BROWNSTOWN, Ind. — More than 50 years ago, police in Jackson County began investigating after a fire claimed the lives of two teens. Now, police are trying to figure out what happened that night, and what happened to a third teen who was with them the night of the fire.
In December 1971, Stanley Robison, Jerry Autry and Michael Sewell left a party to spend the night at a cabin along White River. The cabin was a 9-foot by 15-foot make-shift structure built out of railroad ties. The Jackson County Sheriff’s Office says it was made for camping.
The boys left the party around 2 a.m. that Saturday. Six hours later, the cabin was found burned to the ground. All that was left of the boys in the smoldering remains were class rings that police were able to use to identify Autry and Robison.
Among the wreckage was the stove and a lantern fuel can, which exploded in the fire. Several charred railroad dies were scattered around the scene.
At the time, investigators believed the fire started in the area between the two beds.
The fire burned so hotly that it seemingly consumed everything except Autry’s class ring and Sewell’s belt buckle, leaving no doubt as to the fates of two of the three friends.
Police found the remains of two people, their bodies badly burned and close to incineration. The deputy coroner said there was no evidence that a third person had been burned to death in the fire.
Autry’s car was found on the scene. However, it appeared that it had been moved from before the fire to after the fire. Sewell was reported missing later that day and had 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 Lt. Adam Nicholson with the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department.
Among the questions that police have included the possibility that Sewell was also lost in the fire that night. If he wasn’t what happened to him? The department said Sewell was only 16 at the time of the fire. They say it is difficult to imagine he would still be missing 51 years later if he ran away.
“To this day we still don’t know how the fire started. There are a lot of rumors out there. I still feel like there is somebody out there who knows something,” said Nancy Sterling, Robison’s sister, “and I think that when you’re 15- 16- 17 years old and maybe you’re afraid to come forward, maybe you’re afraid you’ll get in trouble, I’m not sure, but it just seems like there’s just so many missing pieces as to what happened.”
A family member recently reached out to the Sheriff’s Office interested in having the case reopened. They wanted to try to answer some of those decades-old questions.
“My sister and I have actually reached out to different sheriffs when they took office, but nobody has seemed really interested until now,” said Sheri Fletcher as she slipped her brother’s fire-torched ring on her finger. “I’m really hoping they find the remains of three people because the Sewells deserve….they’ve had it rough.”
Community gossip even made it into the pages of local newspapers in the early seventies as the whereabouts of Sewell, or the absence of his remains fueled speculation that perhaps he survived the flames or disappeared.
“People can be so cruel and the things that they said when it all happened was horrible and they pretty much ran us out of town,” said Sewell’s sister Linda Pack. “Anybody that knew him knew he couldn’t just set that fire and take off as close as he was to those boys.”
Jackson County Sheriffs Lieutenant Adam Nicholson had the bodies of Robison and Autry exhumed to be examined by a forensic pathologist at the University of Indianapolis.
“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,” said Lt. Nicholson.
Dr. Krista Latham with the University of Indianapolis was on hand to take custody of the remains. She is a professor of Biology and Anthropology. She is helping with the investigation to examine the possibility that more than two people could have died in the fire.
“They will try to reconstruct and just analyze the remains and try to come up with as many identifiable parts as they can,” said Lt. Nicholson, “and if she comes up with three right ankles, then she’ll know there were three people, or if she comes up with three left femurs, then she’ll know that there were three people, but if she only comes up with two, then we’re back to Square One.”
The FBI is also helping out with the investigation. They will process the remains to extract DNA and compare it to the families of the deceased.
“Although this is expected to be a long process, we are hopeful of getting long-overdue answers for these families and thank them for bringing attention back to this unsolved case,” said Lt. Nicholson.
Anyone with information about the case is being asked to call Lt. Nicholson at 812-358-2141.
Russ McQuaid contributed to this report