THE mysterious disappearance of two teen girls that puzzled cops for 40 years was solved by a curious member of the public after police spent years chasing dead ends and pushing falsehoods, a new book reveals.
Pam Jackson and Sherri Miller were both 17 when they seemingly vanished off the face of the earth while driving to an end-of-school-year party in Vermillion, South Dakota, in the spring of 1971.
The small city’s local police department showed little urgency to mobilize any sort of search party in the days and weeks after their disappearance.
Investigators believed the two girls had likely run away in search of fame and fortune in California or joined a commune elsewhere in the country, which wasn’t an entirely uncommon practice among teenagers in the 1970s.
But the theory didn’t sit right with the families of the two girls as the weeks turned into months and the months into years without any traces of Pam and Sherri being found.
It would take 43 years for the truth of what happened to them to surface, but it was a local fisherman – not a police officer – who would solve the puzzle. And for some, tragically, the answers would come too late.
Award-winning journalist Lou Raguse has written a book that takes a deep dive into all of the facts of the puzzling case, Vanished In Vermillion: The Real Story of South Dakota’s Most Infamous Cold Case, which is due for release on Feb. 21.
Across its 384 pages, Raguse meticulously reconstructs Sherri and Pam’s final hours and documents what he deems to be the “biggest law enforcement embarrassment in South Dakota history.”
Had officers overseeing the case applied the same tenacity to their investigation as he did in putting together this book – conducting hundreds of hours of interviews and compiling crucial data – Raguse believes decades of heartache could’ve been spared.
“It’s incredible to me how much heartache could’ve been avoided,” the author told The U.S. Sun. “But in the early days of their disappearance, the sheriff’s laziness was staggering.
“He didn’t put out the full story publicly in any fashion, because I think had he put out a release of any sort, saying where Sherri and Pam were last seen alive, I think someone from the public would’ve found them for them.
“So not only did the sheriff fail to look for himself, but he also failed to provide the public with enough information to go out and look on their own.”
Sherri Miller left her family’s home on the evening of May 19, 1971, hugging them goodbye and telling them she was off to pick up her best friend Pam to go roller skating.
She drove away from the home around 6.30pm in her grandfather’s ailing 1960 Studebaker.
In truth, Pam and Sherri were heading off to a party hosted by the senior class of their local high school near some gravel pits.
While neither of the girls drank or did drugs, Pam and Sherri wanted to be regular teenagers for the evening.
It was a decision that would prove fatal.
The last known person to have seen the pair alive was a boy named Mark Logterman, who was standing with two friends outside of a local church when Pam and Sherri pulled up in the Studebaker and asked them for directions to the party.
They’d just come from visiting Sherri’s grandmother in the hospital, the girls told him, and they weren’t sure of precisely how to get to the gravel pits.
Logterman and his friends told the girls to follow them in their car and that’s what they did.
Both cars had been going up a hill when the vehicle Logterman was traveling missed their turn, forcing them to make a U-turn.
When they turned around they didn’t see Sherri and Pam following behind them any longer.
It’s incredible to me how much heartache could’ve been avoided. But in the early days of their disappearance, the sheriff’s laziness was staggering.
They figured out the girls had made it to the party already, however, when the boys eventually arrived there was no sign of Sherri or Pam.
The girls were reported missing to police the following day after each failed to return home.
Slow to respond, local police came up with the possibility they may have gotten into an accident along the Missouri River, but due to weather conditions and poor visibility, they were unable to perform a search.
Rumors also began circulating that the girls had decided to run away, with Sherri apparently telling one of her sisters before she vanished how she dreamed of becoming a model and traveling the world.
Despite a lack of evidence to support the theory, police seemed convinced the girls had run away.
Months would pass with no leads and the case eventually went cold.
Then, years later in 2004, the South Dakota State Attorney General’s Office created a special cold-case unit and unearthed a tip from one of Pam’s neighbors in 1971.
