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Josh Green

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Krog Street inspires an ASO premiere

As any eastside commuter can attest, one rarely drives through the Krog Street tunnel—the graffiti gallery/underpass connecting Cabbagetown and Old Fourth Ward—without spying an aspiring musician or model posing for a photo shoot. The tunnel’s gritty-but-decorative appeal to would-be rap stars and emo trios is predictable. Less so: its role as Atlanta Symphony Orchestra muse.

But this month, the ASO premieres Everything Lasts Forever, composed by bassist Michael Kurth. His inspiration came from the slogan on an art poster pasted in the tunnel, which does double duty as community message board and street artists’ playground. The poster was peeling away, and the irony resonated with Kurth. “That seemed to me a nice metaphor for the way music works, as a temporal art form,” says Kurth, an East Lake resident who relishes the graffiti he spies en route to Symphony Hall.

Kurth’s debt to urban art doesn’t end at the Krog tunnel. Partitioned into three movements, his twelve-minute piece opens with the slow-building and quirky “Toes”—named for a prolific tagger—followed by the pastoral “Bird Sing Love,” inspired by a simple avian graffiti design spotted near Oakland Cemetery. The piece climaxes with “We Have All the Time in the World,” a phrase Kurth saw spray-painted on a Cabbagetown building. “We have a beautiful city full of lots of character and history,” he says. Street art is “part of it, part of our culture.”

The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performs Everything Lasts Forever in conjunction with other pieces April 4 and 5; atlantasymphony.org

This article originally appeared in our April 2013 issue.

Flashback: Larry Flynt shot in Lawrenceville

On that warm March afternoon, what pastor Fred Musser first thought was the sound of freight palettes dropping from a truck turned out to be the crack of a .44 caliber Marlin rifle—a weapon designed to kill large game. The target was Larry Flynt, who was fighting misdemeanor obscenity charges at the Gwinnett County courthouse. Local attorney Gene Reeves was also shot on the sidewalk as both men walked back to court from a light lunch of salads at V&J Cafeteria.

Despite conspiratorial talk—echoed in the 1996 Milos Forman Flynt biopic—that the federal government tried to assassinate Flynt, generations of Gwinnett prosecutors (and Reeves) believe the shooter was neo-Nazi serial killer Joseph Paul Franklin, who sits on death row in Missouri for 1977 shootings at a synagogue and reportedly was driven to shoot Flynt by a Hustler magazine spread featuring interracial sex. Franklin was indicted for the shootings in Gwinnett but never prosecuted, as extraditing him was deemed too costly and dangerous.

The shootings left Reeves in a coma and the Hustler publisher paraplegic. Reeves made a full recovery and after the attack, the charges against Flynt were dismissed.

Thirty-five years later, three men with ties to the event describe what happened that day.

Pastor Fred Musser
Now eighty, the minister was the only civilian to rush to Flynt’s aid.

I heard tires squalling and then I heard commotion, people.

I went straight across to him. I got there and I looked down and I realized who it was. I knelt down beside him and put my hand on him, and I said, “They’re on the way. You’ll be alright.”

I just prayed that he would not die and that God would help him, protect him, and that he would recover. Something like that.

His eyes, you know, you could tell. I’ve seen that. I’ve been around people at the time before they die, right after they die, from accidents and everything else—I’ve been there. So that’s what I saw. Fear in his eyes that something had happened, kind of in shock. He never made a sound.

You could actually see some of his insides sticking out through his fingers. He was literally holding his guts in. Seems like I remember a diamond ring.

There were thirty or forty people [who eventually gathered]. They stayed back. Nobody came up there where I was. I thought that was funny, unusual.

A number of years later [Flynt] sent me a check in the mail, to the church. Maybe it was a thousand dollars or something. I put it in the church account. I never spoke to him, never made any attempt to contact him.

To me he was just another man. Of course I knew who it was, but he was just another man who needed some help.

Gene Reeves
Now eighty-three, Flynt’s former lawyer is a retired Gwinnett County senior magistrate.

It was a nice, pretty day. It was mild. We had on suits with coats but no overcoats or anything like that. I believe that one of [the prosecution’s] experts was on the stand testifying about sex in general. We were really just barely into the thing.

[Flynt and I] both had a light lunch: salad. We were sort of on a diet.

