After car found in creek, sisters ‘grateful’ for chance at closure in 42-year-old missing persons case

A submerged car was found in Brule Creek in South Dakota on Monday. On Monday, the attorney general's office confirmed that the car is the one 17-year-old Cheryl Miller and Pamela Jackson were driving the night they disappeared. Bones were found inside the vehicle.

The discovery of human remains in an overturned car along a South Dakota creek could help bring closure to the families of two 17-year-old girls who disappeared while riding in the car 42 years ago, authorities and relatives said.

The car, a 1960 Studebaker that was spotted wheels-up Monday near a bridge along a creek between Beresford and Elk Point in southeastern South Dakota, was being examined at a forensics lab Wednesday in Sioux Falls, authorities said.

Rita Allen, a sister of Cheryl Miller — who vanished along with her friend Pamella Jackson the night of May 29, 1971, as they were driving to a party in the car that was found Monday — called the discovery "very overwhelming." 

"We have just kept trotting throughout this entire ordeal [knowing] that some day eventually we would get that answer, and it came. And we are just so grateful," Allen told KELO-TV of Sioux Falls.

"You go through your life from then until now, and the biggest wish from our mother was never give up, never give up," Allen said.

"And no one ever has," added another sister, Dawn Hewlett.

Relatives of Pamella's said Wednesday that they didn't want to comment on the case. The family was still grieving the death of Pamella's father, Oscar, who died last Wednesday at age 102 and was buried Saturday — just two days before the car was discovered.

Submerged car in South Dakota may solve 1971 case 1:49

Union County Sheriff Dan Limoges said investigators found "a wide range of bones" in and around the car, but he declined to discuss any other details of the investigation or to speculate on whether the person or people in the car were the victims of foul play.

"What we need to do is go by facts," Limoges said at a news conference.

"What I can tell you is I've contacted the families and advised them that there has been some human remains recovered, and I believe that makes them feel a lot better that we were able to be successful in recovering some items," he said.

"It's a feeling that we can get hopefully some closure to the families — whether there ever is really any closure," he said.

Cheryl and Pamella, juniors at Vermillion High School, were last seen on their way to a party at a gravel pit just a half-mile from where their car was found Monday, according to the Justice Department's National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.

They had been following a car full of boys whom they'd stopped to ask for directions, but the boys missed their turn and had to double back. When they looked back in their rear-view mirror, the girls had vanished, they told investigators.

In 2004, clothing, bones, a purse and other items were found on a farm belonging to a serial rapist, who was subsequently indicted on six charges of murder in the girls' disappearance. But those charges were dropped four years later when prosecutors learned that another inmate had made up his story that the man had confessed to him. 

Other theories emerged when the case was revived in 2004, including the possibility that the girls might have been among the victims of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas, who was convicted of 11 murders in Texas, Michigan and West Virginia from 1960 to 1982. 

Lucas, who died in a Texas prison in 2001, confessed to hundreds of other killings in many states in 1986 before recanting. Authorities concluded that many of the confessions were spurious.

Authorities also investigated whether Pamella and Cheryl simply ran away. But both girls, who had been paid that day, didn't take their paychecks with them, and Pamella, who was being treated for hepatitis, had left her medicine behind.

"With questions' being answered, there's more questions," Limoges said Tuesday night.

The case is an odd echo of events earlier this month in Oklahoma, where state troopers found six sets of human remains in two similarly mud-caked cars submerged in a lake.

Those remains are believed to be the bodies of six people who also disappeared in the early 1970s — including three high school students who vanished in November 1970, just six months before Pamella and Cheryl disappeared.