Mysterious vanishings come in all types, from individuals who have seemed to step off the face of the earth, to those who have spontaneously ceased to exist in full view of others and even whole groups of people who have simply vanished without a trace. One subset of the phenomena of vanishing groups of people is that of whole families that have gone missing under mysterious circumstances, and have sometimes turned up again later to pose more enigmas than answers. What happened to these people, where did they go and what transpired during their absence? Whatever the answer to these questions may be, cases of mysterious missing families remain a spooky fixture upon the landscape of bizarre vanishings and unsolved crimes.
One of the eerier such cases is that of the Cowden family, which consisted of father Richard Cowden, 28, his wife Belinda, 22, their 5-year-old son David, and their 5-month-old daughter Melissa, who all lived in a peaceful, cozy area of White City, Oregon. On Labor Day weekend of 1974, the family went for a family camping trip to the the Rogue River National Forest Campground, in the remote Siskiyou Mountains of Oregon near the border with California. The family had planned to camp there through to Sunday, September 1, and on that morning at around 9AM Richard and David were seen at a general store in the nearby town of Copper, Oregon, buying some milk. It would be the last time any of the Cowden family would ever be seen alive.
That evening the family had made plans to have dinner at the home of Belinda’s mother, but they failed to arrive. The concerned mother waited several hours for them and then decided to drive out to the campsite, which was not far, in order to see what was taking them so long. When she arrived, she found the quart of milk sitting on a picnic table, along with Melissa’s diapers and Belinda’s purse set out, as well as the family car parked just where it belonged. The campsite in general seemed totally undisturbed, as if the family would be returning at any moment. After snooping around some more, the mother came across Richard’s watch and wallet lying on the ground by a nearby creek. Becoming steadily unsettled, Belinda’s mother waited about an hour for the family to return but they never did.
The Cowden family was reported as missing, and authorities paid a visit to the family’s campsite to have a look around. There they found fishing poles laid against a tree and unused cooking utensils carefully laid out on a tree stump. The car seemed to be untouched, and there was no sign of anything missing or rummaged through. There was no sign of foul play or a struggle, and indeed the whole scene was eerily calm, with one state trooper named Lee Rickson commenting, “That camp sure was spooky. Even the milk was still on the table.” Oddly, the family’s swimsuits were missing, as if they had all gone out for a casual swim. These were the only things that were found to be missing from the camp, and even the wallet and purse had money and credit cards in them. The family dog was found unharmed about 5 miles from the camp.
A massive search was launched of the area, yet no sign of the missing family could be found, as if they had just vanished into thin air. Various theories were put forward at the time as to what could have happened to them. One was that they might have gone swimming and drowned, but no trace of the bodies could be found anywhere along the small creek. Another idea was that they may have disappeared willingly, but the family had no major debts or enemies, and all seemed to be happy and well adjusted. Authorities were baffled, and just about the only thing they were able to agree on was that robbery had likely not been a motive as nothing had been stolen. The Cowden vanishings became one of the weirdest disappearances in Oregon history and made heavy rounds in the media at the time. During the investigation, all sorts of leads came out of the woodwork, including sightings of the family and even tips from psychics, but none of them led anywhere.
Then, in April of 1975, after over 7 months of a baffling lack of clues and false leads, two hunters came across what appeared to be human remains out in a remote forested area. Authorities called to the scene would uncover four decomposing corpses, those of two adults and two children, and they were determined to be those of the Cowden family. David and Belinda Cowden’s bodies, along with that of Melissa, were found stuffed into a cave on a steep hillside about 7 miles from their campsite, which had been blocked off with rocks to hide the macabre sight within. The cave was only around 100 feet from an area that had been heavily searched by police at the time of the disappearances. Both David and Belinda were found to have been shot with .22 caliber bullets, while little Melissa displayed severe blunt trauma to her head. Richard’s body was found in the open a short distance away from the cave, but his corpse was too badly decomposed to be able to discern the cause of death and it remains a mystery, although he is speculated to have died from a gunshot.
It was at first suspected that Richard Cowden had murdered his family and then committed suicide, but a thorough search of the area turned up no weapons of any kind. It was then speculated that they had met with some sort of foul play. One of the scenarios put forward by Lt. Mark Kezar of the Oregon State Police, who coordinated the investigation, was that they had been abducted at gunpoint after they had gone off swimming in the creek and then been driven some distance away, forced up the hillside, and then shot execution style, although no one has any idea of who did it or why. Suspicion was leveled at Cowden’s father because he had committed suicide shortly after the vanishings, but he would later be cleared. Kezar has explained of other possible culprits:
You have to remember, it was summer and there were all sorts of people in that area— so-called hippie types, a motorcycle group and so on.
