The Only Mystery In Vermillion, South Dakota

by Lyz Lenz


The first and last crime I ever tried to solve was the disappearance of two teenage girls. Michelle Strand and Suzie Hewlitt of Vermillion, South Dakota went missing in May of 1971. They were high school juniors, and they left for a party at a gravel pit about 20 miles outside of town and never came back.

In 1998 my family moved to Vermillion. I had lived in Texas for my whole life up to that point. The town was small. Kids drove tractors to school. Everyone had known one another since preschool, and most of them were related. The only mystery was the mystery of Michelle and Suzie. So, I spent the entire summer between eighth grade and freshman year of high school looking for them.

I did this in part because I was never invited to parties in gravel pits. I had been homeschooled until high school. The only people I knew were librarians and my friends Jenny F., Jenny D. and Jon from drama camp and community theater classes, and the parties I went to involved giving Jenny F. a make-over and the two of us trying to learn the dance routine from Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion in her basement, where her father’s deer trophies watched us glass-eyed from the wood-paneled walls.

I rode my bike to Jenny’s house almost three miles away and across a busy road. Kids my age drove by in their parents’ rusty trucks and new tractors. Sometimes they honked. Most often, they ignored me. Everyone could drive that summer before high school because of the state law that said if a kid lived in the country, they could get a permit to drive to school at the age of fifteen. And everyone lived in the country: Vermillion, South Dakota is a dusty town on a hill. It’s a faint radiation out from the University of South Dakota, where a sign proudly proclaims that Tom Brokaw went there. It was rumored that the girl who sang “Sunny Came Home” was born here, too. But she grew up in Canada, so it didn’t really count, did it?

In Allen, Texas, our house had bordered a busy highway and a small creek. My siblings and I rarely left the confines of our property and when we did, we were never by ourselves. We were Evangelical and homeschooled: our world was our home and our church and the little cardboard houses we built down by the creek. My parents kept the TV in the closet; we never heard the news. But in Vermillion, all of that changed. The town was small and safe. There wasn’t a lot of crime besides bikes being stolen and college students passing out in our yard. And maybe it was here that my parents reached their tipping point of constantly corralling and protecting all eight of us. In Vermillion, they finally let me go free.

Our neighborhood was made up of small blocks of teetering old Victorians, occupied by rickety professors and busy students. Five blocks away was Main Street, which had a movie theater with two screens, and next door, a bar and a video store. Down the street, just past the old Baptist church, was the library. If I went with my brother, I could ride my bike to see G or PG movies; I could go to the library by myself. I took drama classes at an old converted church and over the summer I volunteered at the library, shelving and reshelving the kids’ section.

Eventually, not knowing what a person did with freedom, I began looking for mysteries. I wasn’t sure why at the time; I was 14, an age where you barely ask yourself that question. Looking back, it’s clear to me that I just wanted to feel important. I wanted something magical and mysterious to lift me out of the mundane, to transform me. Some kids look for that in sports, others in amassing friends and a homecoming crown; me, I wanted a mystery.

At first, I thought the key was the crumbling stone band shell in the park. It looked mysterious. It had stone, moss and looked creepy in the moonlight, which seemed like mystery 101. In drama class, Jon told me that a man had killed his wife and hidden her money in one of the stones, and then when he came back to retrieve the money, the ghost of his murdered wife killed him. The story immediately seemed ridiculous, like the single episode of Are You Afraid of the Dark I had watched at my friend’s house despite the fact that my mom said that show was about the occult and it was a sin to watch it. But none of that stopped me from sneaking out of the house at nine (that was as late as my conscience would allow) and riding my bike to the park to see if the ghost of the wife would arrive and try to kill me.

Then Jenny D. told me that a girl she knew in sixth grade had lived in a house that used to be a hospital. The third floor, she told me, had been the morgue. And one time when she slept over, the groans of the dead echoed through the house in the darkness.

I rode my bike by that house a lot, trying to feel the ghosts. All the books said you could feel their presence. I never felt anything. So, at the library, I used the microfiche machine to see if I could find any stories about that old hospital.

What I found instead was the mystery of Michelle Strand and Suzie Hewlitt. Maybe they had been taken by a serial killer, theorized reporters. Maybe they were living, disguised in the neighboring town of Yankton. Maybe they were running from the law. I asked the librarians about them. The children’s librarian, a wonderful woman who had tolerated my terrible shelving for the past two months, told me it was more likely they had just run away to a bigger town. “Kids,” she said, “are always leaving this town.”

At the time, I didn’t know why, but I had to search for them. I rode my bike down the hill to the river. I looked into the swollen brown water and knew they couldn’t be there. Perhaps they were living on the banks, behind the green tangle of trees and brush. Perhaps they had fled because they’d discovered something special about themselves. They had magic and it’s impossible to be magic in high school, so they left. They built themselves a cottage by the river, where they could practice their gifts without being afraid of being mocked.

The town of Vermillion had once been located near the river. But a great flood had driven residents up the hill, closer to the university. Ruins of the former town still remained. I found the stone remains of an old church in the woods. I went there frequently as the summer began to turn to fall and the woods smelled of wet leaves and sweet rotting trees. I thought I’d meet the girls there. I snuggled into the stone, where I imagined the pulpit had been (never mind that the pulpit wouldn’t have been built into the foundation; that was a practicality that escaped me at 14). I wrote poems in my journal about pirate queens and sea-faring adventures. I told my journal, who I named Rose, that I had no friends. I told Rose I didn’t like my parents. I didn’t like God, either. I told her I wanted to leave.

School started. My first year in public school was miserable. Carson in Biology sat behind me and kicked me with his steel-toed boots every time I raised my hand, which was a lot. In composition, a kid whose name I forget but whose tobacco-breath I smell in my anxiety dreams whispered words like “cunt” and “carpet muncher” in my ear. I didn’t know what they meant. I had to look them up in the library. When I found out, I asked the teacher if I could move my desk. He refused.

Dustin was the captain of the swim team. In the crowded hall between classes he’d shout out, “Hey Lyz, want to date? Oh right, you can’t because your parents won’t let you!” Megan told me that my Clarissa Explains It All-inspired styles were ugly. Liz told me to stop wearing denim pageboy hats. Tabitha slammed my head on my desk in geometry class. I never told my parents about any of this, because I knew they’d take me out of school, and I wanted the freedom. I looked at Michelle and Suzie’s pictures over and over from a microfiche print out. What made them so special? Why did they get to go?

A few years, I too would leave. I too wouldn’t go back.

Michelle and Suzie were found in September of 2013, when a passerby noticed an old Studebaker in Brule Creek, miles away from where I’d imagined they’d be. The police were able to identify the remains, along with drivers’ licenses and wallets from the girls. Almost forty years later, the case was solved: probably a traffic accident on a gravel road. The girls never left Vermillion. They were there the whole time.

What strikes me about reading the news stories now, sixteen years after I tried to find them, was how little I cared for the details or the actual facts. I could have talked to their parents; they didn’t live far from me. I could have tried to track down a sibling. I could have ridden my bike in the right direction, the direction they had actually been going, toward the gravel pit. Even the pictures of the girls that I am looking at right now look nothing like what I remembered from the grainy microfiche.

No wonder their ghost never found me. I didn’t want to be haunted by them. I wasn’t even seeing them. I wasn’t even trying to find them. I was trying to figure out what haunted me.

Names in this essay have been changed.

Previously: Being Maleficent

Lyz’s essays have appeared on the New York Times online, Brain, Child, Geez magazine, and The Louisville Review. You can find her on Twitter @lyzl.