Investigation shows 3 perished in 1971 cabin fire

A yearlong investigation led by the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department has determined three teenagers — not two — perished in a cabin fire about a mile and a half south of Brownstown in 1971.

In June 2022, the sheriff’s department announced it was working to solve a cold case from Dec. 18, 1971. Sheriff Rick Meyer assigned the cold case to Lt. Adam Nicholson and gave him the go-ahead to pursue a renewed investigation into the fire.

At the time it happened, investigators with the Indiana State Police believed just two teens, Stanley R. Robison, 17, and Jerry Autry, 19, died in the fire. A third teen, Michael W. Sewell, 16, had been camping with the others the morning of the fire.

The cabin was a 9-by-15-foot structure built from railroad ties and used as a hangout and camping site for teens.

According to original police reports, Robison and Autry were believed to have perished in the fire. Sewell was camping with Robison and Autry the night of the fire, but the original reports only indicated the remains of two individuals were found.

In addition, the reports describe the bodies as being badly burned and close to incineration. The only means of identification was determined by their class rings located at the scene.

About two hours after investigators left the scene of the cabin, Sewell was reported missing by his family and had not been seen or heard of since.

“Several rumors and questions have been raised over the years, adding to the mystery of the events of that evening,” Nicholson said. “After taking a deep look at everything and processing all the old reports and evidence, it seemed logical to think Sewell also perished in the fire. Other than the opinions of the original investigator, there was no proof Sewell wasn’t in the fire, and our focus is to prove he was or wasn’t.”

It was decided to exhume the remains of Autry and Robison to check for any additional evidence of a third person, Nicholson said.

“Sewell was only 16 years old, and it’s difficult to imagine he would still be missing 52 years later if he had simply run away,” he said.

Nicholson said he sought the advice and assistance of Krista Latham, a professor of biology and anthropology at the University of Indianapolis.

Latham, a board-certified forensic anthropologist, agreed to help with further investigation into the case.

Latham and a team of anthropologists assisted with the exhumation of Robison and Autry on June 21, 2022, at Fairview Cemetery in Brownstown.

After the exhumation, Latham took possession of the remains and transported them to the University of Indianapolis Human Identification Center for analysis.

Nicholson said the families of the deceased were notified beforehand and gave consent for the exhumation. The families also provided their DNA so it could be compared with the remains exhumed.

Latham completed her analysis of the remains on Nov. 22, 2022, and her findings confirmed a minimum of three individuals within the two caskets that were exhumed, Nicholson said.

He said she came to this conclusion by identifying triplicate copies of several bones, which is consistent with three individuals being represented in the two caskets.

Latham noted there was no trauma observed that couldn’t be attributed to the fire, Nicholson said.

She selected the least burnt bones as candidates for possible DNA extraction to compare with the DNA of the families.

The selected bones were then submitted to the Indiana State Police Lab for DNA testing. That lab attempted DNA analysis on several bones, but only one was in good enough condition to produce results.

On June 12, the lab completed analysis on DNA extracted from the bone. The result identifies one of the decedents as Robison. The lab will continue to look for possibilities of extracting more DNA with future technology.

“I’m pleased and very thankful for the help that Dr. Latham, the University of Indianapolis and the Indiana State Police Lab provided,” Nicholson said. “The thorough analysis they provided has answered some questions for the families involved, which was well deserved and long overdue.”

Meyer said the sheriff’s department is glad they can finally give some closure to the families involved.

“I commend Lt. Nicholson and all the assisting agencies who helped find answers in this 52-year-old case,” Meyer said.

Those assisting with the investigation include the Jackson County Coroner’s Office, FBI, the University of Indianapolis and Indiana State Police Lab.