Fort Worth man’s search for his missing sister takes him to the bottom of a lake

Jeff Burns held onto the side of the pontoon boat while talking to his dive team at Benbrook Lake. He floated in the water in his wet-suit, squinted up against the afternoon sun and wiped water off his face, where deep indentations from his scuba mask were slowly fading.

“If I put too much lift on this car, it’s going to implode. It’s too dangerous,” he said.

The three other members of the team listened intently, one from the water and two from the decks of the boats.

“I touched the car and it came apart in my hand, which means we gotta call the lift. Because nobody here is gonna die today,” Jeff Burns continued.

He gestured to his left, where a car is somewhere 40 feet below the surface of the lake water. Over the decades, the car has become more of a watery scrap of metal than a vehicle.

It’s this hunk of metal that the four-person dive team was trying to pull to the surface throughout the day Monday.

Jeff Burns’ cousin, Jason Burns, stood on a small boat tethered to the pontoon boat. He nodded in agreement. Dave Wardlaw, who changed into plain clothes after his dive, stood on the deck on the pontoon boat. Wayne Spears bobbed in the water, holding onto a yellow buoy that marked the spot where the car was.

Jeff Burns looked at each member of the team. From the smaller boat, Rusty Arnold chimed in.

“If it’s too dangerous, call it off,” he said. Arnold has been trying to get the car at the bottom of Benbrook Lake to the surface for five years, but he wouldn’t risk a diver getting hurt.

“I would rather have a mystery than a dead diver,” he said.

To embrace the mystery of the car on the lake bed is easier said than done; it could hold answers that Arnold, and much of the Fort Worth community, have sought for 44 years.

Jeff Burns looked thoughtful for a moment.

“We do have one chance and I’m not making that decision by myself,” he said. He described his plan and a brief discussion began. Finally, a decision was made; they’ll make one last dive to try and bring the car up.

Jeff Burns pulled his gloves back on.

“Well, we didn’t get dressed up for nothing, boys,” he said.

The Missing Fort Worth Trio

Finding the car, which Arnold thinks is an Impala but Jeff Burns adamantly disagrees, took five and a half hours on Monday. But the search for this car goes back much further.

Nearly a year ago, the dive team marked the car’s location with a buoy. Five years ago, Arnold found the car using sonar technology donated by EquuSearch, a nonprofit search and recovery team.

But the dive team’s mission to pull this car out of Benbrook Lake really began 44 years ago, in 1974, when three girls in Fort Worth went to a mall and never came home. One of them was Rusty Arnold’s sister.

On Dec. 23, Rachel Trlica, Julie Ann Moseley and Renee Wilson went missing in what has become one of DFW’s most maddening missing persons cases. Hundreds of acres of land has been scoured, thousands of volunteers have been recruited and an infinite number of theories have been born — but the case of the Missing Fort Worth Trio remains unsolved.

On that winter morning, Arnold’s sister Rachel, 17, picked up her friend Renee, 14, to go Christmas shopping. Julie Ann Moseley, 9, tagged along, eager to hang out with the older girls. Several witnesses remember seeing the girls at what was then Seminary South Shopping Center, now La Gran Plaza, and others said they saw them in the parking lot.

A Christmas gift Rachel bought was found in the backseat of the car, which was still in the parking lot, but the girls themselves have never been found.

The disappearance of his older sister has taken Arnold down strange paths. He was 11 when his big sister left for the mall and never came home, opening up rifts in his family that only recently have healed.

He’s spent much of his adult life searching for answers.

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Rusty Arnold, left, and Jason Burns head towards the location of the third and final submerged car in Benbrook Lake on Monday, September 16, 2019. For years Arnold has been searching for his sister, Rachel Trlica, who went missing in 1974. With the help of North Texas Marine Salvage & Recovery’s dive team, he has raised two of the cars to check if they were connected to his sister’s disappearance. Amanda McCoy

Five years ago, his search led him to the 3,635 acres of Benbrook Lake, about 8 miles from where his sister was last seen. The search started on a hunch; the lake is near where the girls went missing and nearby a person of interest’s house.

