ELK POINT, S.D. (AP) — Cheryl Miller and Pamella Jackson had planned to celebrate the end of the 1971 school year by gathering with classmates at a quarry along a gravel road.
But the 17-year-old girls weren't known for frequenting parties, so when they didn't show up, other teens just assumed they had changed plans, perhaps to avoid any underage drinking or pot smoking.
It soon became clear that the well-liked pair from the farming town of Alcester, S.D., had vanished in their Studebaker. Now the 43-year-old mystery of their disappearance has been solved, largely by the ebb and flow of a dirty creek and the contents of a well-preserved purse.
"This has really been a tragedy for two families, a tragedy for a class, as well as all of South Dakota, to some degree," state Attorney General Marty Jackley said this week.
The questions began on the evening of May 19, 1971. After visiting Miller's ailing grandmother at a hospital, the girls met up with some boys at a church parking lot and started to follow them to the quarry. Miller drove the beige 1960 Studebaker Lark that had belonged to her grandmother, who died shortly after she disappeared. Jackson was in the passenger's seat.
The boys missed a turn and accidentally drove past the party. When they turned around, they told authorities, they no longer saw the Studebaker's headlights. They figured the girls had simply lost the nerve to attend the party.
The celebration went on, but the girls and the Studebaker would not be seen again until 2013.
In the following weeks, volunteers and law-enforcement officers searched the gravel pit, surrounding roads and even the nearby Missouri River. But their efforts yielded nothing. The mystery persisted, year after year, for more than four decades, tormenting the girls' families, baffling investigators and inviting false allegations against a sex offender.
Every time the girls' classmates reunited, the disappearance came up.
"We were always curious," said Dwight Iverson, a classmate who now runs a restaurant and convenience store in nearby Vermillion. "We would talk about it. That car has to be somewhere on this planet, and it's never been found."
At one point, the state's cold case unit reopened the investigation after a prison snitch implicated a fellow classmate who had lived nearby and was behind bars for raping a woman. Authorities concluded he made the story up.
Then in September, flooding followed by a drought brought the car into view. It was upside-down in Brule Creek next to the gravel pit where the girls had been headed. A fisherman spotted two tires sticking above the water.
On Tuesday, authorities held a news conference to confirm what townspeople had suspected since the car re-emerged: The remains inside were those of Miller and Jackson.
The evidence seemed frozen in time. A picture of Mount Rushmore on the white license plate was clearly visible, as were the green registration numbers. A watch still had its strap and clearly showed the time it stopped, 10:20.
Miller's purse was intact, containing her driver's license, coins, a couple of letters from friends and other items, all in relatively good shape for being submerged for so long. Those belongings and DNA were used to identify the remains.
There's no evidence the teens had been drinking. And mechanical tests on the car did not suggest any foul play. The headlight switch on the dashboard was on. The car was in high gear, and both girls were found in the front seat. Those factors point to an accident, Jackley said.
Investigators would not speculate on exactly what happened, though one of the tires was damaged and the tread was thin, Jackley added.
Ray Hofman, who knew the Miller family and searched for the teens during his career with the Vermillion Police Department, said the two probably lost track of the narrow, dusty road and accidentally drove into the creek.
"Those boys were kicking up gravel at nighttime. Those girls couldn't see the bridge," he said.
Seeing an old car embedded in a muddy bank wouldn't necessarily attract suspicion. The landscape is dotted with rusting vehicles, farm machines and other contraptions. Some were put there to curb erosion. Others were simply abandoned.
Jackson's late mother, Adele, told people the loss of a daughter was especially hard on her husband, Oscar.
"She said just about every night after supper, he'd go out driving around the countryside looking for that Studebaker," said Paul Buum, publisher of the local newspaper, the Alcester Union and Hudsonite.
Oscar Jackson died five days before the car was found, at age 102. An obituary noted that his daughter's disappearance was his "greatest sadness."
Buum was at Jackson's funeral when authorities announced they had found the car. After hearing about the discovery, Union County Sheriff Dan Limoges said his thoughts went immediately to the Jackson family.
"It was a higher being that Oscar might have got some information from and led that individual who called us to the place," the sheriff said.
