By Christine Mai-Duc
7:10 AM PDT, September 19, 2013
Debbie McManaman, her children and grandchildren spent many a summer day waterskiing or feeding the ducks at Foss Lake in western Oklahoma.
Sometimes, McManaman told the Los Angeles Times, she’d envision the face of her grandfather, a tall, lanky cowboy who mysteriously disappeared when she was 13.
This week, when Oklahoma Highway Patrol officers dredged a 1952 Chevy from the bottom of that lake, she was convinced he’d been found.
The Chevy, caked with mud and red with rust, contained the bones of three people, authorities said. A second car, a 1969 Chevy Camaro, rested just 3 feet away – with the skeletal remains of three more people inside.
The state medical examiner’s office says it could be months or even years before authorities can confirm their identities. Who were those six people trapped 12 feet below the murky surface of this lake in a desolate, rolling stretch of land?
McManaman believes one of them is John Alva Porter – a man her father, Ervie Porter, spent decades searching for.
"I wanted to touch" the vehicle, she told The Times in a phone interview Wednesday. "The last breath he took was in that car."
Investigators told her they had recovered cowboy boots and a belt buckle, she said – hallmarks of her grandfather’s life – and the car had a hitch like the one her grandpa used to tow his horse trailer.
"They haven’t told us 100%," McManaman said, "but we know in our hearts it’s him."
Two missing persons reports dating to 1969 and 1970 "show a real similarity" to the recovered vehicles, the Custer County Sheriff’s Department said Wednesday in a statement.
Sheriff’s officials suspect that the other car, the 1969 Camaro, could contain the remains of three Sayre, Okla., teenagers who vanished on their way to a Friday night football game in 1970.
Jimmy Allen Williams, 16, Thomas Michael Rios, 18, and Leah Gail Johnson, 18, were supposed to be going to Elk City in Williams’ Camaro, according to records from the National Missing and Unidentified Persons Database.
Rios had just moved to Sayre four months earlier. Johnson had been dressed in purple bell bottoms, a brown shirt and a brown leather coat. Neither the teenagers nor the blue Camaro with a white top were ever seen again.
Last week, the Oklahoma Highway Patrol went to the lake to test new sonar equipment, spokeswoman Betsy Randolph told The Times. They stumbled on the cars, not too far from the dock.
When the first one – the 1952 Chevy – was removed Tuesday, a human femur was in the driver’s seat, Randolph said. By Wednesday night, a total of six skulls had been found, she said.
Initially, officers thought they’d stumbled on stolen cars, Randolph said. "They were shocked" to find a pair of mysteries instead.
"I can’t imagine the heartbreak of having your child go missing and never knowing what happened to them," Randolph said. "We’re hoping that even though it’s heartbreaking, it at least gives them some sense of closure."
McManaman hopes so too. She’s anxious to get the results of family DNA tests to see whether her grandfather’s remains were among those submerged for the last 40 years.
If so, that would end nearly a lifetime of searching and wondering. Had her grandfather just walked off one day, his house locked up, his finances squared? Had he died peacefully in some distant place, no family to mourn him?
Her father often came home from work and headed right back out to search for her grandfather, she said. "We’re gonna go for a drive," he’d say. Then he’d drive late into the night.
Sometimes, she said, her father would wake up yelling: "I found him! I found him!"
McManaman says her father, now 85, struggles with dementia. But when she told him his father may have been found, tears came to his eyes.
"I’m just so thankful this day has come," she said.
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