Divers take on ‘black water’ in mission to solve strangers’ 44-year-old cold case

Jeff Burns describes the first time he heard about the cars in Benbrook Lake as “a kick in the gut.”

The Burleson native and his wife were in a boutique when he overheard someone talking about the case of the Missing Fort Worth Trio. Three girls had gone missing 44 years ago, and one of their brothers thought the three cars in the lake might hold answers.

Burns, who scuba dives for artifact recovery, asked for Rusty Arnold’s information and called him immediately.

“I can get them cars out of the lake for you,” he told him.

Arnold was taken aback.

“He said, ‘In 44 years, nobody would help me. I’ve never heard of you, I’ve never seen you, I’ve never met you. Why would you be willing to risk your life for someone you’ve never met?’” Jeff Burns recalls his conversation with Arnold. “And I said, ‘How long have y’all been dealing with this?’ And he said, ‘44 years.’ And I said, ‘Don’t you think that’s long enough?’”

After that, the team came together quickly. Dave Wardlaw, a retired police officer and Jeff Burns’ diving partner, agreed immediately to the dive. Wayne Spears heard about Jeff Burns and Wardlaw from a customer at his scuba shop and got in touch with them. Jason Burns jumped on board with his cousin from there.

They all said God brought them together, and they all gave the same simple reason for wanting to help.

“It was to help the families. Nothing more,” Spears said. Even if the cars weren’t related to the case, he said, it would at least give the families one more possibility to cross off.

“Rusty called it turning over a stone,” he said.

(Read more about the Missing Trio case and Rusty Arnold’s search here).

A dive team brotherhood

Although they had never dived as a team before, the men quickly became tight-knit.

Wardlaw described their bond as similar to when he was in the military.

“The military bond is a very special bond. This is the closest thing to that. It’s like being in the military, but without all the running,” he said.

None of the divers asked for payment, and all of them paid for their gear out of pocket. The dive team raised $15,000 through fundraisers, GoFundMe pages and private donations to buy diving equipment, such as generators and air tanks.

0918 benbrook lake05.JPG
Divers Wayne Spears, left, and David Wardlaw prepare 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

The plan seemed straight-forward: the team would mark where the cars were, find them beneath the surface and bring them up.

And that’s where the problems started.

In September 2018, the divers arrived at the lake to search for the cars. A crowd of volunteers joined them at the boat dock, which was nearly entirely out of the water — it had not rained for four months. The water was too low to safely dive and the Army Corps of Engineers, which owns the lake, shut it down.

“I’m looking at everybody like, what are we going to do? And everybody is looking at me,” Jeff Burns said.

He stepped back, looked at the cloudless sky and prayed.

“Lord, you put us in this position. Just give us a break; give us something,” he said.

It started to rain — and it did not stop for three days. On Monday morning, the lake reached a safe level and the crew was able to dive.

“You know what the number three stands for in the Bible?” Jeff Burns said. “Completion.”

The black water

The team decided to pull out the first car on Sept. 22, 2018. They knew the general location of the car due to sonar, but the challenge was to physically find the car during a dive.

The second problem was the lake itself — diving in a lake is not the same as in the ocean. Divers call it “the black water.”

“The best way I can describe it is this,” Jeff Burns said. “Go to a funeral room. Pick you out a coffin. Lay down and close it. Then close your eyes.”

At the bottom of the lake, there is zero visibility. Even with four flashlights on a scuba mask, the divers are blind. In order to actually bring the car to the surface, the divers have to pinpoint its exact location down to the inch.

The divers go down two at a time. They start by holding each other’s hands in front of them and descend. Once they reach the car, they feel it out, “like Braille,” Spears described.

They’re one of the few teams in the country who do black water dives because it is so dangerous.

“We know what it’s like to be in the black water. We know what it’s like to dive by Braille,” Jeff Burns said. “We have a brotherhood unlike anywhere else in the country.”

In their brotherhood, no man gets left under the water.

Spears said his wife was worried about him doing the dives initially, but the camaraderie of the group eased her concerns — at least a little.

