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.