Awesome - Two Girls Go Missing For 40 Years, Then Someone Spots A Suspicious Car

 May 29, 1971. High school students Cheryl Miller and Pamela Jackson were on their way to an end-of-year party when the friends they were following made a wrong turn. They doubled back, but when the driver of the other car checked the rearview, the headlights from Cheryl and Pamela’s car were gone.

Local authorities immediately took up the case, and despite years of searching they found no trace of Cheryl and Pamela. Speculation swirled as to the fate of the missing girls, though it wasn’t until decades later that authorities finally found answers.

At the start of the investigation, things didn’t add up. According to the friends they were following, neither Cheryl nor Pamela had been drinking before getting in the car; they’d actually been with Cheryl’s grandmother in the hospital before meeting up with the group.

Additionally, there’d been no sign of a crash in the area where they’d disappeared, and there were no tracks indicating they’d gone off road — it was as if they’d simply vanished into thin air.

KSBY TV

But in rural South Dakota in the early 1970s, missing child cases weren’t cause for the 100-person manhunts you see today. With the free-spirited attitudes of the ’60s having carried over to the youth of this new decade, many disappeared teens were simply thought to have packed up and headed for California.

Toronto Star

“Back then, if a kid turned up missing, it actually was far more likely that they were a runaway,” recalled former Clay County deputy sheriff Jim Rowenhorst. “It was just not very darned often that you heard about kids being kidnapped. It just wasn’t something you were concerned about in rural South Dakota.”

This theory was accepted by some in the community, but to those that knew them, Cheryl and Pamela just weren’t the runaway type. Classmates called them “down-to-earth,” and according to Cheryl’s older sister Kay, she left the house with only a purse that night.

Tee Poole / Flickr

That’s why even after the local sheriff’s office scaled back its search, family and friends of the missing girls only pushed onward. They checked every ditch and ravine in the county, and Cheryl’s father drove back roads for hours each day, desperately calling out for his beloved daughter and her dear friend.

As time passed and forensic technology improved, authorities returned to the area sporadically, hoping to uncover any trace of the girls. They employed ground-penetrating radar and metal detectors in search of their vehicle, and they even excavated the gravel pit the two were headed to for the party — still, nothing was found.

It wasn’t until 2004, with the creation of the South Dakota DCI Cold Case Unit, that there finally came a break in the case. According to reports, the site of the party had not been too far from the farm where a certain classmate of Cheryl and Pamela’s had grown up.

Rapid City Journal

That classmate was David Lykken, a serial rapist who was 14 years into a 225-year prison sentence when authorities began looking into him. Given his history of violence and his proximity to the location where the girls disappeared, Lykken became a primary suspect.

Argus Leader

This led authorities to search the Lykken farm, where David’s younger sister claimed to have seen family members burning a large amount “evidence” on the property years prior. After a quick search, it appeared she was right.

Sioux City Journal

Two hubcaps were unearthed, and dozens of bones were found buried beneath the property’s septic tank. Women’s clothing, personal effects and letters, and a pair of rubber gloves were seized. A single red purse was found tucked away in the farmhouse rafters.

Prosecutors moved immediately to add the murders of Cheryl Miller and Pamela Jackson to Lykken’s charges, and soon after, a prison informant captured Lykken confessing to the murders on tape. The case appeared open-and-shut — then, it all fell apart.

The “confession” had actually been faked by one of Lykken’s fellow prisoners, and the items taken from the farm couldn’t be directly connected to the two girls — even the bones beneath the septic tank turned out to be those of butchered animals. With no concrete evidence to go on, the charges against Lykken were dropped.

It was now 2008, and authorities were no closer to uncovering the fate of Cheryl and Pamela than they were 37 years prior. Fortunately, they wouldn’t have to go another four decades before the real truth came out.

In 2013, a local fisherman walking along Brule Creek stumbled upon a large shape sticking out of the water. He moved closer, expecting to find a few rocks or some discarded trash — instead, he discovered the underside of a rusted car jutting from the mud.

South Dakota Attorney General’s Office

Authorities moved to pull the car from the creek, which they soon determined was a 1960 Studebaker Lark — the same make and model of Cheryl’s car. The remains within were completely unidentifiable, though one piece of evidence managed to survive after all these years.

