MEDFORD, Ore. — “The ones you don’t convict, the one’s that get away… they’re the ones that haunt you,” said Richard Davis, former OSP detective.
The Cowden family murders of 1974 sent shock waves across Jackson County and the region.
Retired Oregon State Police detective Richard Davis says it’s an albatross forever hanging around his neck.
“These were good, solid citizens. And they disappeared,” he said.
45 years ago, a single bullet found at the crime scene near Carberry Creek gave Davis and his team a glimmer of hope turning their eyes to a potential suspect: Dwain Lee Little.
“People’s lives, other people’s lives to him are absolutely of no concern. He wants what he wants and if I have to kill her to get it, that’s the way it is,” said Davis.
In 1966, Little was convicted of killing teenager Orla Fay Flipps in Springfield, Oregon.
He was 15 years old.
After 8 years at the Oregon State Penitentiary, Davis says the paroled murderer moved to his family home in Ruch.
“The day before the Cowden’s disappeared he hauled a load of steel to Crescent City and they theorized coming back, since it was now a holiday, then he came off of Thompson Creek and went over the top and came down and saw them there,” said Davis.
Davis says Little was spotted at a local restaurant around noon the day the Cowden family was abducted.
That same afternoon, he says an elderly couple claimed they saw a car matching Little’s description driving a man and woman.
“The woman said there was a man driving a woman in the middle and another man on the right side. She says why I remember it is the road was very narrow and we were going slow and she looked to be crying,” he said.
Without a license plate number and only an eye witness account, Davis says police looked to connect Little to the 22 caliber Marlon rifle.
They found a number of people had purchased one locally including Little’s own mother.
Davis says that was enough to get a search warrant for Little’s home.
The gun, however, was nowhere to be found.
“We did find a following spring that would fit and was designed to fit the Marlon 22 rifle,” said Davis.
Davis says officers were desperate to speak with Little face to face, so they got creative.
They arrested Little for being a felon in possession of a concealable firearm and brought him in for questioning.
“I told him you take a polygraph, and I had a polygraph examiner standing by, and you take a polygraph on account of the murdered Cowden family although the polygraph I can’t use in court. You take the polygraph, I’ll dismiss this gun case and he said no,” said Davis.
That one word, Davis says, brought investigators right back to square one and Little back to jail.
“That’s the last time I ever talked to him,” said Davis.
Before retiring in 1992, Davis says he never gave up hope they’d crack the case.
The Cowden mystery inspiring Davis to create ‘The Major Crime Death Investigation Unit’ in the 80’s. The multi-agency homicide investigation team serves Jackson County to this day.
“Doing this, failing as miserably as we failed, made me a better officer,” he said.
Years down the line, Davis decided to try his luck one last time. He reached out to convicted murder Russell Lloren Obremski who was with Little in prison.
At first, Davis says they danced around the topic before he went for the jugular.
“When I got to Dwain Little, he says you’re wasting your time. Dwain little is going to say nothing to anybody, never. He don’t say nothing to nobody,” he said.
In 1980, Davis says a 23-year-old woman’s car broke down on Oregon 99 west in the Portland area. She started hitchhiking and later accepted a ride from a man she thought she recognized.
“Took her onto the freeway island at 205 and I-5 where he raped and killed her he thought but he didn’t kill her. She survived,”
That man was Little.
He’s still serving a life sentence at the Oregon State Penitentiary.
His alleged involvement in the Cowden case, never proven by police.
“I’m sorry it opens old wounds,” said Davis. “I am ashamed. I am sorry. The Cowden family did not get justice. And I was a part of their not getting justice and it haunts me.”
The Cowden family murders of 1974 are recognized by some as one of the strangest unsolved murders in America.
To this day, Oregon State Police say there are no new leads and no new suspects.
Nobody has ever been charged with the crimes.
Amanda Rose is a multimedia journalist for NBC5 News. Amanda graduated from Columbia University earning a Master’s degree in Journalism. She also received a Bachelor’s degree in English with a specialization in literature from the University of British Columbia.
She’s a Los Angeles native, but is thrilled to return to the beautiful Pacific Northwest and is passionate about reporting on the criminal justice system.