Lady in the lake was his mother
38 years later, new light cast on woman suspected of abandoning family
As a boy, Gordon Thomas often asked about the framed photo sitting on top of the TV in his grandparents' living room.
"Who is that lady holding me?" he'd ask them. To which they'd always reply: Your mother.
They didn't offer much more. Nobody had seen Betty Thomas since November 1971. She'd vanished without a trace, leaving the small Okanagan township of Hedley groping for answers to her whereabouts.
Some believed the free-spirited 19-year-old, known for her wild ways, had left her new husband and young son for a more exciting life in a bigger city. She'd left before.
Others believed she met a fate far worse.
Eventually, Gordon's curiosity became too much for his grieving grandmother. She took the photo down from the TV and put it away.
"We didn't have an explanation," says Evelyn Thomas, Betty's older sister, who now lives in Victoria. "There would be other questions and, in some ways, he was too small for that."
Now Gordon, 40, and the rest of the Thomas family are finally putting together the pieces of the mystery that's haunted them for the past 38 years.
Last Sunday, as part of an Earth Day project, divers in Penticton recovered from Skaha Lake the 1964 Chrysler that Betty was last seen driving off in all those years ago.
Inside the car's rusted frame -- found about 90 metres below the surface -- police found human remains, as well as Betty's plastic-laminated birth certificate and purse.
While the B.C. Coroner's Service hasn't identified the remains pending completion of the investigation, the Thomas family confirmed police said it was indeed Betty.
"It was a bit of a heart-stopper," says Evelyn, "because I had sort of figured we [would] never know for sure."
For Gordon, who was raised by his grandparents in Hedley, it means finally laying to rest painful questions that have lingered in the back of his mind all these years.
Did she leave me? And if so, why? He says it's been an emotional few days full of tears. "A lot of people speculated and a lot of people told me that my mom just ran out on her husband and me at the time," the Surrey resident says. "I thought maybe she is out there and just doesn't want to see me.
"And to know that's obviously not the case, it changes your view of someone a bit."
The youngest of three siblings, Elizabeth Ellen Thomas was born to William and Evelyn Thomas in 1952. To everyone, she was known simply as Betty.
Her sister Evelyn, two years her senior, says Betty showed her wild side early on. It was Betty who took the lead in mischievous games like late-night garden-raiding expeditions.
And it was Betty, says Evelyn, who was always pushing the limits. She remembers Betty doing daring things like climbing rotten, 10-metre-high wooden ladders when playing inside abandoned mine shafts.
They'd tell her not to do it, but she would anyway. It was just the way she was, explains Evelyn.
So it was of no great surprise that Betty's wild ways continued when the '60s counter culture hit Hedley full steam. Evelyn says Betty, a lover of Elvis Presley and Tom Jones, was taking off on the weekends by the time she was 14 years old.
It was a habit that persisted as she got older and her dreams of a more exciting life got too big for the borders of Hedley. It was obvious, says Evelyn, that their town, with its
population of about 700, was simply too small for her younger sister.
"She wanted out of Hedley -- she wanted to be where things were busier, she wanted to be where there was a nightlife and things to do," says Evelyn. "She would take off for two or three months and just show up and say 'Hi, I hope I'm forgiven. I'm back.'"
But Evelyn says Betty calmed down when Gordon, who they nicknamed Butch, was born. The father was a teenager whose family had moved to Hedley from the States to avoid the draft. The relationship didn't last.
Evelyn says Betty would still take off sometimes, but it would only be on the weekends. She'd leave Gordon with her parents and always return as promised.
It's why, in November 1971, the family initially didn't think much of it when Betty, who was then living in Keremeos with her husband Lloyd, took off on her own a few days in advance of her older brother Tom's wedding.
They thought she just wanted a few more days of excitement in Chilliwack, where the wedding was to be held. It was just Betty being Betty, they thought.
Despite Lloyd's pleas to stick to the plan, Betty dropped Gordon off at a babysitter's, took her husband's car and headed to her parents' house in Hedley. When her parents didn't want to leave for Chilliwack early either, she set out on her own.
t was the last time her family saw her alive. She was to turn 20 that February.
But when she still hadn't shown up by the end of the week, Betty's parents filed a missing persons report. They later had the car reported as stolen.
A gas receipt at a Kelowna gas station led police to Betty's friend's place in Penticton. The female friend told police Betty had either been heading home to Gordon and Lloyd in Keremeos or to her parents' place in Hedley.
The trail ended there. Nobody thought to check the shoreline of Skaha Lake.
Rumours, meanwhile, spread like wildfire in Hedley. And it was among this speculation that Gordon, now in the care of his grandparents, grew up.
"It was pretty strange," he remembers. "It's a small town. Everyone speculates. 'Oh, she ran away. She found another guy.' All kinds of things you hear. Everyone's got an answer. Everyone's got an idea."
What he did know of his mother he learned from her friends and his family, who told him of her wild ways and temper, but also of her kindness and generosity.
He says he was reassured several times over the years that if she had intended to leave, she would have taken him with her. Still, he says, he couldn't help but be cynical.
"Everyone would always tell me, 'Your mom is such a great person,'" he says. "And I would have my own cynical kind of view. Who would leave their kid?"
At 16, Gordon left Hedley for the Lower Mainland to "get away from the country area." He currently works for a company that sells architectural hardware. He has never married, he says.
As the years wore on, there were a few alleged sightings of Betty but eventually, Evelyn says, everyone was forced to push her disappearance to the back of their minds and try their best to move on.
It was when Betty didn't show up for her father's funeral in 1979, or her mother's a few years later, that Evelyn says she became certain something had happened to her. She just hoped it hadn't been too bad.
We figured if she was able, she would have come to those two funerals," she says. "I missed her a lot, but there was nothing I could do about it."
Then came the discovery last week at the bottom of the cliff that has since become a scenic lookout along Hwy 97.
In the coming days, Gordon says, he'll travel to Penticton to retrieve his mom's personal effects. Her remains will likely be cremated, he says.
While details of what caused the 1964 Chrysler to go off the clifftop will likely never be known, the find has brought bittersweet relief to the family Betty Thomas left behind.
And it is now, while looking through old photos of the woman he asked about as a boy, that Gordon says he has a better understanding of who she was.
"Now I do have a different opinion of her," he says. "That's the real high point of finding out about all this. It will close a chapter that I've been thinking about my whole life."