By Julie Ann Madden
A girl’s purse containing a driver’s license, two notes from high school classmates and a penny dated 1959.
A girl’s watch.
Three Catholic medallions, one of which is the Sacred Heart of Jesus.
These were just part of the evidence law enforcement investigators found inside a 1960 Studebaker Lark, which was found Sept. 23, 2013, buried upside down in Brule Creek under a bridge on 310th Street, east of 471st Avenue, in rural Union County.
On April 15, South Dakota authorities announced the results of that investigation at a press conference at the Union County Courthouse.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley told the press and public present the two bodies found inside the Studebaker were positively identified as the remains of Pamella Jackson and Cheryl Miller, the 17-year-old girls who had disappeared on May 29, 1971.
In addition, the forensic pathologist and anthropologist reports indicate there was no type of injury that would be consistent or caused by foul play or inappropriate conduct, he said.
The conclusion was it was simply a car accident whereby the vehicle, which was eastbound on the gravel 310th Street, came to a stop upside down in the creek with the girls in the front driver and passenger area, said Jackson.
Evidence found at the accident site, along with witnesses’ statements taken 42 years ago, also showed no indication of alcohol as a contributing factor.
What is known is the girls visited Miller’s grandmother at a hospital at about 9:30 p.m. the evening they disappeared. Then they met three high school boys in a parking lot and decided to follow them to a party at a gravel pit, just north of the bridge where the car was found. When the boys missed a turn and then looked back, the girls’ vehicle had disappeared, said Jackley.
“What caused the accident is somewhat speculation,” said Jackley, noting the investigation revealed the car was in its highest gear and the headlight switch was still in the “on” position.
Over the years, there had been discussion about the car tires’ condition, he said. The tires had low amounts of tread and one tire was damaged, which could suggest a tire blew out but Jackley couldn’t say for sure as the tire could have been damaged sometime after the accident in the last four decades.
The bridge, which was constructed the year before the girls went missing, may have contributed as the girls may not have been familiar with the new bridge and missed it but that was also speculation, he said.
“This has really been a tragedy for two families, a tragedy for a class as well as all of South Dakota to some extent,” said Jackley, reading the following statement from the Cheryl Miller family:
“Our day has come through this journey for answers pertaining to our sister, Sherri, and dear friend, Pam. For now we will be able to finish the last chapter of this journey. With all the help of our police forces, family and friends, our family cannot thank you enough for the continued support you have given us. We have now been able to carry out our mother’s last wish. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
“It’s important to appreciate that this case has a 42-year history, a history where local and state officials and the families have worked together,” said Jackley, explaining the girls’ remains will be returned to the family.
In addition, any items still held from a 2004 cold case search of the nearby Lykken farm will be returned to the family of David Lykken, who is currently incarcerated and had been accused of murdering these girls.
“It’s fair to state the families and law enforcement never quit searching,” said Jackley. “I think it just took the right set of conditions (to find them): a very wet Spring, followed by some change in the current of Brule Creek, coupled with the drought plus a sportsman with knowledge of this case and his contacting the sheriff’s office who did the follow up.”
“It speaks volumes for the help law enforcement receives from the public on a very routine basis,” said Jackley. “We never take that for granted. The public helps us solve these crimes and that input turned out to be very important for us to solve this. Because, for all we know the water levels could have risen again and we wouldn’t have been able to make this discovery and more importantly, provide the remains back to the family for that respectful burial.”
“There is closure for the family,” said Union County Sheriff Dan Limoges.
“I got involved in the case in 1991 — about the 25th anniversary,” said Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe. “It was always something I was hopeful we could resolve while I was still around and thankfully it did happen.”
“This is a very unique case,” he added, explaining he’s been involved in other missing persons cases but all have been resolved within a few days or weeks.
When Howe joined the Clay County Sheriff’s Department in 1991, then Sheriff Dusty Pasek took him out to this area, telling him about the girls. “But we didn’t look over the bridge.”
“Of course, we may not have been able to see the car,” said Howe, explaining the soil and water levels have changed many times over the years.
Retired Vermillion Police Chief Bruce Plate told the Akron Hometowner the case was only four years old when he joined the Vermillion Police Department in 1975.
“We really didn’t have any new leads as such until 1991,” he said, explaining when the South Dakota magazine featured a story on the girls, it mentioned the three boys. “We had no idea — nothing in the our file about the boys.”
“To be part of the closure after so many years is a good feeling,” said Limoges, explaining although the sheriffs and police chiefs originally involved in the case are all deceased now, the law enforcement personnel still living were notified, said Limoges. “They were very relieved to have closure — to peer over the edge and see the car there. It is frustrating not to have seen it earlier but good to be able to put it to rest.”
“I feel some relief,” said a tearful Plate. “It’s a little emotional. We’d always hoped.”
“I’ve even had relatives when the Lykken thing was going on ask, ‘How long you going to keep doing this?’” said Plate, who has been retired for 12 years now.
He said he responded, “How long would you look for your daughter?”
“It’s something you don’t give up on,” he said.