A purse. Inside, investigators found everything from loose change and house keys to photos and letters from friends. But one look at the faded driver’s license told authorities everything they needed to know about this wreck.

Sioux City Journal

It belonged to Cheryl, meaning that the remains inside were those of the two missing girls. The 42-year-old cold case had finally been solved, but authorities still had to answer one glaring question: what’d happened?

South Dakota Attorney General’s Office

An examination of the vehicle revealed that the car was in third gear when it crashed, and damage to one of the wheels indicated that a tire may have blown. To investigators, it appeared that the car had popped a tire, careened off the road, and landed, submerged, in Brule Creek.

Regardless of the exact cause, the Miller and Jackson families now have the closure they’d been seeking as they finally lay Cheryl and Pamela to rest. “It’s been so many years,” said Cheryl’s sister Kay. “[It] will be nice to have her home.”

Sioux City Journal

Unfortunately, not all cold cases turn out to be unfortunate accidents. Just two years prior in the winter of 1969, the students in Harvard University’s anthropology program were set to take their last final exams when they noticed one thing was noticeably out of place…

Harvard Business School

Jane Britton, a 23-year-old star student with a passion for Near Eastern archaeology, was nowhere to be found. This wasn’t like Jane; she was always the first to class and was extremely invested when it came to schoolwork.

Jane’s boyfriend, James Humphries, was the first to notice her absence. He knew that something must have been awry if Jane hadn’t made it to the ultra-important test. Had she fallen suddenly ill?

Mass Live

Humphries called Britton and, receiving no answer, decided to go straight to her residence at 6 University Road. Britton lived alone in a fourth floor apartment, but had lots of neighbors — many of whom were involved in the Harvard community.

Wikipedia

The nervous boyfriend knocked on the door. Hearing nothing, he waited a second and then knocked again. Still, no response. Then he heard another door creaking open in the hallway, and he looked up in alarm.

Boston 25 News

Standing behind him was none other than Donald Mitchell, Jane’s friend and next door neighbor. Warily, the two men decided to enter the silent apartment. They took a deep breath and crossed the threshold.

Boston 25 News

Donald Mitchell and James Humphries gasped. They had found Jane Britton, but she was not in good shape. The young woman was lying face-down on the floor and appeared to be stiff.

Life Daily

Filled with unspeakable horror, Mitchell slowly turned over the girl’s cold body. Suddenly, he jumped back. The front of her torso was completely soaked in blood. The two men called the police and waited.

Tom Roussey – WJLA TV

As soon as the police arrived at the scene of the crime, they began the hard work of piecing together exactly what had happened the night before that had led to Jane’s early demise.

Newspapers

Eye witness accounts stated that she’d spent the evening ice skating and getting dinner with her friends and boyfriend. Then, at 10:30 pm, she and Humphries returned to her apartment for a hot cocoa.

UConn

Britton would only leave the apartment one more time before coming back for the final time that night. She’d gone over to the Mitchells’ apartment to retrieve her cat, Fuzzy, and indulge in a bit of late-night sherry. She then arrived home around 12:30 am.

Wine Folly

However, despite the sherry, toxicology reports would soon reveal that the alcohol never entered her bloodstream at all. This led investigators to conclude that the girl had been murdered within an hour of leaving her neighbors’ residence.

Don Mitchell – Boston

The cops asked neighbors to reveal anything they might have seen or heard that seemed out of the ordinary. The Mitchells insisted nothing had caught their attention. However, other neighbors did have some suspicious details to share…

Boston 25 News

One building resident reported hearing strange noises coming from Britton’s fire escape the night before, while another related seeing a strange man running through the streets at around 1:30 am.

Boston 25 News

While these reports definitely raised eyebrows, they weren’t incredibly helpful. There was no sign of forced entry, and in fact, Britton’s door had been unlocked. This particular detail was the source of much controversy.

Flickr – Mr.TinDC

This is because a girl had been murdered in the very same building not six years prior, by the Boston Strangler himself. Security was awful in the building, the doors were impossible to lock, and public outrage over the perceived negligence grew.

