Unsolved: The Cowden Family Murders

The Cowden Family went missing after a camping trip in September 1974. Seven months later the bodies of the Cowden family in a wooded area of Carberry Creek, Copper, California. Their murders remained unsolved.

The Cowden Family

The Cowden family was made up of Richard, 28, his wife Belinda, 22, their son, David, 5, and their daughter, Melissa, 5 months. Richard had been a SGT in the United States Airforce before being employed as a log truck driver. Belinda was a full time, stay-at-home Mom. The family lived in White City, Oregon.

Richard had initially intended to work around the family’s home over Labor Day weekend, 1974. He had planned to finish the work on the driveway, but the truck that he had intended to use broke down. So the family made a last-minute decision to go camping at the Rogue River National Forest Campground, just outside of the town limits of Copper, OR. This area was one that the family was extremely familiar with because Belinda’s mother, Ruth Grayson, lived in the area. The family had intended to stop and have dinner with her before they drove home.

The Disappearance of the Cowden Family

On September 1, 1974, Richard and his 5-year-old son, David, walked to the Copper General Store to pick up a quart of milk, arriving at approximately 9:00 a.m. Shortly after, they were seen walking back toward the neighboring campground. This is noted as the last confirmed sighting of any member of the Cowden family.

When Richard, Belinda, and their children failed to show up for dinner that evening, Grayson became worried and drove to the campground, located one mile from her house. When she arrived at their camping spot, she noticed the Cowden family’s belongings were still there, including Belinda’s purse that lay on the picnic table with the half-full milk container purchased earlier. A full pack of cigarettes known to be the brand Belinda smoked, Richard’s wallet (which still contained cash), truck keys and wristwatch were found lying on the ground nearby. The family vehicle, with some of their belongings, was also on scene. There was no sign of the family. After waiting there for approximately an hour, Belinda’s mother notified the local authorities. When police arrived at the scene, they determined it was probable cause to launch an immediate search for the greater Rogue River Campground.

The Search of the Cowden Family

The initial search came up with no clues about the missing family. The following morning, the family dog, a basset hound named Droopy, was discovered scratching on the front door to the Copper General Store.

Police sent press releases to the media up and down the west coast, leading to many tips came in. News coverage was extensive. Over 150 interviews were conducted by investigators. A reward was offered. The Oregon State Police, performed boots-on-ground searches The Jackson County Oregon Sheriff’s Department, The Central Point Oregon Police Department, local branch members of the national guard, and hundreds of private citizens. The U.S. Forest Service searched twenty-five miles of roads and trails. Aircraft used infrared photography to look for any disturbed soil. A petition signed by several hundred people requesting that the FBI become involved was declined because of a lack of evidence of the family being kidnapped or transported across state lines. It would later be determined that this was one of the largest missing person searches ever conducted in Oregon’s state history.

The Discovery of the Cowden Family

Seven months after their disappearance, there was a break in the case. Shortly after Oregon State Police Detective Richard Davis (ret.) became lead investigator, two hikers who had been hiking in the greater area of Rogue River contacted him. Approximately 7 miles from the Cowden family’s campsite, a skull was found. A short distance away, a body was found tied to a tree. It was determined to be Richard Cowden. Approximately 100 feet away from Richard’s body, the remaining Cowden family members were found hidden in a cave-type space (partially eroded) under a very large rock. The medical examiner determined that Belinda and five-year-old David died from .22 caliber gunshot wounds. Five-month-old Melissa died from severe blunt force trauma to the head. Richard’s cause of death could not be determined due to the amount of body decomposition. Investigators meticulously processed the crime scene. The only additional evidence recovered by Davis and his team was a single .22 caliber bullet from a Marlon rifle.

Investigators Look At A Few Suspects

There were a few suspects that were investigated for any link to the Cowden family murders. One local man, Dwain Lee Little, 25, from nearby Ruch, Oregon was looked at extensively. Little had been convicted in 1964 (at age 15) for the rape and murder of a teenage girl, Orla Fay Fipps. After serving ten years of his sentence at the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem, Oregon, he was released on parole on May 24, 1974. Investigators determined that Little and his parents had been in the Copper/Rogue River area over Labor Day weekend and began looking at any correlation. A local resident had reported to investigators that over the Labor Day weekend, both Little and his parents had signed a guest book in one of his remote cabins that was in the area. A search warrant of Little’s parents’ property (which was also his residence) yielded no firearm, but they found an internal spring component consistent with a .22 caliber Marlon rifle.

Little’s parole was revoked after his girlfriend informed investigators she had seen him with a firearm in December of that same year. Little was sent back to prison for his parole violation. The courts released him on parole on April 26, 1977. Then on June 2, 1980, Little picked up a pregnant woman whose car had broken down in Portland, OR. He physically and sexually assaulted Margie Hunter, 23. Both Hunter and her unborn baby survived, and Little was sentenced to three consecutive life-term sentences for the attempted homicide. Despite all the circumstantial evidence, police never established a link between any member of the Little family and the Cowden Family murders.

Investigators looked at all murders and disappearances, specifically across the Pacific Northwest, for any similarities to the Cowden family case. In 1974, there were eight women who had been sadistically murdered. Investigators could not find any correlation with any other case. It was later determined that the eight murdered women had been victims of the infamous serial killer, Ted Bundy.

Cowden Murders Remain Unsolved

Richard and Belinda Cowden, along with their children, David and Melissa, were laid to rest at Eagle Point National Cemetery in Jackson County, Oregon.

Regardless of the extensive efforts by local and state law enforcement agencies, in addition to the assistance of several hundred private citizens, the murder of the Cowden Family remains unsolved.

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