The neighbor told police he’d overheard Pam Jackson speaking on the phone one night to a man who referred to himself only as “David.”
It was common practice in some parts of the US back then to use the party line system – a local loop telephone circuit shared by multiple people – and the neighbor overheard the conversation after picking up the receiver to make a call themselves.
The neighbor heard Pam recounting to David how he’d slammed her hand in a car door and David telling her he’d wished he’d taken pictures of her. They also thought David had said he was a student at the University of South Dakota.
While the tip led to nowhere in 1971, hoping to find a breakthrough in 2004, the cold case unit started to investigate the case as a possible homicide.
One of the investigators on the case named David Lykken as a possible culprit.
Lykken, a convicted rapist and kidnapper who’d been sentenced to 227 years in prison in 1990 on unrelated charges, lived nearby the gravel pits and briefly attended high school with Sherri.
A number of people connected to Lykken were interviewed and otherwise interrogated by investigators, including his family members.
One interviewee sensationally told police they thought they’d once seen Sherri Miller’s Studebaker parked at the Lykken family’s farm. They also claimed two lifeless women were inside, including one slumped over the steering wheel.
Cold case investigators retained a search warrant and began scouring and excavating the Lykkens’ farm.
By this time, investigators were working on the theory that Lykken – who would’ve been just 16 at the time – had murdered the two girls and that his family had helped cover his tracks.
During their search, they recovered women’s clothing, jewelry, and a purse, in addition to animal bones.
None of the items were linked to the girls, but that was a fact investigators kept close to their chest when interviewing Lykken’s family, hoping to coerce someone into a confession.
At the time of the search, Raguse was working his first job out of college at a local news network in Sioux Falls.
He told The U.S. Sun that police “fooled everyone”, including him, about what evidence they’d recovered from the farm.
“They told us – very vaguely – at the time that they’d found good evidence on this farm search, that they’d found photographs, bones, clothing, and a purse.
“We thought, ‘well, they must have Sherri’s clothes, they must have a purse that belongs to one of them. They have bones, it sounds like they’re probably human bones.’
“But as I started going through all the police reports and stuff like that, I finally realized that they were half-truths at best.
“I felt like I’d been lied to for many years, that was the kind of feeling I had as I started to dig into this stuff for the book.”
COLD CASE CATASTROPHE
Although empty-handed and with few leads in the case, police continued to zero in on Lykken.
Then, a cellmate of the convicted rapist – and a longtime jailyard informant – claimed to investigators that Lykken had confessed to murdering Miller and Jackson
The cellmate agreed to wear a wire and came back to authorities with a fully taped confession he claimed to have elicited from Lykken.
Police, believing they’d finally cracked the case, charged David Lykken with murder and kidnapping, and a trial date was set for March 2008.
However, just weeks before the proceedings were due to begin, it was discovered the taped “confession” was fake.
Lykken’s cellmate had fabricated the recording with the help of another inmate in an effort to secure early parole.
The bogus confession was the only evidence police had on Lykken and the charges against him were dropped.
Any hope Sherri and Pam’s family had of finally solving their disappearance was quashed as once again the case went cold.
Lykken’s family, including his brother and mother, also became victims of the cold case unit’s fool’s errand.
This is a small community where people take rumors as the truth, and it’s really hard once you’re dogged with a false rumor
Though stating numerous times they had nothing to do with and had no knowledge of the girls’ disappearances, their farm had been torn to shreds by investigators – and their standing in the local community was ripped apart with it.
“David’s mother, Esther, had to live out her golden years racked with anxiety and stress and fear that their farm was going to get searched again at any moment,” said Raguse.
“She was labeled a murderer or a helper of a murderer and so her reputation was ruined.
“Kerwyn [David’s brother] still lives on that farm and I would say that this whole thing still kind of dominates his life in a very sad and unfortunate way because he never should’ve had to deal with any of it.
“This is a small community where people take rumors as the truth, and it’s really hard once you’re dogged with a false rumor.
