SNELLVILLE - Erika Wilson files the thought deep in her mind, way back, to a place that makes her cringe and cry.
But she knows. She doesn't know all the facts, but she knows. Her son is probably dead. And someone probably killed him.
This information is provided by Bob Poulnot, an experienced private investigator who has devoted himself pro bono to the case of Wilson's vanished son, Justin Gaines, the charming 18-year-old who went out to party and never came home. That was nine months ago, before this nightmare fell over Wilson's life like the lid of a black box.
Poulnot, president of Investigative Connections Inc., has tracked "several persons of interest" who he believes are responsible for Gaines' disappearance, he told the Post this week. He has pinpointed a motive, too, though he balks at discussing it publicly.
Against the sincerest hopes of Gaines' family - and the efforts of volunteer swarms that trolled Gwinnett looking for him - Poulnot believes the teen has been murdered and that his body rests in an undisclosed location in Georgia.
"Personally, I believe the case will at some point be changed to a homicide, rather than a missing persons case with suspected foul play," Poulnot said Friday, speaking with the family's permission.
Gaines, a beefy, blue-eyed Brookwood High School grad, was last seen in the early morning hours of Nov. 2 at Wild Bill's nightclub in Duluth. His 19th birthday was March 31, about the time Poulnot's investigation was gaining steam, he said.
Surveillance images at the nightclub show Gaines walking outdoors about 1:30 a.m., talking on his cell phone. At 2:30 a.m., several witnesses claim to have seen him still outside the club, as if in anticipation of a ride, Poulnot said. He thinks Gaines' phone may have died at that point.
Poulnot said he's heard conflicting accounts about Gaines' sobriety at the time, though "from the video, his gait seems even. He did not appear to be intoxicated," Poulnot said. "Based on witness statements, I believe he left at approximately 2:30 (a.m.)."
Poulnot won't publicly discuss his theory for what became of the Gainesville State College student after that. He's confident Gaines' body will be recovered, he said, but he could give no timetable as to when. He has no physical evidence yet to tie anyone to the disappearance, he said.
Witnesses at the nightclub told Poulnot they observed Gaines in a verbal altercation with two black men earlier in the night - a rumor circulated on the Internet in the search's early stages - but that altercation quickly dissipated, he said.
"I have no evidence whatsoever to link these black males with Gaines' disappearance," Poulnot said.
Supervisors with the Gwinnett County Police Department with knowledge of the case declined to be interviewed for this story.
Gwinnett police spokeswoman Cpl. Illana Spellman said the case has been suspended for now, "until any new leads come in." Another police official said investigators had coordinated efforts with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation but had exhausted all clues in Gaines' disappearance.
The department announced in February that investigators suspected foul play, but officials have mentioned little about the case since. Numerous searches for Gaines - including a November campaign with 200 volunteers from a professional recovery outfit in Texas - have been fruitless thus far. This despite $75,000 in reward money pledged by the family and an anonymous donor for information leading to Gaines.
Gaines remains classified as a missing person, which frustrates his family. They worry police have prematurely determined the case as unsolvable.
"In my mind, there's nothing cold about it," Wilson said. "They might be out there working every day. You never know what police are doing."
Home as headquarters
Psychics snuff out Wilson's number and call her frequently. Some are kookier than others, but they tell her the same thing. That Justin is dead. A body in the woods, beside a river.
Wilson spends her days searching, sometimes in circles, for new clues. She's converted the office in her split-level Snellville home to a makeshift headquarters, a vaulted ceiling, two big aquariums and Gaines' smiling visage everywhere (his photo as a chubby infant is especially endearing). She has packed her son's belongings in a downstairs closet, where his scent still wafts. The other day she drove his GMC Jimmy, found his bottle of cologne, doused herself in the memory of him. That was a bad idea. Too much nostalgia at once.
Wilson owns a roofing company with her husband, Steven Wilson, but she hasn't worked - at least not for financial gain - since that first night in November. She's put her real estate license on hold.
"I'd be a horrible real estate agent right now," she said. "My heart's in helping other people."
Wilson recently founded the cleverly named Justin Time Foundation, an effort to supply valuable resources and manpower to people across the United States whose loved ones vanish. The foundation's first fundraiser is scheduled for Aug. 14. It's basically a big public party, the kind of scene her son would flourish in.
Wilson's focus is the first 72 hours after a disappearance. She hopes the foundation can handle everything from making fliers and alerting media to feeding volunteers when tragedy strikes another family. She knows the frantic first hours. She wants to streamline the process for others.
"There was no form to (the search for Gaines), no nothing," Wilson said. "We were out there trying hard, but maybe we could have done it better, with guidance."
Wilson continues to pay her son's cell phone bill, to hear his voice mail message: "This is Justin Gaines." He's the second oldest of a combined family of seven, and his absence has taken a toll on his once-adoring siblings, she said.
"It doesn't get easier. I freak out every day," she said. "During the day, I try to stay focused. When everyone goes to bed, that's my time to vent, to cry."
But she's not snowing herself - she knows the likelihood of Gaines' safe return dwindles each day. She comforts herself in wild hypothesis - he could be locked up, caged by some adoring older lady entranced by his looks, his chiseled physique, she mused - but a harsher reality is more likely, she said.
But, again, she doesn't dwell on the negatives. The nightmare. Instead she keeps the relics of her son close to heart.
"Some days I go over there and just kiss his picture," she said, dabbing at her mascara. "I kiss him daily."
SideBar: If you go
What: Justin Time Foundation benefit
When: 7 to 11 p.m. Aug. 14
Where: Little Garden Event Facility, 3571 Lawrenceville Highway (Ga. Highway 129)
Cost: $35 per person; $60 per couple
Includes: Music, complimentary beer, hors d'oeuvres,
For more information/tickets: Call 404-242-3640 or 678-886-6127 or e-mail email@example.com