ELK POINT, S.D. | After nearly 43 years of searching for answers, Kay Brock finally has an explanation, albeit incomplete, of what happened the late-spring evening her younger sister, Pamella Jackson, mysteriously disappeared.
Jackson and a friend, Cheryl Miller, both 17, went missing while driving to a party at a gravel pit in Alcester, S.D., on May 29, 1971. On Tuesday, authorities announced the Vermillion High School students died that night when their car crashed into Brule Creek, just a half-mile from their destination.
The car, with two sets of human remains inside, was recovered in September after a passerby who knew about the case spotted it upside down and partly submerged in the muddy creek bank.
Although authorities had long suspected an acquaintance of the girls in connection with their disappearance, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said at a news conference Tuesday that there was no sign of foul play.
Several family members of the girls attended the event but largely declined to speak to the media.
Brock, of Sioux Falls, said she was relieved the case has been resolved. Her sister's remains will now be buried.
"She's going home," Brock said.
Miller’s family released a statement thanking the community, friends and law-enforcement officers for support.
“Our day has come through this journey for answers pertaining to our beloved sister Cherrie and dear friend, Pam,” it read. “We will now be able to finish the last chapter of this journey with the help of all of our police forces, family and friends. Our family cannot thank you enough for the continued support you have given to us. We have now been able to carry out our mother’s last wish. Thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
Both girls' parents have died. Jackson's father, Oscar Jackson, of Alcester, died at age 102 just days before the car was discovered.
Officials believe the girls and the 1960 Studebaker Lark were always there in the creek. A very wet spring, change in creek current and last year’s drought likely contributed to the discovery on Sept. 23.
Analysis showed the car went into the creek in high gear. The headlight switch was in the "on" position, but Jackley said investigators couldn't tell whether the ignition was on.
The girls' remains were found in the front of the car and sent to Texas for forensic testing. Miller's purse, containing her driver's license and two notes from classmates written on the backs of photos, were found among the wreckage.
The car did not contain any evidence, such as cans or bottles, that alcohol was involved. Based on witness accounts, the girls, who visited Miller's grandmother in the hospital in Vermillion, then met up with friends and followed them to Alcester, wouldn't have had time to stop along the way, Jackley said.
Although the discovery yielded those and other clues, some questions remain unanswered. Authorities aren't able to tell exactly how the car ended up in the creek.
The bridge was new, which might have confused the girls. One of the Studebaker's tires was damaged, but officials don't know if that happened before or after the crash.
Barbed wire and concrete consistent with the bridge were found in the car, but investigators don't know if either was dragged into the creek by the Studebaker or was washed into the wreck years later.
What is apparent, Jackley said, is that the girls crashed off 310th Street, in rural Union County, on the way to the party. Classmates thought the girls were behind them but lost sight of the Studebaker.
“They had indicated they were being followed by the girls (and) that at one point they had missed the turn and then they looked back and the girls had vanished,” Jackley said.
An extensive search of the area didn't reveal anything, and their families were left to agonize about what may have befallen them. The case confounded local law enforcement.
Tipsters reported seeing the missing girls in other cities, but their families maintained they were not the type to run away. Some speculated the car had crashed into the gravel pit.
"We often over the years would follow up on leads," said Clay County Sheriff Andy Howe. "None of them leading us anywhere.
In 2007, a South Dakota prison inmate already serving 227 years for rape and kidnapping, David Lykken, was indicted for murder in the girls’ deaths. Charges were later dropped when authorities learned a jailhouse informant had faked a recorded confession he claimed was Lykken.
Investigators had dug up parts of Lykken’s family’s farm in rural Union County, S.D., searching for evidence Lykken had had a hand in Jackson's and Miller’s deaths.
Items taken during the search will be returned to the Lykken family, Jackley said.
Then, last fall, Union County Sheriff Dan Limoges got a call. Someone had spotted the undercarriage of the Studebaker sticking out of Brule Creek. Authorities have never said who reported the find.
At last, after decades of searching and months of investigating the evidence that inexplicably surfaced, officials are able to provide at least some answers.
"Now, two families and a community, and really a whole state, have an opportunity for some closure," Jackley said.