One of the three cars at the bottom of the lake, Arnold thought, might hold clues to his sister’s disappearance.

But first, he had to figure out how to get them out of the water.

Dive team, assemble

The North Texas Marine Salvage and Recovery group was created when a group of men — several of them strangers to each other, and all of them strangers to Arnold — decided to help Arnold pull the cars from the lake.

Jeff Burns and his scuba diving partner, Dave Wardlaw, offered their help first. Wayne Spears heard about the men’s plan to dive in Benbrook Lake from customers in his scuba dive shop and volunteered his 45 years of scuba experience. Jason Burns, Jeff Burns’ cousin, joined the team despite never having dived before. (Read more about the dive team’s story here).

“We want to give the families answers,” Wardlaw said. “Whether (the girls) are here or not, they can cross this off the list.”

On Sept. 22, 2018, the dive team pulled the first car from the water. On Oct. 13, the second car was dragged to the surface after two days of work.

A forensic team determined neither car was related to the missing trio.

The dive for the third car had to wait until the end of the winter. The dive was initially planned in May, but was postponed due to flooding. Then the dive team left for three and a half months on another expedition.

On Monday, nearly a year after the dive team brought the first car to the surface, the team finally returned to Benbrook Lake for the third car.

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Diver Jeff Burns watches the sonar while attempting to locate the third and final car underwater in Benbrook Lake on Monday, September 16, 2019. North Texas Marine Salvage & Recovery’s dive team volunteered to assist Rusty Arnold in retrieving the cars from the bottom of the lake in his search for clues to his sister’s 1974 disappearance. Amanda McCoy

‘Working in a bed of razors’

The team met at 8 a.m. at Mustang Park and, by 9 a.m., they set off in two boats for the opposite shore.

“The best possible scenario is we find bodies in that car,” Arnold said. “Til we get that car up, we’ll never know. And I’m excited. Because then I can move on to the next thing. We’ve pretty much exhausted everything else.”

The team knew the third car would be the most difficult to bring up.

“There are parts of the car you can touch and it will disappear into the water,” Wardlaw said. “It’s like working in a bed of razors.”

The team knew the general area of the car, but physically finding a battered car within 50 square yards of black water is like finding a needle in a haystack. At night. Without a flashlight. And while wearing 20 pounds of gear.

Jeff Burns described diving in the lake as like lying in a coffin with your eyes closed. Divers call it black water, and diving in it can be dangerous. Finding something in black water is nearly impossible by physical touch alone, so the team has to know exactly where the car is before they dive.

“If you miss it by a foot, you miss it by a mile,” Jeff Burns explained.

The complexity of the dives is part of the reason Arnold and the team decided not to publicize Monday’s dive. At the first two dives, about 100 people and half a dozen reporters crowded the nearby shore. The divers said the frenzy made it difficult to focus.

That focus was much needed Monday as hours passed on the lake without finding the car.

The sonar attached to Arnold’s boat — named the Mary Rachel after his sister — showed what the boat was passing over in the water and how deep the water was. Arnold and Jason Burns took turns repeatedly driving the boat over the same stretch of water, carefully watching the sonar.

Several times, the car popped up on the sonar machine. When this happened, Jason Burns dropped the yellow buoy over the side of the boat or threw the anchor over. Spears and Wardlaw immediately swam over and dove beneath the surface, down 35 to 40 feet where the car should be.

But four times in a row, they came up shaking their heads. They could not find the car. If the anchor or buoy wasn’t exactly where the car was, they were searching blind.

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Diver Wayne Spears prepares to search for the third and final submerged car in Benbrook Lake, located over 30 feet underwater, on Monday, September 16, 2019. North Texas Marine Salvage & Recovery’s dive team volunteered to assist Rusty Arnold in retrieving the cars from the bottom of the lake in his search for clues to his sister’s 1974 disappearance. Amanda McCoy

In the black water

At 2 p.m., the dive team had not eaten and was running low on air. Jeff Burns stood on the back of the boat, dragging the anchor on the bottom of the lake, hoping to catch it on the car. Over and over, the boat made U-turns until finally, the anchor caught.

