By Sean Murphy
The Associated Press
SAYRE — When three teenagers from this small Oklahoma 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. 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 Wednesday as investigators combed through the rusty, mud-covered vehicles.
Both vehicles were discovered Tuesday by divers conducting a training exercise at Foss Lake, about 100 miles west of Oklahoma City.
The cars were submerged in about 12 feet of water and 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 people simply drove into the lake and drowned.
“We know that to happen, even if you know your way around. It can happen that quick,” he added.
Peoples said he was confident the Camaro held the remains of the three teens, who were identified as Leah Johnson, Michael Rios and Jimmy Williams. 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 Wednesday 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 would offer some relief to relatives 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.”