Episode 081: Reachelle Marie Smith

July 3, 2023

When a three-year-old girl vanishes in the night, her family and her community are desperate to find her. What happened to Reachelle?

Episode Media
Reachelle Marie Smith
Reachelle Marie Smith
Reachelle with Leigh Cowen
Reachelle’s missing poster (NCMEC)
Episode Sources
Episode Transcript

Welcome back to Bite-Sized Crime. This week I’m bringing you a tragic case that unfortunately does not have satisfying answers. A warning before we begin: cases involving children are often the most difficult to process. This episode discusses sensitive topics, so listener discretion is advised.

Reachelle Marie Smith was born on September 10, 2002 in Minot, North Dakota. At the time of her birth, her mother Samantha was just 18 years old and was not prepared to take care of an infant. Samantha decided to transfer custody of Reachelle to her older sister Stephanie, knowing that it would be a much more stable environment for her daughter. But Samantha was still very involved in Reachelle’s life, and the tiny baby grew into a sweet, bubbly little girl.

By the spring of 2006, Reachelle was a happy, thriving three-year-old. She knew how to sing her ABC’s and carried her favorite doll around wherever she went. She liked to put puzzles together and loved to have her picture taken, smiling brightly whenever a camera appeared. Her family called her “Peanut”, and she was the joy of their lives.

On the evening of May 16, Stephanie was in the living room watching TV with Reachelle fast asleep on the couch, snuggled up with her favorite doll. Stephanie’s roommate Leigh, who lived in the basement apartment, came home shortly after midnight and joined Stephanie on the couch for a while before Stephanie decided to go upstairs to bed. She left Reachelle sleeping on the couch, not wanting to disturb her. But when Stephanie woke the next morning and went to check on Reachelle, the little girl was gone.

Trying not to panic, Stephanie asked Leigh where Reachelle was. Leigh told her not to worry – his mother had stopped by earlier that morning to pick her up and would be taking care of her for a few days.

Stephanie was surprised but relieved. Leigh’s mother Ellen lived on Minot Air Force Base and would often babysit Reachelle. It wasn’t that strange for her to want to spend extra time with the little girl. In fact, Ellen treated Reachelle like her own grandchild – partly because Leigh claimed to be Reachelle’s father.

Leigh Cowen had known Stephanie and her sister Samantha for years, and he had been around Reachelle since she was a baby. He told everyone that he was Reachelle’s father, and even though it wasn’t true, the Smith sisters just went along with it. Leigh loved Reachelle like she really was his daughter, and the little girl adored him. There wasn’t any harm in letting Leigh pretend to be Reachelle’s dad.

So when Leigh told Stephanie that Reachelle would be with his mom for a few days, she believed him – she didn’t have any reason not to.

But when a few days passed and Stephanie hadn’t heard from Ellen or Reachelle, she started to worry. Surely they should have checked in by now.

By Sunday, Stephanie’s worry had turned into legitimate concern. She and Leigh had gone fishing early that morning, and on their way back, Stephanie insisted that they stop by the air force base to check on Reachelle. There, she was shocked to learn that Leigh’s mother was no longer at the base; she had moved to Kansas.

Of course, Leigh was quick with an explanation, and Stephanie wanted to believe him. But something just didn’t feel right. She spent the rest of the day calling everyone she knew, hoping that someone had seen Reachelle. But when she fell into bed late that night, she still didn’t have any answers.

The next morning, Stephanie awoke to find her car gone and a note from Leigh left behind. He said was going out to get cigarettes and would be right back. But Leigh didn’t return, and for Stephanie, this was the moment she knew that something was very, very wrong. She finally called the Minot Police Department for help.

Immediately, an Amber Alert was issued for 3-year-old Reachelle Marie Smith. She was believed to be with 22-year-old Leigh Cowen, who was driving a teal 1995 Ford van with North Dakota license plates.

Investigators tracked down Leigh’s mother and learned that she had moved to Kansas days before Reachelle had disappeared and had no idea she was even missing. She was also shocked to learn that she wasn’t Reachelle’s biological grandmother – her son had been lying to her for years. Ellen later told the Bismarck Tribune, “I don’t know the story. I wish I knew – it would be a lot easier on me. I just want her found. That’s all I want.”

