http://www.minotdailynews.com/page/content.detail/id/514959.htmlA Little Girl Lost
Almost two years later, still no Reachelle
By DAVE CALDWELL, Staff Writer POSTED: May 8, 2008
Nearly two years after her disappearance, investigators are still baffled by the case of little Reachelle Marie Smith.
Reachelle was 3 when she was last seen in the apartment where she lived with her mother, Stephanie Smith, and her mother's live-in acquaintance Leigh Cowen.
Reachelle was last seen at around 10:30 p.m. on May 16, 2006, when she was put to bed by Cowen. Her case has garnered national attention, having been featured on Fox's America's Most Wanted and CBS' "Without a Trace"Ě and "The Morning Show."Ě But sadly, as time goes by, that national attention is slowly fading.
"After a couple of years, all that will slow down a little bit," said Sgt. Jason Sundbakken, who heads the investigation of the case at the Minot Police Department. ‚ÄúThe National Center for Missing and Exploited Children and the Lost Child Network and all these other agencies are involved in this. They're always keeping their ear to the ground and trying to help us out with things. That's always appreciated," he said Wednesday.
"We're still getting tips in," Sundbakken said. "Still trying to figure out a couple of puzzle pieces that we still have missing. Any information that we get that we didn't already have is going to point us in that direction."
Sundbakken said he feels confident that the areas that have investigated were searched thoroughly.
"North Dakota's a big, open place,"Ě he said. "There's lots of little hidey-holes, but what we covered, we feel we covered extensively. Does that mean we might not have missed something? We hope we did everything thoroughly enough that we can check that box off the list."
Sundbakken was asked if he thought he and/or the department were taking undue criticism due to the passage of time since Reachelle's disappearance.
"Not really,"Ě he said, saying that most of the angst actually seems to be from the police end. "Obviously, we're frustrated. We're still getting tips in but they're getting fewer and fewer, and more and more vague as time goes by. But we still get information in that we follow up on weekly, and we're hoping that continues until we‚'re at the point where we can come to some form of conclusion to this case."Ě
Capt. Todd Keller, head of investigations for the Ward County Sheriff's Department, said Wednesday that there have been no new developments in the case for some time.
"No leads or anything,"Ě Keller said. In the past, the sheriff's department has conducted searches when tips are presented, but have done none recently, according to Keller.
No matter what level of conventionality, the importance of the case dictates that most any lead be followed up on. Sundbakken says the department still hears occasionally from psychics who offer information, but not nearly as many as previously had contacted them.
"That's gone down an awful lot,"Ě he said. "I've spoken with at least one psychic in the past three to four months, and she provided some information that didn't really pan out. I followed through on it. I'm not willing to discount anything."
The van Cowen committed suicide in was found at Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge. That vast area was searched thoroughly, as were other remote locations.
Extensive searches of the Mouse River, which runs in front of the apartment where Reachelle lived near Oak Park, were conducted.
"We searched that area with the bloodhounds," Sundbakken said. "We searched pretty much the entire river channel and the surrounding areas from end to end. We also searched intensely up at the Des Lacs (National Wildlife) Refuge with bloodhounds, with foot searches and four-wheeler searches and equine searches."
Some suspicion in the case originally centered on Cowen's mother, who moved to Wichita, Kan., around the time of Reachelle's disappearance. Sundbakken said that he speaks to her from time to time, and he doesn't seem to harbor much suspicion toward her.
"Honestly, she is as much concerned as anybody,"Ě Sundbakken said. "With the knowledge that there's a potential that her son had something to do with Reachelle's disappearance, and she loved that little girl - she really did. For quite some time, she felt that little girl was her granddaughter, so she's very interested in coming up with a conclusion or figuring out where Reachelle is."Ě
Sundbakken is himself a father to two girls, one almost exactly the same age as Reachelle, which makes the case a little more personal to him. Reachelle's birthday in September will make her 6.
"It's frustrating, because you see her ‚Ä¶ I know if it were my little girl, I wouldn't give up until I either found her or where she was,"Ě he said. "As a detective, your job is to find the answers and to solve things, and there's just so many questions and not enough answers."
"To go for two years and still have this thing hanging over your head, and you really want to solve it, but you're just not able to. There's just a lack of information."
Sundbakken said that clues have been investigated and reinvestigated in an attempt to solve the mystery, but that he's not averse to accepting help when it's offered.
"Anytime I have somebody who's willing to take a look at something, it's just a new set of eyes," he said. "Sometimes when you've looked over the same thing for two years now, you miss the forest for the trees. Anytime I can have someone lend an ear or lend an eye, or whatever specialized skills, I'm more than willing to share."
"I'm more about finding this little girl than I'm worried about the pride of being wrong."Fact Box
Background on Smith‚'s disappearance
- Reachelle Smith is put to bed at around 10:30 p.m. on May 16.
- Leigh Cowen tells Reachelle's custodial mother, Stephanie Smith, with whom he is living, that Reachelle is staying with his mother at her residence at Minot Air Force Base.
- Cowen tells Smith on May 19 that his mother's car has broken down and Reachelle is still at the base.
- Cowen steals a van from Smith's residence in the early morning hours of May 22. When Smith discovers the missing van, she goes to the home of Cowen‚'s mother at Minot AFB, but discovers that Cowen's mother had moved to Wichita, Kan., the week before. Smith contacts the Minot Police Department to report Reachelle missing. An Amber Alert is issued that quickly goes nationwide.
- Kansas authorities search the home of Cowen's mother in Wichita, but turn up no evidence that Reachelle had ever been there.
- Cowen's body is found in the stolen van on a gravel road at the Upper Souris National Wildlife Refuge northwest of Minot. Cowen apparently committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning after hooking a hose to the exhaust pipe.
- Subsequent searches are conducted, including massive coordinated searches of area parks, horseback searches of rural areas and wildlife refuges and even the draining of a portion of the Mouse River near the Smith residence. None turn up any concrete evidence in the little girl's disappearance.