In 2016, Cole Thomas became a North Carolina missing person. His father is still searching for answers.
Unlike most of this podcast, this is not a story about skeletal remains. In this case, no human remains have been found. Cole Thomas is officially a missing person, but his father knows in his heart his son is dead. Imagine if your child disappeared without a trace. Given that there are so many ways of communicating and tracking people these days it’s hard to picture, but it happens. Children and adults seem to simply vanish every single day in America. In this episode we introduce you to a family whose adult son vanished in North Carolina in 2016. You’ll hear the heartbreaking story of Cole Thomas from his father, Chris, and the community advocate who is trying desperately to help this grieving father find his son – alive or dead. Chris Thomas refuses to give up, and he will go to almost any lengths to bring Cole home. Learn more about your ad choices. Visit megaphone.fm/adchoices
DISCLAIMER: This podcast contains frank descriptions of human remains and physical violence. Listener discretion is advised.
Chris: My name is Chris Thomas. Um, my son went missing November 25th, 2016, and, um, we still don't have the justice and we have not found him.
Amanda: But Chris Thomas is pretty convinced his son Cole is dead.
The 22-year-old was an electrical contractor passing through North Carolina on his way from Minnesota to his parents’ home in Florida. On the day after Thanksgiving, November 25, 2016, something happened to him.
Chris: I pulled up in the yard. My wife was on the phone with the police department saying that he was reported missing.
Amanda: Immediately Chris and his wife Kathy headed straight to North Carolina to see what they could do to find Cole.
Chris: We loaded my truck up and I headed to Benson and it was, you know, Thanksgiving weekend. So, you know, what would be a seven and a half hour drive took me about 13 hours.
Amanda: Cole’s case, like so many others I’ve covered, was one where the whole community came out to help search.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Amanda: They have not been able to locate Cole Thomas’ body since he disappeared in November.
Amanda: And still months later, even four arrests later, there’s no trace of Cole anywhere.
With people oversharing on social media, GPS trackers in cell phones and surveillance cameras literally built into doorbells, it’s hard to imagine in this day and age that people just disappear.
In spite of all the scientific advancements we’ve explored in this show, people do disappear all the time. These are some of the most difficult cases for law enforcement, because there’s such little evidence to go on.
In this episode, we walk you through how a case like this unfolds and try to understand what it means for a family to go without any answers.
Chris: I feel like I'm drowning and I can't breathe, but I never get to die. That's what it feels like.
Amanda: From WRAL Studios, this is What Remains: stories of connecting unidentified human remains to the missing and the murdered. I’m Amanda Lamb.
Amanda: As soon as Chris Thomas got off that first call with the police, when they let him know that Cole was missing, Chris immediately tried to figure out what may have happened. He knew the name of one of the men Cole was traveling and working with on the road. He quickly found him on Facebook.
Chris: I mean, it took me like literally 20 seconds and I got on his Facebook page and told him to call me. And he called me within two minutes and started telling me that Cole left with these guys. And, um, that Cole drove them and I think they were going to buy drugs and they used Cole to drive them and he's dead. They killed him is what he told me basically.
Amanda: Police also talked with the people who were traveling with Cole.
And right away it gives investigators a pretty strong sense that something bad has happened. The problem is, while there is some rough sense of how the story unfolded, no one admits to being there when this alleged drug deal went down and Cole got killed. It’s almost like an urban legend that keeps changing depending on who you talk to.
I covered the story for TV as it unfolded.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Amanda: Investigators say this was a drug deal and they stopped in Benson and that’s when Thomas disappeared.
Amanda: The disappearance of Cole Thomas, like many missing person cases, has taken on a life of its own.
Family, friends, even strangers who had never met Cole, started a massive online campaign to help find him and bring him home to his family. There are websites, social media posts, literally hundreds of thousands of things written about this case online.
There are a lot of pictures of Cole that have been circulated. But the one used most often is that of a smiling young man wearing a t-shirt and a dark baseball cap that’s on backwards. He’s grinning at the camera, looks carefree, like he might be on his way to have a few beers with the guys and watch a game.
And that photo was printed on signs asking for the public’s help. They were everywhere in the little town of Benson where he was said to have disappeared. You couldn’t round a street corner without seeing one.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Kathryn Brown, WRAL News Reporter: Posters like this are scattered all around Johnston county with Cole Thomas’ face on it. I spoke with relatives today. They are desperate for closure. Family members tell me they will be back in Benson this weekend, they’ll meet at 7:30 right here at the Singing Grove Saturday morning to search once again for Cole Thomas. They will continue searching and they will not stop searching until Cole Thomas returns home.
