No Earthly Trace - Features - Atlanta Magazine

No Earthly Trace

The vanishing of Justin Gaines

Security footage showing Justin Gaines leaving Wild Bill's nightclub at precisely 1:32 a.m. on November 2, 2007. He has not been seen since.

Every year several thousand adults are reported missing in Georgia. Most are found alive. They are the demented elderly, voluntary absconders, the subjects of family miscommunication. A few, though, leave behind only a soiled shoe, a wad of cash, an abandoned car. And some, like Justin Gaines, leave . . .


In the days after her son vanished four years ago, it seemed to Erika Wilson that everyone wanted to help. There were Justin’s friends, of course, the ones he’d called that last night but couldn’t reach. But there were complete strangers too. Like the kids from Parkview High, bitter rivals of Brookwood, Justin’s old high school. Or the private detective who brought in the mounted search team from Texas. A command center was set up in the fellowship hall of a Methodist church. Organizers divided thousands of acres around Wild Bill’s nightclub, where he’d last been seen, into sixty-eight grids. Two hundred volunteers methodically marched side by side across each of them.

Erika and Steven Wilson;
photograph by Raymond McCrea Jones

At night, when the searches were suspended, Erika turned to the Internet, maybe grabbing an hour’s fitful sleep on the couch. Then at dawn she’d head back to the command center. She had earned a real estate license and liked the work, but showing houses was out of the question. Nothing mattered except finding her son.

The Georgia State Defense Force, a group of trained citizen searchers, joined later that month, using aerial photos to expand the search. An electronic missing­person billboard peered down on I-85 drivers, asking them if they’d seen eighteen-year-old Justin Gaines. Searches would spread as far as Gainesville, some thirty miles, skipping residential areas but trolling public parks, reservoirs, electrical company properties, the banks of lakes, and roadside ditches.

As days turned to weeks, the number of volunteers grew: off-duty firemen, deputies, the unemployed. Buzzard sightings were called in to Steven Wilson, Justin’s stepfather, who would hop on a borrowed four-wheeler and chase them—a process that stoked his grimmest fears, especially as the prey neared and the stench thickened, only to reveal a rotting deer carcass.

TV came calling. Cars were sent to whisk Erika and Steven to studios in Atlanta for interviews with Greta Van Susteren and Star Jones. Erika would drink glass after glass of water, but her mouth would still dry out. Her Rust Belt nasality was graveled a bit by Marlboro Reds, and she shared broad cheeks and a low forehead with her missing son. Steven told her to squeeze his hand, to squeeze hard if she needed to. When the questions began, Erika was dumbfounded. She kept thinking: "We are simple people. We just want the answer. Why has it come to this?"

Justin Gaines is barreling home on Georgia Highway 316, his roommate Chris Beyers next to him in the passenger seat. It is November 1, 2007. Justin is in his first semester at Gainesville State College, and Chris is at Athens Technical, but they’ve known each other since freshman history class at Brookwood High. They’re in a hurry. Tonight is Thirsty Thursday at Wild Bill’s, the massive dance club in Duluth, and the two young men are on the VIP list. After he drops off Chris, Justin pulls up to his mother’s split-level house in Snellville. At five feet eleven and 230 pounds, Justin can bench-press his weight a dozen times, and although he’s not a fighter, he can be a room-clearing bulldog if provoked. He comes in, flashes a grin to his family, declares his plans to hit the town, then darts upstairs to shower, shave, and buzz his head with clippers. Grown out, Justin’s sandy brown hair falls straight like a Beatle’s mop, and he loathes looking like a Beatle.

Head shorn, Justin pounds downstairs, through the living room that bears a patched hole where his butt broke through the wall during a wrestling match with his brothers. In his hands are a gray shirt and a brown shirt. “Hey, Stevon,” Justin queries his stepfather in a faux French accent. “Which one should I wear for the ladies tonight?” Steven leans back and feigns contemplation. The answer is easy: The gray shirt goes better with Justin’s blue eyes. Besides, Steven razzes, the brown shirt looks like a turd. Justin shoots back upstairs and douses himself with Abercrombie & Fitch Fierce cologne. He calls Cassidy Kohler, his former high school girlfriend. They recently broke up but have remained cordial enough to share an eighteen-minute call. They’d dated since Justin’s sophomore year, when he was clowning around with pals at the Mall of Georgia and spotted her, pointed his finger, and declared “the blonde” for himself. Cassidy found Justin to be hilarious, and she has a soft spot for funny guys.

Justin hangs up and puts on ripped jeans, white tennis shoes, and an Abercrombie shirt with the long sleeves hiked up to display his forearms. In his pockets are a cell phone, a fake ID, and cash for drinks.

As Justin is leaving, Steven, who runs a roofing company, makes him an offer: a quick job cleaning gutters on Saturday morning. Justin knows that means $150 for an hour’s work scooping leaves, the kind of easy cash he cannot refuse. Steven takes pride in doing Justin favors. And Justin is not one to let Steven down. Fourteen years earlier, Steven had stepped up in place of Justin’s absent father, molding the chubby, insecure boy into a self-respecting man.