Hofman and others in Vermillion grew up with the mystery.
"We always knew about it," he said, "but never knew what happened to them."
Associated Press researcher Jennifer Farrar in New York contributed to this story.
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Astronomers have discovered what they say is the most Earth-like planet yet detected — a distant, rocky world that's similar in size to our own and exists in the Goldilocks zone where it's not too hot and not too cold for life.
The find, announced Thursday, excited planet hunters who have been scouring the Milky Way galaxy for years for potentially habitable places outside our solar system.
"This is the best case for a habitable planet yet found. The results are absolutely rock solid," University of California, Berkeley astronomer Geoff Marcy, who had no role in the discovery, said in an email.
The planet was detected by NASA's orbiting Kepler telescope, which examines the heavens for subtle changes in brightness that indicate an orbiting planet is crossing in front of a star. From those changes, scientists can calculate a planet's size and make certain inferences about its makeup.
The newfound object, dubbed Kepler-186f, circles a red dwarf star 500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Cygnus. A light-year is almost 6 trillion miles.
The planet is about 10 percent larger than Earth and may very well have liquid water — a key ingredient for life — on its surface, scientists said. That is because it resides at the outer edge of the habitable temperature zone around its star — the sweet spot where lakes, rivers or oceans can exist without freezing solid or boiling away.
The planet probably basks in an orange-red glow from its star and is most likely cooler than Earth, with an average temperature slightly above freezing, "similar to dawn or dusk on a spring day," Marcy said.
The discovery was detailed in Friday's issue of the journal Science.
Lead researcher Elisa Quintana at NASA's Ames Research Center said she considers the planet to be more of an "Earth cousin" than a twin because it circles a star that is smaller and dimmer than our sun. While Earth revolves around the sun in 365 days, this planet completes an orbit of its star every 130 days.
"You have a birthday every 130 days on this planet," she said.
Scientists cannot say for certain whether it has an atmosphere, but if it does, it probably contains a lot of carbon dioxide, outside experts said.
"Don't take off your breathing mask if you ever land there," said Lisa Kaltenegger, a Harvard and Max Planck Institute astronomer who had no connection to the research.
Despite the differences, "now we can point to a star and know that there really is a planet very similar to the Earth, at least in size and temperature," Harvard scientist David Charbonneau, who was not part of the team, said in an email.
Since its launch in 2009, Kepler has confirmed 961 planets, but only a few dozen are in the habitable zone. Most are giant gas balls like Jupiter and Saturn, and not ideal places for life. Scientists in recent years have also found planets slightly larger than Earth in the Goldilocks zone called "super Earths," but it is unclear if they are rocky.
The latest discovery is the closest in size to Earth than any other known world in the habitable region.
Kepler-186f is part of a system of five planets, all of which are roughly Earth's size. However, the other planets are too close to their star to support life.
Astronomers may never know for certain whether Kepler-186f can sustain life. The planet is too far away even for next-generation space telescopes like NASA's overbudget James Webb, set for launch in 2018, to study in detail.
Kepler completed its prime mission and was in overtime when one of the wheels that keep its gaze steady failed last year. NASA has not yet decided whether to keep using the telescope to hunt for planets on a scaled-back basis.
AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein contributed to this report.
BOSTON (AP) — A year after homemade bombs ripped through the Boston Marathon, state and federal officials have enacted virtually no policy changes in response to the attack, a dramatic departure from previous acts of terrorism that prompted waves of government action.
"There was a great deal of concern right after this happened," said Rep. William Keating, a Massachusetts Democrat. "Now, people are focused on so many different issues."
Washington's formal response to the attack has been limited to a series of investigations and reports that call for improved cooperation between the federal government and local law enforcement. In the Massachusetts Statehouse, legislators have created a license plate to honor the victims, while considering modest proposals to reimburse local police departments involved in the frantic search for those behind the attack.
Despite symbolic pledges of support from elected officials across the nation on this week's anniversary, there is little evidence of any significant impact on policy. Instead of allocating new federal resources, funding that helps cities prepare for terrorism may be reduced. And it's unclear if Congress will adopt any legislative remedies to address perceived intelligence failures that leave cities vulnerable to so-called lone wolf strikes.
