No Earthly Trace

The vanishing of Justin Gaines

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.