He and I were walking together, and when the shooting occurred, they didn’t hit me, they hit him. I think there were two shots. One of them hit him in the spine; the other one was a flesh wound that went though him and into my arm, stomach, and pancreas. But you got to realize it was a .44 magnum, which is sort of an elephant gun.

It looked like someone picked [Flynt] up and threw him about four or five feet, because he took the impact of the bullet. He was on the ground, and I recall I got up and tried to see how he was. About that time, I passed out. Then I came back to and when I did, they were taking him to the hospital. Then another ambulance came and got me.

[The bullet] blasted my gallbladder off and sat in my pancreas. I was in the hospital for twenty-six days. Of course it had a tremendous effect—all at once, I was an international news thing. I got my five minutes of fame. If I had it to do over, I’d pass.

One good thing came out of it: While I was in the hospital I went without a cigarette for twenty-six days [after smoking three packs of Kools per day], and the nurse one day told me I could have one. She said, “Now, you’ve been without one for twenty-six days, you could probably quit if you want to.” I did quit. I haven’t had one since.

I guess you’d say I’m bound up with [Flynt] as a result of that. I ran for office of judge, and all anybody had to do to beat me was mention that I was Larry Flynt’s lawyer, you know. The public somehow associates the lawyer who represents someone with them, apparently. So I was appointed a magistrate by the judges of Gwinnett County.

As far as career-wise, it probably helped me, because at least people knew who I was. A lot of people figured, “Well, Flynt hired him—I’ll hire him, you know.”

[Flynt] thought all kinds of things were behind [the shooting], but I think he finally accepted the fact that this is what happened, and that [Franklin] was the one. He paid my hospital bill in full, which at that time was around $18,000.

I don’t feel one way or the other toward [Franklin]. I don’t think he was out to shoot me or anything like that. It was right funny, when the detectives played a recording of a phone conversation they had with him, they told him if they brought him back to Gwinnett County for a trial, a lawyer would be appointed to represent him. And he said, “You’re not going to appoint Gene Reeves, are you?”

Danny Porter
Gwinnett County District Attorney, 1992–present

First of all, there was a letter to a police officer. He showed it to then D.A. Bryant Huff and [investigators] went to Marion, Illinois, and interviewed Franklin.

Franklin basically said, “If you’ll bring me down to Gwinnett, I’ll tell you all about [the Flynt shooting].” We were in the old jail back then, where the work-release program is now. [Former D.A.] Tom Lawler said we’re not bringing that crazy bastard to this jail. By that time, Franklin was under-the-ground on the Chattanooga sniper shooting and the synagogue bombing. He gave enough information in the letter and the subsequent interview that are all consistent with the Flynt/Reeves shooting.

Then about five years ago, a female detective in DeKalb County, an investigator in the D.A.’s office, she went and interviewed [Franklin], and he confessed to two killings in DeKalb County which put him in this area at the same time as the Flynt shooting—and, in fact, he referenced those shootings, that he was here to [shoot Flynt] when he shot these other two people in DeKalb. [The detective] traveled to Missouri, and he likes pretty girls; she’s a blonde and attractive and he spilled it all to her. So, yeah, I’m satisfied that he did it.

Huff indicted him on two counts of aggravated assault, but Lawler dismissed it sometime in his second term, once Franklin was given the death penalty in Missouri. More than twenty years ago.

Franklin has obliquely admitted shooting Flynt in several confessions to other crimes. His shootings are mostly racially driven. The sniper shootings in Chattanooga and [other shootings] are all interracial couples, and he doesn’t like Jews either, so he’s bombed a couple synagogues.

If you go over and look at where the shooting occurred, you can pretty much figure out how he got away, because it wasn’t that hard. He fired the shots, and then he just scooted out the back door and across that empty parking lot—and was gone. He told [investigators] that he had a car parked there and that he just drove off. I believe the shell casings were on the second floor.

I’m so far back in the line [to prosecute Franklin]—I mean, he’s still got pending murder charges in different states. I never could justify the expense or the danger of bringing him to Gwinnett County to try him for an aggravated assault.

[Flynt has] never pushed me [to prosecute]. When Huff initially presented this evidence, Flynt didn’t believe that Franklin did it—he thought the CIA did it. As far as I know, he never came back to Gwinnett County.

This article originally appeared in our March 2013 issue.

When Patterns Are Broken, New Worlds Emerge

This story originally appeared in our October 2012 issue.