"This is still an ongoing threat. I don't think there's anybody in law enforcement that would say what happened in Boston couldn't happen anywhere," said former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who testified before a congressional panel last year, calling for action.
But the politics of terrorism have changed significantly since Giuliani led his city's response to the 9/11 attacks more than a decade ago.
Polling suggests that terrorism barely registers among voter priorities — even in the months immediately after the April 15, 2013, attack that killed three and wounded more than 260 others gathered around the marathon finish line.
Experts also report that the limited response is due, in part, to the low number of deaths relative to previous terrorist attacks on American soil.
Al-Qaida operatives killed nearly 3,000 people on Sept. 11, 2001, and 168 died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. Policymakers enacted an overwhelming legislative response to 9/11, creating a new federal agency, the Homeland Security Department, and sending a flood of money to help local officials across the country improve their ability to prevent and respond to a mass-casualty terrorist attack.
The changes improved anti-terrorism efforts at the state and federal level, which has already been credited with preventing some attacks in recent years and minimizing the loss of life in last spring's Boston bombing. But the U.S. government has long feared a Boston Marathon-type attack that's carried out by people motivated by ideology but not tied to any designated terrorist group.
"We see the horror of the Boston Marathon bombings, and you say to yourself, 'We still have a long way to go,'" said Tom Ridge, the first secretary of the Homeland Security Department and now a homeland security consultant. "I'm not convinced that this could not have been avoided."
Several months before the bombing, Russian officials warned U.S. security officials that the accused bombers might be religious extremists. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed in a shootout with police three days after the bombing, while his brother, Dzhokhar, is awaiting trial on 30 charges in federal court.
A yearlong review of U.S. intelligence released this month found that the investigation prior to the bombing could have been more thorough, but the intelligence agencies' inspectors general said it is impossible to know whether anything could have been done differently to prevent the attack. A report released late last month by the House Homeland Security Committee raised concerns about the lack of information sharing between local officials and federal authorities.
Giuliani said that local law enforcement officers "have to become our front-line of defense" as the nation prepares for more "homegrown terrorist activity."
"There just has to be more sharing with local police," Giuliani told The Associated Press.
Voters appear to have little appetite for a renewed focus on national security after a decade in which anti-terrorism efforts — in addition to wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — have consumed tremendous public resources and attention. Changes in law and policy that could address preventing domestic "lone wolf" attackers would likely involve more surveillance of Americans, an issue that elected officials are reluctant to embrace following revelations that the National Security Agency collected phone records and emails of millions of U.S. citizens as part of ongoing anti-terrorism efforts.
That leaves Keating largely alone as he crafts legislation he hopes will help avert future attacks. The second-term congressman plans to introduce a bill this year that would incorporate much of the Homeland Security Committee's recent recommendations, which include expanded cooperation between federal and local law enforcement and improved screening of international travelers. He said he may introduce the legislation in parts, depending on the level of support from other lawmakers.
At the same time, Keating says, there are signs that the federal government may cut some of the grant programs that help cities like Boston prepare for terrorist attacks. He said he is working to avoid that, but as a relatively junior Democratic congressman in the Republican-led House, that task is not an easy one.
"Unfortunately, the interest level on a tragedy like this peaks when it occurs," he said.
Associated Press writers Eileen Sullivan in Washington and Bob Salsberg in Boston contributed to this report.
FLORENCE, Ala. (AP) — Fast sports cars with sleek, sexy lines are the last thing passers-by probably imagine when they pass the nondescript metal building in an industrial park in northwest Alabama.
But that's exactly what they will find at Trissl Sports Cars.
The company collects, sells and exports Porsches of all makes and models on the international market.
Nearly a year old, the company was hatched from owner Thomas Trissl's love of Porsches.
Trissl came to Florence in 1996 to start Centiva Flooring, which was later sold to Tarkett. Trissl started another flooring company and the Porsche business.
"We have some knowledge of the hobby, and it's a nice, growing business," Trissl said. "We collect Porsches and have some extremely rare automobiles. I rely on (manager) Jason Schurfeld's experience and knowledge to grow the business."
On any given week, the showroom houses 35 to 45 Porsches.
