Inspired by the mysterious circumstances of a cold case that gripped Vermillion for over four decades, Lou Raguse has written a book that takes a deep dive into all of the facts about the disappearance of Pam Jackson and Sherri Miller in May 1971.
“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 in late February.
Raguse believes that if investigators early on had made the same effort he did in compiling data and talking with people to gather information for his book, “I think they would have found the girls.
“It’s kind of mind blowing how much heartache could have been avoided,” he told the Vermillion Plain Talk in an interview last month. “That’s the main thing.”
An article written by Randall Hunhoff, who was the Plain Talk’s editor in the early 1990s, influenced the state Department of Criminal Investigation, which eventually decided to reexamine into reexamine the cold case file, Raguse said. The article also appeared in South Dakota Magazine.
“Ironically, Randall was closer to reaching the truth than the investigators ever were,” Raguse said. “He was floating these theories that the car may have gotten into water and had been buried by silt. The only difference was he was talking about the Missouri River rather than Brule Creek.”
According to a news release from the publishing company, Raguse’s book offers one of the most complete accounts of the circumstances surrounding the girls’ disappearance and the happenings that occurred in the early 2000s when their disappearance was investigated as a cold case involving David Lykken, a serial rapist who was living on his family’s farm at the time Jackson and Miller disappeared.
The Lykken farm is located in Union County, not far from where the girls were last seen.
Raguse is described by the book’s publishing company as one of the first individuals, apart from law enforcement, who has been given access to investigative files regarding the case.
According to Post Hill Press, Raguse gives:
• 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;”
• behind the scenes accounts of the unraveling of the state’s case;
• scientific explanation of how the car was likely buried in plain sight underwater; and
• an account of what really led authorities to David Lykken with a never-before-documented account from the accused.
The case was closed in mid-2014 when skeletal remains found in the fall of 2013 in a car submerged in a Union County creek were positively identified as belonging to Miller and Jackson.
The cause of the two girls’ death was a car accident, said then-Attorney General Marty Jackley at a press conference held in the Union County Courthouse in Elk Point.
Miller and Jackson, both 17-years-old, were last seen in May 1971 driving in a 1960 Studebaker which was discovered in Brule Creek in September 2013. The two girls had planned to attend a party held at a gravel pit located near the creek.
Jackley said at the press conference that the two young women were positively identified by DNA testing of their remains. Evidence collected when the Studebaker was discovered also is consistent with a car accident. Forensic pathology and anthropology investigations that were conducted indicated that there was no type of injury that would be consistent or caused by foul play or inappropriate conduct, he said.
Clothing and shoes recovered from the vehicle, Jackley noted, contained bones, which would be inconsistent with foul play. The Studebaker was also in third gear when it entered the creek and the switch of the car’s headlight indicated that they were on — factors that indicate the two girls died of an accident when the car plunged into the creek.
“If there was foul play, typically it would be in neutral or a lower gear,” Jackley said at the press conference. He said witness statements, including those of three boys the girls met at a church parking lot earlier that evening, also compelled investigators to conclude that the girls’ death was caused by an accident and not foul play.
“They (the boys) indicated that they had been followed by the girls, that at one point they had missed a turn, and then when they had looked back, the girls had vanished,” Jackley said. “This would be consistent, when looking at all of this together, and especially with all of the new findings, of this being a car accident.”
Raguse talked to some of those witnesses himself, including the boys Jackley mentioned in the 2014 press conference, and also had access to files regarding law enforcement’s interview of them while working on his book.
“One of the saddest parts of all of this that you probably heard about is how Oscar Jackson (Pam’s father) spent time driving on the gravel roads, checking ditches (for the Studebaker), stuff like that,” he said. “What makes it even sadder is he didn’t know the road that they were driving on (when they disappeared). He didn’t know that they were going to that party.
“If this had happened today, the boys (who had last seen Miller and Jackson) would be doing interviews with all of the TV stations; there would be a big press conference asking the public to help find these girls that would include where they were last seen,” Raguse said. “People would have combed that area. Instead, Oscar Jackson was mostly searching by the Vermillion River and the Missouri River, on the gravel roads in that area because things were getting to him as rumor instead of official information.
