Sheriff’s department investigating 51-year-old cold case

The Jackson County Sheriff’s Department recently launched an investigation into a 51-year-old case involving the death of two — and perhaps three — teens in a fire that destroyed a make-shift cabin southwest of Brownstown.

Sheriff Rick Meyer announced on Monday that police and other investigators are working to bring resolution for the families of those involved.

Lt. Adam Nicholson has taken the initiative and the lead on the continuing investigation, Meyer said.

“A family member reached out to me and expressed interest in having the case reopened with the hope that we can provide some answers to decades old questions,” said Meyer. “I took this information to Lt. Nicholson and gave him the go ahead to pursue a renewed investigation.”

The case involves a mysterious cabin fire that occurred on Dec. 18, 1971, about a mile and half south of Brownstown off State Road 135, police said. The cabin was a 9-by-15-foot make-shift structure that had been built out of railroad ties and was used for camping.

According to police reports at the time of the fire, Stanley R. Robison, 17, and Jerry Autry, 19, both of Brownstown, were believed to have perished in the fire.A third teen, Michael W. Sewell, 16, also of Brownstown, was camping with Robison and Autry the night of the fire, but the original police reports only indicated the remains of Robison and Autry had been found. All three were students are Brownstown Central High School.

In addition, the bodies were badly burned and close to incineration. The only means of identification at the time were class rings that were found at the scene belonging to Robison and Autry. Sewell was reported missing later that day and has not been seen or heard from since.

“Several questions have been raised over the years adding to the mystery of the events of that evening,” said Nicholson. “After looking at everything and processing all of the old reports and evidence, the only additional thing we could do would be to exhume the remains of Mr. Autry and Mr. Robison to check for any additional DNA evidence.”

Meyer said some of the questions raised over the years have been over the possibility Sewell also was lost in the fire that night.

“If Sewell was not in the fire, what happened to him,” Meyer said. “He was only 16 years old at the time of the fire, and it is difficult to imagine he would still be missing 51 years later if he had simply run away.”

Prior to the exhumation, Nicholson sought out the advice of Dr. Krista Latham with the University of Indianapolis.

Dr. Latham, a professor of biology and anthropology, agreed to help with further investigation into the possibility that more than two people could have perished in the fire.

The FBI also is assisting with the reopened investigation and will be processing the remains to extract DNA and compare that to the families of the deceased.

The remains of Autry and Robison were exhumed on June 21 at Fairview Cemetery at 610 N. High St., Brownstown.

Dr. Latham was present with a team of anthropologists and took custody of the remains and transported them to the University of Indianapolis for analysis.

The families of the deceased were notified and gave consent for the exhumation, police said.

“Although this is expected to be a long process, we are hopeful in getting long overdue answers for these families and thank them for bringing attention back to this unsolved case,” Nicholson said.

Jackson County Coroner Paul Foster requested and received an additional appropriation for $15,600 during a recent Jackson County Council meeting to pay for the exhumation of the bodies.

The sheriff’s department is asking anyone with information that would be helpful in solving this case to contact Lt. Nicholson at 812-358-2141.