One balmy morning at the Riverdale Park & Ride, a former pharmacist in olive-colored khakis named Bisi Alabi boards the Route 442 bus. He walks to the back, picks a seat, and lays at his feet a zippered tote bag stuffed with handwritten mementos, chaotic personal logs, and vital phone numbers for his doctor and his destination: the Side by Side Brain Injury Clubhouse in Stone Mountain. Since his traumatic brain injury, the doctors won’t let Bisi—pronounced be-see—drive across town, despite his insistence that he still can. He yearns to greet his pharmacy customers and dispense their medications as he did for twenty years, but that is now beyond his cognitive grasp. Forgetting his wallet or MARTA card will cast him into a confused tailspin, yet public transit is a gantlet Bisi feels he must run, or else be left in an empty house, in a neighborhood drained of residents during work hours, in a world that has all but left him behind.

More than an hour later, Bisi arrives at the Clubhouse, a 1920s bungalow dwarfed by an odd art deco–style addition, overlooking Stone Mountain’s quaint Main Street. Like Bisi, the fifty men and women who make up the current clientele—known as “members”—were once more proficient people. They were respiratory therapists, semi drivers, attorneys, roofers, restaurant managers, from every socioeconomic tier and fourteen different countries. Now they find respite among the similarly afflicted in this two-story complex with creaky old floors and an elevator. It’s the only facility of its kind between Raleigh and Jacksonville.

While 65,000 Georgians and 1.7 million Americans suffer traumatic brain injuries each year, advocates say alarmingly few receive appropriate care and life-skills training after leaving the hospital. That explains why some members travel more than two hours each way, as often as five times a week, for day visits. Without the Clubhouse, many would rarely leave their homes. “This gives them the opportunity to not be a patient,” says Cindi Johnson, the wispy-haired mother hen who is the nonprofit’s executive director.

Formerly a cognitive rehab therapist and a program director at the Shepherd Center, Cindi was commuting one morning in 1987 when the van in front of her suddenly stopped. The impact flipped Cindi’s Datsun, and she was left hanging by her seat belt, screaming for help, with shards of glass punched into her scalp. Though the mild brain injury she sustained would resolve in a few weeks, the crash showed Cindi what it was like to be confounded, to become forgetful and confused. She later partnered with a colleague from Emory Healthcare, Mike McCord, and with $100,000 from each of their hospitals, they began gauging the need for a brain-injury refuge. In 2000 the Clubhouse opened with three members in the basement of a Decatur office building, and it quickly became cramped.

Today Cindi surveys the cafeteria as sloppy joes and Ruffles are dished from the industrial-grade kitchen. She points to a man who plummeted from a high-rise as a boy, another two who fell down stairs, a brain aneurysm victim, and a guy who bounced off a golf cart. It’s common to see avowed conservatives lunching with possibly undocumented immigrants, people injured by drunk drivers happily hobnobbing with those injured while driving drunk.

Three training areas—business, food preparation, and household maintenance—equip members to run the Clubhouse. The instruction also helps them rebuild social, physical, and cognitive skills. When a brain bounces inside the skull, when axons are torn, the slightest change causes rudimentary abilities to fall by the wayside. At the Clubhouse, twelve rehab, educational, and social-work professionals work directly with members. Programs are supported primarily by member fees, which range from $1 to $200 per day, based on income—and incorporate funds from outside sources like Medicaid waivers and worker’s compensation. Some members will move on to janitorial or clerical jobs, scaled-back versions of their former professions, or entirely new careers. Others—like Bisi and his colleagues Ray, Haile, and Cheryl—have no intentions of leaving.

Bisi Alabi, sixty-nine, Riverdale
Six days before Christmas in 2003, Bisi and his wife Deborah were driving home from Louisville in a rented SUV when they skidded on black ice and shot across I-24, into a ravine. In the ambulance, paramedics started an IV, and Bisi’s vital signs finally sparked. But ask Bisi—a diminutive, playful man with a smile so gaping he appears perpetually on the brink of laughter—and he’ll say he did die, all the way. Through a memory hiccup called confabulation, he tells a vivid fictional account of his death, saying he was bound for the mortuary when Deborah, a nurse, bore through a team of doctors to hug his “corpse” once more, latched onto his wrist, and, through the intervention of God Almighty, felt . . . a pulse.

