Beckham County Sheriff's Office via AP
From left, Jimmy Allen Williams, Leah Gail Johnson and Thomas Michael Rios, three teens missing from Sayre, Okla., since 1970.
It could be years before the six people whose skeletal remains were discovered in two cars at the bottom of an Oklahoma lake are positively identified, authorities said Wednesday — but they were pretty sure the discovery will solve two 40-year-old missing persons cases.
The state medical examiner's office said it was calling in archaeologists to help piece together the skulls and other fragments in the cars, which state troopers stumbled upon last week as they were training with new sonar equipment at Foss Lake, near the town of Elk City.
Relatives of the people who disappeared in two missing persons cases more than 40 years ago have come forward to provide DNA to help with the identifications. But the remains are so badly decomposed that it could take months or even years to nail down all six IDs.
It all depends on how well the murky depths of Foss Lake have preserved them over the decades, the medical examiner's office said.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol divers found two cars side by side 12 feet underwater near an old marina. It's evidence that may help solve a decades-old missing persons case. NBC's Janet Shamlian reports.
"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," Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples told The Tulsa World. "We'll consider it a mystery until we prove otherwise."
Investigators are confident, however, that they've solved one of the two cases — the disappearance of three Sayre High School students in 1970.
The sheriff's office has already communicated with relatives of the three teenagers — Jimmy Allen Williams 16, Thomas Michael Rios, 18, and Leah Gail Johnson, 18 — to alert them to the discovery, NBC station KFOR of Oklahoma City reported.
What are believed to be their bodies were found in a blue 1969 Chevrolet Camaro — which matches the description of the car in which the teens were last seen on Nov. 20, 1970. That was Williams' car.
The National Missing and Unidentified Persons System, a bureau of the Justice Department's National Institute of Justice, notes speculation at the time that the teens, who'd said they were going to a football game in Elk City, may have detoured to go hunting at Foss Lake, instead.
Peoples said it was possible they simply drove into the lake and drowned.
Courtesy Elk City Daily News
Law enforcement officers examine one of two cars containing skeletal remains found at the bottom of Foss Lake in Oklahoma
"We know that to happen, even if you know your way around," he said. "It can happen that quick."
'All these years, they weren't very far from home'
For 43 years, the case has haunted he town of Sayre, about 15 miles southwest of Elk City, where you don't have to be an old-timer to know about it.
"I wasn't around at that time. I'm a lot younger," Mandy Dunlap, an employee at Pucketts Grocery, told KFOR. "But I've heard about it. I've heard about it for years."
For older residents, the discovery could mean much needed closure, said Wilna Plummer, who said she's known Williams' parents for many years.
"It was a big ordeal," Plummer told the station. "I mean, they just disappeared — no traces of them."
And "all these years, they weren't very far from home."
Much less is known about the second case. The second car, including its license tag, was so badly rusted out that the best investigators can say is that it's a green 1957 Chevrolet.
Peoples said the vehicle appears to be associated with the disappearance of three people last seen in Canute, about 10 miles south of the lake, in the 1960s. But there's little information about that case beyond long-ago-told stories.
In 1973, when he was working as a state trooper in Custer County, Peoples heard rumors that "there were two or three people in a car, and they were last seen in Canute," Peoples told The Elk City Daily News. "They were headed for Foss Lake and never seen again."
Tim Porter and Debbie Porter McManaman said they believe it was the car of their grandfather, John Alva Porter of Rogers Mills County, just west of Custer County, who disappeared in April 1969 at age 69.
"I remember that green car, yes," McManaman told KFOR. "It's sad. I can see his tall, lanky body walking up to the car. He always had a smile on his face."
"Forty-something years of wondering who or why," Tim Porter told The Tulsa World. "If it is my grandfather in there, it's a gift."
John Alva Porter's son Ervie is now 89 with dementia and wasn't available to comment, his family said. But McManaman said that for years, her dad would go looking for Porter. Would would "take my mom, and they'd look and look and look for any trace," she said.
"I mean, he was just gone," she said. "No trace at all. His money was in the bank, his house was intact and he was gone. So for over 40 years we've been looking for him."