VERMILLION, S.D. | A retired Vermillion police detective who spent years investigating the 1971 disappearance of Pamella Jackson and Cheryl Miller said Wednesday he didn't expect the case to be solved in his lifetime.
Ray Hofman was glad to be proved wrong when state Attorney General Marty Jackley announced Tuesday that evidence showed the Vermillion High School students had died in a car accident the night they disappeared and had not been the victims of foul play.
The remains of Jackson and Miller, both 17 when they vanished, were found in September when a passerby familiar with the case noticed the undercarriage of a car sticking out of Brule Creek in rural Alcester S.D., and notified authorities. A change in the creek current combined with last year's drought is believed to have led to the revelation.
The car matched a 1960 Studebaker Lark the girls had been driving on their way to a party in a gravel pit the night of May 29, 1971. Forensics tests positively identified the remains.
Analysis showed the car entered the creek in third gear, headlights were switched on and identifying information was found with the girls’ remains in the front of the car. Jackley said Tuesday all evidence pointed away from foul play.
Hofman himself arrested the man who was for years suspected in the girls' disappearance -- wrongly, it turned out.
David Lykken, a South Dakota prison inmate already serving 227 years for rape and kidnapping, was indicted for murder in the case in 2007. The charges were dropped when a recorded confession, supposedly from Lykken, was found to be fake.
“I’m the one that arrested David Lykken for the sexual assault and that put him in prison,” Hofman said. “Lo and behold, David was pretty close to where the girls were last seen. That kind of led us to that area.”
Efforts to reach Lykken's mother and brother, whose rural Alcester farm was excavated in the search for evidence, were not successful Wednesday.
Kathy Wendte, of South Sioux City, was a childhood friend with Jackson and Miller and said she has followed the case closely since their disappearance.
Other than being found alive, Wendte said knowing there was no foul play involved was the best possible outcome.
“With it going unsolved for so long you just kept wondering if they were truly somewhere else, and now everybody has closure,” she said. “I’m glad that the family and friends finally know.
“The families never had closure until now,” she said. “That’s a long time to wait.”
Hofman said the case might have been solved sooner if law enforcement had had more modern tools to use in the initial investigation.
“If a little more work maybe would have been done earlier, like in ’71, if it would have been scoured earlier instead of 20 years later, they might have had better success,” he said. “But law enforcement was different back then.”
Nonetheless, he's glad the case has been resolved after all these years -- and that he's around to know about it.
“It really is Vermillion’s mystery,” Hofman said. “And it’s been solved. That’s the best part.”