UNION COUNTY, S.D. — Two high school girls disappeared on their way to a gravel pit party down a southeastern South Dakota country road in the early 1970s.
For decades, rumors abounded about the fates of 17-year-old Pamela Jackson and Shirley Miller, two Vermillion high schoolers who never came home. One was tied to David Lykken, a sexual predator from Beresford, already serving over 200 years in prison.
In 2004, after the emergence of a jailhouse confession, state authorities even dug up the Lykken property south of Beresford, turning over a hubcaps and a red purse, but no car or human remains.
Later, it turned out, the confession was fabricated by another inmate.
Finally, a decade later in 2013, a farmer (thanks to low water levels) spotted a partially submerged car with vintage plates under a bridge in Brule Creek. The transmission was stuck in third gear, with the remains of teen girls in the front seat, seemingly ending the story.
After the 1960 Studebaker was discovered wheels-up in the creek and investigators had tested debris and remains, authorities held a press conference. CNN called local reporters. Stories in British tabloids surfaced about the nearly half-a-century missing girls.
But the families of Jackson and Miller did not speak at the press conference, only submitting a short statement, acknowledging, "Our journey is done."
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For the disappearance that ripped a corner of the state, however, small questions have gnawed in conversations at bars or over family countertops in the intervening years: Why did no one see them? Were they run off the road?
But, according to interviews this summer, these questions don't remain for local law enforcement.
Union County Sheriff Dan Limoges was there nearly 20 years ago on the Lykken property near Alcester when state authorities with the Division of Criminal Investigation searched the rural farm site. (An inmate later admitted to fabricating the Lykken connection.) But he now believes the mystery is solved.
"The car was checked, and yes it was in high gear," Limoges said recently. "As for what caused the vehicle to leave the roadway, not sure that will ever be known."
It's the same closure for the local prosecutor.
"I cannot speculate as to why the vehicle left the road when and where it did," said Jerry Miller, Union County State's Attorney, noting a range of causes from driver error to loose gravel may've caused the car to leave the roadway, eventually plummeting into the creek.
He also noted that the girls had missed the turn-off for the gravel pit party by about 100 yards.
"The people in the lead car lost sight of the girls," Miller said.
The disappearance remained on the mind of some locals for decades. Cautionary tales were handed down from parents to children about driving at night or staying out too late. In Union or Clay counties, it isn't hard to run into someone who was at the gravel pit that night, someone who maybe went to school with Miller and Jackson.
Chris Wevik, a local investigator, has dedicated much time to finding out the truth about Jackson and Miller and no longer believes their deaths weren't the result of foul play, just the age-old story of tragic traffic deaths of two teens. She believes the girls were driving too fast on a washboard gravel road, fishtailed and flipped the car into the creek. There's even still damage to the guardrail on the rural road she believes happened the night of the crash.
"It's so disheartening to know that they were there, likely fighting for their life, when the boys who led them to the quarry turned around and went back and looked for them, possibly driving over that very bridge," said Wevik.
"I am very confident that this is no longer a cold case," she added, "That they were there the whole time."