Although it was found that Britton had been sexually assaulted — semen was found at the crime scene — back in the 1960s, investigators didn’t have the technology necessary to connect the sample to a specific perpetrator.

DNA Diagnostics Center

The investigation kicked off with law enforcement training a lens on those in her community, specifically students in her anthropology department who she’d gone on a recent school-related trip to Iran with.

Vintage Everyday

One of the reasons for this was that red ochre, a clay-like substance used in Ancient Persian burial rituals, had been found on the body. Detectives assumed the killer must have had an intimate knowledge of Iranian culture.

GramHo

Reports also circled of apparent animosity on the Iran trip. This added more credence to the theory that one of her own classmates may have played a part in Jane’s brutal killing. Soon, however, things would take a surprising turn.

State Archives of Florida

Investigators realized that the ochre was not symbolic, but rather, had come from Jane’s own paintings. Additionally, students and professors said the perceived hostility on the trip had been way overblown. Their only lead had been effectively squashed.

Blogspot – Daniel Keating

Still, there was one more concerning detail that detectives continued to focus on. A stone given to Jane by the Mitchells, one sharp enough that it could ostensibly be capable of killing someone, was missing from her apartment. Was this the murder weapon?

Arrowheads Direct

A mere two days after her body was found, the Cambridge police chief came out with a divisive announcement. First off, they’d found the sharp rock in question. And secondly, they were closing the case to the public until further notice.

Set Fillers

The blackout of information didn’t stop people from speculating, though. Some said that, given how well-liked Jane was in her community, the murderer had to have been a stranger. Others thought about it a bit differently…

Some people claimed that Jane was a little too friendly, and sometimes hung out with the countercultural crowd — “the hangers-on and acid heads who you would not call young wholesome Harvard and Radcliffe types,” an anonymous source close to Britton remarked. Rampant rumors persisted while evidence dwindled.

Without any concrete facts to go off of, speculation could only go so far. Eventually the case stopped progressing completely. Jane’s mother died in 1978 and her father in 2002, both going to their grave not knowing what had happened to their little girl.

Find A Grave

Decades passed and the world slowly seemed to forget about Jane. Then, in 2017, things took a decidedly dramatic turn when multiple requests from the public to reopen the case were finally granted.

The Morning Call

Finally, a half century after Jane was found dead in her apartment, the semen samples recovered from the crime scene were tested. By this point the technology was advanced enough that results could connect them with a suspect. And that’s exactly what happened.

Wicked Local

The semen was consistent with a man named Michael Sumpter. He was a convicted rapist and murderer, and his rap sheet undoubtedly fit the bill of someone who would commit such an unspeakable crime. There was one slight issue, though…

Michael Sumpter was dead. He’d passed away years ealier in 2001. In order to confirm him as the killer, they used the next best thing: his brother’s DNA. Sure enough, it was a match. After all these years, the truth was finally out.

Angela Rowlings – Boston Herald

Not only was there forensic evidence to implicate Sumpter, but the timeline also matched up. He’d been working less than a mile away from Jane’s residence during the time of her death.

Cambridgeshire

To make things even more tragic, Sumpter had assaulted another woman in the same neighborhood three years after Jane’s death. If only her murder had been solved earlier, then a second woman might have been spared.

Cambridge News

“A half-century of mystery and speculation has clouded the brutal crime that shattered Jane’s promising young life and our family,” Jane’s brother has said. “The DNA evidence match may be all we ever have as a conclusion. Learning to understand and forgive remains a challenge.”

It’s tragically common for cases to go unsolved. That’s why it’s so cathartic when closure actually is reached. When one California adventurer started out on the journey of his life, he had no idea he’d wind up at the center of one of the strangest cold cases in American history.

The University of Utah

Everett Ruess was born in March of 1914 in Oakland, California as the second child to parents Christopher, a probation officer, and Stella, an artist and poet.

From a young age, Christopher challenged his son to read heavily and encouraged him to study the great philosophers. Everett later began to write poetry himself, and he even took up archery.

erenow

But it was adventure that became Everett’s true passion, and he began showing an appetite for it as early as 1930 when he was just 16 years old. During that summer, Everett hitchhiked from Oakland to the town of Carmel-By-The-Sea, an impressive 100-mile journey.

