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Police close case of girl missing 15 years; point at suspect

May 25, 2021 GMT
FILE - In this May 24, 2006 file photo, searchers look for 3-year-old Reachelle Smith at the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge near Minot, N.D. Fifteen years after Smith disappeared, Minot's police chief announced Tuesday, May 25, 2021, that the case on the girl known as "Peanut" is closed and the only suspect in her disappearance killed her. Chief John Klug said police believe "without a doubt" that the girl was slain by Leigh Cowen, who killed himself about a week after Reachelle was last seen. Her body was never recovered. (AP Photo/Will Kincaid File)
FILE - In this May 24, 2006 file photo, searchers look for 3-year-old Reachelle Smith at the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge near Minot, N.D. Fifteen years after Smith disappeared, Minot's police chief announced Tuesday, May 25, 2021, that the case on the girl known as "Peanut" is closed and the only suspect in her disappearance killed her. Chief John Klug said police believe "without a doubt" that the girl was slain by Leigh Cowen, who killed himself about a week after Reachelle was last seen. Her body was never recovered. (AP Photo/Will Kincaid File)

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — Fifteen years after 3-year-old Reachelle Smith disappeared, Minot’s police chief announced Tuesday that the case on the girl known as “Peanut” is closed and that police believe the only suspect in her disappearance killed her.

Chief John Klug said police think “without a doubt” that the girl was slain by Leigh Cowen, who killed himself about a week after Reachelle was last seen. Her body was never recovered.

At a news conference Tuesday, Klug and Capt. Jason Sundbakken revealed previously undisclosed evidence, including that a “substantial amount” of Reachelle’s blood was found in a cooler at Cowen’s home and that neighbors and family reported he had been acting strangely after the girl’s disappearance.

Police said they still don’t know a motive. Klug said police had been hoping her remains would be found.

“We held on to some hope this would end differently,” Klug said.

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“Our hope is to offer hope and closure for the families ... so they can continue to restore their lives in the wake of tragedy,” he said.

The child was last seen May 16, 2006, when she went to bed in her Minot home. She was reported missing six days later by her aunt, Stephanie Smith, the child’s legal guardian.

Cowen had been living with Smith and was wanted on a parole violation. He claimed to be Reachelle’s father even though police said DNA tests proved he was not. Police always considered him the only suspect in the girl’s disappearance.

The Associated Press could not find a working telephone number Tuesday for Cowen’s mother, Ellen Loomis, who moved from Minot shortly before Reachelle disappeared. In 2006, she said she was as baffled as police.

“I don’t know the story,″ she said then. ”I wish I knew — it would be a lot easier on me. I just want her found. That’s all I want.″

Cowen’s body was found May 23, 2006, in a van in the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge, northwest of Minot. Authorities said he died from carbon monoxide poisoning about 12 hours before his body was found, after running a hose from the exhaust inside the vehicle.

Police said Cowen did not leave a note to explain why he killed himself, or any clues on Reachelle’s location.

Cowen was on probation for theft of property in Ward County and was being supervised in Fargo when he failed to report in as required. A warrant was issued for violating his probation and he was facing up to 18 months in prison.

Before Reachelle disappeared, Cowen had taken dozens of photos of her to take with him to prison, police said.

Cowen had told the child’s mother that Reachelle was staying with his own mother. Police later learned that Cowen’s mother had moved to Kansas and did not know the girl’s whereabouts.

Dan Draovitch, who was the city’s police chief when the girl went missing, said it was one of the most complex and frustrating cases his department had ever investigated. Police sought help from FBI behavioral scientists and even psychics in their search for the child.

Armies of authorities and volunteers scoured Minot and surrounding areas after she was reported missing. A river channel near the child’s home drew much interest early in the search. Divers dragged the water, while volunteers and bloodhounds searched the banks. The channel later was pumped dry.