up there.
So the question is, were the Cowdens placed in their makeshift graves after September 7th when search efforts were called off? If the answer is yes then where the heck were they for seven days and who had them?
If the local man who claimed he’d checked the cave was just mistaken then Richard and his family’s corpses were sitting right until searchers’ noses the entire time, but no one wanted to or physically tried to hike the steep hillside to check for them.
I find it so sad that they all could have been right there the whole time and nobody saw them. Even more alarming though is the thought they’d been held captive for a week before being killed. How was that even possible?
Bloodhounds that had tracked through that part of the woods were never taken to the general area of the cave, so they didn’t hit on any scent that told police to search further.
Roger and Marvin, the two men who’d found the remains were awarded $1,000 of the Cowden family’s reward money for being the ones to find Richard’s remains. By the end of April 1975, they’d left Oregon and headed to Nevada to prospect for gold there. Marvin had been pretty freaked out by the discovery of the remains that after the second day of working with police and leading investigators back to the site, he wanted to just get away and not come back.
I don’t blame him.
Oregon State police investigators sealed off the cave and tree where Richard was found and spent days using metal detectors to try and locate any kind of murder weapon or bullet fragments. Just looking at Belinda and David’s remains it was clear to police on scene that the mother and son had been shot. There were distinct round holes in each of their skulls.
The state medical examiner conducted autopsies on all four victims and confirmed what police already suspected, Belinda and David had both died of multiple gunshot wounds to the head.
The shots came from a .22 caliber rifle, which matched with a single bullet investigators had found on the floor of the cave. Officers on scene had bagged a few inches of soil near the remains and discovered a Marlon manufactured .22 bullet for a rifle.
Five-month-old Milisa’s cause of death was massive blunt force trauma to the head. It wasn’t said officially, but the medical examiner noted it was likely that she had been beaten to death.
Richard’s cause of death was unknown.
Police told reporters that too much time had passed since the family disappeared and Richard had been so exposed to animals and the elements that based on what was left of him, no one knew just exactly what he’d died from. There weren’t any bullet holes in his skull, but he could have been stabbed or strangled. Who knows?
Several of his bones had been scattered across the hillside, a clear sign that he’d been scavenged by wildlife. So looking for knife wounds on those remains was futile.
Authorities briefly considered a theory that maybe Richard had killed his family and then taken his own life, but no rifle or Marlon brand ammunition was ever located near his remains. Plus, he’d been secured to the tree somehow. Those two things told investigators Richard most likely was not the perpetrator.
Someone else had done this, but the lingering question gnawed at police, who? And even more baffling, why?
The missing person’s case for the Cowdens was officially labeled as a homicide investigation. Having the make and caliber of bullet from the potential murder weapon was definitely a plus, but everything else in the case proved to be challenging.
One huge hurdle investigators faced was the fact that all of the victims had been out in the woods for nearly eight months. Investigators were back to square one trying to determine who’d forced the family to leave their campsite and leave everything they’d brought with them behind.
Investigators suspected, based on the location of the remains, that whoever dumped the Cowdens in the remote hillside knew that location was there and was most likely from the area or had close ties to the area.
Just based on the nature and slope of the area, authorities felt sure that the killer or killers had driven the family there. It was highly unlikely someone could corral or carry two adults, a five-year-old, and a baby up the hillside from the woods without being seen or having some kind of weapon or transportation.
Carberry Creek Road was less than a fourth of a mile from the dumpsite, so police assumed the killer used that road to get the victims to the cave area. They then tied up Richard, killed him, and eventually killed Belinda and the kids in the cave.
By April 20th, a family funeral service for the Cowdens had concluded and law enforcement was feeling the pressure to bring their killer to justice.
Two days later, on April 22nd, state police in Oregon told reporters that they were looking for a young family from Los Angeles who’d been hiking in the Carberry Creek campground the day the Cowdens vanished.
