TROUP COUNTY, Ga. — A college student went missing on his way back to school in 1976. For 45 years, police and his family had very few answers. Now, the cold case of Kyle Clinkscales is warm again.
Officials with the Troup County, Georgia and Chambers County, Alabama sheriff's offices came together Tuesday morning to announce they found Clinkscales’ car. Someone spotted his white Ford Pinto in a creek in Cusseta, Alabama and called 911, officials said.
Inside the car was his wallet that had his ID and credit cards – there were also bones, Troup County Sheriff James Woodruff said.
“We’re glad today,” Woodruff said. "For 45 years we’ve looked for this young man and looked for this car. We’ve drained lakes. We’ve looked here and looked there. It always turned out with nothing.”
Now, the GBI is analyzing the contents of the car, including the human remains, to try to confirm if the bones found belong to Clinkscales.
"There's a substantial challenge in being able to get workable DNA from skeletal remains that were found submerged like in this case in a vehicle for many decades," said DNA expert and CEO of Othram, Inc., David Mittelman. "The DNA will degrade over time, and that's going to be true for all older remains, including skeletal remains."
Mittelman added that he had success with a similar case, being able to extract DNA from a man's bones, after the remains had been found inside a car that had been submerged for years.
"It can be done, it's just technically challenging because the DNA, obviously, hasn't been kept in the best possible state, and there's not a lot of human DNA that remains after such a long period of time," he said.
Authorities said Kyle, an Auburn University student, was last seen at the LaGrange Moose Lodge where he bartended. They said he left the bar that night to drive back to Auburn but was never seen again. The sheriff's office said the car was found about three miles away from what was likely Kyle's usual route home.
Investigators, for years, investigated Kyle's disappearance as a possible murder.
In 2006, a man named Jimmy Jones claimed that he was there in Jan. 1976 "the day that Kyle Clinkscales was shot,” according to one of the court documents. Jones claimed Clinkscales was shot to death by another man.
But then, prosecutors who did have some murder suspects in mind, concluded that Jones had changed his story so many times he was worthless as a witness, and he went to prison for making false statements.
Nothing came of the homicide investigation.
The current Troup County Sheriff, James Woodruff, hopes to find out the truth, from inside that car, now.
"Is there something that we can take to the crime lab and determine if there was foul play?" he asked, talking with reporters Wednesday. "Was he murdered and left there, did he run off the road and wreck there?"
Mittelman said GBI investigators may not only be able to prove that the remains are Kyle’s, but may also be able to confirm if Kyle was shot to death as Sheriff’s investigators suspected then.
"So if there was a gunshot wound, you’d expect to see evidence of that from the skeletal remains," MIttelman said. "It’s a little trickier, I think there you’re kind of relying on, hopefully, clues from the skeletal remains, or other circumstantial evidence. And seeing that the car’s been submerged for some time, it sounds like the investigators will have their work cut out for them."
11Alive spoke to Kyle's parents in 1996, 20 years after he disappeared.
"We haven't given up hope yet. Until you've got something tangible to say (that his body's been found), we won't give up hope," said Mary Louise Clinkscales, Kyle's mother.
Friends of Kyle say his disappearance has engulfed the LaGrange community.
"It never ended. Everybody was always wondering if he was going to show up somewhere," said Lauren Griffen.
Griffen said she met Kyle about a year before he disappeared, adding that everyone in the town knew him.
"His personality was just charming. He was a sweet guy. Most of the time he was very quiet. But he was very kind to everyone," Griffen said.
Kyle's mother died this past January, and his father died in 2007.
Sheriff Woodruff said he hoped this day would have come while Clinkscales’ parents were still alive.
“It was always her hope that he would come home. It was always our hope that we would find him for her before she passed away," he added. "Just the fact that we have hopefully found him in the car brings me a sigh of relief.”