Given his cache of reminders, the last thing you’d expect from Bisi is a rich retelling of his personal journey, but distant memories are easily fetched. He emigrated from Nigeria in 1973, where his guava-farmer father married into royalty via Bisi’s mother. A workaholic, he earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Florida and his doctorate at Mercer University, eventually becoming a pharmacist at Southern Regional Medical Center. His eldest son is now a pharmacist in Las Vegas.

Cheryl Alphabet, fifty-three, Snellville
Among a splash of freckles on Cheryl’s face sleeps a glass eye that does not blink. A faint indentation leads from her reconstructed mouth to her short, curly hair. It’s the path carved by a 9 mm bullet four years ago, when Cheryl was an assistant manager at a Krystal restaurant in Stockbridge. A twenty-one-year-old kid, whom another manager had fired, entered a back door with a handgun, swiped $1,000 from a safe, and hustled Cheryl and another employee into the walk-in cooler. He fired twice into her left arm and once into her face. A jury sentenced him to a lifetime in prison.

Cheryl’s psychological wounds are deep—sandals slapping on a sidewalk, for instance, cause her to flinch—but she has stopped hiding from strangers in Clubhouse bathrooms. These days she lives with her sister, who longs for the old Cheryl, a person who no longer exists.

A former teaching assistant, Cheryl hopes to volunteer at an elementary school. She loves her water aerobics class. Recently a busload of tourists stopped by the Clubhouse. Cheryl agreed to give an impromptu speech, to tell her story, as long as Cindi stood next to her, patting her back for support. Her words inspired hugs from strangers, and though she tried not to, Cindi wept.

Haile Woldu, fifty-five, Atlanta
Haile is a soft-spoken but convivial Ethiopian expat who arrived in America in 1987 with two master’s degrees and hopes of earning a Ph.D. in environmental chemistry. Those plans did not materialize. Haile’s brain injury is the work of robbers who beat him into a coma with baseball bats in 2001, as he was trying to make ends meet on the night shift at a convenience store near Decatur. Haile doesn’t know if his assailants were caught, and he doesn’t really care. He recalls his manager leaving the store that day, then awakening from the coma more than two months later at the Shepherd Center, confined with soft restraints.

A decorative plate hanging at the Clubhouse bears this heartening motto: When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge. Ambition can be the greatest casualty in an altered world, but life offers compensations. Haile’s simplified daily goals include ushering his two sons, ages six and eight, to school via MARTA. He lives vicariously through the boys, both excellent students. He frequently meets with a Clubhouse tutor to practice independent-living skills, plunking down a thick yellow folder and sorting out school bills and Social Security paperwork. He incessantly asks himself, “How can I contribute to society?”

Ray Steph, forty-three, Smyrna
To the beer-swilling, Mustang-driving wild man Ray used to be, skydiving was addictive, if unsatisfying—like “chasing a rainbow I would never catch.” His injury may have resulted from calculated risk, but how could Ray have known his chute would fail on jump number 2,309?

On that spring day, as he did most weekends, Ray packed his rig, rode a Queen Air to 15,000 feet, and leaped out. As his helmet video camera recorded, Ray’s chute only half inflated. He kept looking at his chest-mounted altimeter and fussing with the chute until it was too late for the reserve. Thudding on the hard red clay of Thomaston, Georgia, much of his right side was crushed. Ray stopped breathing until a fellow skydiver landed nearby, rushed over, and performed CPR.

Ray has tricks that help. He wears white sneakers with two Velcro straps, an L and R written neatly atop them in black marker. His Smyrna condo is dotted with reminders, such as “shut the door” on his fridge and “flush after #2” on the toilet. He’s enthralled with History Channel war documentaries, but in the wee hours he sometimes falls prey to infomercials. “My mom threatened to chop up my credit cards,” says Ray.

As the Eastside Trail opening nears, BeltLine security squad still is “more of a concept.”

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Though it doesn’t technically open until October 15, and sizable chunks of it are still under construction, the Atlanta Beltline’s Eastside Trail is already populated with business-attired bicyclists, joggers, skaters, and entire convoys of families. Police and Beltline officials stress that people who use the trail now do so at their own risk.

But how about when the trail is officially open? In June, APD officials announced that the department would create a BeltLine patrol as part of an $1.8 million federal grant. According to the three-year deal, APD would hire fifteen military veterans—those having served active duty for at least 180 days, post-9/11—as police officers; a team of existing police would then be reallocated to focus on Beltline security and patrols. The fifteen-member squad would be called the “APD Path Force.”

