The mysterious disappearance of Cheryl Miller and Pamela Jackson, and how the case was solved 43 years later
The 1971 missing persons case involving two Vermillion teens bewildered South Dakota investigators for decades.
VERMILLION, S.D. — As Cheryl Miller hugged her parents goodbye the night of May 19, 1971, they didn’t realize it would be the last time they would see her. Miller told them she planned to pick up her friend Pamela Jackson, and that they were going roller-skating.
According to an article published in the Sioux City Journal on May 29, 2014, the two 17-year-old girls didn’t drink or do drugs. But that particular night, they wanted to be regular teenagers and go to a party hosted by the senior class near some gravel pits.
Miller drove away from her home around 6:30 p.m., riding in style in her grandfather’s beloved 1960 Studebaker. She picked up Jackson, and together they drove to the party.
Somewhere along their travels to the party, however, Miller and Jackson would go missing, without a trace. The question about happened to them wouldn't be answered for 43 years.
As Pam Jackson left that night, her mother left the porch light on for her. It was habit to leave a light on for Jackson to turn off when she returned home from a night out.
Yet Pam's mother's suspicions grew as the hours ticked by, and she was shocked that by 4 a.m. the next morning, Jackson still hadn't made an appearance after her outing.
Jackson's mother checked her room. She quickly realized that Jackson hadn't returned home. Her bed was untouched, and the porch light was still on. It wasn't like her to not turn the light off, to not return or, at the very least, not call, and her mother knew something was wrong.
It was around the same time that Miller's family realized Cheryl had also never returned home.
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Both families searched for the girls, and they tried to file missing persons reports that afternoon. However, authorities informed them that they needed to wait the mandatory 24 hours before filing.
By May 21, 1971, police launched a missing persons investigation for the disappearances of Cheryl Miller and Pamela Jackson, over 24 hours after they'd last been seen.
With no real clues as to where the girls were last seen, police quickly turned to their classmates in hopes that one of them would be able to provide some insight.
It was then that police found that the girls hadn't gone roller-skating, and, instead, they were on their way to a party when they were last seen.
According to a court affidavit filed Sept. 8, 2004 , a boy named Mark Logterman told investigators that he and two of his friends had met at a nearby church to get more cups for the party before heading over to the gravel pits. Logterman said the girls pulled up to the church after recognizing them to ask for directions to the party.
He said they told him they'd come from visiting Miller's grandmother, who had been in a nearby hospital, and weren't confident that they knew how to get to the gravel pits. Logterman said one of his friends told the girls to follow them there and that's what they did.
Logterman said he remembered that both cars had gone up a hill, but that the driver of the vehicle he was in had missed the turn to the gravel pits, forcing the boys to make a U-turn. The boys turned around and didn’t see the girls following them anymore, so they figured they had made the turn and were already at the party.
But, from there, Logterman couldn't recall seeing them at the party.
Where did they go?
Investigators quickly cleared the boys from the list of suspects, as they didn't feel their stories were suspicious, but, in doing so, they were left with very little information about the whereabouts of Jackson and Miller.
Theories and rumors began to spread like wildfire.
The first theory investigators came up with was that the girls had gotten into an accident along the way and drove into the Missouri River. Due to the currents and visibility, however, they were unable to perform a search. They also couldn't find any tire tracks on the road or grass surrounding the area that would support that theory.
Rumors began to spread that the girls decided to run away. Miller had told her sister prior to her disappearance that she had always dreamed of being a model and wanted to travel the world. Her running away seemed a little far-fetched, but she was young and it was possible. Miller had family in California, so they thought she could've possibly convinced Jackson to go out there. It was a theory that could make sense to police, but they'd need more evidence to prove it.
Unfortunately, no evidence surfaced that supported the runaway theory. Plus, neither girl had cashed her paycheck for the week, leaving both with very little money for a cross-country trek. Miller’s distant relatives eventually also confirmed they hadn’t seen her or Jackson.
Regardless, police seemed convinced that it was a runaway case.
