By David Lias
Visit the Brule Creek bridge today, and it’s easy to get lulled by its peaceful setting. The water of the creek is quite low and seems to be flowing at barely a trickle, lightly babbling as it meanders under the bridge.
The wild grasses that sprout around the bridge and creek bed have begun to turn from green to pale yellow as autumn approaches; the only bold colors near the bridge come from a few small wreathes of flower that have been hung from a fence at one end of the bridge.
The flowers are to remember Pamella Jackson and Cheryl Miller. Authorities have not yet confirmed that the skeletal remains recovered from a car that had been submerged in the creek for over four decades belong to the two girls.
Everything that is known so far, however, points to that probability.
That, in turn, means a peaceful aura is spreading far beyond Brule Creek.
The strong chance that the two girls’ fate is now known is quieting the concerns and the nagging doubts felt by Pam’s and Cheryl’s classmates since their disappearance in 1971.
“The first thing you thought about when it (the car) had been found was disbelief. I just couldn’t believe it,” said Dwight Iverson of Vermillion, who was a classmate of the two girls. “I thought, ‘it couldn’t be their car.’ But then they talked about the matching license plate number and it being a Studebaker, and everything kind of made sense then – and you could accept that, of course, that’s where they would be.”
A lower than usual water level in Brule Creek led to the discovery Monday morning, Sept. 23, of a car in the water near the bridge. By Monday afternoon, authorities were certain the vehicle was the 1960 Studebaker Lark the girls were seen driving as they attempted to find a party located near the bridge at a gravel pit.
The car was removed from the creek Tuesday afternoon, Sept. 24, and skeletal remains were recovered the car. Those remains have been taken to a Sioux Falls laboratory for testing in hopes of determining, for certain, that they belong to the two girls.
“When I first heard the news (of the car’s discovery) I was just stunned and in disbelief,” said LuAnn Sorensen Denke, a member of the VHS Class of 1972 who was a classmate and good friend of both girls. Today, Denke resides in Rapid City.
“After 42 years … I had been grieving and dealing with this on a daily basis, and the first thing you do is have hope, and I thought, ‘this perhaps can finally be resolved.’ Because it’s just been part of your life for so many years – the wondering of what happened. So when something is discovered, there’s a sense of hope, and there’s a sense of closure that starts to happen, for both the family and for the friends.”
At 9:30 p.m. the night of May 29, 1971, Jackson and Miller visited Miller’s grandmother, and left from that visit driving a 1960 Studebaker belonging to Miller’s grandfather.
They never made it to the party, and were never seen again.
This 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 on murder charges. Lykken is already serving a 227-year sentence in the South Dakota Penitentiary for kidnapping and rape.
Prosecutors were forced to drop murder charges against Lykken after a key piece of evidence was discovered to be false. His murder trial, scheduled for late March, 2008 in Elk Point, was cancelled.
Mark Logterman of San Jose, CA, is a classmate of Miller and Jackson and one of the last people to see them the night they disappeared.
He admits to being astonished when called by Iverson on Sept. 23 and told that the car had been found.
“Honestly, I thought I may go to my grave not knowing what happened. I really wasn’t expecting, at this point, that the car would be found,” he said. “As I’ve come to understand where that bridge is, I’m really happy and relieved, particularly for the families of Pam and Cheryl, and for their close friends – it sounds like we know what happened now.”
While driving to the party that night in 1971, the girls met Pat Gale, Steve Glass and Logterman, who had stopped at Garryowen corner to wait for friends to arrive. According to news accounts, Gale gave Miller directions to the party and the girls decided to follow the boys’ car to its location. Logterman remembers how his friends missed the turn to the gravel pit, and had to turn around after climbing a steep hill east of the Brule Creek bridge. There was no sign of the girls as they headed back toward the drive to the gravel pit, and they weren’t at the party.
“I’m of the belief now that this Lykken thing is not true,” Logterman said, “because it makes perfect sense, where they found the car… we were presumably the last people to see them, and that’s just right where we saw them last and then didn’t see them.”
Denke first met Jackson when they attended junior high together in Vermillion, and had known Miller since they were both first graders.
“Her life changed, so she was in different places, but during our junior year, I remember they were both going to school in Vermillion. Sheri was part of the drill team, part of the high school band, and Pam played in the band and sang in the chorus,” she said.
Denke still has Cheryl’s first grade photo, and a yearbook signed by Pam.
“Toward the end of that last school year, we had a bit of ‘girl discrepancy’ – the kind of thing that can happen when you’re that age,” she said. “What’s so tragic for me is she (Pam) had apologized to me about this disagreement, and I never got the chance to apologize back before she disappeared, so that’s something I’ve personally had to deal with. But I still have her note anyway.”
Both Miller and Jackson were positive and full of life, Denke said, with great senses of humor.
“Pam had the most unusual laugh; it was very distinctive. You couldn’t miss it. It was boisterous,” she said. “She was doing seamstress projects all of the time for things like 4-H, and if a friend had a birthday, she would bake her a cake and want to throw a surprise party for them.”
Denke remembers taking part in slumber parties at the homes of both girls.
“I remember one classmate commented that she (Sheri) used to dance like Goldie Hawn, and Goldie Hawn was quite the person back then because of ‘(Rowan and Martin’s) Laugh-In.’ She was tall and slender and blonde, with big blue eyes and so she resembled Goldie Hawn a lot. They were just fun to be with and full of life. We went through different growing pains and experiences.”
Denke said that when she heard last week that remains had been found in the car, “I just melted. It was like this huge weight lifted off of my shoulders. You grow up with classmates and you go through life’s changes together, so they’re very, very important. And when something happens to shorten or end those lives, it’s just so hard.”
“I’m really hopeful that at the end of all of this, it can be shown that it was a tragic car accident and that was it,” Logterman said. “I think everybody would much rather hear that.
“What I’m glad about is for these families, for them to find out (what really happened) – that’s key to me,” he said. “I don’t know the families, but in this particular sense, I’m really happy for them.”