Bones found in submerged car linked to Auburn University student missing since 1976

CUSSETA, Ala. — Auburn University student Kyle Clinkscales vanished without a trace one winter night in 1976 as he drove back to campus from his Georgia hometown.

Over the next four decades of twists and turns in the case, authorities never quite knew what happened to the 22-year-old. That changed Tuesday when Alabama authorities pulled Clinkscales’ car from a creek in rural Chambers County.

Apparent human remains were found inside.

“For 45 years, we have looked for this young man and his car. We drained lakes. We looked here and looked there, and it always turned out nothing,” Troup County Sheriff James Woodruff said, according to WSB-TV in Atlanta. “Then out of the blue, we got the car, his ID and hopefully his remains.”

Clinkscales mother, Louise Clinkscales, died in January, nearly 45 years to the day that her son disappeared. She and her husband, who died in 2007, went to their graves wondering about their only child’s fate.

According to missing persons websites, Kyle Clinkscales was last seen leaving the Moose Club in LaGrange around 11 p.m. the night of Jan. 27, 1976. Clinkscales worked as a bartender at the club two nights a week.

He would drive the 35 miles back and forth from LaGrange to Auburn, where he was a junior.

“Clinkscales had not been a good student at college,” according to The Charley Project. “He initially enrolled at Auburn University after graduating high school, but he made poor grades there and transferred to LaGrange University, where he continued to perform badly before dropping out of college altogether. He later re-enrolled at Auburn and changed his major from education to business administration, losing several credits in the process.”

Clinkscales’ grades continued to be poor, frustrating the young man. His father, John Clinkscales, initially believed his son might have left on his own to start a life away from college.

CBS 42 in Birmingham reported that John and Louise Clinkscales hoped for years that their son was still alive somewhere.

“We just keep telling ourselves that he might just have wanted to make it easier on us by disappearing rather than telling us he was dropping out, or staying in school when he felt he was being a burden on us,” John Clinkscales told the Montgomery Advertiser in 1978.

Chambers County authorities learned differently Tuesday.

Sheriff’s Office Major Terry Wood said 911 dispatchers received a call shortly after 11 a.m. from a man who had spotted a car submerged in a creek.

When the car, a rusted 1974 Ford Pinto Runabout, was removed from the water, investigators saw it bore a Troup County tag. The tag number, CEF 717, was registered to Kyle Clinkscales, and the vehicle identification number confirmed it was Clinkscales’ car.

Once the car was towed back to the Troup County Sheriff’s Office, investigators looked inside.

“We were able to locate a wallet inside the car,” Woodruff said. “Inside that wallet was his ID and several credit cards.

“We’ve also located several bones inside the car. We believe those to be human in nature.”

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation was called in to help recover and identify the remains.

Authorities are still unsure of what exactly took place the night Clinkscales vanished. Detectives had no evidence of the missing college student until 1987, when a man in Troup County discovered Clinkscales’ Exxon credit card in the Flat Shoal Creek area.

No additional evidence was found in the area, and the case again went cold.

The investigation heated up once more in 2005, when a man called Clinkscales’ parents and told them he witnessed the disposal of their son’s body. The man said he was 7 years old when Clinkscales was covered in concrete, stuffed in a barrel and dumped in a pond on private property, according to The Charley Project.

“Searches of the pond turned up no sign of the barrel or any remains, but the tipster’s information led to the arrest of Jimmy Earl Jones and, later, Jeanne Pawlak Johnson,” the website states.

>> Related story: Car, human remains found in river nearly 40 years after Massachusetts teen’s disappearance

Jones, then 63, told Troup County investigators that he had gone to the home of a friend, Ray Hyde, the night Clinkscales vanished, according to WTVM-TV in Columbus. He said that Hyde had fatally shot the young man for an unknown reason.

