Discovery of remains in Okla. lake treated as a crime until proven otherwise, sheriff says

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 Examiner
Sue Ogrocki
Law enforcement officials from multiple agencies examine the two cars pulled from Foss Lake, in Foss, Okla., Wednesday, Sept. 18, 2013.
AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki

(CBS/AP) FOSS, Okla. - Authorities say they are treating the discovery of two vehicles containing the skeletal remains of six people who may have been missing for more than 40 years as a crime, until they're able to determine otherwise.

Sheriff Bruce Peoples says Oklahoma police are working to establish how the vehicles and the skeletal remains wound up submerged in Custer County's Foss Lake, about 100 miles west of Oklahoma City.

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 and the state medical examiner's office said it believed the remains of a total of six people were recovered.

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."

"It's way too early to tell at this point," Sheriff Peoples said. "We'll treat it as a crime until we're able to determine it's a simple car wreck."

However, Peoples did say he was confident the Camaro held the remains of the three teens. Authorities were not as clear about what the second vehicle contained.

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.

Complete coverage of the bodies in Foss Lake on Crimesider