The case goes cold
Months went by. Authorities had exhausted all probable theories and were no closer to finding answers.
That is, until one of Jackson's neighbors told investigators that he’d overheard Pam Jackson speaking on the phone through a party line — a common practice back then — to a man who referred to himself as only "David."
The neighbor reported that while he listened, Jackson talked about David slamming her hand in a car door and David said he'd wished he'd taken pictures of Jackson. The neighbor also thought he heard David say he was a student at the University of South Dakota.
The tip went nowhere. With no last name, police had no way of tracking him down.
In a last-ditch effort, a new investigator requested a warrant to search the gravel pits, theorizing that Miller and Jackson had made it to the party without the boys realizing it. The search came up empty, and the case went cold.
A possible suspect
In 2004, the South Dakota State Attorney General’s Office created a special cold-case unit and came across the tip from Jackson's neighbor in 1971. They begin to investigate the case as a possible homicide.
With better resources, authorities were able to track down David Lykken, a convicted rapist and kidnapper who’d been sentenced to 227 years in prison in 1990 on unrelated charges. He matched the description and lived near the gravel pits, making him a suspect.
Many people who’d known Lykken prior to his incarceration were interviewed. One of the interviewees claimed to have seen Cheryl Miller’s Studebaker on Lykken’s farm, and also claimed to have seen two women inside the car, one allegedly slumped over the steering wheel and the other sitting upright in the passenger seat.
According to the affidavit filed in September 2004, that was enough evidence to retain a search warrant and search the Lykken family farm.
Yet, like all the previous searches, authorities came up empty-handed. During the search, they found women’s clothing, jewelry and a purse, yet none of the items were linked to the girls.
A cellmate told police that Lykken had confessed to murdering Miller and Jackson. Police asked if the cellmate would be willing to wear a wire to tape another confession, and the cellmate agreed.
The informant returned with a fully taped confession, and authorities thought that, after 35 years, the mysterious disappearance of the 17-year-old Miller and Jackson had finally been solved.
David Lykken was charged with murder and kidnapping, and was his trial was set for March 2008.
However, just a few weeks before the trial began, it was discovered that the taped confession was completely fabricated by the informant and another inmate. The confession — the only evidence police had on Lykken — was fake, and the charges against him were dropped.
The case went cold yet again.
Answers come to light
Oscar Jackson, Pam’s father, died at the age of 102, just five days before his daughter, her friend Cheryl Miller and the Studebaker would be fished out of a nearby Brule Creek.
According to an article published in the Argus Leader on April 15, 2014, the Studebaker was found in April 2014 by a local fisherman who saw what seemed like tires rising out of the water in the creek.
Southeastern South Dakota had been experiencing a drought at the time, revealing the Studebaker that had been submerged for over four decades in a creek that was usually flooded.
The fisherman called police, who eventually confirmed that it was, in fact, the same car loaned to Cheryl Miller by her grandfather.
The license plate was identified upon the arrival of authorities, and DNA tests confirmed that the skeletal remains found inside the vehicle belonged to Cheryl Miller and Pamela Jackson.
After searching the car, investigators determined that the vehicle was still in gear, one of the tires was low or possibly damaged, and the headlights were on. Investigators believe they had been following the boys to the gravel pits when they lost control of the vehicle and went into the water.
The car didn't contain any evidence of cans or bottles that would indicate that alcohol was involved.
Police ruled their deaths an accident 43 years after they went missing and the case that baffled every investigator who looked at it was closed.
Authorities returned the items found in the Studebaker to Miller's and Jackson's families, including Miller’s intact driver's license, a purse, a bobby pin, and her watch, which had stopped at 10:20 p.m.
The remains were eventually returned to their respective families for burial.
Despite taking over 40 years, the case was solved, and the girls’ deaths were determined to be accidental.
The Lykken family demanded an apology from the state attorney’s office, but did not receive one.
According to several news articles published around 2014, police told the general public in a press conference that they would not apologize for trying to find the two girls and said they felt bad for the family's involvement in their investigation.