Six sets of remains found
With the initial adrenalin rush over, law men and women settled down Wednesday to the gruesome task of removing and sorting human remains from the two cars pulled Tuesday from Foss Reservoir.
Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples confirmed that there were three sets of remains in each car. He also thinks he knows whose they are, although it probably will take DNA tests to determine for sure.
As reported yesterday, a 1969 Chevrolet Camaro is believed to have contained the remains of three teenagers who disappeared the night of Nov. 20, 1970.
The other car, a 1952 Chevrolet, is believed to have been carrying three older people – John Alvin Porter, 69, from Elk City; Nora Duncan, 57, of Canute; and Clayburn Hammock, age unknown, from Sayre at the time but who is thought to have lived in numerous western Oklahoma and Texas Panhandle communities.
Peoples said a clipping from an area newspaper – he didn’t know which one – indicates those people were last seen April 8, 1969.
That would have put them driving into the lake approximately a year and a half prior to the teenagers. That’s one reason he does not believe there was any connection between the two incidents, even though the cars were just a few feet from each other when they were found Sept. 10 by lake patrolmen from the Oklahoma Highway Patrol using new sonar equipment purchased by the Foss Lake Association.
The teens were Jimmy Allen Williams, 16, and Thomas Michael Rios and Leah Gail Johnson, both 18. News reports have said all three were from Sayre but a woman who called herself a friend of the Johnson family said the girl was actually from Hammon.
Clinton firemen tore the tops off both automobiles so workers could get inside and begin collecting remains. Battalion Chief Rick Challis and firefighter David Stewart removed the top of the Camaro late Tuesday, and firemen Calvin Baggett and Brett Russell took the top off the older car Wednesday morning.
Anthropologist Angela Berg, from the Tulsa office of the State Medical Examiner, was leading the recovery effort.
When it’s completed, Peoples said the remains will be sent to the State Medical Examiner’s Office in an effort to definitely determine identification. He said DNA was collected Wednesday at the scene from family members of some of the apparent victims but it could be a year or more before there are any definitive identifications. Other state media quoted the ME’s office as saying it could take up to five years.
As a basis for his belief that he knows who the victims are, Peoples said, “We have the cars, we have the missing persons reports, and we have skeletal remains,” and they all appear to match.
“We’re reasonably sure,” he said, “but what if they picked up somebody else?”
Asked if there’s any reason to suspect foul play, he said there was nothing obvious but added, “We’re investigating it like it was a homicide until it’s proved different.”
For example, Peoples said no bullet holes were found but 43 or 44 years of entombment in the water could cause things like that to be less obvious.
“There was nothing obvious – no bullet holes in the cars,” he said. “But because of their state of deterioration, it’s virtually impossible to tell.”
Asked about license plates on the cars, he said the older Chevy had none and also no vehicle identification number, but again he didn’t take that necessarily as evidence of foul play. The Camaro’s tag was so encrusted it was illegible, he said, but was being soaked with chemicals in an effort to make it readable.
Photos taken of the Camaro as it was being pulled from the lake showed its rear end to be messed up, as if it had been in a collision. But Peoples said that occurred as it was being pulled from the lake bottom.
The newspaper clipping concerning the disappearance of the three older folks indicated they were reported missing by Bob Irick of Joplin, Mo., a son-in-law of Mrs. Duncan’s, after letters sent to her were all returned.
It said the car, which was already 17 years old at the time, had to be pushed in Canute to get it started shortly before it disappeared.
Peoples said his office has had contact with relatives of all six victims with the exception of Hammock, who was a dishwasher and had lived at various times in Elk City, Sayre and possibly Cheyenne in Oklahoma, and in Shamrock, Groom and Memphis in Texas, as well as other communities.
Colleen Standingwater, a friend of the Johnson girl’s family, visited the Daily News office Wednesday to buy copies of that day’s newspaper and submitted to a brief interview. She said the girl, who was Native American, actually lived in Hammon rather than Sayre as was widely reported.
Ms. Standingwater said she was especially sorry for the girl’s mother, Nellie Johnson. “She died not knowing what happened to her daughter,” she said.
Then, speaking of where the Camaro was found only 50 feet from the water’s edge at the main Foss boat ramp, she added, “I think of all the times we unloaded our boat, and she was just right there.
“My mom was telling me it was horrible. Days and weeks and years went by. They looked for that car and it was gone, just gone.
“Her mom cried for her all the time. She would have come home if she could, and those boys would have too.”