“If the right people had been talked to, I truly believe their tracks would have been traced and they would have been found right there in the creek,” he said, “and you never would have heard the name David Lykken in regard to this case.”
The author is from Wheaton, Minnesota, where he works as a television journalist for KARE 11 news in Minneapolis. He was working for KELO television in Sioux Falls as a cops and court reporter in the fall of 2005.
“The big searches of the Lykken farm had already taken place and I remember they had brought in Jessica Armstrong, who was a former cops and courts reporter at KELO, to brief me on everything,” he said.
She told him that there hadn’t yet been any charges regarding the missing girls, but that could change.
“When I do my crime stories, sometimes I end up making pretty good relationships with family members that are involved,” Raguse said. “In this case, I had become pretty close with Pam Jackson’s family, particularly Pam Jackson’s sister’s husband – his name is Dexter Brock, from Sioux Falls.
“When I was covering the Lykken court proceedings, he would call me all the time and we would meet for breakfast at Perkins in Sioux Falls. We formed a friendship,” he said.
When the Studebaker was found, Brock called Raguse, who was working in Rochester, New York at the time.
“Flash forward to when I moved back to Minneapolis, I got a call from Dexter and he said that Pam’s brother, Jerry, would be interested in me writing a book on what happened,” he said.
Raguse said he talked with Jerry, who said he was actually looking for something written that could be passed on to family members that gives a full account of what happened.
“When you read the newspaper articles, it becomes so confusing when you mix in the false leads, the charges — it was hard for them to look back at newspaper articles and really grasp everything that had happened, so they wanted it in an easier-to-understand format,” he said.
Raguse asked family members if they would be “on board” if he independently wrote a book that touches on all angles of the girls’ disappearance and what happened afterwards.
“I reached out to Kerwyn Lykken because I was aware that they were still dealing with a lot of the sentiment that people thought that they still did it,” he said. “I can attest that in Vermillion, in Beresford, and people who have heard of it in even Sioux Falls and Sioux City (Iowa) — a lot of people still believe that the Lykkens still had something to do with it and they refuse to believe that it was just a car accident.”
In August 2004, investigators focused on the Kerwyn Lykken farm of rural Alcester. Armed with search warrants, authorities searched the Lykken farmhouse, and went through barns from top to bottom, digging up floors in some buildings.
David L. Lykken, Kerwyn’s brother, was 17 and residing at the farm at the time of the girls’ disappearance.
The investigation eventually led to his indictment and arrest. Lykken is already serving a 227-year sentence in the South Dakota Penitentiary for kidnapping and rape.
Lykken was 52 at the time he was indicted June 29, 2007, on two counts of premeditated murder, two counts of felony murder and two counts of murder of Jackson and Miller.
He was arrested July 2, 2007, at the penitentiary where he has been incarcerated since 1990.
The indictment charged that Lykken murdered Cheryl Miller and Pamela Jackson on or about May 29, 1971.
A Union County grand jury charged Lykken with two counts of killing Miller and Jackson “with a premeditated design.”
Two other counts charged Lykken with rape and murder of Miller and kidnapping and murder of Jackson.
The final two counts contained in the indictment charged Lykken with murdering Miller and Jackson by “evincing a depraved mind, regardless of human life, although without any premeditated design to effect the deaths” of the two girls.
Prosecutors were forced to drop the double-murder charges against Lykken, however, after problems were discovered with a key piece of evidence. His murder trial, scheduled for late March 2008 in Elk Point, was cancelled.
“As long as Kerwyn was on board to participate, it would be a much better story to tell to try to get the real truth out there to find out why they (law enforcement) were looking at David Lykken in the first place and see if that could be conclusively ruled out, once and for all,” Raguse said. “That’s really how it (writing the book) got going.”
He said he discovered that in South Dakota, the data practices laws are worse than almost every other state and that became a major obstacle.
