SAYRE — A cold rain fell the Saturday Jimmy Williams brought home his 1969 Camaro. The base model muscle car had a 307-cubic-inch engine, bright blue exterior and white vinyl top. A single white stripe ran up the hood.
Williams, 16, had the car for six days before the Friday night he disappeared with friends Thomas Michael Rios, 18, and Leah Gail Johnson, 18, on Nov. 20, 1970.
Gary Williams was 12 when his older brother and friends from Sayre High School went missing in the car.
Now 55, Gary Williams faced a car like Jimmy's Tuesday, an unmistakable Camaro grill rusted and caked with red mud. Identifiers such as the car's VIN number and license plate had disintegrated, but the bones of three people were inside.
The Camaro was a tomb; it settled on the lake bottom and sat, 50 feet off shore, for more than four decades.
An Oklahoma Highway Patrol trooper testing new sonar equipment at Foss Lake made the discovery, along with that of another car, a 1952 Chevrolet. The second car also contained three bodies, suspected to be tied to separate 1969 missing persons cases in the area.
After the Camaro was dragged up from the lake Tuesday, Gary Williams rushed there with his wife, Betty. Details about his brother's disappearance swirled in Williams' mind.
The ‘car day'
Gary Williams recalled the “car day,” the exciting, rainy, cold Saturday the Camaro came home.
“Jimmy was very proud of it,” Williams said.
The following Friday, the night his brother went out with friends, Gary Williams went to a sleepover. His sister Sherri was 7 and brother Rick, 14.
Their parents believed the 16-year-old had gone to a football game in Elk City that night. Jimmy Williams had asked another friend to go hunting on Turkey Creek with him. That friend declined. He may have intended to hunt and then head to the game, Williams said.
Teens looped around the small Sayre downtown in cars in those days, cruising past spots like the Beckham County courthouse, a drive-thru, a dairy mart and a bowling alley. A few classmates saw the trio at the bowling alley the night they disappeared.
The next morning, Winston Williams picked his youngest son up from the sleepover.
“Jimmy's missing,” he said. “And we're worried.”
“Jimmy never did come home,” Gary Williams said.
A different era
Local authorities believed Jimmy Williams and two friends were runaways, Williams said. There were no community rallies or memorials in the weeks or immediate years following the disappearance.
It was a different time. In the Vietnam era, teenagers sometimes wandered off to join the counter culture. Betty Williams was reassured her teen son and his friends would be back in a few days.
Theories that he ran away made no sense to the Williams family.
Jimmy Williams had left his clothes. He had expected a paycheck from the local grocery store where he worked the Saturday after he went missing.
“The family, we knew something bad happened that night. We knew that he wouldn't run away from home,” Williams said.
The tightknit family shared a small and happy home. Winston Williams worked at a chemical plant, and Betty Williams took care of their home and children.
Little media attention was paid to the case. A three-paragraph report in a Sayre paper around the time of the disappearances does not mention Leah Johnson, just the two male teenagers. In a 1972 article in The Oklahoman, “Lea” Gail Johnson is described as “an Indian girl,” but the race of the two boys is not noted.
“We have done everything that is possible,” then Beckham County Sheriff Howard Sampier told The Oklahoman.
Died without knowing
Winston Williams reported the Camaro missing to drum up more interest from law enforcement. The move generated a warrant for his 16-year-old son — a tool he hoped would help find him, not get him in trouble.
“We have put out leads on the radio,” Sampier said in the 1972 article. “We have written letters to three major towns in every state. We have a warrant issued for the Williams boy (for unauthorized use of a motor vehicle.) We have been in contact with the FBI.”
A sympathetic detective tried to dig deeper, but without the cars or the bodies, the case hit a dead end.
Winston Williams passed out handbills offering $500 for information relating to the disappearance of his son. The family even consulted a psychic.
In their hearts, the siblings and the father knew Jimmy was gone.
“We all knew that Jimmy died that night,” Gary Williams said of his other family members.
It was different for Betty Williams.
“Mama never lost hope. For many, many years, maybe up to the time she passed, she baked a cake on March 15, every one of Jimmy's birthdays.”
The parents died in their 50s, without knowing what happened.
Each had cancer. Williams believes the anxiety and stress of having a missing child had worn them down.
New hope for answers
For decades, Gary Williams has collected details about his brother's disappearance. Pictures, letters and notes are stored in file folders in a clear plastic bin at his home in Sayre. Williams, a drilling supervisor, has backed up his documents on a Zip drive.
A memorial held in November 2009 at an old Sonic site in Sayre marked the first event of its kind since the teenagers vanished. The mystery has been met mostly by silence and rumors over the years in the small community.
“It was almost like nobody wanted to talk about it. I don't know if they didn't want to acknowledge that something bad could have happened. I don't know,” Williams said.
He said he also knows and appreciates that many people have prayed for his family through the years.
Williams worried his brother and friends would be forgotten.
Life moved forward, decades passed, with no answers about the missing teens.
Gary Williams and his wife, Betty, have two sons. The couple rushed to Foss Lake Tuesday when they heard two cars had been discovered under the water.
Standing near the shore Tuesday, Williams looked at the Camaro and just knew.
“How can it not be them?” Williams said. “It's a '69 Camaro and it's got three bodies inside.”
It's less clear what happened the night they disappeared.
An investigation into the discovery will attempt to determine the cause of the deaths. The remains of the three bodies in the Camaro are at the state medical examiner's office. DNA tests that could positively identify Williams, Thomas and Johnson could take up to a year.
Williams has made peace with the fact he may never know exactly what happened to his brother.
He just wants to bury him.
“We got what we asked for,” he said. “We got Jimmy's body back.”