Halfway Anywhere

The following year, after graduating from Hollywood High School, Everett purchased a burro and set out on his first major expedition. Over the course of ten months, Everett would come to see iconic locations like the Grand Canyon and Zion National Park.

Conde Nast / DOI

Not only was this trek an ambitious one, but it also set the foundation for the adventures Everett would seek out in the years to come. Unbeknownst to the young explorer, however, his next expedition would change everything…

In November of 1934, 20-year-old Everett Ruess rode into the remote Utah township of Escalante accompanied by two pack burros. A settlement founded by Mormons in 1876, Escalante was a place where the arrival of a stranger was a rarity.

Everett made his camp just north of the town, pitching his tent in a sunbaked area along the Escalante River that was perfect for mid-day naps. The townspeople visited Everett often, making small talk and giving the friendly adventurer the lay of the land.

The Salt Lake Tribune

The children of Escalante took a particular shine to Everett, and during his time there he took them riding and even treated them to a movie. After spending a few nights in town, Everett packed his burros and disappeared into the wilds of Utah. He was never heard from again.

The New York Times

So what happened to the young explorer? Well, in 1999 David Roberts, an adventure writer for National Geographic Magazine, sought to find an answer to the 65-year-old mystery. The first stop on his investigation? Escalante.

REI

After arriving in town, Roberts sat down with 74-year-old Norm Christensen, one of the children charmed by Everett during his stay in Escalante in 1934. Norm, who was only 10 at the time, was one of the last people to see Everett Ruess alive.

erenow

According to Norm, Everett set off into the Utah desert after leaving Escalante, traveling southeast along the Hole in the Rock trail. This historic route had been plotted by 19th-century Mormon settlers and was a tried-and-true passageway for navigating the desert. Or so they believed.

The Durango Herald

Roberts also spoke to a 91-year-old man while in Escalante named Melvin Alvey, who met Everett during his stay in town all those years ago. Melvin wasn’t surprised that Everett had disappeared, as even then he believed that the young man was ill-equipped to survive the harsh winter climate of the Utah desert.

However, historical reports show that Everett was still alive at least a week after leaving Escalante, having traveled 50 miles through the desert. We know that he came across two shepherds and some cattlemen, but after that, he simply vanished.

High Country News

Despite Everett’s disappearance, red flags weren’t raised until almost three months later. This wasn’t out of the ordinary, though, as Everett had sent a letter to his family weeks earlier saying that his journey would likely prevent him from communicating for a month or two.

SassafrasLaneVillage / Etsy

But when the letters Christopher and Stella sent to Marble Canyon, Arizona — the place where Everett was expected to re-emerge into civilization — were returned unopened, they quickly grew concerned. After contacting the postmistress, a search party was dispatched from Escalante in March of 1935.

erenow

Eventually, the same two shepherds that had crossed paths with Ruess the previous November stumbled upon an old campsite in a steep-sided canyon known as Davis Gulch. Although Everett’s burros were found alive — albeit severely malnourished — there was no sign of the young explorer, his diary, or his camping gear.

While no traces of Ruess were found, it was widely believed that he was murdered while trekking through the desert. More specifically, the group of cattlemen — who were the last to see him alive — were the supposed culprits behind Everett’s disappearance.

Canyon Country Guide

In fact, Norm Christensen revealed that one of the cattlemen, a man by the name of Keith Riddle, had confessed to Everett’s murder. However, Riddle died in 1984 and no definitive evidence was ever found that pinned him to the crime.

But in 2008, 74 years after Everett’s disappearance, a tip from a Navajo who claimed to have witnessed Everett’s murder led a man named Denny Bellson to the skeletal remains of a body at Comb Ridge. The bones — found in a crevice 60 miles from Everett’s last camp — were tested against the DNA of Everett’s nieces and nephews. It was a match!

The Durango Herald / Only in Your State

Heartbreakingly, however, it was later discovered that the DNA test had been botched and that the Comb Ridge remains belonged to a Native American. And so, the truth behind Everett Ruess’ disappearance still remains a mystery to this day.

High Country News


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