On Nov. 20, 1970, Jimmy Allen Williams picked up his friends in his new, bright-blue 1969 Camaro. It was a Friday night in Sayre, Okla., a town of fewer than 3,000 people on the old Route 66. He told his family he was heading to a high-school football game in nearby Elk City. The trio was last seen by friends at a bowling alley.
The beginning of the night could have been a John Cougar Mellencamp song. But how it ended was a mystery. The sleek muscle car carrying three teenagers simply vanished. Law enforcement officials stumbled on it last year — four decades later — while testing sonar equipment at Foss Lake, a recreation area about 20 miles on the other side of Elk City, where Williams told his family he was heading.
Last week, DNA testing confirmed suspicions the bodies were those of the missing teens: Williams, 16, Leah Gail Johnson, 18, and Thomas Michael Rios, 18, all of Sayre.
The mud-caked Camaro was submerged in just 12 feet of water, about 50 feet from the end of a boat ramp. It was found alongside a 1950s Chevrolet. Strangely, that car was connected with an earlier but supposedly unrelated missing persons case. It contained the bodies of Cleburn Hammack, 42, John Alva Porter, 69 and Nora Marie Duncan, 58, who disappeared in 1969 after they stopped to ask for help getting their car started. They were all from nearby towns.
The road that dead ends at the ramp intersects another road about 700 feet from the lake’s edge. To some, it seemed unlikely local kids would have turned off the main road and driven across a small parking lot into the lake.
Three teens missing from Sayre, Okla., since Nov. 20, 1970, From left: Jimmy Allen Williams, Leah Gail Johnson and Thomas Michael Rios. (AP Photo/Beckham County Sherrif’s Departmemt via the Sayre Record)
Gary Williams, the brother of Jimmy, was was just 12 when all this happened. For years he had taken his boat to Foss Lake without a clue he was just feet from the watery grave.
“I could have touched the top of their car. I was that close to them,” he told the Associated Press. “That’s an unbelievable thought to know they were that close all this time and took nearly 40 years to realize it.””
Williams’s body was found along with brown cowboy boots, his bank card and a 1972 gold-colored Sayre High Eagles ring.
According to CBS, authorities said accidental drowning was the probable cause of death, doing little to shed light on the mystery that has hung like a dark cloud over the dust bowl town for decades.
“Everyone suspected foul play,” Dayva Spitzer, publisher of the Sayre Record and a longtime resident, told the AP in 2013 after the car was pulled from the lake. “They’ve been talking about it for 43 years.”
“I think the kids were frightened by it, and we didn’t talk about it much,” said Gayla Splinter, who lived in nearby Erick when the teens went missing. “It’s always been a mystery.”
Nothing remains of the initial investigation into the case, if there was one. According to the AP, the Sayre Police Department doesn’t have any records from the 1970s. All they have is a missing persons report listing each teen’s name, age, height, weight, birth date and race.
Williams told the Oklahoman the cops thought Jimmy and his friends ran away — perhaps to join the counterculture, not an uncommon occurrence in the Vietnam era. But that didn’t make sense to the Williams family. Jimmy hadn’t taken any of his clothes and was expecting a paycheck from the local grocery store where he worked on Saturday.
Jimmy’s family posted handbills offering $500 for information on their son’s disappearance. The family even consulted a psychic, Tulsa World reported.
According to the Telegraph, Betty Williams baked her son a birthday cake every year in case he turned up.
Lucia VanZandt, whose brother Thomas died, told the AP their mother “didn’t ever want to leave Sayre because she told us if Thomas came back, he’d be looking for us.”
Gary Williams told the Oklahoman newspaper the discovery does provide some closure, but he still isn’t sure the deaths were accidental. “I think they came across some bad people,” Williams said. “I think it was foul play, but I’ll never be able to prove that.”