“To this day, Kerwyn Lykken still has people out there who believe he helped his brother murder those girls.”
On September 20th, 2013, Pam Jackson’s father, Oscar Jackson, passed away at the age of 102.
He had spent the last 42 years of his life searching almost every day for his daughter, scouring riverbeds, creeks, and the woods around Vermillion for any sign of where she may be.
Five days after his death a sign would come in the form of two tires and the underside of an old car poking out of the drought-stricken waters in Brule Creek.
The discovery had been made by a local fisherman who had been reading about a similar cold case being solved elsewhere in the country that morning.
Hours earlier, he had decided to set out on his quadbike to see if cracking Sherri and Pam’s case could be that simple.
“And it was,” said Raguse.
“I think it’s a rich irony that it happened this way, that it was a member of the public who found the car and not the police.
“It was just that civilian happened to be reading a newspaper that morning about an almost identical finding, and he thought to himself could it be that simple?
“Where the car was found was about 100 yards – literally – from where the party was being held at the gravel pits on the night the girls vanished.
“That’s a discovery police could and should’ve made years and years earlier.”
When the wreckage was hauled from the creek it was found to be a match for the Studebaker driven by Sherri on that fateful night in May 1971.
Inside were two sets of human remains, clothing, and a number of remarkably well-preserved artifacts, including Sherri’s driver’s license.
The remains were identified to be Sherri and Pam the following April and their deaths were ruled accidents.
Members of Pam’s family told Raguse of their mixed emotions about her father dying just five days before the discovery was made.
Raguse explained: “He devoted so much of his life to looking for her and spent so many hours searching, ditches and even rivers.
“So knowing how much time and energy he put in, searching in the wrong spots. They think that if he had known that she had been that close this whole time, it might have just completely broken him.”
Vanished In Vermillion recounts at length the final movements of Sherri and Pam, their families’ tireless quest for answers, and the numerous faults in law enforcement’s attempts to solve the case.
In his own opinion, Raguse says Sherri and Pam’s case is a blatant and troubling example of “confirmation bias.”
“You can see how they thought they had a good suspect on paper with David Lykken, and maybe he was a good suspect to start looking into,” Raguse said.
“But when you don’t start looking into it with an open mind, you’re just finding answers that fit questions that you haven’t even thought of yet.
“One good example is how police investigated that phone call about someone called David talking to Pat.
“Yes, he was called David but there were so many other details that didn’t match […] but they just ignored that and went with the information they wanted to see.
“That’s confirmation bias at its best.”
SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT
Raguse has been working on Vanished in Vermillion since 2016.
During that time, he estimates he’s conducted more than 200 interviews, including with numerous members of Sherri and Pam’s families, in addition to the Lykken family.
According to Raguse, the book has been incredibly well received by all three of the families, particularly for the Lykken’s for which the tome serves as a redemption story of sorts.
Raguse said it was Pam’s sister who provided the most glowing review of all.
“It was very difficult for them all to read,” he said.
“But one positive comment that stood out to me was from Pam’s sister, who said she felt like she received more answers and more peace from the book than what she received from investigators after the bodies were found.”
Vanished In Vermillion: The Real Story of South Dakota’s Most Infamous Cold Case, has been published by Post Hill Press and will be available for purchase from Feb. 21.
According to a press release issued by the publisher, Raguse gives readers the first true account of how Pam and Sherri’s car was actually found, an explanation of how so many witnesses came forward with “false memories”, and behind-the-scenes accounts of the unraveling of the state’s case.
Additionally, the book gives a detailed scientific explanation of how the car was likely buried in plain sight underwater for so long; and an account of what really led authorities to David Lykken with a never-before-documented account from the accused himself.
To order the book, click here.
https://www.the-sun.com/news/7444965/cold-case-missing-girls-solved-book-vanished-vermillion/ Major ‘irony’ after mystery of missing teens Cheryl Miller & Pam Jackson solved after 43 years as cops ‘fooled everyone’