Nevertheless, an actual suspect remained elusive until authorities eventually homed in on a convicted murderer and rapist by the name of Dwain Lee Little, who had done time for the assault and killing of a teenager in 1964. Little, who had been released on parole in 1974, was found to have been buying gas in the general vicinity of the Cowden campground shortly before their disappearance. However, there was never enough evidence to conclusively link Little to the crime, and although he would eventually be arrested and convicted of the unrelated murder and rape of a woman in 1980, it remains unknown if he had any hand in the Cowden family murders and he has never confessed to the crime. The case remains active and just as mysterious as ever. What happened to the Cowden family? Nobody knows.
Another unsolved mysterious disappearance that made national headlines and ended in tragedy is the case of the McStay family of Fallbrook, California, which was comprised of Joseph McStay, 40, his wife Summer, 43, and their two children Gianni, 4, and Joseph Jr., age 3. In the early morning hours of February 4, 2010, the family suddenly and inexplicably piled into their SUV and left home, never to return. A search of the missing family’s home turned up no sign of any foul play or struggle, but it was clear they had left in a hurry, including a carton of eggs left out on the kitchen counter and two child-sized bowls of freshly popped popcorn laid out on the sofa. The dogs were found to be unharmed and out pacing about in the backyard.
An investigation into the sudden disappearance turned up numerous strange clues. On the evening of February 4, Joseph McStay had placed a call from his cell phone to his business associate, Chase Merritt, but the call went unanswered because Merritt was in the middle of watching a movie. The last known use of the cell phone was a ping received by a tower in Fallbrook on that same day. All attempts to call the cell phone met with failure.
A search of the family computer turned up some strange searches, notably an extensive search for Spanish language lessons and a search for “What documents do children need for traveling to Mexico?” Authorities became convinced that the family had decided to escape for unknown reasons to Mexico, and this theory was bolstered by grainy surveillance footage at the border that seemed to show a family resembling the McStays crossing a pedestrian gate over the border, but since the the video quality is poor it is unclear if this was actually them or not. Also strange was that the McStays had withdrawn no money from their bank account, which seems odd if they were planning on a prolonged trip. Additionally, no withdrawals were made even long after the disappearance. It also turned out that Summer’s passport had expired. It would later be learned that their SUV had been found at a strip mall in San Ysidro, near the Mexican border on February 8. The car had apparently been abandoned there at 5:30 PM that day and then finally towed at 11PM, and showed no sign of forced entry or anything missing. No other sign of the missing family could be found.
The bizarre case was heavily featured in the news and on various shows on such matters such as America’s Most Wanted, Disappeared, Nancy Grace, and Unsolved Mysteries, but there was very little forthcoming new evidence. There were many alleged sightings of the family in Mexico and even as far away as Haiti and The Dominican Republic, but these led nowhere. Speculation raged, covering a range of ideas including that they had been murdered, that they had gone to Mexico to escape some undefined threat or to start a new life, that they had tried to leave behind financial problems, or that they had gone on a trip only to get lost out in the desert somewhere. There was little evidence to support any of these ideas, and it seemed that the McStay family had simply ceased to exist.
A lot of suspicion was place on Joseph McStay’s business partner, Chase Merritt. Not only had Merritt been the last person to have been contacted by Joseph, one of the last to have seen them alive, and had been the one to notice that they had vanished, but he also had a criminal past, with felony convictions for burglary and receiving stolen property. On top of this, Merritt admitted that he had spent around an hour with the family shortly before they vanished. Throughout all of this, Merritt denied any involvement in their disappearance and even allowed himself to be put through a polygraph test, which he passed. Joseph McStay’s father Patrick also did not think that Merritt had anything to do with his son’s vanishing. Some suspicion was also at times pointed at Summer McStay and Summer’s ex-boyfriend, Vick W. Johansen, who had allegedly remained obsessed with her, but authorities were unable to find any strong evidence of their involvement.
The whereabouts and ultimate fate of the McStay family remained a perplexing, profound, and much debated mystery for years until November 11, 2013, when a motorcyclist in the desert near Victorville, California came across two shallow graves out in the badlands. The graves contained the remains of four bodies that would shortly after be confirmed as being those of the McStay family. Analysis of the bodies seemed to show that all four members of the family had died of severe blunt trauma to the head, likely by a 3 pound sledgehammer which was found resting with the bodies. Joseph’s skeletal remains were found with a length of extension cord wrapped around the neck and wrapped in a white towel.
