Car driven by teens missing since 1971 found in creek
By David Lias
ELK POINT – A lower than usual water level in a Union County creek led to the discovery Monday morning of a missing piece to a mysterious puzzle involving two Vermillion-area teen girls who disappeared in 1971.
Law enforcement authorities are fairly certain that the vehicle driven by Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson the night they went missing – a 1960 Studebacker Lark – has been found in Brule Creek in Union County.
“I received a call here from an individual who came across a vehicle that was submerged in Brule Creek that is north of here a few miles off of 310th Street,” Sheriff Dan Limoges said at a press conference in the Union County Courthouse Monday afternoon.
Joining Limoges at the press briefing were South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley and Union County States Attorney Jerry Miller.
“Upon my arrival, the vehicle was submerged, you could see the undercarriage of a vehicle and four tires sticking out of the water,” the sheriff said.
Limoges said he contacted officials with the South Dakota Division of Criminal Investigation (DCI). Officers from that department, as well as personnel from the South Dakota Highway Patrol, the state Department of Transportation, and the Union County and Clay County sheriff’s offices and fire departments, have been working at the scene.
“We’ve got excavators, a tow truck there, and we basically tried to get the vehicle out of the water,” Limoges said. “The vehicle is in pretty rough shape, and we weren’t able to remove it out of the water. We were able to raise it some.”
Officials have, for the time being, decided to leave the vehicle in the creek, “and keep it intact as best as possible,” the sheriff said. “We’re in the process of excavating material out of the vehicle now, and determining what, in fact, we have.”
“What we know is that on May 29, 1971, two teenagers, both juniors at Vermillion (High School), disappeared – Pam Jackson and Cheryl Miller,” Jackley said.
At 9:30 p.m. that night, Jackson and Miller visited Miller’s grandmother, and left from that visit driving a 1960 Studebaker belonging to Miller’s grandfather.
Jackley said a license plate still attached to the submerged car has allowed authorities to determine it is the Studebacker owned by Cheryl Miller’s grandfather.
“Pam Jackson and Cheryl Miller were with other classmates heading to a party by the old gravel pit; we know that a missed turn was taken, and that was the last they were seen, believed to be headed northward over by the gravel pit,” Jackley said. “We have been able to ascertain from the vehicle that’s been found and the excavation so far via the license plate as well as a hubcap that it would be that Studebaker Lark … but we can’t say anything more about that particular vehicle.”
The gravel pit is located south of Union County State Park.
Jackley said authorities also have had an opportunity to talk, at the Brule Creek scene, with family members of Pam Jackson.
“I would say that they were appreciative of the work that was going into it (the investigation), and the care that was going into it,” he said when asked about family members’ reaction to the discovery. “Beyond that, I keep those conversations private.
“We aren’t going to say any further details until we’ve had an opportunity to excavate the vehicle … and take it in for forensic testing to ascertain more information,” Jackley said. “We can’t talk about evidence at this point other than the license plate as well as the hubcap that would give an indication of the 1960 Studebaker Lark.”
Cold case reopened
This case baffled local law enforcement officials for over three decades when, in late August 2004, investigators focused on the Kerwyn Lykken farm of rural Alcester. Armed with search warrants, authorities searched the Lykken farmhouse, went through barns from top to bottom, digging up floors in some buildings.
David L. Lykken was 17 and residing at the farm at the time of the girls’ disappearance.
The investigation eventually led to his indictment and arrest. Lykken is already serving a 227-year sentence in the South Dakota Penitentiary for kidnapping and rape.
Lykken was 52 at the time he was indicted Friday, June 29, 2007 on two counts of premeditated murder, two counts of felony murder and two counts of murder.
He was arrested Monday, July 2, 2007 at the penitentiary where he has been incarcerated since 1990.
The indictment charges that Lykken murdered Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson on or about May 29, 1971.
A Union County grand jury charged Lykken with two counts of killing Miller and Jackson “with a premeditated design.”
Two other counts charge Lykken with rape and murder of Miller and kidnapping and murder of Jackson.
The final two counts contained in the indictment charged Lykken with murdering Miller and Jackson by “evincing a depraved mind, regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the deaths” of the two girls.
Prosecutors were forced to drop the double-murder charges against Lykken, however, after problems were discovered with a key piece of evidence. His murder trial, scheduled for late March, 2008 in Elk Point, was cancelled.
A taped conversation of Lykken telling a fellow inmate in the South Dakota Penitentiary details of how he murdered Cheryl Miller and Pam Jackson was determined to be a hoax.
Larry Long, who was South Dakota attorney general at the time, agreed.
“The investigators have determined that a significant piece of evidence against Lykken was fraudulently manufactured by Aloysius Black Crow, a former cell-mate of Lykken, and a third inmate.” Long said in 2008. “Black Crow tape recorded a conversation between himself and a third inmate, who pretended to be Lykken, and admitted to killing Jackson and Miller.
“Black Crow then gave the tape to law enforcement and told them that the voices on the tape were Black Crow and Lykken,” he said.
Authorities are treating the partially submerged Studebaker with great care.
“We’re in the process of excavating the vehicle,” Jackley said. “That vehicle is believed to have been in there about 42 years. Certainly, it being in the water that long, we want to be careful with it so that we can make sure that we preserve as much evidence as possible, and so that we can perhaps bring closure to the families of this matter that happened back in May of 1971.”
Jackley, when asked, wouldn’t divulge how far in distance the car is located from the Lykken farm.
“I will say that the vehicle is approximately a half mile from the believed destination,” he said, describing the gravel pit where the party was held in 1971.
Jackley also would not comment when asked about evidence, or if any conversations have been held with Lykken since the car was discovered.
“This case at this point is not about him; it’s about trying to discover two teenagers and trying to find out what happened from there.”
Authorities are keeping the public away from the scene as attempts to extricate the vehicle continue.
“We’ve closed off the scene, and we appreciate the respect that you’re giving to the scene,” Jackley told members of the media, “so we can allow the family members who wanted to be down there an opportunity to see that, and an opportunity for law enforcement to do the best job that we can to preserve as much evidence as we can in a car that has been submerged underwater for what we believe is 42 years.”
Jackley said he personally visited the scene with Sheriff Limoges.
“I don’t want to go into specifics … I am impressed with the job that law enforcement is doing. Things are being preserved; they’re doing the best job that they can under the circumstances,” he said. “There may be some rain coming, and we’re trying to work efficiently to preserve as much evidence as we can.”
There has been little said about this case since charges against Lykken were dropped in 2008. Jackley said, however, that any situation involving missing persons remains on the forefront of law enforcement authorities.
“It’s always important when you have a missing person; in this case you have two missing teenagers with unanswered questions,” he said. “What may come out of today’s events is we may have some further questions answered, but we need to give it time and we need to have the opportunity for law enforcement as well as the forensic experts to do their job to preserve the evidence.”
Once the car is removed, it may be taken to the state crime lab in Pierre. “We have in Pierre the facility to house it inside, to preserve that evidence, but at this point, no final decisions have been made.”
He expects he and other authorities may be able to release more details revealed by the car in the near future.
“We would anticipate in days to come, or weeks or months to come, releasing more information,” Jackley said. “Certainly law enforcement felt confident enough today to notify family members related to the Miller and the Jackson families, and to invite those family members out. We need to have that opportunity to make sure this is the right vehicle … and we would like to have that opportunity to fully see what is in the vehicle and in the surrounding area and do the proper searches.”
Listen to a portion of the press conference here: