Divers just wanted to help
Not all heroes wear capes.
Some, like Jeff Burns, put on scuba suits, heavy air cylinders and pressure gauges among other underwater diving apparatus.
Burleson resident Burns recently led a team of volunteer divers who attempted to relieve families’ of enduring angst and solve a four-decades-old mystery of the missing Fort Worth trio.
In December of 1974, Rachel Arnold Trlica, Renee Wilson and Julie Ann Moseley, aged 17, 14 and 9, respectively, disappeared. The three were last seen shopping at the Seminary South Shopping Center, presently, La Gran Plaza de Fort Worth.
Numerous initial police investigations, the work of a couple of private detectives and more than 44 years later, the whereabouts of the girls are still unknown.
Thousands of people converse in-person and online on theories to explain the disappearance still today, making it one of the oldest and most fabled missing-person cold cases in Texas.
A family member of one of the missing girls, Rusty Arnold, had information about three cars at the bottom of Benbrook Lake in Fort Worth that potentially had ties to the case. When Burns heard about it, he decided to lend a helping hand and recover the sunken cars.
“Do you know how dangerous this is?” Arnold asked Burns when they first talked about the recovery mission. “Why would you be willing to risk your life for somebody you never met?”
Burns, a Navy veteran, is currently co-owner of the Burleson-based North Texas Marine Salvage and Recovery and is a trained salvage diver.
“Well, how long have you been suffering and looking for your sister?” Burns replied. “Don’t you think that’s long enough for all of you? I’ll get a team together and we’ll go down there and get it.”
A group of divers and a number of volunteers put on the effort to bring up the cars.
In late September, after months of planning, the divers first jumped into the pitch-black lake water.
It was rainy and cold on the day of the planned lift, which made the undertaking more difficult. But the divers still worked on the recovery.
The first car came up in about 45 minutes.
The second car, however, fought a little harder.
“After digging for so long, we were all exhausted, we were almost out of air,” Burns said. “At this point, the only time we got out of the water, at all, was to change tanks. If we ate anything, we ate in the water as we came up. If we drank any water, it was in the water.”
About 100 people had come to witness the recovery that day. But the mission proved too strenuous to complete in one day.
“It was getting dark, we got it [the second car] to the surface and we started dragging the car,” Burns said. “The problem was when we had the car on the surface, all we had was the back end. When the boat was pulling it, it was trying to pull it over. It pulled a fitting out of the bag and blew the bag. So it sank. And at that point, so did we.”
The group, although high-spirited, were devastated that they could not get the other cars out that day.
The whole operation was self-funded by volunteers and through fundraising. They had to raise more money to get new equipment to replace the worn-out ones.
Burns created a GoFundMe campaign, which has so far received over $1,800 in donations for the recovery effort.
Community members and local underwater dive stores, like Lone Star Scuba in Forth Worth, banded together and provided the equipment for the team for a return to Benbrook Lake.
The first car did not yield out any evidence to support its link to the missing trio’s case. But hopes and energy were still high.
“The family, the dive team and all the volunteers, and the brotherhood we’ve built together in the short time we’ve been working together, God put it together,” said Wayne Spears, one of the other divers in the operation.
They went back to complete the recovery in mid-October.
Again, on the day of the planned recovery, a thunderstorm warning was in effect.
The continuous rainfall, however, increased the water level by almost 12 inches, which made it possible to put boats on the water.
“I had just got on the water and a storm blew through,” Burns said about the October recovery. “It started raining and it got really cold. We went down and started strapping the car and that’s when the lighting started coming in.”
The visibility underwater in Benbrook Lake is very low. And wildlife, like turtles and catfish, added to the risk of diving in the lake.
“You get tired, you get stressed, it’s tough,” Spears said. “Your body temperature comes down. When you’re in the water, your body temperature leaves you 25 times faster than it does on land.”
The team spent hours in the water maneuvering the floating car. Then, the clouds departed and the sun came out. The water finally stabilized, which made towing the second car easier.
Burns threw a rope towards the car and another diver tied it to the car. He towed the car by hand all the way to the tow truck. Getting the car to the bank was the next step.
The second car recovered was a 1976 Lincoln, made after the girls disappeared. So, its recovery still does not solve the mystery in hand.
The third car is still at the bottom of the lake- deeper than the first. The divers believe this would be the most difficult to recover out of the three.
The team’s determination has not been hindered and they want to get the third car, as well, Spears said.
“I’ve promised the families that we’ll bring out all three cars,” Burns said. “So, we will.”
The next recovery operation is scheduled for the coming spring when the weather gets warmer.
A fundraising event is planned for mid-January at Lost Oak Winery.
The event features a bake sale, live music and raffles. The proceeds from the event will go to further the investigation searching for the girls.
“It’s just trying to give a helping hand to someone in need,” said event coordinator Dawn Libby. “Because so many people turn their backs on people in need. We’re changing that with this.”
Libby is also a volunteer who wants to find answers to the unsolved mystery. She is particularly inspired by Burns and the divers and the work they have done, she said.
“Those guys got down in that cold water in the lake and they were down with little shovels trying to dig out the cars for a very long time period, they were very cold,” Libby said. “They have risked their lives. That means a lot to those of us that know these people.”