Submerged cars found in Okla. may solve cold cases
In this combination photo provided by the Beckham County, Okla., Sheriff's Department shows three teens missing from Sayre, Okla., since Nov. 20, 1970. From left are Jimmy Allen Williams, Leah Gail Johnson and Thomas Michael Rios. Police believe they may finally have found the remains of the teens after divers on a training exercise discovered a car containing skeletal remains in Foss Lake. (AP Photo/Beckham County Sherrif's Departmemt via the Sayre Record)
Law enforcement officials from multiple agencies examine the two cars pulled from Foss Lake, in Foss, Okla., Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013. The Oklahoma State Medical Examiners Office says authorities have recovered skeletal remains of multiple bodies in the Oklahoma lake where the cars were recovered. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
When three teenagers from Sayre, Okla., town disappeared on their way to a high school football game in 1970, rumors swirled as to what happened to the trio.
Some thought the three had stumbled across a drug deal at a rural airstrip and been killed. Others said they might have run away to California.
“There have been theories from everybody,” said Dayva Spitzer, publisher of the Sayre Record newspaper and a longtime resident. “Everyone suspected foul play. . . . But every lead just went nowhere.”
Now authorities believe they have a key piece to the puzzle: A 1969 Camaro, just like the one the teens were driving, was pulled from a lake with the skeletal remains of three people inside.
And that wasn’t the only discovery. A second car containing remains, an early 1950s Chevrolet, was also recovered from Foss Lake. Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples believes it may solve another case in which two men and a woman disappeared a year before the teens vanished.
“These vehicles match those missing-persons reports real close,” Peoples said yesterday as investigators combed through what remained of the rusty, mud-covered vehicles.
The missing teens were identified as Leah Johnson, Michael Rios and Jimmy Williams.
Both vehicles were discovered Tuesday in about 12 feet of water by divers conducting a training exercise at the lake about 30 miles east of town.
The vehicles were only about 50 feet from the end of a boat ramp near a marina, but Peoples said it was no surprise that the murky waters held a secret.
“This lake isn’t crystal clear. It’s a typical western Oklahoma lake with a lot of silt in it. The visibility is only 6 to 12 inches on a good day,” Peoples said. “We’ll consider it a mystery until we prove otherwise.”
The sheriff said it was entirely possible that the people simply drove into Foss Lake and drowned.
“We know that to happen, even if you know your way around. It can happen that quick,” he said.
While Peoples said he was confident the Camaro held the remains of the three teens, the origins of the bones in the second vehicle were less clear.
Tim Porter of Enid said he believed the remains could be those of his grandfather, John Albert Porter, who disappeared along with two other people in 1969.
“Forty-something years of wondering who or why,” Porter said. “If it is my grandfather in there, it’s a gift.”
The sheriff said yesterday he was not sure whether the cars held the remains of five or six bodies. The state medical examiner’s office believed the remains of six people were recovered.
The bones were being sent to the medical examiner’s office for identification and to determine the cause of death.
Divers had found three skulls as of Tuesday evening. They planned to continue looking for more remains, said Oklahoma Highway Patrol spokeswoman Betsy Randolph.
Authorities hoped the discoveries offer some relief to families who may have gone decades wondering about the fate of a missing loved one.
“We’re hoping these individuals, that this is going to bring some sort of closure to some families out there who have been waiting to hear about missing people,” Randolph said. “If that’s the case, then we’re thrilled.”