MINOT, N.D. — A child who went missing 15 years ago in Minot died at the hands of her adoptive mother's roommate, police said Tuesday, May 25, as they announced the end of their investigation.
Three-year-old Reachelle Smith was last seen by her biological aunt and adoptive mother, Stephanie Smith, on May 16, 2006.
At the time, Stephanie Smith’s roommate and family friend, Leigh Cowen, claimed the girl was with his mother for a few days — a claim that turned out not to be true, police said.
Cowen disappeared with Stephanie Smith’s van soon after Reachelle Smith disappeared, and the next day, the van was found with Cowen’s body inside, his death caused by carbon monoxide poisoning. Cowen took his own life as his story about the toddler's location started to unravel, police said.
There is still no sign where Reachelle Smith's body might be. Police said there is no indication anyone other than Cowen was involved in the girl's disappearance and death.
Minot Police Chief John Klug acknowledged at the Tuesday news conference that the public might have questions about why law enforcement officials decided to announce their findings 15 years later.
“Much like the family, we held onto some hope that there was some chance that this would end differently," Klug said. "But upon review … the overwhelming evidence shows that's not the case. It's time for closure for the family, for the community, and for the department."
Klug said a timeline and key evidence show Reachelle Smith was murdered in May of 2006, even though her body was never recovered.
“This case will be closed and no further investigation will be conducted unless some kind of compelling information would be brought to our attention or if her remains are recovered,” Klug said.
Capt. Jason Sundbakken, one of the primary investigators of Reachelle Smith's disappearance, said he recently conducted a case review, along with Capt. Dale Plessas, who brought a “fresh set of eyes to the case.”
Together, they came up with this timeline:
May 16, 2006: Cowen, who lived in the basement of the apartment where Reachelle Smith lived with her mother, Stephanie Smith, went out to celebrate his birthday with friends.
May 17, 2006: Cowen returns home, intoxicated, around 12:55 a.m. A few minutes later, when Stephanie Smith goes to bed, Cowen is on a couch watching TV as Reachelle Smith sleeps on another couch nearby.
At some point in the early morning, a neighbor heard the 3-year-old crying. The neighbor tried to make contact but was unable to.
Hours later, the same neighbor sees Cowen pull into the apartment complex with Stephanie Smith’s van.
“At that time he was acting strange," Sundbakken said. "He didn't make eye contact. He was trying to stay away from people.”
Cowen removed a red cooler and other items from the back of the van.
“That's information that we had never released to the public,” Sundbakken said.
Around 10:30 that morning, Stephanie Smith wakes up to find her daughter gone and Cowen already awake and dressed — which was unusual for him, police said.
Cowen tells Stephanie Smith that the toddler is staying with his mother for a few days at Minot Air Force Base.
During that same time, a different neighbor sees Cowen going out to a waste bin with a bag of garbage, acting “very strange and standoffish.”
May 21, 2006: Stephanie Smith and Cowen go fishing, and on the way back, Smith insists they stop by the Air Force base to determine if Cowen’s mother actually had the girl. She discovers Cowen’s mother had recently moved to Kansas.
Stephanie Smith begins contacting other family friends to see where the girl might be.
May 22, 2006: Stephanie Smith awakens to find Cowen and her family van gone. He left a note saying he was going to pick up cigarettes, but he never returns and police are contacted.
That afternoon, an Amber Alert is issued for Reachelle, while the apartment and various locations around town are searched, including the Souris River.
May 23, 2006: The missing van is found with Leigh Cowen’s body inside. The medical examiner’s office determined he died of self-inflicted carbon monoxide poisoning. A hose from the basement apartment had been cut and used to pipe exhaust into the vehicle.
May 27, 2006: Police discover fresh tracks in dust leading to the large red cooler in Cowen’s basement apartment. It contained ammonia and rags, apparently used to clean whatever had been in the cooler. The state medical examiner determined it also contained a substantial amount of Reachelle Smith’s blood.
Police dogs tracked Reachelle Smith’s scent to the river channel across the street from the apartment, but authorities found no other clues.
Police determined the only explanation for Reachelle Smith’s disappearance was that Leigh Cowen killed her early May 17, 2006, and disposed of her body in an unknown location, Sundbakken said.
“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,” Sundbakken said.
Klug said the family of Reachelle Smith is "heartbroken" and has asked for privacy.
“They don't have any interest in talking about this case any further,” Klug said.