By David Lias
Attorney General Marty Jackley announced late Tuesday afternoon that skeletal remains have been recovered from the 1960 Studebaker found near a bridge in Brule Creek in northern Union County Monday.
The automobile, and its teenaged occupants, Pam Jackson and Cheryl Miller, both of Vermillion, were last seen on May 29, 1971.
State and local law enforcement and rescue teams began working Monday at the scene to remove the car and at the same time preserve evidence. They returned to continue their work there at 9 a.m. Tuesday, and shortly before 5 p.m., remnants of the car were placed on a trailer and covered with a tarp. Union County Sheriff Dan Limoges transported the trailer and car to a secure storage area in Elk Point.
He later met with reporters at the Union County Courthouse.
“We have ended our search. We have basically released the area back to the township; we no longer are going to be sitting out there for security purposes,” Limoges said. “We have removed all of the stuff that we were interested in, and taken it from that site.
“What I can tell you today is we have recovered human remains,” he said.
Union County Deputy Sheriff Michael Bucholz transported the remains to a laboratory for further testing “to determine any DNA or any other evidence they may show,” Limoges said. “The vehicle has been removed and will be put into storage and we will keep that for safekeeping for now.”
The sheriff said “items of interest” were removed from the scene that will need further laboratory analysis.
“I’m not the expert here, so I’m not going to be able to tell you exactly what items we found,” he said. “When the experts get done with the testing, then we will get a full report.”
Officers could be seen securing large plastic bags filled with items as they prepared to leave the scene at Brule Creek late Tuesday.
“There is a lot of stuff that we looked at, and that we taped and we bagged and will be shipping off to the lab,” Limoges said. “As far as identifying specifics, I can’t do that.”
The sheriff refused to speculate on exactly how the vehicle, and perhaps, its occupants, ended up in the creek over 40 years ago.
“What we need to do is go by facts,” he said. “I did make contact with the family this afternoon by phone, and advised them that there has been human remains recovered. I believe that makes them feel a lot better that we were able to be successful in recovering some items.”
Skeletal remains were collected from both inside the car and from the area of the vehicle as it lay submerged in the creek. According to the release from the attorney general’s office, no further information will be released until a requested autopsy and further testing is complete and family members properly notified.
Limoges said, while answering a reporter’s inquiry, that he hopes the investigation will be able to determine whether the car entered the creek by the bridge, or perhaps was driven into the water further upstream and over the years drifted to the point it was found Monday.
He said some work was done at the bridge recently to repair an embankment. “I also know that in the spring, we received about seven inches of rainfall, and we had a lot of water coming through that creek,” Limoges said. “I think the combination of the water amount, and now that the level is low, obviously it unearthed the vehicle.”
He said no can truly explain how the car, after being missing for over four decades, became visible to a fisherman at the bridge this week.
“You know … the father was just put to rest here recently … who knows? It’s definitely something that I can’t explain, but many of us are happy that we were able to recover this,” Limoges said.
The sheriff was referring to Pam Jackson’s father, who died last week at the age of 102. His funeral was Saturday. The car was found Monday. Jackley noted during a Monday press conference that many family members who had traveled to southeastern South Dakota for the funeral were still in the area, and were able to view the car accompanied by law enforcement officials shortly after it was discovered in the creek.
Limoges said he and others who were involved in this week’s work at the creek are hoping the families of the two girls can finally receive some degree of closure. “At least the unknown can be answered, and of course, with questions being answered, there are more questions.”
The disappearance of the Vermillion High School juniors was one of the initial investigations of South Dakota’s cold case unit. The unit was formed in June 2004 to focus on unsolved suspicious deaths and disappearances.
A September 2004 search of a Union County farm turned up bones, clothing, a purse, photographs, newspaper articles and other items, but not the car. Authorities have not ever said if the bones recovered were the girls’ – or even whether they were human remains.
In a warrant authorizing the search, authorities said that David Lykken, who lived at the farm in 1971 and was a classmate of the girls, might have been involved in their disappearance. Lykken, 59, is in prison serving an unrelated 227-year sentence for rape and kidnapping.
In July 2007, a Union County grand jury indicted Lykken on two counts of premeditated murder, two counts of felony murder and two counts of murder in the disappearance of Miller and Jackson. But state prosecutors dropped all six murder charges after discovering a prison informant made up a supposed admission.
Limoges was asked, at the end of Tuesday’s press conference, if he suspects the girls may have been the victims of foul play or an accident.
“Hopefully, by the end of this investigation, we can answer those questions,” he said.
Agencies assisting in this investigation are the Union County Sheriff’s Office, Clay County Sheriff’s Office, Vermillion Police Department, South Dakota Highway Patrol, Beresford Fire and Rescue, Department of Transportation, Union County Highway Maintenance, Pollman Excavation and Division of Criminal Investigation.