But as the 2.25-mile trail’s opening nears—and smaller paved segments are functioning—police say the Path Force remains a work-in-progress, and that the hiring of veterans has yet to commence.

The Path Force “is really more of a concept at this point more than anything else,” said APD spokesman Carlos Campos. “We’re certainly committed to it, but it’s far too early to get into the details—primarily because those details are not worked out.”

Campos expects the team to be assembled and deployed sometime next year. Meanwhile, officers based in the new Boulevard mini-precinct will patrol the Eastside Trail on bicycles. The new trail will be open daily from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. There is not yet lighting on the trail.

The fourteen-foot-wide, concrete artery will connect Old Fourth Ward (Irwin Street) to Monroe Drive at Piedmont Park. As with all public spaces in the city, law enforcement will be the APD’s jurisdiction. BeltLine spokeswoman Jenny Pittman said trail users are encouraged to call 911 to report emergencies and suspicious activity. Expect posted signs to carry that message.       

Pictured: The Eastside trail on September 15, 2012—a month before the scheduled opening. Photo by Rebecca Burns

No Earthly Trace

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.

Outside, a ride is waiting. Chris Beyers has met up with his girlfriend and borrowed her father’s car. The three of them swing through a QuikTrip on Five Forks Trickum Road, where Justin fills a fifty-two-ounce fountain drink with two-thirds Rooster Booster Energy Drink and, back in the car, tops it off with bottom-shelf vodka. In the fifteen-minute drive along the winding road to Wild Bill’s, Justin downs almost the entire drink. It is, after all, a cheaper alternative to vodkas at the bar. The trio rush to the VIP entrance line, but they’ve just missed the 11 p.m. cutoff. Now it’s going to cost them $10, and no one wants to pay that much. In the line, though, Justin finds someone who gives him a guest pass. The other two aren’t as lucky.

“I’m gonna go home,” Chris says.

“All right,” says Justin. “I’ll find a ride home.”

Justin Gaines; courtesy of Erika and Steven Wilson

Erika and Steven met in Elyria, Ohio, where Justin spent his earliest childhood. She was managing a Wendy’s in a mall food court when her roommate called to say an attractive new manager—Steven—had been hired at another Wendy’s across the street. Erika feigned a need for lettuce and went to investigate. Their first date was a New Year’s Eve party hosted by coworkers. By May, they were married. Like Erika, Steven had three sons from previous relationships. Justin was four then. In him the new father figure saw a hellion who would suck ketchup from Wendy’s dispensers but still slept with his mother. “He was a spoiled little boy,” Steven says, “but of all the kids, probably the most responsible.”

The family set out for the forgiving climate of Georgia, where Steven had grown up. They found a modest three-bedroom with blue shutters on Wayne Drive, deep in the labyrinthine subdivisions of southeastern Gwinnett. Back then Justin was so chubby, his fellow peewee football players called him “Justin Gaines More Pounds.” One day Justin stomped home in tears. Steven sat him down, knee to knee, and said, “You’ve got to be comfortable with you before anyone else is.” In days Justin was trading soda for water, candy for canned tuna. In a few months, he would have his first girlfriend.

Thirsty Thursday at Wild Bill’s means you have to be eighteen to enter, but twenty-one to drink. Justin isn’t close to being legal, but the fake ID in his pocket claims he is and that his name is Brad Allen. Justin started coming here back in high school, when he and his friend Mike Heiser would sometimes drink in the parking lot. Justin would hardly miss a week.

Inside, more than 2,000 revelers swarm the long bars and the beer tubs. The club is crowded, but you can still weave your way through the dance floor. Just before midnight, Justin calls two friends he can’t see but knows are in the club. It’s loud enough that Justin has to shout to be heard. A few minutes later, he runs into a friend named Clint Ervin, who is sitting with two other guys at a table near the exit. To Clint, Justin seems sober. Certainly Clint is; he has an appointment in the morning and isn’t cutting loose. Clint and Justin peruse the dance floor awhile. After a few minutes, Justin continues on through the crowd.

From somewhere in the cavernous club, Justin starts dialing. He has a habit of calling friends for rides. The first call is to Cassidy, his ex-girlfriend. She doesn’t hear the phone, though; it’s one o’clock in the morning and, with an early class the next day, she’s asleep.

