ELK POINT, S.D. – The 1960 Studebaker Lark was in third gear, with the keys in the ignition and the lights on.
One tire was damaged.
And the remains of two girls, Pamela Jackson and Cheryl Miller, who disappeared in 1971 on their way to a party at a gravel pit in Union County were in the cab.
Those details emerged on Tuesday, as Attorney General Marty Jackley announced that neither foul play nor alcohol were part of the mystery that started as a missing persons case, and was investigated as a homicide in the early 2000s based on jailhouse testimony that turned out to be false.
The two teen girls who have been missing appear to have crashed the car off the gravel road nearly 43 years ago, landing under the bridge until low water levels in Brule Creek revealed the wheels of the Studebaker last year, about five miles south of Elk Point and less than a mile from the gravel pit.
"All the evidence would appear to indicate an accident," Jackley said.
The results put an end to speculation in the decadeslong mystery and brings closure to two families who've wondered about the fate of the teens, Jackley said.
"This has really been a tragedy for two families, a tragedy for an entire class and a tragedy for all of South Dakota to some extent," he said.
A witness familiar with the case called authorities last September to report seeing the Studebaker's wheels poking up out of the water. Initial attempts to pull the car from the creek were unsuccessful, sparking a slow and exhaustive exhumation process.
On Tuesday, Jackley presented the results of the search. Miller's purse was found, Jackley said. Inside it was her license, notes from classmates and photographs.
The remains had been sent to the University of North Texas' anthropology department for DNA testing after the state Division of Criminal Investigation dug out the evidence.
The state had to submit further evidence to the university before the DNA tests could be returned, as well.
The families declined to comment on the case Tuesday, but Jackley read a statement from them during the press conference.
"Our day has come. Through this journey for answers pertaining to our beloved sister Sherry and dear friend Pam. We will now be able to finish the last chapter of this journey," the statement said. "With the help of all of our police forces, our family and friends, our family cannot thank you enough for the continued support you have given to us. We are now able to carry out our mother's last wish."
Jackley also mentioned that Oscar Jackson died at age 102 and didn't know what happened with the disappearance of his daughter, Pam Jackson.
Man falsely accused
The closure is now complete for the Jackson and Miller families, but another family was drawn into the fray a decade ago.
Six years ago, prosecutors indicted a state prison inmate on murder charges in the case of Jackson and Miller, who last were seen driving the car May 29, 1971. Both were 17.
Charges against convicted rapist David Lykken were dropped when prosecutors learned a jailhouse informant had falsified a taped confession with the help of another inmate.
Investigators went to the Lykken family farm in Union County in 2004, digging holes looking for personal effects of the girls.
Jackley said Tuesday that the search was controversial, but that it withstood challenges in federal court.
"With that said, it's unfortunate that when we are searching, we disrupt things and we affect lives," Jackley said
Jackley told the Lykken's attorney, Mike Butler, that the state would be returning whatever evidence still remains to the Lykken family.
Butler said the mistake should have been clear from the beginning. The voice on the supposedly tape-recorded jailhouse confession from David Lykken didn't sound a thing like David Lykken.
Lykken's past made him an easy target, Butler said.
"To me, it was clear-cut," Butler said. "It's not enough to say 'we were doing our jobs.' The problem was that they didn't do their jobs."
The search was ruled legal by the courts, he said, but that doesn't excuse the sloppy detective work that called into question the character of an innocent, law-abiding family because of their relation to an incarcerated man.
"What happened to these two girls was tragic, but it was a car accident," Butler said.
Kerwin Lykken, David Lykken's brother, was at the news conference on Tuesday, but wasn't satisfied with Jackley's appraisal of the search and investigation.
"I just wanted an apology from Marty, but I didn't get one," Kerwin Lykken said.
Kerwyn Lykken was angry when he confronted Jackley Tuesday, but he said later that he hopes that people understand why.
He and his family were evacuated from their farm for five days in a search that cast a negative light on them, he said. His son didn't go to school for two weeks because of teasing from his classmates.
"How would you feel if it had happened to your family?" Kerwyn Lykken said. "My 84-year-old mother, now 94, couldn't go home."
He also says that he was interrogated and threatened with a capital murder charge himself, despite assurances from law enforcement to the public that the search was "only about David."
He says the family would have never filed their $400,000 lawsuit if the Attorney General's office would have apologized for their mistake.
Despite his continuing frustration, Kerwyn Lykken says the news of the accident does bring needed closure for the Miller and Jackson families.
"I do feel for the family and I'm glad they have an answer. It was a tragic thing," he said. "Within a week of when this all started happening in 2004, I went to the Jackson family and told them we had nothing to do with it.