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Investigators reopen 50-year-old cold case, test 2 victims bodies for DNA

In 1971, two teens died and a third went missing inside a small cabin in Jackson County. Now, investigators are hoping for new answers.

JACKSON COUNTY, Ind. — A small town in Southern Indiana is re-opening a 50-year-old cold case investigation and they're getting help from anthropology experts and the FBI.

Investigators with the Jackson County Sheriff's Department said they believe key evidence might have been overlooked in the 1971 cabin fire that killed 19- year-old Jerry Autry and 17-year-old Stanley Robison. 

They also believe that evidence could lead to 16-year-old Mike Sewell, who was with the other boys on the night of the fire but his remains were never found. 

"They were just the 'all-American' teenagers," Lt. Adam Nicholson said. "Everybody remembers them just like they were."

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The three friends were students at Brownstown High School in Indiana and were well-known in the community. 

According to a school yearbook, Autry was a star football player, Robison was a member of the school's Christian Standards group, and Sewell was vice president of his class. 

"A lot of people knew them," Nicholson said. "A lot of people remember them, and not only the family, but a lot of people had questions."

50 years after the devastating fire, the tight knit community hasn't forgotten about the boys or what happened to them, though the detective said there are still a lot of suspicions and questions. Those questions found their way back to Nicholson's desk in 2020, kickstarting his research. 

"I just started looking online and finding these newspaper articles- before reaching out the family," he said.

In the local newspaper, Nicholson found pictures of the aftermath left behind in the fire. The only pieces of the structure left standing after the blaze were the sheet metal roof and wood burning stove. 

On-site investigators were captured on camera looking over the scene, as smoke billowed out from the beneath the rubble. In another picture, the coroner pointed out what remains were left. 

On scene, Nicholson said, some evidence was collected including human remains, pieces of a Coleman Style lantern, a bed frame, box springs and two class rings. 

The class rings were used to identify Autry and Robison. At the time, the coroner reported some teeth were found at the site, but they did not use them in the identification process. 

After the two young men were identified, police realized a third teen was missing: Mike Sewell. His ring was not discovered at the site and he was never identified in the remains. 

"The family all thinks that someone out there knows something about it that's never come forward," Nicholson said. 

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Despite his "missing" status, Nicholson believes Sewell might have died in that fire and he's hoping for new information to prove it. 

But he's not just waiting for the evidence to come to him, instead Nicholson brought in experts to exhume the young men's remains and compare them to DNA collected from family members. 

A team of archeologists from the University of Indiana carefully collected Autry and Robison's bones last week and took them back to their lab for analysis.

Right now, Nicholson said the remains are "drying out" after being underground for five decades. Once they are ready for examination, the lead archeologist on the case with attempt to identify the bones.

"If she finds three of a certain bone then we'll know there were three people in the fire," he said. "If she doesn't find that or there's not enough to put together, we'll take the best candidates for DNA testing and those will go to the FBI lab."

Nicholson admits it's going to be a lengthy process. But if it brings closure to a case haunting his small town for the last 50 years, he said that lengthy process will be worth it. 

If you know any information about this investigation you can report it to the Jackson County Sheriff's Department at (812) 358-2141.

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