SAWMILLS, N.C. » A rusty, mud-caked sedan pulled from the bottom of a lake in the foothills of the North Carolina mountains could bring closure to the family of a retired Air Force sergeant who disappeared 43 years ago.
Investigators believe human remains found in a 1968 Pontiac Catalina recovered Tuesday from Lake Rhodhiss belong to Amos Shook, who was reported missing on Feb. 19, 1972. The model matches the car that belonged to Shook, and investigators found his identification and wallet in the car.
"We found a wallet and some ID cards in it. It amazed us how preserved that stuff was," Caldwell County Sheriff Alan Jones said at a news conference.
The four-door sedan showed some rust, but the windows were intact after it was pulled from the lake about 75 miles northwest of Charlotte. There were no signs of foul play.
Sheriff’s Lt. Aaron Barlowe said the remains are being sent to the state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner for an autopsy. Medical examiners will try to use dental records for a positive identification, but may need to use DNA testing that could take weeks.
"Circumstantially, everything points to it being Mr. Shook, but we can’t conclusively say that yet," he said Thursday.
Shook’s daughter, 57-year-old Pamela Shook Kolbe, said she met with a detective from the sheriff’s office last month to gather more information about what happened to her father for a family genealogy project she was working on. She said the conversation spurred the detective’s interest, and authorities decided to revisit the lake after she gave them a newspaper story from the 1970s about failed attempts to find him by dragging the lake.
This time, a dive team used advanced sonar — something not available when Shook first disappeared — to find the car in 30 feet of water.
Kolbe said her father — who was separated from her mother at the time— had gone on a date the Saturday night he disappeared. Kolbe said she doesn’t think his car ended up in the lake by accident and she says that he would not have committed suicide.
"He would have never left us," she said.
But Kolbe, who was only 14 at the time, said she also did not know of anyone who might have wanted to harm her father.
She and her family have felt a range of emotions since the body was found, but overall she is happy that the discovery is likely to bring them some closure.
"All we’ve got right now is bones, but hey — I’m thankful for that. We don’t have him back the way we would have preferred him to come back to us. But if this is all we’re going to get of him, this is what we’ll take," she said.
Few records from the original investigation were left when investigators searched their files, Jones said.
"Records from that far back, there’s not a lot that was left because I know we looked for it," he said.
Shook, who was 44 when he disappeared, had retired from the U.S. Air Force as a staff sergeant and lived in the town of Sawmills, which lies just north of the lake. Kolbe said that he worked in a textile mill.
The mostly rural area was home to the first modern furniture factories starting in the late 19th century, according to a county website, and empty buildings in the heart of Sawmills point to its manufacturing past.
Shook’s surviving family members live throughout Tennessee, and some are coming to meet with investigators on Friday to discuss the case.
Given the time that’s passed, authorities may not be able to say definitively what happened to Shook. But the sheriff said he hopes the discovery gives his family some peace of mind.
Tressie Andrews, a 70-year-old former neighbor of Shook’s, said her children often played with Shook’s children. Andrews said she never heard a disparaging word about Shook.
"He was a very good man from all I ever remember," Andrews said. "The kids were just normal kids. Their son stayed here many a night, and my son stayed down there."
Johnny Wilson, 62, farms 180 acres not far from here Shook lived. He drove a school bus in the years before Shook’s disappearance and remembers picking up his children.
The boat ramp currently at the site where the car was found wasn’t there at the time of the disappearance, he said. In 1972, the area consisted of a campground bordered by woods and a fast-food stand accessible by a semicircle road.
According to Wilson, the car was found to the left of where that old campground was located. He said the discovery of the car will help the family heal.
"I think a 14-year-old girl needs to know what happened to her daddy," Wilson said, referring to Kolbe.
Drew reported from Raleigh, N.C.