“She was worried, but then she saw the team. She said, ‘These guys are not going to leave you down there,’” he said.

Their families’ have reason to worry about what the team is doing; the dives themselves are dangerous.

“We can’t have a bad day. If we have a bad day, there’s a funeral involved.” Jeff Burns said.

Jason Burns’ role is to make sure the divers are taking care of themselves in the water. He monitors their air and reminds them to eat and drink in-between dives.

0918 benbrook lake07.JPG
Jason Burns keeps a lookout for the third and final submerged car in Benbrook Lake on Monday, September 16, 2019. For years Rusty 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

The water itself can be an unpredictable a factor in the dives. Changes in weather, strong currents and animals living in the lake are all dangers.

Jeff Burns said when he was working on the second car, he looked up and, against the faint light of the surface, he saw a tail swishing from side to side — possibly an alligator.

“The first thing you think of when you see that, you have two movements,” he said. “A physical movement and a bowel movement.”

Pulling up the first two cars

The method the divers use to bring the cars out of the water is one they invented and plan to patent. It had never been used before, and more than one person told them they were crazy for trying it.

The team hooks up straps to the axles of the car and attaches inflatable balloons to those straps - each one is about the size of an adult man. The balloons are connected by hoses to an air tank on the surface. Once the bags — which cost about $1,000 each — are set up, the team surfaces. Air fills up the bags and, once enough lift is established, the car is lifted from the bottom of the lake.

Thomas Towing donated its services to tow the cars from the water. After each car was dragged onto shore, the cars were taken to a secret location and examined by a forensic pathologist team.

The first car was a 1960 Chevrolet Corvair. It was dragged out of the lake to the cheers of about 100 people gathered on shore at Longhorn Park. While it was a success for the dive team, forensic analysis determined the car was not related to the missing trio case.

The second car proved more difficult.

The team had to dig mud out from around the car, which took about seven hours. For the divers, who can only be safely under the surface for 30 to 35 minutes at a time, this involved constant shift rotation and a lot of time spent in the impenetrable blackness at the bottom of the lake.

On Oct. 13, after two days of work, the second car made it to the shore. Again, a crowd of nearly 100 people cheered as the rusted car was dragged onto the boat dock, mud and silt pouring out its doors.

Fran Langston, Rachel’s mother, sat in a blue chair by the dock. She said she hoped the trunk of that car would open and her daughter’s remains would be inside.

But the second car was also not related to the case.

When volunteers ran the car’s VIN number, it was clear the car had nothing to do with the missing trio. The car was a 1976 Lincoln Town Car, made two years after the girls went missing.

0918 benbrook lake04.JPG
For years Rusty Arnold has been searching for his sister, Rachel Trlica, who went missing in 1974. Part of that search has been a mission to raise three cars submerged in Benbrook Lake to see if they were connected to the disappearance. With the help of North Texas Marine Salvage & Recovery’s dive team, he has retrieved two of the cars. On Monday, September 16, 2019, they attempted to raise the final car. Amanda McCoy

A stone left unturned

On Monday, the team was finally ready to pull the third and final car from the lake.

After searching for the car’s exact position for five hours, the divers went in to hook up the air bags and hoses.

However, after about two more hours, the team had to call off the dive.

The car was too brittle — even when they just brushed against it, pieces of metal would break off. As Spears was putting on one of the straps, a piece of the car hit him in the side.

He called for the dive to be aborted.

The team was let down, but they also knew safety was more important than anything. Arnold, who was on the boat, adamantly agreed.

“As the car came up, it just started falling apart,” he said. “It’s too damn dangerous.”

Arnold said he is not sure what comes next in the search for answers in his sister’s disappearance, but he is not going to give up.

“We’re going to leave no stone unturned. But unfortunately, this one cannot be overturned,” he said.

As for the dive team, they have plans of their own. They spent three and a half months off the coast of Florida searching for treasure, and Jeff Burns, Jason Burns and Wardlaw plan on continuing their artifact recovery. Spears, who has been diving since 1974, will continue training new divers in the area.

Related stories from Fort Worth Star Telegram

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.