Justin calls other friends, but he can’t seem to reach anyone. He keeps dialing Clint. Just after 1 a.m., he leaves a voicemail. But all Clint can make out is static—a “long message of nothing.” Clint is already gone, anyway, on his way home to Lawrenceville. He figures Justin wants a ride home, but he elects not to turn around. It’s late, after all.

The search’s momentum sputtered. The volunteers moved on. Erika and Steven could not. They converted their carport—a comfy space with a huge U-shaped desk, two mossy aquariums, and a lofty paneled ceiling—into a de facto headquarters. Steven broke a no-tattoo agreement with his wife and had Justin’s likeness etched over his heart. To get Erika to sleep, Steven would slip prescribed Xanax into his wife’s Mountain Dews. Neither of them had ever cared much for booze. So sleep, at first, came with Xanax and Seroquel, an antidepressant. It quelled their nightmares of Justin being brutally murdered.

For a couple of years, Erika did nothing all day. Slept. Kept the world outside and curled in bed. Researchers call it “ambiguous loss,” the idea that the normal grieving process for a loved one is thwarted because the fate of that person is unknown. Erika’s behavior rankled Steven and frustrated their younger kids, but they managed to keep the lights on, the family unit together.

A few years ago, James Lampinen, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Arkansas, recruited twenty-seven family members of missing people to take a six-page survey. The missing people in question had vanished, on average, five years before, so Lampinen was startled to find how profound the symptoms—anxiety, anger, intrusive nightmares—remained for family members. The psychological distress, Lampinen found, was on par with victims of sexual assault and veterans of traumatic combat.

Finally, two years after the disappearance, after Steven had taken to dropping by during lunch breaks to drag Erika from bed, she began to feel strong enough to get herself up. Her daughter had grown tired of having coaches drive her to practices, and the thought of being a bad mother was too much for Erika. Without therapy or drugs, she began the process of societal reentry, of letting loose—not letting go, certainly—for the sake of her family. The trick was to convince herself that happiness was both possible and permissible.

In August 2010, Erika was hired as a sandwich maker at Georgia Gwinnett College. Here was a woman who’d walked buyers through the cavernous home movie theaters of Sugarloaf Country Club, pointing out personal popcorn machines and concession stands. Her hirers caught wind of her experience and suggested she step from the sandwich line into management. “No,” Erika said, “you don’t understand—I just want to stand here and do my job.”

Just five months later, on a cloudy January day, Erika was blindsided by a setback no one saw coming. Something the Gwinnett County Medical Examiner’s Office classified as suicide, but something Steven calls an accident.

About 1 p.m., Erika went to rouse Justin’s nineteen-year-old brother, Jeremy Wilson, a talented artist and introvert who’d just enrolled at Georgia Gwinnett College to study graphic design. The previous night, Jeremy had enjoyed a date with a girl from school, come home, and chatted with his visiting grandmother before bed. He was excited about the video games he’d picked up for a PlayStation Portable his parents had bought him for Christmas. Like his younger sister, Jeremy had difficulty broaching the subject of Justin, but his troubles hadn’t manifested in emotional red flags. When Erika found him, he had a shoelace tied around his neck, holding in place a plastic bag over his face. Police found no signs of drugs in the bedroom. No note, either.

Steven thinks his son had read something on the Internet and was aiming for an oxygen-depleted rush. Erika can’t talk about it, hasn’t come to terms with it, doesn’t understand it, never will.

Around 1:30 a.m., Justin has a brief confrontation with two men. The private investigator will learn this from witnesses, but he won’t find any evidence to support a direct link between it and Justin’s disappearance soon after. A few minutes later, Justin leaves the club. Video will show him walking calmly and alone, between the white pillars near the entrance. No one appears to be following him.

Justin is not the type of guy to spend money on a cab, even if he has the cash. He has friends. But the friends he knows well enough to ask for a ride are all gone.

At 1:58 a.m., he calls Clint for the final time and quickly hangs up when no one answers. Two minutes later, he dials Michael Puga, a teammate from their freshman football days at Brookwood. Neither had been an exceptional player, and they bonded over their shared mediocrity. Now, though, Michael is asleep, exhausted after delivering pizzas around northern Gwinnett for the past nine hours. In the morning, he’ll wake up to two missed calls from Justin and assume his buddy was just looking for a ride home. Michael has heard it before, after all. Once, he left his own party to fetch Justin from Wild Bill’s.