Law enforcement in South Dakota, he discovered, does not have to share case files requested by the public.
“If they want to turn something over, they can, but if they don’t feel like it, they don’t have to,” Raguse said. “Even though this, ironically, was not a crime, it still is criminal investigative data.”
He said that former South Dakota Attorney General Jason Ravnsborg allowed Raguse to travel to Pierre and, for a few hours, review Department of Criminal Investigation files. The Vermillion Police Department also shared its files, along with the Clay County Sheriff’s Department.
Raguse notes in his book that the sheriff at the time when the girls disappeared only attempted to talk to one or two of the boys that were the last to see Miller and Jackson.
“Every other classmate that I interviewed out of the 70 or so that were in their class — I probably touched base with at least 40 of them — they were never talked to by police, never approached,” he said.
Had law enforcement done a more complete investigation from the beginning, “maybe they would have retraced their steps and maybe they would have looked in the (Brule) creek” instead of focusing on the Lykken farm, Raguse said.
During the 2014 press conference that closed the cold case investigation, Jackley said a 2004 search of the Lykken farm to find evidence linking David Lykken to the girls’ disappearance was under court supervision and based on probable cause and evidence including witness statements and other matters.
“Law enforcement did what I would expect as attorney general for law enforcement to do when two 17-year-olds from our community are missing,” Jackley said at the news conference “and that is to keep searching.
“That was a controversial search that was ultimately challenged (by the Lykken family) and the federal courts at both the trial level and the appellate courts determined that search was done appropriately,” he said. “It’s unfortunate that when we are searching and trying to help families, that we disrupt things, and we affect lives.”
Raguse began working on the book in 2016 and did most of his writing during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. People he talked with to gain information include Larry Long and Rod Oswald. Long was South Dakota attorney general at the time the state was pursuing murder charges. Oswald was the case’s prosecutor.
“They were extremely helpful. The head of the DCI at the time – he’s currently the sheriff out in Pennington County, Kevin Thom, he did an interview, and then I started having more trouble with some of the actual cold case investigators not wanting to be helpful,” he said.
One of those investigators has died.
“The other guys are just very defensive and they still believe that Lykken had something to do with it,” Raguse said. “For example, Trevor Jones, after he was done with the cold case unit in the DCI, he became the secretary of public safety in the state of South Dakota and was just very unwilling to look at any of the new facts that show it was an accident.”
He describes his book as having three parts, the first part touching on what happened in 1971 when Miller and Jackson went missing and the second part focusing on the cold case investigation during the 2000s, including the searches of the Lykken farm, the indictment of David Lykken, the unraveling of the murder charges against him and the discovery of the girls’ remains in Brule Creek.
“In the third part, I kind of come into the picture as a journalist who is investigating, trying to narrow down the truth,” Raguse said. “In that part, I include my process; I include my full conversation with Trevor Jones in Q&A style … and it just kind of gives you a window into how some law enforcement officials think. When they believe something, it’s very hard for them to change their minds when new evidence comes up.”
The book accomplishes, he said, his goals when he began the long process of gathering information and writing.
“I wanted to, for Pam and Sherri’s families, give as thorough of an accounting as possible of what happened that night in the weeks that followed,” Raguse said, “as well as painting a picture of who Pam and Sherri really were and I think I do a very good job of that in the first part of the book.”
He said in the second part of the book, “for the Lykkens and for Pam’s and Sherri’s families, I wanted to show exactly how the cold case investigation transpired – not just what investigators wanted the public to know about, but everything that actually happened.”
The third portion of the book is the most difficult. “I wanted to explain, as best I could, whether it’s possible if that car had been in that exact same spot for 40 years before it was finally found and explain how that was possible as well as explain how it’s possible that so many people came forward with false memories and all of this other junk that complicated the investigation while it was ongoing.”
He’s most proud that “Vanished In Vermillion” provides answers to questions that for decades had been unanswered.
The book will be released on Feb. 21 and will be distributed by Simon and Schuster. It is available for pre-order online.
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