“(Hyde) had owned a salvage yard, and police dug it up twice looking for Clinkscales’s missing Pinto, but never found it,” The Charley Project site states. “Investigators do not know why Clinkscales was killed, but they believe he may have had knowledge about Hyde’s criminal activities, which involved car theft.”

Jones said he helped Hyde drag Clinkscales’ body into his shop and Hyde later disposed of it, WTVM-TV reported. Hyde, who died in 2001, later told Jones where the dead man was located.

“He confirmed that Hyde had told him that he placed him in a lake, later went back and removed him from the lake,” then-Troup County Sheriff Donny Turner said. “He said he put him in another location where no one would ever find him.”

Authorities searched all the locations Jones indicated but found no sign of Clinkscales’ body. Turner said this week, according to AL.com. When they drained the lake, however, they found an indention that could have been where a barrel sat for some time.

When Jones was questioned, the former sheriff said, he confirmed the presence that night of the man who claimed to have seen the murder’s aftermath as a child. A 16-year-old cousin of the child was also present and told a story similar to what Jones had told investigators, Turner said.

“Everybody is telling the same story,” Turner said.

Turner said detectives learned that Hyde had allegedly moved Clinkscales’ body from the lake and put it in his Pinto.

“They smashed the top of the car with a backhoe and moved it,” Turner said, according to AL.com. “Where they moved it to, we did not know.”

When Clinkscales’ car was found Tuesday, the top was missing. Authorities said at Wednesday’s news conference that the flow of water could have rusted the metal away in the 45 years since Clinkscales vanished.

A couple of months after Jones was arrested in 2005, Johnson, then 57, of LaGrange, was charged. Detectives said Johnson, who was at Jones’ home when Clinkscales was shot and killed, obstructed justice by concealing his death and giving false statements to deputies.

“Mrs. Johnson, at that time, ran from the residence to get away from what happened at the scene there,” Turner said in 2005.

Watch Wednesday’s news conference below, courtesy of the LaGrange Daily News.

The disposition of her case was not immediately available Friday. Jones, who gave inconsistent statements throughout his multiple interviews with detectives, pleaded guilty in May 2006 to giving false information to law enforcement officers, AL.com reported.

Jones was sent to prison, where he remained until January 2013. His current location was not immediately known.

Tuesday’s discovery leaves current investigators with more questions than answers.

Woodruff said he could not comment on the arrest and conviction of Jones because it was another sheriff who handled the case. Former Troup County District Attorney Pete Skandalakis, who prosecuted Jones, said in light of the new developments, there is now more doubt about Jones and his alleged involvement in Clinkscales’ death.

“I don’t know if Mr. Jones was convinced in his own mind that he witnessed something,” Skandalakis said, according to AL.com. “I can only follow the evidence that I’m given. In the Jones case, we had a young man who was a juvenile at the time who claimed he had witnessed Mr. Clinkscales killed after an argument.’’

“I interviewed that young man — he was older at the time I interviewed him obviously — and that led to Jimmy Earl Jones, who then corroborated what this young man had said.”

>> Read more true crime stories

Skandalakis said ultimately, it became obvious that Jones was giving false statements, so that is what he was charged with.

“He sure was convincing at times he told the story of what happened, but then the inconsistencies became more and more apparent,’’ Skandalakis said.

Authorities said for all the speculation over the years about whether Clinkscales was murdered, he could have just as easily driven off the road and into the creek in a tragic accident. Chambers County Sheriff Sid Lockhart said Wednesday that the creek was on the route the college student would have taken to return to Auburn.

Skandalakis agreed that it was a possibility.

“Obviously I don’t know if the GBI (Georgia Bureau of Investigation) will ever be able to prove cause of death and manner of death because I don’t know how much of the remains are intact and how much an autopsy will reveal,’’ Skandalakis said. “People will continue to speculate about what happened to Mr. Clinkscales, and part of it will be a mystery and part of it won’t.”

“I hope they can identify him and put him beside his mother and his daddy,” Turner said.

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