Minot Police say Reachelle Smith was murdered

Case closed

Andrea Johnson/MDN Capt. Jason Sundbakken, left, and Chief John Klug of the Minot Police Department speak about the conclusion of the Reachelle Smith case at a press conference on Tuesday at Minot City Hall.

Minot Police announced at a press conference Tuesday that they have concluded that there is overwhelming evidence that 3-year-old Reachelle Smith was murdered in May 2006 in Minot by family friend Leigh Cowen, who killed himself at the Upper Souris Wildlife Refuge five days later.

The child’s remains have never been found, but police reviewed evidence and witness statements in the case and concluded that the child is dead and Cowen was the only one responsible. The case will be closed unless new evidence is presented.

Capt. Jason Sundbakken, one of the primary investigators involved in the case, said the girl’s mother told police that Cowen came home intoxicated shortly before 1 a.m. on May 17, 2006 and he had been watching television when she went to bed a short time later. Reachelle was sleeping on the other couch in the living room.

At some time during the early morning hours of May 17, according to statements made to police, a neighbor overheard Reachelle crying in the apartment and tried to check on her. However, the neighbor wasn’t able to make contact with anyone in the Smith apartment and a short time later the lights were turned out.

The same neighbor saw Cowen pull up to the apartment in the family van later that morning and remove a large red cooler from the back of the van and carry it into the apartment. The neighbor told police that Cowen would not make eye contact, was trying to avoid people and was acting strangely. Another neighbor saw Cowen carrying trash out to a Dumpster sometime later and also said Cowen was acting oddly. During the investigation, police found the cooler that Cowen had seen been carrying within the Smith apartment. The cooler contained a household chemical and rags, indication that someone had tried to clean out the cooler, that police deemed suspicious. It was later sent off the state crime lab for analysis and was found to contain a substantial amount of Reachelle’s blood. Sundbakken said the blood was found under the hinge of the cooler and there was enough blood to tell police that “something very bad had happened” to Reachelle.

Andrea Johnson/MDN Reachelle Smith was 3 when she disappeared on May 17, 2006. Minot police announced Tuesday that they have concluded that Reachelle was murdered by Leigh Cowen, who killed himself five days later.

Sundbakken said police dogs also had tracked Reachelle’s scent from the apartment, across 16th Street to the river channel across the street from the apartment.

It took Reachelle’s mother five days to report the 3-year-old missing to police. Cowen had told her that he had left Reachelle with his own mother, which later turned out not to be the case, and told the woman other lies about her whereabouts. Cowen and Reachelle’s mother went fishing together for several hours on May 22, 2006, at the Upper Souris Wildlife Refuge and she insisted that they stop at the Minot Air Force Visitors Center on their way back, where she learned that Cowen’s mother had left the base and moved to Kansas.

Reachelle’s mother began panicking and started making calls to try to locate Reachelle. The following day, she woke up to find that Cowen was gone with her van. He left behind a note saying he was going out to get cigarettes but did not return. Reachelle’s mother filed a police report that afternoon and the official investigation into Reachelle’s disappearance began.

Cowen was found dead of carbon monoxide poisoning the following day at the Upper Souris Wildlife Refuge. His death was ruled a suicide.

He left behind no note or explanation of the events of that night, what he did to Reachelle or where he might have disposed of her remains.

Police said Tuesday that there had never been any prior abuse complaints made about Cowen or any member of Reachelle’s family and there had been no indication that she was in any danger in her home.

Sundbakken said extensive searches were conducted but her remains were never located.

Sundbakken said it took 15 years for police to close the case, despite the physical and circumstantial evidence the department had, because they and the family had always held out some hope for another outcome.

Over the years, Reachelle’s picture, the most recent one age-progressed to what she might have looked like at age 18, have appeared on missing children websites along with a plea for information about her whereabouts.

Police said it is now time to conclude the case and give them closure. Her heartbroken family told police they are not interested in discussing the case publicly and asked for privacy.


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