Amanda: When Cole first went missing, hundreds of people searched this rural part of North Carolina about 40 minutes from the capital city of Raleigh. They scoured wooded areas, searched lakes and ponds.
They used cadaver-sniffing dogs and trudged through desolate swampy areas to no avail. Almost every weekend for several months, the Thomas family, along with dozens of volunteers, showed up to look for Cole – many of them strangers who had heard about the story online.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Bryan Mims, WRAL News Reporter: They searched with an all-terrain vehicle along the McLamb Tarp Road. They trumped through a soybean field, they walked in the woods, but at the end of another day, the whereabouts of Cole Thomas would remain a mystery. 22 years old he vanished...
Chris: I had friends come up and then I had the CUE organization. They helped us out in the beginning and searched a lot of areas.
Amanda: Monica Caison is head of Community United Effort, the CUE center for missing persons.
Monica: When I first got involved in the case, I said, well, let's get some heavy awareness out there. Let's get the media involved. Let's get some signs out, let people know that he's missing because really nobody knew.
Amanda: Monica has dedicated her life to locating people like Cole who have vanished without a trace. Most of the time families like Cole’s ask her to come in and help them. Sometimes, law enforcement asks for their help. The CUE Center has 15,000 volunteers nationwide and can mobilize a search almost anywhere in the country.
Monica knows that the hours right after a person goes missing are critical. Statistics show that if someone’s not found in the first 48 to 72 hours, the chance they will be found alive goes down significantly.
In Cole’s case, the first goal was to rule out the areas near where police believed Cole ran from the car. Once they did that, they could expand the search. The problem was that no one knew for sure if the story was true. Where exactly was the car when he supposedly ran? And if someone killed him did they just leave the body there or did they move it? There were a lot of loose ends for Monica to consider.
Monica: Cause that's really what search is. You keep continuing to eliminate space and as you gain more information, then you know, you're also developing a search plan, you know, because granted, when he first got missing, everybody thought he ran out, you know, from the car. And then as time went on, different things started to develop.
Amanda: That 72-hour window slowly closed, though police tried to keep the case in the public eye.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Bryan: Chief Edwards stresses this case is wide open and encourages anyone with information to come forward
Chris: You know, I wasn't leaving until I found out some answers.
Amanda: Chris Thomas even lived in Benson for a while in his travel trailer.
At first, police were reluctant to call this a murder investigation… there was no evidence to prove that Cole was in fact dead, much less killed. They needed Cole’s body.
But Chris was absolutely sure his son was dead.
Chris: They started telling me, you know, that they said Cole just jumped out of the car and run off and had a panic attack. And then he's nowhere to be found. I knew a hundred percent right then. I even told the Chief, my son's dead. And he said, well, he may just be off wandering. And I said, no, my son is dead. I kept saying it over and over. And he continued for two or three weeks to say, you know, maybe he's just run off.
Amanda: Then in July of 2017, 8 months after Cole’s disappearance, investigators with the Benson Police Department and the State Bureau of Investigation made a big announcement.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Lynda Loveland, WRAL News Anchor: Today in court we learn for the first time police think Thomas was murdered. Amanda Lamb was in the courtroom and joins us lives with the details, Amanda?
Amanda: Cole Thomas is presumed dead. Again the very first time we’ve heard this from authorities in this case.
Amanda: Authorities had arrested four men in connection with the case.
That’s coming up after the break.
Amanda: The four men connected to Cole Thomas’s case were charged with felony concealing a death and obstruction of justice for lying to police. Not murder. When they appeared in court, prosecutors were pretty tight-lipped about what specifically brought the investigation to this point.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Amanda: No one has been charged with Cole Thomas’ murder even though they say this is murder case and he’s been missing since November 2016. They have not located his body.
Amanda: Investigators hoped this arrest - even on lesser changes - would scare one of the four men sitting in jail to come clean and tell them what really happened that night. And maybe, even more importantly, the suspects might tell them where Cole was.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Bryan: Police Chief Kenneth Edwards says this search was prompted by new information in the case, though he would not say what that information is.
Amanda: At a bond hearing for the men, the prosecutor shed some light on what they had pieced together about what they thought happened. He said the suspects had made a plan to purchase several ounces of methamphetamine. Cole was with them, driving the car. Somehow the drugs were then dumped out of the car because someone got nervous. This created a lot of tension among the group.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Bryan: Two men in the car with Thomas say after the transaction he became paranoid and began driving erratically. Here at North Elm and East Morgan Streets in Benson, the men say Thomas jumped out of the car and ran off.