Authorities were clear that they did not suspect this family of doing anything to the Cowdens, they just wanted to talk to them. Investigators said they believed this family from LA may have spoken with or bumped into the Cowdens shortly before they disappeared and may have even inadvertently seen their killer.
According to the blog Strange Outdoors, a few weeks later, the family came forward and told police that around five o’clock on Sunday, September 1st they’d arrived at Carberry Creek campground and went for an evening hike. While out walking they’d seen two men and a woman sitting in a parked pickup truck on the side of Carberry Creek Road. The Los Angeles couple said quote— “They acted like they were waiting for us to leave and frankly they made us nervous, so we moved on”— end quote.
By July 1975, that lead fizzled and the case was again at a complete standstill.
According to an article by the Associated Press, the state police said quote— “the whole nature of the thing smacks of a weirdo. We know a lot we don’t feel free to discuss”— end quote.
In that same article, the lead investigator told the reporter that based on all of the evidence that had been reviewed up until that point detectives believed that on the day the family disappeared David and Richard had returned to the campsite with the milk from the general store. Everyone got their swimsuits on and went swimming during the mid-morning.
Around noon, before lunch, an abductor or someone they didn’t know confronted them at the campsite and got control of them somehow, likely using a gun, and then drove them to the remote hillside and cave.
Police also clarified that whoever had placed Belinda and the kids inside the cave had intentionally sealed it off with rocks. It wasn’t like the mouth was naturally covered. Someone had purposefully stacked stones and brush in front of it to conceal the opening.
In an interview with KOBI News, former Oregon State Police detective Richard Davis said everything the investigation needed was in front of them, but they were unable to piece it together or positively identify a suspect.
For years the case dragged on with no leads and suddenly they were up against the clock.
SFX of ax chopping
In 1978, construction began on the Applegate Reservoir dam. The project meant that the town of Copper would be flooded and all of the woods around Carberry Creek would eventually be underwater.
It wasn’t until the summer of 1980 that Oregon State Police finally named a person of interest in the case. By that time though, the reservoir had been filled and what had been the original crime scene was long gone, lost under the waves.
According to the Associated Press, authorities working the Cowden case suspected a local man named Dwaine Lee Little for the killings.
Dwaine was 31-years-old in 1980 and was facing charges for raping and beating a woman from a nearby town. A judge set his bail at one million dollars.
With Dwaine unable to get out on bond, Oregon investigators took their time building a case against him. They looked into Dwaine’s background and discovered a horrible history of rape, murder, and violent crimes.
In November 1964, when Dwaine was only 15 years old, he’d raped and stabbed to death a 16-year-old girl named Orla Fipps in Springfield, Oregon. Orla had been riding her horse alone after school in the woods near her house when Dwaine attacked her.
He was arrested and convicted of first-degree murder for that crime in 1966 and sentenced to life in prison at a state penitentiary.
Dwaine was 17-years-old when he went to prison in 1967 and in accordance with Oregon state law, he was eligible for parole after serving just 10 years. He got out early in May 1974 but later violated his parole for possessing a gun and was sent back a year later in May 1975.
Investigators working the Cowden case wanted to know if Dwaine had been in the Copper or Carberry Creek area during the short window of time he was out on parole in 1974. Turns out he was.
According to The Oregonian, Dwaine had actually stayed overnight just a few miles north of where the Cowden family had been camping on September 1st, 1974.
Not only that, Dwaine’s parents and girlfriend lived really close to Copper. When investigators interviewed the girlfriend she told them that she’d seen Dwaine with a .22 caliber hunting rifle during Christmas of 1974 and she’d told police about it. She didn’t think at the time that Dwaine was at all connected to the Cowden murders, she just wanted him to stop possessing firearms and violating his parole.
Dwaine having the gun is what triggered his parole revocation and put him back behind bars in May 1975.
The state of Oregon paroled him again in April 1977, three years later he sexually assaulted a pregnant woman whose car had broken down near Portland and attempted to beat her to death. She survived and eventually pressed charges.
That is the crime he was brought in for in 1980 when he got on Cowden investigators’ radar.
