FOSS, Okla. — An Oklahoma sheriff says the families of six people who have been missing for more than 40 years should be able to gain some closure with the discovery of cars and bones believed to be connected to the cases.
What still lingers, though, are questions about how the skeletal remains and two vehicles ended up submerged in Custer County’s Foss Lake, said Sheriff Bruce Peoples. He’s hopeful the answers will come, helping solve a pair of mysteries that have haunted residents for more than a generation.
“Now the family will know, and that’s what we look at as an important part of our job,” Peoples said. “It’s going to close a very unhappy chapter in their lives, but nothing any worse than having those lingering questions and wondering what happened.”
Were the victims in the two separate cold cases murdered and dumped in the lake about 100 miles west of Oklahoma City? Or did they take a wrong turn, drive off the edge of the boat ramp and end up submerged?
“It’s way too early to tell at this point,” Peoples said. “We’ll treat it as a crime until we’re able to determine it’s a simple car wreck.”
Divers conducting a training exercise with sonar equipment found the 1969 Camaro and early 1950s Chevrolet at the bottom of Foss Lake on Tuesday. The vehicles were in about 12 feet of water — about 50 feet from the end of a boat ramp. Remains were inside both cars.
Missing persons reports show three teenagers from Sayre in nearby Beckham County — Leah Johnson, Michael Rios and Jimmy Williams — disappeared in 1970 while heading to a high school football game in Williams’ new 1969 Camaro.
Another missing persons report — from 1969 — indicates two men and a woman also from the area disappeared and were last seen in a 1950s Chevrolet, Peoples said.
“These vehicles match those missing persons reports real close,” the sheriff said Wednesday as investigators combed through what remained of the rusty, mud-covered vehicles.
He said it was entirely possible that the victims 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.
Still, some locals cling to the theory that the three teens ran across some dangerous people and ended up getting killed.
“Everyone suspected foul play,” said Dayva Spitzer, publisher of The Sayre Record and a longtime resident. “They’ve been talking about it for 43 years.
“I think everybody is hoping there’s closure now. But there’s still more questions than answers.”
The teens’ disappearance gripped the town for years.
“I think the kids were frightened by it, and we didn’t talk about it much,” said Gayla Splinter, a clerk at a Sayre law office who lived in nearby Erick when the teens went missing. “It’s always been a mystery.”
Peoples said he was confident the Camaro held the remains of the three teens. Authorities were not as clear about what the second vehicle contained.
The state medical examiner’s office said it believed the remains of six people were recovered overall.
Tim Porter of Enid said he believed the remains in that vehicle 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.”
Porter said he offered up a DNA sample to help authorities determine the identities of the victims, a process Peoples said could take as long as a year.
The bones were being sent to the medical examiner’s office to identify the victims and determine how they died.
Sean Murphy can be reached at www.twitter.com/apseanmurphy .