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Search continues for 3-year-old N.D. girl

The disappearance of 3-year-old Reachelle Smith, who was last seen May 16, has been one of the most complex and frustrating cases ever investigated by Minot, N.D., police.
/ Source: staff and news service reports

Police Chief Dan Draovitch had difficulty sleeping the night before he handed in his badge after 38 years in law enforcement. It wasn’t his retirement keeping him awake — but a case he was leaving behind.

The disappearance of 3-year-old Reachelle Smith, who was last seen May 16, has been one of the most complex and frustrating cases ever investigated by his department, he said.

Searches have turned up no trace of the girl known as “Peanut.” And leads in the case have dried up.

“I haven’t been this frustrated in years — it’s driving me crazy,” Draovitch said as he cleared out his office on his last day with the department. “It feels terrible to leave this undone. But at the same time, it will be left in very capable hands.”

Armies of authorities and volunteers have scoured Minot and surrounding areas since May 22, when Reachelle was reported missing by her aunt, Stephanie Smith, 24, her legal guardian.

Parolee, now dead, suspected in disappearance
Reachelle was believed to have been with Leigh Cowen, a man wanted on a parole violation who had been living with Smith and who claimed to be Reachelle’s father, even though police say DNA tests proved he was not.

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

There was no sign of Reachelle.

Law enforcement officers have sought help from FBI behavioral scientists and even psychics in their search. Smith and her sister Samantha, the child’s biological mother, held a news conference to issue a tearful plea for her return. Samantha Smith, 22, had given legal custody of Reachelle to her sister at birth, Draovitch said.

A river channel near the child’s home drew much interest from authorities early in the search. Divers dragged the water, while volunteers and bloodhounds searched the banks. The channel later was pumped dry.

“We’ve floated it, drained it, dove it, dogged it and walked it,” said the lead investigator, Capt. Al Hanson. “Nothing.”

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 in April for his arrest on charges of violating his probation, and he was facing up to 18 months in prison, Hanson said.

Draovitch said Cowen did not leave any clues about why he killed himself or any clues to Reachelle. Still, police consider him the only suspect in the girl’s disappearance.

“Everything we’ve run down leads back to him,” Hanson said.

Cowen’s mother, Ellen Loomis, of Derby, Kan., said her son turned 22 on May 16, the day Reachelle was last seen. She said she was as baffled officials were.

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

Draovitch, 62, said that many of the officers in the department were “physically and emotionally drained” from the case but that no one had given up. “People have come together like you would not believe,” he said.

But Strandberg said recently that no new leads had come in for several days. He told NBC affiliate KFYR-TV of Bismarck that hope that the girl would be found alive was starting to fade.

The Associated Press and NBC affiliate KFYR-TV contributed to this report.