published Sunday, September 22nd, 2013

Rusty cars at bottom of Oklahoma lake might hold fate of woman's mom missing for 44 years

JOPLIN, Mo. — A Joplin woman believes her mother may be among six people whose bodies were found in two rusty cars at the bottom of an Oklahoma lake.

The Joplin Globe reports that Jo Irick became worried in the spring of 1969 when the letter she sent to her mother, Nora Duncan, came back unopened. Authorities who went to the missing 58-year-old woman's Canute, Okla., home found an ordinary kitchen knife left on a table and a pan of untouched food on the stove. Duncan's purse was missing, but there was no sign of a struggle.

Also missing were Duncan's close friend, Cleburn Hammack, 42, of Sayre, and a second man, John "Alvie" Porter, 69, of Elk City.

"I was told it was Cleburn's day off and he went to see mother," Irick recalled Friday, more than 44 years later. Some thought at the time that they might have gone fishing together, the 83-year-old retired bank employee said.

Irick got fresh hope about learning her mother's fate when law enforcement officials testing sonar equipment in Foss Lake, not far from Sayre, stumbled across two cars submerged side-by-side, about 50 feet from the end of a boat ramp in water just 12 feet deep. A mud-caked 1969 Camaro was recovered on Tuesday, along with a 1950s Chevrolet.

Although tests are pending, Custer County Sheriff Bruce Peoples has said he was confident the Camaro was carrying three teenagers who disappeared in 1970. Peoples believes the Camaro matches closely with the 1969 Camaro owned by Jimmy Williams, who vanished along with classmates Thomas Michael Rios and Leah Johnson while they were driving to a high school football game.

Ownership of the older vehicle remains more in doubt. The older car had rusted out so badly that no vehicle identification numbers have been found, the Joplin newspaper reported.

But Irick said she heard from an anthropologist with the Office of the Oklahoma State Medical Examiner who was at Foss Lake on Tuesday after the bodies were recovered. The anthropologist felt excited enough about the chances of a connection to Duncan's disappearance that she called Irick to let her know.

Although Irick initially feared her mother and the men had been killed, she admits it sounds more like an accident.

Peoples said there were no obvious signs of foul play at the scene and that two separate vehicle accidents are entirely possible.

The road, which dead ends at the boat ramp, intersects a second road about 670 feet from the lake's edge. Drivers coming down the road can miss the sign warning that it comes to an end and drive right through the intersection and down the ramp into the lake, especially at night or if they are not familiar with the roads around the lake, he said.

Irick's greatest regret is that her uncle, Russell King, did not live long enough to learn the news. He had always wanted his sister buried next to him in a cemetery in Canute. Irick has checked and there's a space still there for her mother. She just needs identification made and the remains released to her.

"That's what I hope to do," she said.

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