The finding of the bodies and the presence of his DNA on the McStay’s car has caused authorities to arrest and accuse Chase Merritt of the murders. Prosecutors in the case have claimed that the motive behind the killings was pure and simple greed, and that Merritt was a degenerate gambler who had written $21,000 in check on McStay’s business account in the days after the family’s disappearance. Despite all of this, there has been no solid evidence to definitively link Merritt to the crime, and it remains unsolved as the trial slogs through numerous delays.
An equally ominous case revolves around an Alaskan family who in 2014 vanished without a trace. Brandon Jividen, 37, his girlfriend, Rebecca Adams, 22, and Adams’ two children Michelle Hundley, 5, and Jaracca Hundley, 3, of the small town of Kenai, Alaska, about 160 miles from Anchorage, suddenly went missing from their apartment on May 27, 2014. On May 31, concerned neighbor contacted police saying that they had seen no sign of the family for several days, and when authorities arrived they found their two cars parked outside and the apartment untouched and not missing anything, with no sign of forced entry or anything our of the ordinary. However, there was no sign of where the family or their dog had gone. A somewhat sinister clue was turned up when Rebecca’s sister, Lanell Adams, told police that her sister had been acting oddly in the days leading up to the disappearance. She would later tell about the last time they spoke thus:
She sounded very distressed. She just told me: ‘Know that I love you,’ and she had to get off the phone very quickly. I asked her, Becca, are you OK?’ She said, ‘Don’t ask me that right now. Just know that I love you.’
Searchers scoured the area in and around the family home, which expanded to include the FBI, aircraft and search and rescue dogs, but no sign of them could be found. The search made national headlines and was the most intensive search operation Kenai had ever seen. In May of 2015, human remains and some scraps of clothing were found in a grassy area about 15 yards off a trail northwest of Kenai, less than a mile from the family’s home, that were believed to possibly be linked to the missing family. Also found at the scene were the remains of a dog and two handguns lying in close proximity to Jividen’s body. The condition of the remains and the guns have caused authorities to speculate that Brandon Jividen had shot and killed his girlfriend, her kids, and their dog before turning the gun on himself in a murder suicide, but it remains unclear if this is what really happened or not.
Some disappearances of families have not ended in tragedy, but have rather remained enigmas. In 2012, Jo Ann Bain and her daughters Adrienne, 14, Alexandria, 12, and Kyliyah, 8, were last seen leaving their home in Whiteville, Tennessee, after which they proceeded to vanish without a trace. A few days after their disappearance, Bain’s car was found abandoned on a country road around 3 miles from their residence and there was found to be no signs of anything stolen or amiss. No calls were placed from Bain’s cell phone in the time since her disappearance and her credit cards remained unused. Police turned their attention on a family friend named Adam Christopher Mayes, 35, as a person of interest, but he would later oddly disappear himself.
Strangely, Bain’s Facebook page has since seen some strange activity. Days after her disappearance there were some anomalous posts, and it even accepted a friend request, although authorities believe it was not her who did it. In the meantime, Jo Ann’s husband, Gary Bain, posted on the page saying that he loved her and the kids, and imploring her to come home. The fate of Jo Ann Bain and her three children remains mysterious.
Another family whose whereabouts remain unknown is the family of Evie Kenworthy, 21, her boyfriend Robert Moseley, 26, and their three children, ages 1, 2 and 4, of Oklahoma. In 2016, Kenworthy told her mother they were going on a short trip to Tulsa, after which they disappeared without a trace. When they did not return as expected, relatives didn’t think much of it, as they just assumed they were having a good time and had decided to stay longer, but as the days stretched on with no contact and cell phone calls and emails going unanswered, the family began to worry and authorities were contacted. It was found that none of their clothes had been taken on the trip except for those of Robert Moseley, and that he left behind his cell phone. Evie’s mother, Debbie Kenworthy, has said of the whole strange situation thus:
This is highly unusual. My daughter is the type of person who is always in contact with her family, but there’s been nothing. My daughter didn’t take any of her clothes, or the kids’ clothes, but her boyfriend took all of his clothes. He took everything except his cell phone, which I find unusual. Him taking everything sounds like he knew they weren’t coming back, but with my daughter not taking anything makes me think she thought she was. None of it makes any sense. On a scale of one to 10, this is like alien abduction — it’s abnormal.
We may never know what happened to these doomed families. The answers to their deaths, vanishing, or both may forever remain cloaked in shadows beyond our reach. These are cases that show that mysterious vanishings and murders go far beyond just individuals, and that sometimes whole families can get pulled into the realm of bizarre mysteries, speculation, and stubborn cold cases, and as much as we may pick through their enigmas for answers the only ones that truly know what happened are the missing themselves.