When police were finally ready to question Dwaine he shut them down. He declined to take a polygraph test or discuss any of the murders he had already been convicted of or was suspected of committing.
He denied knowledge of the Cowdens’ disappearances and refused to answer questions.
When investigators publicly announced that Dwaine was a suspect, people from the Applegate region came forward with information.
According to Strange Outdoors, a man who owned a cabin near Copper claimed that Dwaine and his parents had stopped by on Monday, September 2nd, 1974 and signed a guest book he kept. They’d been driving a pickup truck.
Detectives took that truck’s description to the Los Angeles family who’d seen a pickup parked on Carberry Creek Road the day the Cowdens vanished. That family confirmed that the truck matched the one they’d seen parked on the road that day.
Investigators believed that the two men and a woman the family had seen inside and been creeped out by were Dwaine Little and his parents.
In November 1980 Dwaine’s cellmate, a man named Floyd Forsberg, told news reporters that Dwaine confessed to killing the Cowden family.
Floyd wasn’t the most credible source though. The reason he was even talking to reporters in prison was because he’d been busted for harboring makeshift weapons and trying to plan an elaborate escape.
He was serving 30 years for bank robbery and murder and when his plan to escape was unmasked he took the opportunity to tour the media through his elaborate scheme. Prison officials allowed him to confess to the plot that involved 16 other inmates and show the public what he’d planned in exchange for leniency.
Floyd was a wishy-washy character throughout his stints in and out of prison. Over the years, he’d confessed to several murders he didn’t commit and claimed some of his other cellmates were responsible for crimes they couldn’t have committed.
In the end, he was not a credible source and not someone Cowden case investigators could fully trust.
As 1980 came to a close, the only strong circumstantial evidence Oregon State Police had on Dwaine was the fact that his parents’ truck was seen in the Carberry Creek area on Labor Day weekend.
According to the Medford Mail Tribune in addition to the Los Angeles family seeing his family’s pickup truck, an elderly couple had also come forward and reported that they’d noticed it on Sunday, September 1st parked near a cemetery about halfway between the location of the Cowdens’ campsite and where their bodies were found.
The couple claimed that the truck’s cab was filled with people, and a basset hound was running behind it. Sounds an awful lot like Droopy but police were never able to confirm for sure.
In addition to those reports, Oregon State Police also had a rough timeline for Dwaine’s whereabouts during the Sunday the Cowdens disappeared. According to retired OSP detective Richard Davis’s interview with KOBI News, Dwaine had hauled a load of steel to the nearby town of Crescent City on the
Saturday before the family vanished. By Sunday afternoon he was spotted at a gas station making his way back to the Copper area.
Richard Davis believes Dwaine was alone at that point and saw the Cowden family likely swimming in a nearby creek and decided to follow them back to their campsite and abduct and kill them. Richard Davis thinks Dwaine later returned with his parents to the hillside and cave where he buried the bodies. Richard also believes it’s possible Dwaine held the family for several hours against their will before murdering them.
Authorities tried to interview Dwaine and his parents multiple times but they were denied. Investigators were also never able to find the .22 Marlon rifle Dwain’s mother had allegedly owned to compare it to the bullet found in the cave.
According to Oregon State Police, to this day, every suspect they’ve considered in this case has been ruled out, except Dwaine Lee Little.
After his last conviction for rape and attempted murder in 1980, Dwaine’s parole was officially revoked. He is 72-years-old and currently serving three consecutive life sentences at Oregon State Penitentiary.
He has never spoken about the Cowden case and according to police, likely never will.
The young family’s murders are still unsolved and Oregon authorities have no evidence to prove who is responsible.
Their deaths may forever remain a mystery mired in the waves of Applegate Reservoir.
Park Predators is an audiochuck Original Podcast.
Research and writing by Delia D’Ambra with writing assistance from executive producer Ashley Flowers. Sound design by David Flowers.
You can find all of the source material for this episode on our website, Parkpredators.com.
So what do you think, Chuck? Do you approve? *howl