"There are seven generations of Porsches, and we've had all of them here," Schurfeld said.
"Anything we have here is rare. We go after rare cars because we know that's what collectors want."
For example, only 395 Carreras were built in 1974 and 1975, and three of them are in Trissl's showroom.
Dan Barger, of Florence, who owns a 1985 911 Coupe and a 2003 911 Cab, said Trissl has an impressive collection.
"They unveiled the 2013 Cayman here last year," Barger said.
"We share an enthusiasm in the vehicles. He has a unique collection and is able to turn his passion into a business."
Trissl had a show last month that attracted more than 100 Porsche owners.
Barger said a number of things make owning a Porsche appealing.
"It's the uniqueness of it all," Barger said. "It's the German engineering. It's a race-proven sports car, and you know the power is there if you need it. It's the agility coupled with power."
Trissl sells and trades Porsches all over the world. One car in the showroom is headed to Prague in the Czech Republic.
"A lot of it is Internet-based," Trissl said. "We may buy a car in Japan and sell it in Europe, and it never comes here.
"We have customers come to us asking if we can sell their Porsche and they'll replace it with another model."
The showroom includes a car with a slant nose, which was a $22,000 option in the 1980s. Schurfeld said the car is one that Porsche used to take to automotive shows.
Trissl still has the car he originally brought to the United States from Germany: A 1993 turbo 3.6.
"It's one of the most desired cars in the world," Schurfeld said. "This is one of only 1,000 in the world."
Porsche will make any exterior and interior colors for their customers, which explains the purple car with purple interior, a 911 C4. Schurfeld said it's the only car like it in the world.
Remember the car Tom Cruise put in the water in the movie "Risky Business?" Trissl has a version of it, a 928 GTS. The last year it was made was 1995.
The showroom also includes what Porsche calls its super car. It has a carbon fiber body and chassis, and boasts 620 horsepower.
"It's a street-legal race car," Schurfeld said.
Only 1,282 were made, and Trissl has No. 882.
There also is a 50th anniversary of the 911 edition.
"People ask, why Florence?" Schurfeld said. "Why not? It's all driven by the Internet."
In another showroom, there are two Porsche race cars — a 1963 Formula B race car and a 1986 944 LeMans-style car.
Trissl also has started a parts barn. An Alabama dealer closed his shop in the 1970s and kept all of the original parts. Trissl bought them all. There are original gauges that sell for $1,000.
In addition to its Internet presence, Trissl advertises in Porsche magazines and attends all Porsche car shows in the U.S. and Germany.
"That's what makes us different," Schurfeld said. "We travel to venues and make our business more personalized."
Schurfeld said the popularity of Porsche is "as high as it's ever been. And with the euro versus the dollar, that's why we ship most of our cars to Europe because you can buy a Porsche in the U.S. much cheaper and ship it to Germany."
Schurfeld said Porsche owners and collectors are passionate about the car.
"It's the purest brand, the only manufactured car you can take to a race track and be covered under warranty," he said. "It's fun to drive, it's fast and it's precision-made.
"The characteristics of it make it a street-legal race car. They are made to go fast, to handle and to stop."
WASHINGTON (AP) — With enrollments higher than expected, and costs lower, some Democrats say it's time to stop hiding from the president's health care overhaul, even in this year's toughest Senate elections.
Republicans practically dare Democrats to embrace "Obamacare," the GOP's favorite target in most congressional campaigns. Yet pro-Democratic activists in Alaska are doing just that, and a number of strategists elsewhere hope it will spread.
President Barack Obama recently announced that first-year sign-ups for subsidized private health insurance topped 7 million, exceeding expectations. And the Congressional Budget Office — the government's fiscal scorekeeper — said it expects only a minimal increase in customers' costs for 2015. Over the next decade, the CBO said the new law will cost taxpayers $100 billion less than previously estimated.
Republicans already were pushing their luck by vowing to "repeal and replace" the health care law without having a viable replacement in mind, said Thomas Mills, a Democratic consultant and blogger in North Carolina. Now, he said, Democrats have even more reasons to rise from their defensive crouch on this topic.
"Democrats need to start making the case for Obamacare," Mills said. "They all voted for it, they all own it, so they can't get away from it. So they'd better start defending it."
