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Five years since teen vanished, answers are few, hurt persists

Staff Photo: John Bohn Erika Wilson, of Snellville, posses for a portrait while holding a portrait of her son, Justin Gaines. Gaines, a Brookwood High School graduate, disappeared five years ago at the age of 18.

Staff Photo: John Bohn Erika Wilson, of Snellville, posses for a portrait while holding a portrait of her son, Justin Gaines. Gaines, a Brookwood High School graduate, disappeared five years ago at the age of 18.

SNELLVILLE -- Five years since he vanished, Justin Gaines is a popular tattoo subject.

His brother, Jordan McCourt, bears a "JG" on his shoulder, while brother Alex Wilson opted for a long "HOPE" woven with a rosary. His stepfather, Steven Wilson, had Gaines's smiling visage, captured in a senior portrait, inked over his heart. The granddaddy of symbolic, memorial tats belongs to Justin Peterson, a friend from childhood, whose rib cage hosts a large portrait of Gaines and the "Dead Man's Hand," the poker hand Wild Bill Hickok held when he was famously and fatally shot in South Dakota.

Peterson observed: "It's pretty intense."

The ink speaks to the impact Gaines had on each of their lives, and their commitment to preserving his memory. Five years is no antidote to grief when so many questions remain. But those still searching for Gaines have hope in the form of new leads, and the veracity of old ones.

Gaines, a gregarious Brookwood High School graduate, was an 18-year-old freshman at Gainesville State College's Athens campus in 2007 when he came home to Snellville for a night of revelry with friends. He was last seen in the early morning hours of Nov. 2 outside Wild Bill's, the massive Duluth nightclub, making desperate calls to friends for a ride. His last call was at 2 a.m. He hasn't been seen or heard from since.

Friends, family and volunteers devoted hundreds of hours to a laborious search for Gaines that continued for months and covered most of Gwinnett County. No physical evidence was found, and Gaines is still classified as a missing person, not a crime victim. His kin have accepted that he is probably dead, and could have been murdered. They can't fathom why.

Ever the searcher, Gaines' mother, Erika Wilson, 43, said Friday her heart still jumps when she hears or reads of a body being recovered anywhere in North Georgia.

"I know he's dead, but he shouldn't be gone," said Wilson, tears smudging her mascara. "I understand people are scared (to speak with authorities), but we're hurting."

In the weeks leading up to the fifth anniversary, the pain manifested in Erika in the form of crippling headaches. She picked her fingertips raw. She and her husband still struggle with sleep. In five years, they haven't been on vacation or even to a movie.

"Our values have changed," Steven said. "We'd just as soon sit home and spend time together."

Added Erika: "Things that used to bother me -- traffic, sports, non-English speaking people -- those are nothing. The world has bigger problems."

Tips trickle in

Despite the case's age, Gwinnett police spokesman Cpl. Jake Smith said tips come in to investigators on a regular basis, though not once a week as in recent years. All information is probed, and a seasoned detective still heads the investigation. None of the leads this year have led to significant developments, Smith said.

That's not to say the tips weren't valuable.

Private investigator Bob Poulnot, 65, has logged hundreds of hours on a pro bono basis for Gaines' family, and recently while battling intestinal cancer. A few weeks ago, he received a promising phone tip, as did the mounted search organization Texas Equusearch, which assisted in early ground searches.

The phone call to the Texas search outfit is directly related to an anonymous call they received from a woman on Dec. 17, 2007. The 2007 tip was followed, but Poulnot said investigators didn't quite have enough information, and the woman left no name or contact information. Poulnot won't discuss the content of either call.

"These two callers are not the same person, but the information is connected," he said. "I'm trying to assure (the caller from 2007) that she can remain anonymous. She sounded very credible and concerned about Justin Gaines. This is one of those tips we know is legitimate."

Poulnot said the investigation continues on several fronts and has led to rare collaborations between departments. An investigator with the Gwinnett County Sheriff's Department has been assisting Poulnot, he said.

"I never dreamed that it would take this long to resolve the case," Poulnot said Friday. "Not finding Justin Gaines has not been for a lack of effort."

But with every lead comes the potential for disappointment.

"You get tired of being built up and let down," Steven Wilson said.

Memories persist

In high school, Gaines settled into a group of good-natured hooligans known in their circle as The Five Amigos. He was the charming beefcake of the bunch. They met ritualistically to play poker (until dawn) after Friday night football games. They built an arsenal of PVC-pipe potato guns and dry-ice water-bottle bombs.

"Honestly, back in high school, we were pretty destructive," laughed Peterson, now a Gainesville State College business major and collegiate wake-boarder.

High school friend Ben Schaefer recalled musing over the travel possibilities of RVs with Gaines at Bass Pro Shops. The plan was to save cash, graduate high school, buy an RV, and set out on an aimless American road voyage. "I think we were just going to drive," said Schaefer.

Gaines's freshman biology teacher at Brookwood, Kim Hamman, said the pall that followed his disappearance has morphed over the years into a positive reminder for students that life is valuable, if not fleeting. She said Gaines is fondly remembered.

"I don't think Justin ever met anyone who he didn't treat as a friend," she said. "He always had such a bubbly disposition."

Erika still calls Gaines "my world" and surrounds herself with framed photos of him and a box of cards offering condolences. At 23, she wonders, would her son be married, have a college degree and a "big-boy job?" Would he have made her a grandmother?

"I think this day, every year, makes people want to find him," she said of the anniversary. "I just think he deserves the decency to be brought home."

Gainess English 1101 essay, dated Aug. 29, 2007, makes clear the adoration was mutual:

"After the divorce, my mom and I only had each other," Gaines wrote. "I relied on my mom a lot and always wanted to be with her ... Even though my mother worked two jobs, we still barely could get by. She still did everything she possibly could for me. She was always my idol ... "

A $25,000 reward for information leading to Gaines or a criminal conviction in his case remains active.