US & Canada

Four decade mystery of missing South Dakota women solved

In this undated photo provided by the South Dakota Attorney Generals Office, Cheryl Miller's driver"s license is seen Image copyright AP
Image caption Cheryl Miller's driving licence was found in the sunken car and helped identify the victims

The human remains found in an old car discovered in a drought-parched South Dakota creek last year were two girls who disappeared without a trace in 1971, officials have said.

Police confirmed the bodies of Cheryl Miller and Pamela Jackson, both 17, were inside the 1960 Studebaker.

Investigators say the evidence points to a high-speed road accident.

In 2004 a convicted rapist and kidnapper was accused of killing them but the charges were dropped.

"Our day has come, through this journey, for answers pertaining to our beloved sister Sherry and dear friend Pam," relatives of the girls said on Tuesday in a statement read at a news conference in Elk Point. "We will now be able to finish the last chapter of this journey."

Image copyright AP
Image caption A drought lowered water levels in the creek, revealing their vehicle

In May 1971, the girls were on their way to an end-of-school party when they went missing. Witnesses said they had not been drinking.

No trace was ever found of the girls and the investigation languished until 2004, when police in the sparsely populated prairie state reopened the case.

Investigators came to suspect a classmate of the young women, David Lykken, who was already serving a 227-year prison sentence for an unrelated rape and kidnapping.

A search of the farm on which he lived turned up bones, clothing, a purse, photographs, newspaper articles and other items, but not the car.

A grand jury charged him with murdering the girls but prosecutors dropped the charges after the jailhouse informant who implicated Lykken was found to have lied.

Then last year, the state was suffering under a historic drought when a local resident familiar with the case spotted the wheels of a car protruding from the low water in a creek.

On Tuesday, investigators displayed photographs of well-preserved clothing, Miller's purse and driving licence bearing a smiling photograph. Those personal items and DNA were used to make a positive identification, South Dakota Attorney General Marty Jackley said.

Image copyright AP
Image caption The young women's clothing was well preserved

The wreck was found in high gear, and the position of a switch indicated the lights had been on when the car crashed.

The bodies were found in the front seats, rather than the back seat or boot, and the bodies were fully clothed.

In all, the post-mortem examination left investigators convinced the girls had perished in a road accident.

"The forensic pathology and anthropology reports indicate that there's no type of injury that would be consistent with or caused by foul play or inappropriate conduct," Mr Jackley said.

"All the evidence would appear to indicate an accident."

Union County Sheriff Dan Limoges said he had no regrets about pursuing Lykken in the case.

"The only unfortunate thing I would add is for the Lykken family, for what they had to go through," he said. "But I don't make any apologies for doing our job."

The remains of the young women will now be returned to their families.

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