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Foss Lake discoveries bring families hope for closure

by Juliana Keeping Published: September 22, 2013

— 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.

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by Juliana Keeping
Enterprise Reporter
Juliana Keeping is on the enterprise reporting team for The Oklahoman and Keeping joined the staff of The Oklahoman in 2012. Prior to that time, she worked in the Chicago media at the SouthtownStar, winning a Peter Lisagor Award...
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