Between 12:55 and 2 a.m., Justin makes twenty-four calls to eleven different people. All of the calls are to people who have either left the club or were never there in the first place. None can give him a ride.

His last call is to Chris Beyers—the friend with whom the night had begun. It is exactly 2 a.m. In bed at his girlfriend’s house, Chris groggily answers his cell phone. He can hear Justin’s desperation but is reluctant to awaken his girlfriend’s father and ask to borrow the car again.

“Chris, I really need a ride,” Justin says, “or else I’m going to have to walk home or stay the night out here.”

“Dude, I really can’t,” Chris says.

Later, Chris will say, “You don’t think something like that’s going to happen. Or else I’d have done it no matter what.”

Back on Wayne Drive, Steven and Erika are asleep. Justin knows Steven sleeps with his cell phone next to the bed in case of emergencies; that although he doesn’t condone drinking, he would keep it mum around Erika, who had dealt with her fair share of hard-drinking men. They had told Justin a hundred times they would pick him up, no matter the hour, no questions asked.

But Steven’s phone never rings.

“I think he didn’t call Steven because he didn’t want to disappoint us,” Erika will say later. “And that haunts me, you know, because nothing the kids do would ever disappoint me.”

The Justin Gaines case is officially cold, yet it retains a pulse in the form of emailed and phoned-in tips—about one per week, some credible, most not. A $25,000 reward for information leading to Justin—money cobbled together with family and public donations—still stands. Justin’s case file is not a file at all, but boxes upon boxes secured in evidence at the Gwinnett County Police Department. Of the thousands of cases worked by the department since its formation in the 1950s, the size of Justin’s file is among the biggest. “The work put into that case is just amazing to me,” says lead detective John Richter, an eleven-year department veteran who has led the investigation since last summer. “It’s a frustrating case for us.”

Police aren’t alone in their frustrations.

No one has logged more hours on the case than Bob Poulnot, the private investigator. At sixty-five, he bears a grandfatherly warmth and easy smile that belie his obsession with finding Justin.

The disappearance moved Poulnot enough that he introduced himself to Justin’s friends in a parking lot during early searches, confident he could find the teen inside a week. He figured Justin’s closeness with his family, freewheeling lifestyle, and extensive network of friends would make understanding him and tracing his whereabouts relatively easy. In the years since, Poulnot has sleuthed leads in South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and across Georgia, racking up more than 200 hours in the case’s first two months, which is when he stopped counting. He’s fielded hundreds of tips, by far the most of any case he’s worked in fifteen years as a private investigator. His services command $125 per hour. He hasn’t charged Justin’s family a dime.

He believes Justin is dead, and that someone intentionally killed him.

“You have to run every lead down,” Poulnot says on a rainy night, in an empty cafeteria. Two steely pens rest in the chest pocket of his blue button-down shirt. Poulnot abides by the biblical parable of the Good Samaritan, which teaches compassion for his fellow man. He believes compassion is a key to life and is primarily responsible for his devotion to Justin’s family. He feels he is doing everything he can to bring resolution. “I’m confident the case is going to be solved,” Poulnot says. “It’s just a matter of time.”

The media posed an early theory to Steven that Justin had run away on his own volition, perhaps to avoid a court date for public intoxication. Justin had been cited when a cop in Athens caught him drunkenly sleeping it off in his SUV’s backseat. His family concedes Justin was no angel, but he was also no deserter.

In the days following Justin’s disappearance, police claimed his friends weren’t cooperating in the investigation. For his part, Chris was initially reluctant to help Gwinnett police, who he felt were being overly aggressive in interrogating his girlfriend.

One friend says the only person who could have had ill intentions toward Justin was a known drug dealer around the off-campus apartments in Athens. In those first months of college, the friend says he and Justin regrettably dabbled in “car­hopping”—pillaging unlocked cars. Someone had suggested targeting the drug dealer’s car, which they thought was surely rife with cash. When Justin approached the car, the dealer was standing on his front porch, which defused the situation.