Even some professionals who have criticized the health care law say the political climate has changed.
"I think Democrats have the ability to steal the health care issue back from Republicans," health care industry consultant said Bob Laszewski said. "The Democratic Party can become the party of fixing Obamacare."
In truth, some Democratic lawmakers often talk of "fixing" the 2010 health care law. But it's usually in response to critics or in a manner meant to show their willingness to challenge Obama.
For instance, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., who faces a tough re-election bid, used her first TV ad of the campaign to highlight her demand that Obama let people keep insurance policies they like.
But Landrieu and other hard-pressed Democrats have not gone as far as a pro-Democratic group in Alaska that is unabashedly highlighting the health law's strongest points.
The independent group Put Alaska First is airing a TV ad that praises Democratic Sen. Mark Begich for helping people obtain insurance even if they have "pre-existing conditions," such as cancer. The ad doesn't mention Obama or his health care law by name, but it focuses on one of the law's most popular features.
Other Democrats should consider such tactics, political consultant David DiMartino said.
"There is still time to tell the story of Obamacare to voters," he said. Democratic candidates don't want to be defined entirely by the health law, he said, "but now they can point to its successes to fend off the inevitable distortions."
GOP strategists don't agree. The recent upbeat reports might help Democrats temporarily, but "the negative opinion of Americans toward Obamacare is baked in," Texas-based Republican consultant Matt Mackowiak said. "If Obamacare was truly trending positively," he said, "Sebelius would have stayed, and Democrats in tough races would be picking a fight on Obamacare, instead of mostly hiding from it."
Kathleen Sebelius, the health and human services secretary closely associated with the health care law, is stepping down. Democrats say it's a sign that the biggest problems are past, but Senate Republicans vow to use her successor's confirmation hearings as another forum for criticizing the law.
Democrats hardest hit by anti-Obamacare ads — including Sens. Kay Hagan of North Carolina and Mark Pryor of Arkansas — continue to defend the health law when asked, but they generally focus on other topics, campaign aides say.
Polls don't suggest public sentiment is shifting toward Democrats, said Robert Blendon, a professor of health policy and political analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health. But with at least 7.5 million people enrolled despite last fall's disastrous rollout of insurance markets, Blendon said, Democrats have some strong new material to use.
"Each of the Democratic candidates is going to have to make a calculation on whether or not they can motivate Democrats," Blendon said. "For Democrats to get an advantage out of the law, they have to convince people they have something to lose if the Senate changes hands."
Republicans need to gain six seats to control the 100-member Senate.
New political problems might arise for the health care law before the Nov. 4 election. For instance, the individual requirement to carry health insurance remains generally unpopular, and now penalties may apply to millions of people who remain uninsured.
So far, Republicans have had an edge in public opinion, particularly when those with strong sentiments about the law are considered. A recent AP-GfK poll found that strong opponents outnumber strong supporters, 31 percent to 13 percent. And motivated voters often make the difference in low-turnout nonpresidential elections. But the poll also found that most Americans expect the health law to be changed, not repealed.
That puts Republicans in a tricky situation: GOP primary voters demand repeal, but general election voters in November are looking for fixes.
"It's not a cheap and easy political target anymore," Laszewski said. "Republicans are going to have to tell us what they would do different."
Democrats deride GOP proposals to "replace" the 2010 health care law, saying they collapse under close scrutiny. Since they generally contemplate a smaller federal government role, many of the GOP ideas are likely to leave more people uninsured. Some approaches do not completely prohibit insurers from turning away people with pre-existing medical conditions.
Economist Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who advises many top Republicans, said the emerging GOP plans aren't tied to the ups and downs of Obama's law but look ahead to the 2016 presidential election, when the party will need alternatives.
Ultimately, he said, "there can't be a Republican 'replace.' ... There needs to be a bipartisan reform." That doesn't seem likely, but Holtz-Eakin said it was the only kind of change that will prove durable.
Democrats can cheer the latest statistics, "but they are not out of the woods yet," he said. "They have waived and deferred a million things they knew were unpopular, and those are still out there."
AP Director of Polling Jennifer Agiesta contributed to this report.