The disappearance of Pam Jackson and Sherry Miller has captivated southeastern South Dakota for years.
There were suspicions of foul play, after all, suspicions so real that a state prison inmate named David Lykken was nearly tried for kidnapping and murder in the case.
So it’s no surprise that the discovery of the 1960 Studebaker the pair were last seen in has earned the interest of local and national media outlets.
Here’s how the break in the case came: A fisherman wandering around near Brule Creek on Monday morning saw the wheels of the overturned car sticking out of the water under a bridge on 310th Street, apparently visible thanks to high Spring water levels followed by a drought.
It was the first time the vehicle had been seen since May 29, 1971. The teens were on their way to a party at a gravel pit near Union Grove State Park in the tan-colored coupe, which belonged to Miller’s grandfather.
The pit is less than a half mile from the bridge.
That’s not where the DCI thought it was.
There were two pieces of evidence that pointed to Lykken. The first came from Lykken’s sister, Nancy Bell, who told authorities she’d repressed memories of seeing the car at their family farm and that a psychiatrist had helped her to retrieve them.
Later, a seasoned jailhouse snitch named Aloysius Black Crow pointed authorities to Lykken.
Black Crow convinced the DCI that Lykken had confessed to kidnapping and killing the girls. The DCI gave him a recording device in 2006, which he used to tape a confession from an inmate who was decidedly not Lykken.
By the time authorities learned of the lie and dropped the charges in February of 2008, they’d spent days tearing up the Lykken farm looking for the car and the bodies. They found a few things - a purse, photos and newspaper articles - but never the car.
Authorities also tore up a gravel pit in Iowa looking for the vehicle.
The Lykkens sued over the search of the Alcester farm. They wanted damages for all the holes that were dug up. They also alleged that the search team was overly aggressive and accusatory, saying they wouldn’t even allow Lykken’s mother to go back into the house to turn off the stove or check on her cat.
For defense lawyer Mike Butler, the discovery of the vehicle was a break that fits more closely with the few solid facts the case had. The most reliable evidence said the girls were on their way to a party and driving along gravel roads to get there.
“It could be as simple as a tragic accident,” Butler said this morning. “It’s maybe not any more complicated than that.”
Butler had argued that prosecutors bought Black Crow’s story because they wanted to believe it.
Being a convicted serial rapist, initially accused by his own sister, who grew up near the scene probably didn’t work in his favor.
Mary Ann Miller, a sister-in-law to Sherry who has since passed away, said in 2009 that she still believed the Lykken story after the charges were dropped.
Butler and his team never believed it.
They did interviews at the prison to confirm their initial suspicions about the tape’s authenticity. As it turned out, Black Crow had managed to get confessions from other inmates, as well, but those weren’t always much more reliable than the Lykken tape.
James Strahl was convicted in 2007 of first-degree murder for the 1998 killing of William O’Hare based in part on the testimony of Black Crow, who shared a cell with him in Yankton.
Strahl’s conviction was overturned by the South Dakota Supreme Court. He later pleaded guilty to first-degree manslaughter, though. There was other evidence – DNA, specifically – in that case.
Black Crow, meanwhile, was convicted of perjury in the Lykken case.
So was there any foul play involved in the disappearance of Jackson and Miller 42 years ago? It’s difficult to say at this point with any degree of certainty.
The car was so badly damaged that it couldn’t be pulled from the water, and Attorney General Marty Jackley declined to offer any details on what evidence may or may not have been found there.
When asked specifically on Monday if homicide had been ruled out, Jackley said only that the investigation is open and that the previous evidence was falsified and unreliable.
What is clear is this: The car was not at the Lykken farm or at the Iowa gravel pit, and nothing has been filed in Lykken’s case since 2009.
It’s impossible to say what this discovery will lead to. It could leave us with more questions than answers.
What’s in the car will make all the difference. What if investigators find the remains of one or both girls in the vehicle? What if there are no bodies there and it’s obvious there never had been?
Here’s another one: How did no one see the car, so close to the gravel pit, for so many years?
The discovery of the vehicle is a break in the case, to be sure, but it doesn’t solve the mystery.
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