The dive team jumped into action, but not fast enough. The anchor popped loose. Expletives were said. The process started over.

Thirty minutes later, Jeff Burns caught the anchor on the car again. This time, Spears and Wardlaw were ready. They dove down. From the boat, Jeff Burns, Jason Burns and Arnold watched the bubbles that popped on the surface of the water, indicating where the men were.

When they came back up, they gave a thumbs up — they had reached the car.

Arnold cheered. He called his mother, his wife and Thomas Towing, which volunteered to transport the car, as the company did with the first two vehicles.

Then, the team set to get the car off the lake bed.

The dive team uses a system they created and plan to patent themselves to pull cars to the surface. They attach straps to the front and back of the car and hook up air bags — each the size of an adult man — to those straps. They usually use four, one on each corner of the car. A machine pumps air into the bags through bright orange hoses and, once they are filled up enough, the bags pull the car to the surface like a hot air balloon.

Spears and Wardlaw took the bags and hoses down to the car.

“This is the most nerve-wracking part,” Jason Burns said while holding the walkie-talkie that linked to the divers’ communication system. “They use more air when they’re working, it’s dark, they can’t see their gauges. We have to tell them when they’re running out of air. Hopefully they aren’t too stubborn to listen to us.”

Spears and Jeff Burns strapped the first bag to the front of the car. They decided to air up the bag before hooking up the others to try and lift the car from the rocks.

However, after decades of being underwater, the car was breaking apart. The air bag filled, but could not pull the car from the rocks.

If the team put the bags where they normally did – on each corner of the car — the car’s framework would implode.

Thus, the team’s new plan — they would loop more straps around the axle of the car and tie them together, so the car would have more support, and hook the bags up to that. Hopefully, the car would lift to the surface without coming apart.

Again, Jeff Burns and Spears dove to the car.

Suddenly, the speaker connected to the divers’ comms crackled.

“Abort the dive,” Spears’ voice came over the speaker. “Abort the dive.”

Spears and Jeff Burns came to the surface slowly. Spears explained that as he was attaching a hose, something hit him in the side. The car was breaking apart and one of the pieces — he said it felt like a long rod – struck him in the ribs.

“It’s too dangerous,” he said.

The dive was over.

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Diver Jeff Burns rests on the shore of Benbrook Lake after having to abort the mission to locate the third and final car located at the bottom of the lake on Monday, September 16, 2019. The car was so deteriorated that it crumbled and broke apart while attempting to raise it, making it dangerous for the divers. Amanda McCoy

Unanswered questions

Arnold called the towing company and turned away from the rest of the boat. He wiped a tear from his eye. On the boat ride back to shore, he talked about how he felt when the team said they had to leave the car.

“My heart was broken,” Arnold said. “Because I‘ve been working for five years on these cars. We promised my mom we would get all three out. And now we can’t live up to that promise. She’s 81 years old now, bless her heart. I sure would like to get closure for her before she goes.”

But he said the dive team’s safety is more important than getting the car up.

“They’re not just the dive team to me, they’re my family. They’re family that came to me,” he said.

There is also the strong possibility that the car is not connected to his sister’s disappearance at all.

The next step in the search for his sister isn’t clear. For the first time in five years, Arnold doesn’t have a concrete idea of where to look.

But he is not giving up. He has to know what happened to Rachel — his sister who he’s written songs about, named his boat after and thinks about daily. He describes her as “the coolest sister,” one who took her kid brother to every McDonald’s in town so he could collect a set of glasses the restaurant was giving away in a competition.

“She loved her little brother,” he said.

For now, the third car remains at the bottom of Benbrook Lake, where it may rest forever.

As for the questions about what happened on that winter day 44 years ago, those answers may never reach the surface.

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Kaley Johnson is a breaking news and enterprise reporter. She majored in investigative reporting at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has a passion for bringing readers in-depth, complex stories that will impact their lives. Send your tips via email or Twitter.