So there goes Justin Gaines—his playful narcissism, popped collars, whitened teeth, artificial tan, and diamond-stud earrings, his size-too-small polos and his shirts with brash phrases like “You Know You Want Me.” There go his Justinisms, his silly lexicon that labeled his hometown “Snell Vegas” and himself “the Gainesta.” There goes the architect of social gatherings, the prankster, the kid who would die for his friends and family, a mama’s boy to the bone. And there goes that face, that portrait of all-American wholesomeness, a face that will beguile Atlanta media.

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  • 17
  1. Todd Taylor posted on 03/01/2012 09:54 PM
    Josh Green does an outstanding job delving into the many layers of this terribly sad story. This is top-notch investigative reporting from start to finish. I hope the family eventually gets closure.
  2. Sebastian posted on 03/01/2012 10:08 PM
    Wow. This story is heart gripping. I have never heard of this case, but reading this really gave me shiver's down my spine. I can really feel the pain this family is going through. I hope they get a chance to find closure. Good or bad.
  3. Tom Gettinger posted on 03/01/2012 10:17 PM
    I wish someone here in Bloomington, Ind., would write as effective a story on the June 2011 disappearance of Lauren Spierer, an Indiana University sophomore, as Green has done on the Gaines boy. After nine long months, her family is still living this nightmare. Deeply personal writing like Green's might smooth the keyway to unlock the mystery.
  4. Andy Magee posted on 03/02/2012 07:58 AM
    I can't imagine not knowing where my child is? Hopefully they will find him and the family will get some sort of closure. This is a great piece on a difficult subject matter. My thoughts and prayers go out to the family.
  5. Melissa Hall posted on 03/02/2012 09:57 AM
    Justin Gaines' story is one that seems to becoming more common. There was a similar case a few months ago at Indiana University. A girl went missing and they have found no trace of her. What a terrifying prospect for parents! Green provides such an intimate glimpse into Gaines' mother's struggle.
  6. Daniel O'Bannon posted on 03/02/2012 10:26 AM
    Amazing heart wrenching story. Green is simply masterful in capturing the true horror of this tale. I personally can't wait to read more from him. I pray the family can eventually move on from this tragidy.
  7. Susan Smith posted on 03/02/2012 02:34 PM
    This is such a touching and heart felt story. I could not put the magazine down when reading this story. I truly hope the family gets the closure it deserves. Great job to the writer that took the time to tell us this story in great heart felt details.
  8. J.J. posted on 03/02/2012 04:40 PM
    Don't get me wrong, this is a tragic story. However, do you all think this incident would of generated as much attention if this kid was black or hispanic?? Just saying....
  9. Andy May posted on 03/03/2012 11:31 AM
    Very sad, but great story. Although I can't imagine what this family is going through, the story really brought me in and made me visualize the situation. I hope that this family can get closure someday! Good read....
  10. Mindy Whalen posted on 03/05/2012 08:09 AM
    Incredibly sad story and yet written so beautifully. I can only hope this family finds peace. Look forward to reading more from this author.
  11. Andy K. posted on 03/07/2012 11:32 PM
    It reads like a gripping crime story... now if only there were answers for this family.
  12. Alexis posted on 03/08/2012 07:44 PM
    Wow!! What a moving story! After reading this story, I hope & pray they find the answers they seek.
  13. lance posted on 03/09/2012 09:49 AM
    fantastic read, but tough to think about because it sure isn't fictional. so tragic.
  14. Mike posted on 03/15/2012 04:48 PM
    Thank you, rarely do I read articles from national newspapers that are this well written.
  15. Julie posted on 07/09/2012 11:17 PM
    Having known Justin, I don't like the comments that have been left. This isn't just a story, Justin is a member of our community, not just a "well written story". It's very sad to me the fact that somebody somewhere has to know what happened to Justin. This could not be a one person secret. Justin we miss you, you were always positive and happy, and nice to everyone, and I'm so sad for your family and what happened to you. Let's not forget as readers that these missing people are just that, and it's still painful, and not just an entertaining story.
  16. Patricia Gaines posted on 11/01/2012 01:16 PM
    The only problem with this story is that Justin's father was NOT absent. Justin, along with his mom, step-dad, and family, moved to GA when Justin was young, therefore making visits with his dad on a lesser basis. I understand that there are a lot of people that love Justin VERY much, his step-dad included, but Justin's dad does also, and he was certainly not absent from Justin's life. Justin knew his dad and loved him. How do I know this? I'm his step-mom, and I have known and loved Justin since he was just a year old. He is TERRIBLY missed.
  17. jane smith posted on 04/02/2013 05:29 PM
    So sad, I hope this family finds answers. It seems like he had so much going for him and a great family. It breaks my heart to read what has happened to Justin and what his family has gone thru.
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