GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. -- Ten years ago, on the evening of November 1, a young man from Gwinnett County was looking forward to a night out. No one would have imagined that once he left that evening, he would never return.
It is one of metro Atlanta's most infamous mysteries, now a decade long, and counting-- whatever happened to Justin Gaines?
The case pops up in the news from time to time as investigators follow new tips and leads.
They have some theories.
Justin’s mother, after all this time, still hopes for the answer.
11Alive reporter Jon Shirek and photojournalist Stephen Boissy dug deep into the case files to discover what may be next in the investigation.
A mother's hope
"I still have hope, at that point, that he could still walk in that door."
Justin's mom's hope has lasted a decade so far-- a mother's hope is everlasting. Erika Wilson dreams of what her then-teenaged son would be like now… if he walked through her door.
"I mean, in ten years he would have graduated from college. What would he be doing? It's hard to see, you know, to realize everything he's missed. Like our oldest son's wedding. His first niece being born, his sister graduating from college," she said.
Justin Gaines vanished early one morning...very early on November 2, 2007.
He was 18, a college freshman having a night out and having fun at Thirsty Thursday, a huge party at Wild Bills--then a popular night club in Duluth.
He was there--
Then he wasn’t.
"At the club that night there were over 3,000. And somebody knows who he left with, what happened," Wilson said.
Bob Poulnot, a private investigator, shared why they have hope.
"At this point we believe we know what happened to Justin Gaines but cannot find the body," he said.
Poulnot began working the case for Erika Wilson soon after Justin disappeared. Ten years later, he is still on the case. Poulnot is retired--but not from this case. It's his last one.
"There's enough information or evidence that we have gathered over the years that keeps us going. Knowing at some point there’s a good possibility of it being solved," he said.
Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office Investigator Lt. Colonel Carl Sims told 11Alive News the case is anything but cold. A few weeks ago, for example, his office worked a new tip, searching a property in Barrow County.
"But as long as we keep pushing, as long as the leads keep coming in, we're gonna keep working it and working it as hard as we can," Lt. Col. Sims said.
Timeline of Justin Gaines disappearance
Here’s the timeline investigators have pieced together, a working theory of what might have happened to Justin Gaines:
Their theory is this--
Inside Wild Bills, people see Justin showing cash, wearing a diamond earring.
Outside Wild Bills, someone lures Justin into a car, possibly with a blonde woman wearing a black dress.
They drive south on Pleasant Hill Road, to a house in Snellville.
Investigators believe that the house was crowded--lots of witnesses, there.
As soon as Justin gets out of the car and walks into the garage, someone attacks him—beats and chokes him, and shoots him to death.
And takes his money and jewelry.
His attackers drive his body to Lake Lanier, to a houseboat.
They attach weights to his body and throw it into the dark, November-cold deep.
But Justin’s body floats to the surface a few days later. So they load up his body again and drive possibly to Barrow or Walton County. This time they drop the body into a well somewhere along the Appalachee River.
That is the general theory of investigators, as of now.
One of the people police questioned is a man named Dylan Glass. In 2014, Glass pleaded guilty to a long list of State and Federal drug charges, and he started singing.
Lt. Col. Sims has a photo of Glass inside a Gwinnett County pawn shop, taken on the morning of November 2, 2007, right after Justin's pre-dawn disappearance.
"This is a photograph of Dylan Glass the day after Justin Gaines went missing, wearing almost an identical earring. Of course the photos aren't that great, but if you look at it like this and compare them, you're gonna see this earring is pretty much the same as this earring. Dylan Glass has told me, and has confessed in his own way, he said that he took that earring out of Justin's ear the night that he was killed," Sims said.
But Glass has not been charged in this case.
“When it gets right down to it, when we ask where the body is and we try to put closure to it, he's lied. And we catch him in another lie. He's not credible," Lt. Col. Sims said.
No credibility, but he is one of the people police know is somehow tied to Justin’s disappearance.
Investigators have searched multiple properties in Walton and Barrow Counties. Nothing. They’ve recovered the earring but couldn't find any of Justin's DNA on it. The houseboat and van are gone forever. The owner of the van, boat and house who was possibly involved that night died, just a few months ago.
All of that has been testing a mother’s hope to its limits.
"Yeah it's a fear that people would forget about him. You know, stop looking for him. Because, I mean, new things happen, people go missing every day," Erika Wilson said.
But Bob Poulnot and Carl Sims are saying there’s no way they’ll forget. They'll keep the case red hot, as long as they can.
The scorching sun of a mother’s hope— everlasting.
Sometimes, Lt. Col. Sims pointed out, unsolved murders catch a break like the case of the missing school teacher, Tara Grinstead, in South Georgia.
"It took that one break to push it over the edge. There's somebody who knows how Justin Gaines got in that car that night. How did he leave Wild Bills that night? If somebody could tell me that. That would give me a whole fresh start as to where I need to go," Sims said.
And there is this
During 11Alive's interviews, investigators revealed that in the days immediately following Justin's disappearance, a woman--possibly middle aged, possibly a mother--called an anonymous tip line. She talked about a man who lived near the intersection of Pleasant Hill Road and Club Drive, who she thought was involved in Justin's case.
That's one, possible, additional piece of this incomplete puzzle.
If you are that woman, investigators would love to hear from you again. You can call that same anonymous tip line at (877) 270-9500 or call the Gwinnett County Sheriff's office at (770) 619-6500.
For Justin. For his mother…and for her hope for answers.