ELK CITY — A true Oklahoma cowboy, John Alva Porter never left home without his boots and belt buckle.
Debbie Mcmanaman last saw her grandpa John on a Sunday afternoon in April 1969. By that Friday, he was gone.
Wednesday, Mcmanaman stood on the shore of Foss Lake next to the sodden wreck of a '52 Chevy that contained the remains of three people.
She hopes her grandfather is one of them, she told Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples. If so, and if authorities find the buckle, she told the sheriff her family would like it back.
Oklahoma Highway Patrol troopers testing new sonar equipment on Sept. 10 led to the discovery of a rusted-out 1952 Chevy and a 1969 Camaro on the lake bottom, which contained the skeletal remains of six people, three in each car.
Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples said it's possible that tests conducted on the remains, compared to the DNA of living family members, could solve decades-old cold cases. Mcmanaman's grandfather was one of three reported missing out of Canute in 1969.
The remains in the Camaro could hold the key to a case of three missing teenagers from Sayre.
The Daily Elk Citian reported the missing Sayre teens as Jimmy Allen Williams, Thomas Michael Rios and Leah Gail Johnson. They were last seen in Sayre the night of Nov. 20, 1970, the newspaper reported.
Caked in red clay
The morning of Sept. 10, highway patrol trooper George Hoyle and another trooper boarded a 22-foot patrol watercraft affixed with new sonar technology.
Through muddy Oklahoma water at the man-made lake, the troopers tested the imaging technology in a creek and near a dam. Hoyle held the instruction manual and zoomed in on images on a screen, looking to decipher trees and other debris on the lake bottom.
A state parks employee asked the troopers to take pictures of the lake bottom near the boat launch for a new tarmac. That's when a distinctive outline appeared on the screen, that of a classic car.
Hoyle thought it was a PT Cruiser. About a minute later, the sonar found the Camaro.
A dive team investigated and Tuesday, wreckers pulled the cars from the southern end of the 8,800-square-acre Custer County lake. The open door on the '52 Chevy revealed human remains inside. The water where the cars were found was 12 feet deep.
Wednesday, the cars, rusted and caked in red clay, had been pulled to a grassy field near the lakeshore, where authorities worked to sort and remove the remains and other items, including boots.
People who believed the remains of their relatives were inside stopped by throughout the day, offering DNA samples via cheek swabs, Peoples said. Family members were told a positive identification could take as long as a year.
Over the years, Mcmanaman said her family struggled to come to terms with the mystery surrounding her grandfather's disappearance.
She has in the past visited Foss Lake and looked out at the water, wondering.
Prayer groups at her church have asked God to help find John Alva Porter.
“This is the day we've been waiting for,” she said. “The day we've been praying for.”