That’s what everyone wanted. But by the time the Amber Alert was issued, Reachelle had been missing for six days. Her family had believed she was with Ellen all that time, but Ellen hadn’t even been in North Dakota. If Leigh truly was responsible for Reachelle’s disappearance as investigators believed, where had he been keeping her?

The family desperately hoped that Reachelle was safe somewhere, that Leigh was taking care of her. He loved Reachelle like a daughter, he would never do anything to hurt her.

But as investigators began to dig into Leigh Cowen, they became increasingly concerned for Reachelle’s welfare.

According to the Bismarck Tribune, Leigh had been on probation in Ward County for a previous theft conviction when he failed to report to his probation officer. A warrant for his arrest was issued in April of 2006, a month before Reachelle’s disappearance. Leigh was facing up to 18 months in prison for violating his parole, and he was getting desperate.

Although DNA tests had long ago proven that Leigh was not Reachelle’s father, he continued to claim that he was. Samantha and Stephanie seemed to think it was just an act, but investigators worried that Leigh was in denial, that he truly believed he was Reachelle’s father. When he learned that he was about to be sent away from her, he couldn’t handle it.

Police Chief Dan Dravovitch told the Tribune that before Reachelle disappeared, Leigh had taken dozens of photographs of the little girl, printing them out so he could take them to prison with him. It’s unclear if Stephanie or Samantha knew about this, but investigators found it unsettling. Did this speak of an unhealthy obsession? Leigh had never shown any signs of violence, but what if he had snapped? They had to find him, and soon.

But less than 24 hours into the search, they received a devastating blow: Leigh Cowen was dead.

On the afternoon of May 23rd, police found the stolen van parked on a remote gravel road in the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge, an hour north of Minot. Inside the van was the body of Leigh Cowen. An autopsy would later determine that he had died of carbon monoxide poisoning. Based on the evidence at the scene, investigators believed that Leigh had taken his own life.

Police searched the van for any clues that might lead them to Reachelle, but the little girl was nowhere to be seen, and this time, Leigh had not left a note behind. All they could do was expand their search area and hope that Reachelle would be found alive.

Law enforcement search teams were joined by members of the National Guard as they scoured the wildlife refuge. Riders on horseback and ATVs covered over 2,000 acres of terrain in the days following the discovery of the van. But they didn’t find Reachelle.

Captain Todd Keller of the Ward County Sheriff’s Department told the Tribune, “We really didn’t have any indication that she was here. The only reason we wanted to search this area so thoroughly was that he was found here.”

Minot Police sent dive teams to the Souris River in Oak Park, which was close to the home where Stephanie and Reachelle lived. They even lowered the water in the river channel to aid in the search efforts. Police Captain Al Hanson told the Tribune, “There’s one section of the river that we’re interested in that’s close to the house. We’ve boated it, walked it, and dove it. We just need to go that one more extra step to make sure that box has been checked, that we’ve done everything we can to look at that particular area.”

Teams searched the city landfill, sifting through mounds of garbage, looking for any clues that may prove useful. They searched parks and forests, and they followed up on every lead. Hanson said, “We’re going where the evidence takes us. We’re not going to leave any leaf unturned. We’re not going to close the door on other suspects.”

Police really did put in the work on Reachelle’s case. Many off-duty officers and community members volunteered their time to help with the search. Everyone believed that it was only a matter of time before Reachelle was found.

Investigators tried new tactics, speaking with everyone from behavioral scientists at the FBI to local psychics. They called in experts from the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, and they continued to search every square inch of Minot and the surrounding areas. They followed every single lead, no matter how far-fetched it may have seemed.

In early June, the Ward County Sheriff’s Department organized a massive search on horseback, calling on riders from across the state to join in. For an entire day, hundreds of horses and riders covered over 250 miles of back roads and open fields, looking in ditches and drainpipes. But the day ended without any sign of Reachelle. Chief Deputy Dave Bosh said, “We searched everything we had set out to search this morning and very little results… nothing that I can really link to this.”

The weeks and months continued to pass, and Reachelle’s family was losing hope. Stephanie spoke with the Tribune about her need for answers. “I don’t have Reachelle. I can’t hug her, I can’t kiss her, I can’t take her to Grandma’s house… Just not knowing is the problem. I need to know.”

