Inside The Unsolved 1974 Cowden Family Murders

What was supposed to be a fun camping experience for the Cowden family turned tragic when they disappeared from their campsite under unusual circumstances. The Cowdens lived in White City, Oregon, where the patriarch, 28-year-old Richard Cowden, worked as a truck driver. Richard and his wife, 22-year-old Belinda, had two children: 5-year-old David and Melissa, who was just 5 months old at the time of the incident, as noted by Strange Outdoors. Camping was one of the activities the Cowdens enjoyed doing as a family, and they were used to spending time in the great outdoors.

The camping trip during Labor Day weekend in 1974 was a spur-of-the-moment decision for the Cowdens. Initially, Richard's plan was to spend the weekend transporting gravel to their property and working on their driveway. However, the truck he was going to use to haul the gravel broke down. The family then decided to make the most out of the weekend instead by going on a camping trip to the Siskiyou Mountains.

The circumstances around the family's disappearance

The Cowdens headed to the Siskiyou Mountains and set up at the Rogue River National Forest Campground. At 9 a.m. on September 1, Richard Cowden and his son walked to the Copper General Store located near the town of Copper, Oregon, to purchase milk, and they were seen heading back to the campsite, as reported by Mysterious Universe. That was the last time they were seen alive.

That same night, the Cowdens had plans to have dinner with Belinda's mother before they headed home. Her home was located less than a mile from the campgrounds, and when her daughter and her family failed to arrive at dinnertime, she decided to go to the campsite to check on them. According to Strange Outdoors, Belinda's mother didn't find anyone at the campsite upon her arrival. However, some of the Cowdens' belongings were still there. Belinda's purse was on a picnic table, a carton of milk that Richard bought at the store was left half full, and Richard's wallet and watch were on the ground. There wasn't anything particularly disturbing about the scene, except for the absence of the entire family.

The search for the Cowdens

Belinda Cowden's mother grew concerned, but she waited for the family to return. After about an hour, she decided to report the disappearance to the authorities. However, a thorough search of the area didn't immediately begin. According to detective Richard Davis, who worked on the case, it was common back then for authorities to wait 24 hours before an official search for missing persons began (via Kobi 5). The next day, the family pet, a basset hound named Droopy, was found scratching at the door of the general store, but still, there was no sign of the Cowdens.

The search for the Cowdens grew to include local and state police, the forest service, the national guard, and hundreds of volunteer civilians. They covered miles of forest of trails and roads, and at some point even made use of helicopters during the search. Despite their efforts, there were no signs of the Cowdens or clues that pointed to what happened to them, as reported by Strange Outdoors. Months passed and the Cowdens' family and friends continued to search. Detectives looked into the family's background to see whether the disappearance could have been planned. The Cowdens had no enemies and they had some debt but were doing fine financially, which made the authorities believe that they were taken from the campsite by force.

The discovery of the family's remains

Detectives working on the case had no promising leads. The public provided tips, reporting sightings of the Cowden family in San Francisco and Seattle, but they turned out to be false reports, as reported by Kobi 5. Seven months after the disappearance of the Cowden family, two men were prospecting for gold near Carberry Creek when they stumbled upon a body. The location was about 7 miles from where the Cowdens camped. Authorities were called and upon further investigation, they discovered that the body was tied to a tree. A hundred feet away were the bodies of a woman, a child, and a baby inside a small cave.

Dental records confirmed that the body tied to the tree was Richard Cowden, and the other three were his wife and two children. According to Strange Outdoors, Richard's cause of death could not be determined. Belinda and 5-year-old David both died of gunshot wounds, while baby Melissa died of blunt force trauma to the head. The possibility of a murder-suicide was explored, but investigators did not find a murder weapon at the scene, which led them to believe that the Cowden family was killed by someone unknown to them.

The investigation

Investigators had little to go on in terms of evidence, but they collected everything they could from the crime scene. Due to the time that passed since the family's disappearance, possible pieces of evidence left behind were exposed to elements and could have been destroyed. As noted by Kobi 5, a crucial item found at the scene was a bullet that belonged to a rifle, but there was no weapon. Interestingly, a man who volunteered to search for the Cowden family after their disappearance told authorities that he had been to the location where the bodies were discovered but said that back then, the small cave was empty, per The Lineup.

Investigators had little to go on to move forward with the case. However, they investigated a man named Dwain Lee Little in connection with the Cowden family murders. According to Strange Outdoors, Little had just been released from prison on parole a few months before the Cowdens disappeared from the campsite.

The case remains unsolved

Dwain Lee Little was in prison for the rape and murder of a teenager in 1964 before he was paroled in 1974. Eyewitnesses saw Little purchasing gas near the location of the Cowden family's campsite. In addition, as reported by Strange Outdoors, Little's girlfriend said that she saw him with a gun sometime during the 1974 holiday season and reported him to authorities. As a result, he was sent back to prison for violating his parole. Later, an inmate who once shared a cell with Little claimed that Little told him that he was responsible for the deaths of the Cowden family.

Despite the circumstantial evidence, Little had no direct link that conclusively tied him to the Cowden family murders and was never charged. Decades have passed since the Cowden family's mysterious disappearance and murders and to this day, the case remains one of Oregon's most baffling unsolved crimes.