The unsolved mystery: The Cowden Family murders in Copper, Oregon

The Cowden family murders have been described as one of Oregon's most haunting and baffling mysteries. The case received nationwide attention when it occurred and has continued to captured the public's interest over the years.

On September 1, 1974, the tranquil town of Copper, Oregon was forever marked by a chilling incident – the disappearance of the Cowden family. Richard Cowden, his wife Belinda, and their children David and Melissa vanished without a trace from their campground nestled in the scenic Siskiyou Mountains. The case quickly garnered attention, becoming one of Oregon’s most haunting and baffling mysteries. Seven months later, their bodies were discovered, but the truth behind their murders remains elusive. In this article, we delve into the details of the Cowden family murders, exploring the events leading up to their disappearance, the extensive search efforts, and the shocking discovery of their bodies.

Cowden family murders copper oregon
Restored photo of Belinda June Cowden (born May 24, 1952) and Richard Cowden (born October 9, 1946). Oregon Historical Society / Fair Use

The Cowden Family murders: The last-minute camping plans

Cowden family murders copper oregon
The Cowden family in a picnic. Oregon Historical Society / Fair Use

To understand the Cowden family’s tragic fate, we must go back to the Labor Day weekend of 1974. The family, accompanied by their beloved Basset Hound, Droopy, made last-minute plans to camp near Carberry Creek in Copper, Oregon. This picturesque campground held fond memories for them, a place they had frequented in the past. Little did they know that this trip would be their last.

The strange disappearance

Cowden family murders copper oregon
Right; David James Phillips (born June 30, 1969). Left; Melissa Dawn Cowden (born March 19, 1974). Oregon Historical Society / Fair Use

On September 1, 1974, Richard Cowden and his son David were seen at the Copper General Store, purchasing milk. This mundane act would be the last confirmed sighting of any member of the Cowden family. Later that evening, Belinda’s mother, who lived nearby, expected them for dinner but grew concerned when they failed to arrive. She went to their campsite and found an eerie scene – no sign of Richard, Belinda, David (, or Melissa, but all their belongings remained. A plastic dishpan filled with cold water sat on the ground, keys and Belinda’s purse were on the picnic table, and the carton of milk Richard had bought earlier was left half-full. The only items missing were their bathing suits.

Belinda’s mother immediately contacted the authorities, and law enforcement arrived at the scene. Despite the absence of any apparent violence, the campground felt disconcerting.

“That camp was spooky; even the milk was still on the table.” — Officer Erickson

The following morning, Droopy, the Cowdens’ loyal Basset Hound, was found scratching at the door of the Copper General Store, seemingly searching for his missing family.

A massive search effort

Cowden family murders copper oregon
A plastic dishpan filled with cold water was found on the ground at the camp site. Oregon Historical Society / Fair Use

The disappearance of the Cowden family sparked one of the largest search efforts in Oregon history. State and local police, volunteers, Explorer Scouts, the United States Forest Service, and the Oregon National Guard all joined forces to scour the area for any clues. The U.S. Forest Service meticulously combed through 25 miles of roads and trails surrounding the campsite, while helicopters and planes equipped with infrared photography surveyed the region for signs of recently disturbed earth. Despite the extensive search, no concrete evidence of a crime was found.

In their early investigation, the Oregon State Police and Jackson County Police conducted over 150 interviews. A reward of $2,000 was offered for any information regarding the family’s disappearance. Richard Cowden’s sister even penned a heartfelt letter to the Medford Mail Tribune, appealing to hunters to be vigilant and report anything that could be connected to her missing family.

The discovery of bodies

Hope turned to heartbreak on April 12, 1975, when two gold prospectors stumbled upon a gruesome scene near Carberry Creek. In a small cave, they discovered the decomposing bodies of an adult male tied to a tree on a steep hillside, along with an adult female, a child, and an infant. Dental records confirmed that the bodies were those of the Cowden family. The location of the discovery was approximately 7 miles from their campsite.

Autopsies revealed that Belinda and David had died from .22 caliber gunshot wounds, while five-month-old Melissa had suffered severe head trauma. Richard Cowden’s cause of death remained undetermined, although investigators speculated that he might have been killed at the spot where his body was found. The possibility that Belinda and the children were killed elsewhere and then concealed in the cave was also considered. Despite extensive searches, no murder weapon was ever recovered.

Dwain Lee Little: A suspect?

Cowden family murders copper oregon Dwain Lee Little
Dwain Lee Little. State police were able to determine that Little, then-25-year-old, had been in Copper over the Labor Day weekend at the approximate time the Cowden family disappeared. Rusty Kelly, an inmate who at one time shared a cell with Little, would later claim that Little confessed to the Cowdens’ murders. Oregon Historical Society / Fair Use

Over the years, law enforcement has focused on several potential suspects, but one name stands out – Dwain Lee Little. Little, a convicted killer, has long been suspected in the Cowden family murders. However, despite suspicions and circumstantial evidence, the case remains officially unsolved, and no charges have been filed against Little in connection with the Cowden family murders.

The haunting memories of the Cowden Family massacre

The Cowden family murders continue to intrigue the public’s imagination and haunt the community of Copper, Oregon. The tragedy of their untimely deaths, coupled with the mystery surrounding the case, has made it one of the state’s most enduring unsolved crimes. The story has been profiled in national media outlets, and crime writer Ann Rule dedicated a chapter to the case in her book, “But I Trusted You.”

Decades have passed since that fateful Labor Day weekend in 1974, but the Cowden family remains etched in the collective memory of Copper and the surrounding area. As the years go by, the hope for justice and closure for Richard, Belinda, David, and Melissa Cowden lives on, reminding us of human depravity and the enduring power of unsolved mysteries.

Disclaimer: The facts and details presented in this article are based on available information and sources. The investigation into the Cowden family murders is ongoing, and new developments or information may emerge over time.

After reading about the tragic fate of the Cowden family, read about the Borden House Murders.