ELK POINT, S.D. – Authorities announced Tuesday that the skeletal remains found inside a car last September belonged to two teens who had been missing for 40 years, and that they had died in a car crash.
The identifications were made by a lab at the University of North Texas.
South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said Tuesday that Pamela Jackson and Cheryl Miller died when their vehicle ran off the road while they were on their way to a party in rural Union County in 1971.
Jackley said there is no evidence of foul play. The vehicle was in third gear when it crashed, keys were still in the ignition, and one of the tires was damaged, perhaps indicating a blowout, he said. The bodies were in the cab and not the trunk.
- FILE STORY: 'Pam knew the roads really well'
He also said alcohol was not a factor.
"All the evidence would appear to indicate an accident," Jackley said.
The final results put an end to speculation in the decadeslong mystery, and brings closure to two families who've wondered about the fate of the teens, Jackley said. "I think it's fair to say that law enforcement and the families never quit searching."
The vehicle that the teens were driving while they were on their way to a party at a gravel pit was found last fall. The case was once classified as a homicide, but the criminal charges against the accused man were dropped in the face of perjured evidence.
A witness familiar with the case called authorities last September to report seeing the Studebaker's wheels poking up out of the water. Initial attempts to pull the car from the creek were unsuccessful, sparking a slow and exhaustive exhumation process.
The remains had been sent to the University of North Texas' anthropology department for DNA testing after the state Division of Criminal Investigation dug out the evidence.
The state had to submit further evidence to the university before the DNA tests could be confirmed.
On Tuesday, Jackley presented the results of the search. Miller's purse was found, Jackley said. Inside it was her license, notes from classmates and photographs.
The families declined to comment on the case Tuesday, but Jackley read a statement from them during the news conference.
"Our day has come. Through this journey for answers pertaining to our beloved sister Sherry and dear friend Pam. We will now be able to finish the last chapter of this journey.
"With the help of all of our police forces, our family and friends, our family cannot thank you enough for the continued support you have given to us. We are now able to carry out our mother's last wish."
Jackley also mentioned that Oscar Jackson died at age 102 and never knew what happened with the disappearance of his daughter, Pam Jackson.
Man falsely accused
The closure is not complete for the Jackson and Miller families, but another family was drawn into the fray a decade ago.
Six years ago, prosecutors indicted a state prison inmate on murder charges in the case of Jackson and Miller, who last were seen driving the car May 29, 1971. Both were 17.
Charges against convicted rapist David Lykken were dropped when prosecutors learned a jailhouse informant had falsified a taped confession with the help of another inmate.
After getting the falsified testimony, investigators went to the Lykken family farm in Union County in 2004, digging holes looking for personal effects of the missing girls.
Jackley said Tuesday that the search was controversial, but that it withstood challenges in federal court. Law enforcement was looking for evidence based on what was thought to be proper evidence.
"With that said, it's unfortunate that when we are searching, we disrupt things and we affect lives," Jackley said
Jackley told the Lykkens' attorney, Mike Butler, that the state would be returning whatever evidence still remains to the Lykken family.
Butler said the mistake should have been clear from the beginning. The voice on the supposedly tape-recorded jailhouse confession from David Lykken didn't sound a thing like David Lykken.
Lykken's past made him an easy target, Butler said.
"To me, it was clear-cut," Butler said. "It's not enough to say 'we were doing our jobs.' The problem was that they didn't do their jobs."
The search was ruled legal by the courts, he said, but that doesn't excuse the sloppy detective work that called into question the character of an innocent, law-abiding family because of their relation to an incarcerated man.
"What happened to these two girls was tragic, but it was a car accident," Butler said.
Kerwin Lykken, David Lykken's brother, was at the news conference on Tuesday, but wasn't satisfied with Jackley's appraisal of the search and investigation.
"I just wanted an apology from Marty, but I didn't get one," Kerwin Lykken said.