Reachelle’s fourth birthday came and went, and soon the family was celebrating their first Christmas without her. Then, before they knew it, they were marking the one year anniversary of Reachelle’s disappearance.

Still, Stephanie and Samantha were holding out hope that Reachelle was alive. Samantha told the Tribune, “I still have nothing but hope. My gut feeling is she’s alive and somebody has her and they’re hiding her. It’s only a matter of time until we find her.”

The sisters believed that Leigh had been working with someone, that that person still had Reachelle and was keeping her hidden. “We think he wanted to take off with her and we think he had help. When an Amber Alert was issued, he realized he could not be with her and killed himself.”

Investigators believed that Leigh was solely responsible for Reachelle’s disappearance, and the fact that she was still missing was disheartening. Multiple law enforcement officers expressed regret when talking about the case. Sheriff Vern Erck told the Tribune, “Young girl like this – it is so frustrating that she has not been found. This ranks right up there as the most frustrating case I’ve been involved in, and I just hate to leave any kind of case like this open.”

But investigators did leave the case open, and they continued to track down leads as the years passed. In 2009, they released an age-progressed photograph of Reachelle, who would have been 7 years old. In 2020, they released another photo of an 18-year-old Reachelle. There was always hope that she would be found.

Then, in May of 2021, fifteen years after her disappearance, Minot Police announced that they were officially closing Reachelle’s case.

In a press conference, Police Chief John Klug stated that there was overwhelming evidence that Reachelle had been murdered by Leigh Cowen in May of 2006.

A new timeline was revealed, including information that had never been released to the public. According to investigators, Leigh Cowen had gone out on the night of May 16th to celebrate his birthday with friends. When he returned home drunk around 1am, he joined Stephanie in the living room to watch TV while Reachelle slept on the couch nearby. After Stephanie went to bed, investigators believe Leigh killed Reachelle, although the exact circumstances of her death are unknown.

A neighbor later told police that they heard Reachelle crying in the early morning hours, and it caused them enough concern that they went over to knock on the door. But no one answered, so the neighbor went back to their own home. Several hours later, the neighbor recalled seeing Stephanie’s teal van pull up to the house. They watched as Leigh got out of the vehicle and started unloading items from the back, including a large red cooler, which he carried inside.

A different neighbor told police that they saw Leigh around that same time carrying bags of trash out to the dumpster. Both neighbors stated that Leigh was acting strangely, clearly trying to avoid eye contact and being uncharacteristically standoffish.

During the initial investigation, detectives recovered the red cooler and found that it contained rags and a bottle of ammonia, as if someone had been trying to wipe it clean. When police sent the items off for analysis, they learned that the cooler had “a substantial amount of Reachelle’s blood,” specifically in the hinge of the cooler. Based on the amount of blood in the cooler and the other evidence at the scene, it was clear that Reachelle had been seriously injured. Investigators believe that after Leigh killed Reachelle, he put her body in the red cooler, then drove off in the teal van to dispose of her remains at an unknown location.

Police Captain Jason Sundbakken told reporters that police dogs had tracked Reachelle’s scent from the home to the river channel across the street, the same channel they later drained and searched. But of course, they didn’t find Reachelle in the channel, and by that time, Leigh Cowen was gone. “When his explanation of her location began to unravel — when his lies began to unravel — that’s the point in which he took his own life.”

Captain Sundbakken addressed the significant gap between when Reachelle disappeared and when she was reported missing. “Clearly those days could have provided us access to Mr. Cowen to get answers to the questions that we still have. But hindsight’s 20/20. He was deceptive, trying to cover the fact that he did something. We don’t know his motive, we don’t know the results of what happened. We can say those things pretty clearly now. Those five days would’ve been important just for us to be able to speak with him.”

Unfortunately, we will never know the truth of what happened that night. Leigh Cowen is gone, and he took his secrets to the grave, leaving a trail of devastation in his wake. He took the life of a bright, beautiful child, a little girl who had only just begun to live. She deserved so much more.

Reachelle’s family has chosen not to speak to the media about the case anymore, preferring to grieve in private. Chief Klug expressed his wishes for the family, saying, “We held on to some hope this would end differently. Our hope is to offer hope and closure for the families… so they can continue to restore their lives in the wake of tragedy.”