On September 1, 1974, Richard Cowden, his wife Belinda, and the couple’s two small children vanished while camping in a mountain area 25 miles southwest of Medford near the California border.
The impromptu camping trip was reportedly decided after the family realized they could not complete their chores that weekend, since the pickup truck they had planned on borrowing was unexpectedly out of service.
Instead, the Cowdens picked up and went away for a short weekend, planning on stopping at Belinda’s mother’s house for dinner on their way home that Sunday.
Authorities have said that the Cowdens were last seen alive when Richard and his son went to the general store about a mile down the road to grab a quart of milk.
Witnesses told investigators that the pair had been seen traveling back the way they came, and nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary.
Belinda’s mother, who lived about a mile away from the campsite, soon became worried when the family failed to show up for dinner.
According to reports at the time, Belinda’s mother quickly grabbed her car keys and went to check on the family at the campsite to see what was holding them up.
It was then that Belinda’s mother found an incredibly disturbing scene.
On the table at the campsite, Belinda’s mother found her daughter’s purse, an untouched quart of milk, the baby’s diaper bag, and Richard’s wallet and fairly expensive watch.
She did not, however, find the family.
After Belinda’s mother called the local sheriff’s office, it was soon revealed that robbery did not appear to be a motive for the entire family’s disappearance.
For several months, investigators, family, and friends searched for the Cowdens throughout the entire area where they had been camping.
But they turned up absolutely nothing. It was as if the whole family had vanished into thin air.
Then, nearly 8 months after the Cowdens went missing, investigators made a horrific discovery, when two men hunting deep in the Siskiyou woods stumbled upon remains of what seemed to be human bones.
Once the corpses of a man, a woman, a child, and an infant were discovered, it was announced that the Cowden family had been found dead.
While it was impossible to pinpoint exactly how Richard died, Belinda and the children had all reportedly been shot.
Because there was no gun found anywhere near the scene, investigators have since concluded that Richard was probably not the killer.
"The whole nature of the thing smacks of a weirdo," Lt. Mark Kezar of the Oregon State Police said shortly after the Cowdens went missing.
According to Kezar, authorities at the time believed it was highly likely that the Cowdens had been forced by gunpoint to leave the campsite.
Investigators say the abduction happened so quickly that some of the family members were still wearing their swimsuits.
Police have said the family was probably forced up the steep slope where they were found, and at least three of them were shot dead. Richard’s cause of death, however, could not be determined.
"It's a presumed homicide," said Dr. William Brady, state medical examiner. "I'm sure he was shot, even though we can't prove it."
Almost from the beginning, authorities were fairly certain that the Cowdens did not know their killer.
"You have to remember, it was summer and there were all sorts of people in that area--- so-called hippie types, a motorcycle group and so on," Kezar said at the time.
In recent years, OSP detective Dick Davis has said he felt as if the Cowdens were cheated in the original investigation, but he believes that man who killed them is already behind bars.
According to reports, at the time of the family’s disappearance, Dwain Lee Little, who was in the Oregon State Penitentiary as of 2003, had just been paroled on a 1966 conviction for raping a 16-year-old Springfield girl and murdering her when witnesses noticed his truck near the campsite where the Cowdens were found.
Although Little was not singled out during the initial investigation, police say they believed that he owned a .22-caliber rifle—the same type of gun that killed the Cowdens—and he could not properly explain his whereabouts at the time the family went missing.
Still, to this day, nobody has been arrested or charged in the Cowden family massacre.