As for Erika, her theories are fueled by people who reach out to her via the email address and phone number listed on Justin’s website. The tipsters chime in from as far as Bolivia and Peru. Some are psychics and astrologists who’ve invested serious thought; others, bona fide quacks. Erika has learned to keep them on the phone, to coax details, to use motherly, inviting tones instead of screaming back that they are wrong, that they only want the reward. She keeps an Olympus recorder at her desk to capture the theories verbatim. They keep coming.

For a while, an old lady had Justin bound and sequestered in her basement, her boy-toy sex slave. Erika liked that one because it kept Justin alive. Other theories infuse her dreams with images of butchery and violence. “We’ve heard your son’s been murdered,” they typically begin. Then, specifics: Justin was fatally beaten, his skull bashed in, crying for his mom. Sometimes he’s in a lake, a well, buried at a baseball field, left beside a train track; other times, the killers put him through a wood chipper that spit his body fine as mist. Callers have gone so far as to say part of Justin is buried by his mother’s house, to haunt her forever. “Imagine trying to go to sleep,” Erika says, exactly four years since the night Justin vanished, “and you’re going, ‘Was my son really put through a wood chipper?’”

The psychic Erika holds in highest regard, Mary Beth Wrenn of Charlotte, came to Duluth to help with early searches around mud holes and interstate hotels. Her gut told her then, and now, that Justin was sticking up for a girl he was interested in on the dance floor, and that the girl’s boyfriend exacted revenge. Wrenn believes key evidence lay in the back of a big, black van, possibly a Ford Econoline. As for Justin’s remains, Wrenn says her visions suggest murky, swampy water with a high bacteria count. Her mind fixates on Alabama.

“The hardest and saddest part is, it’s been so long that you just can’t remember that person,” says Cassidy, the former girlfriend. “That’s heartbreaking.” The experience has persuaded Chris, a finance major at Georgia Gwinnett College, to accept Christianity, and Justin remains an integral part of his testimony. “Until time does tell,” Chris says, “I just tell myself he’s on an island, on the beach, because that’s where he loves to be.”

Officially giving up for Erika and Steven is only a drive to Gwinnett Probate Court and a $230 fee away. They could file a “Petition for Presumption of Death of Missing Individual Believed to be Dead” in hopes a judge would issue Justin’s death certificate. It’s a process aided by bank and cell phone records, investigative police reports, even newspaper articles—anything that suggests a diligent but fruitless search was executed. That Justin has been missing beyond four years could satisfy the burden of proof.

Besides, Justin already has a grave.

Last January, when Jeremy was buried in the family’s cemetery in Lithonia, Steven’s aunt bequeathed the adjacent plot for Justin. Each time Steven visits, he pockets little piles of $1.27 in change (the price of Jeremy’s beloved QuikTrip fountain drink, with tax) that friends leave on his son’s tombstone. The family could erect one for Justin, too, with an open-ended death date, a physical memorial that Justin’s friends have pined for. They could even host a funeral. They could watch the masses pour in again and formally say goodbye to Justin. Of course, Erika cannot do all that, not anytime soon, as doing so, in her eyes, is tantamount to waving the white flag. And while her boy is missing, there is no word so despicable as surrender.

If you have any information on Justin Gaines’s disappearance, call Gwinnett County Police Detective John Richter at 770-513-5387, or private investigator Bob Poulnot at 770-715-7695.

Nursery Rhymes: MattyB

 Eight-year-old Matthew Morris confesses to having a fear of coyotes and a loathing of spinach, and he answers questions with a focused, “Yes, sir.” But give him a beat and put him in shades and a leather jacket, and he becomes MattyB—a “chyeah”-saying emcee who agilely chirps that he’s hotter than gumbo.

>> VIDEOS: Watch MattyB’s greatest hits

Since his family uploaded a video for his cover of Justin Bieber’s “Eenie Meenie” in 2010, MattyB has scored 70 million YouTube views and garnered face time with Katy Perry and Simon Fuller. He’s recorded a video with Vanilla Ice and performed at Perez Hilton’s birthday party. “A lot of college girls recognize him,” says mom Tawny Morris.

MattyB’s forte is positive, G-rated lyrics over pop hits by stars like Ke$ha and Bruno Mars (skirting copyright laws by pulling no profit). The sentiment usually lands somewhere between adorable and comically ostentatious. But donning a sandy blond mop and dusty Crocs, he downplays the attention as “cool” while acknowledging those who rip him as a wannabe. Says MattyB, “I just shake the haters off.”

Photograph courtesy of mattybraps.com

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