Amanda: At some point Cole and Jeremy Carpenter leave the car. Jeremy’s one of the electrical contractors Cole was traveling with from Minnesota. Another suspect says he didn’t see anything after that, but he did hear shots, and he also heard that Jeremy may have beaten Cole with a baseball bat. It’s pretty similar to the story Chris heard that very first day from another one of Cole’s work partners.
The prosecutor says Jeremy was the last person with Cole and they believe he has the quote “the ultimate information” about what happened to Cole but that he had “concealed that.”
Jeremy’s attorney said his client had cooperated fully with the investigation and knew nothing about Cole’s death.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE:
Patrick Roberts, Jeremy Carpenter’s Attorney: He too has made several efforts to cooperate with law enforcement. He has traveled from Minnesota and his home state of Alabama on a number of occasions and to meet with law enforcement voluntarily. The most significant fact in his efforts to cooperate is that he was given a polygraph, voluntarily submitted to that and passed that polygraph.
Amanda: But even with these new details and theories, months pass and the case goes nowhere.
Amanda: Chris gets so frustrated and desperate for answers, he ends up bailing one of the suspects out of jail in return for telling Chris what he knows.
Chris: Even the eight months while they were in jail about a month before they got out, I decided to bond one of them out. And in return, find out what happened to my son and where he was at. And it was the hardest thing I ever had to do in my life. But, you know, I'm there to get answers.
Amanda: Did that work, bonding that one person out?
Chris: Not telling where he was at, but knowing what happened to him, yes.
Amanda: Chris says the guy, T.J., told him Cole was beaten and then shot, but he wasn’t there when it happened. He only heard about it later.
Amanda: But they wouldn't tell you where the body was or they didn't know?
Chris: He didn't know. He didn't know. And I truly believe that.
Amanda: Chris now believes Cole’s remains might even be in the next county over from where all those volunteer searches took place.
Amanda: Eventually, in September of 2019, after prosecutors failed to get enough evidence to charge the four men with taking part in Cole’s death, the District Attorney announced that her office was dropping the charges against them.
WRAL NEWS ARCHIVE
Renee Chou WRAL News Anchor: Charges have been dropped against the four men charged in the disappearance of Cole Thomas. Thomas’ disappearance and assumed death is a story we’ve been following for three years now.
Amanda: The judge had warned the DA at previous hearings that the state couldn’t continue to hold the suspects in jail on mere suspicion, that they had already served the amount of time they would have gotten had they been convicted for simply concealing a death.
The bottom line: they needed Cole’s remains to push the case forward. And it didn’t look like they were getting any closer to finding him.
To speak with Chris in person, is like looking at an older version of Cole. I’ve interviewed him several times. He has the same rugged, athletic build, the same sly smile. But his eyes don’t twinkle like Cole’s do in every photograph I’ve ever seen of him. It’s like the search for his son has erased that twinkle.
Chris: You know. I love my kids more than life itself so I would go to the ends of the earth for any one of my kids. I just wish I'd have been there that night to save my son. But unfortunately, I wasn't. And I'm going to keep going. I mean, I know things get busy and, but I've never stopped from the very first day. I never stopped.
Amanda: Cole’s family had refused to give up the search throughout all of this. Chris has returned to North Carolina from Florida hundreds of times. He estimates he participated in about 150 searches, big and small over the past four years.
Chris eventually hired a private investigator to help find Cole. And once the charges against the suspects were dropped, the gloves came off. Chris was willing to fight to keep his son’s disappearance on the front burner. This fueled him even more to work with the private detective to follow every lead they could.
Chris: And I've dug up people's yards with a backhoe.
Amanda: One of the suspects had lived in a rental home at one time with a pretty good sized backyard. Chris got the landlord’s permission to dig up his yard to look for Cole’s remains.
Chris: We searched the whole yard and you know, we found 20 dead animals buried. We found, uh, women's panties and bras buried. I mean just all kinds of stuff.
Amanda: Granted, some pretty weird stuff, but no Cole. And it’s dead ends like this that are the reason why Chris’ eyes have lost their sparkle. You can see it in his face, hardened with grief, hear it in his weary voice. This is not a man who will ever give up looking for his son, but that persistence, it doesn’t come without sacrificing some of himself in the process.
Amanda: Is it harder to not know where he is or to not have the people who did this be held responsible?
Chris: Not know where he is.
Amanda: And you're not giving up though?
Chris: No, no way, no way, uh, till my last breath.
Monica: You have to stay focused on the resolution and once you have the resolution, then you have to help the family begin to heal, and then it’s your time to go.
Amanda: Monica Caison and her CUE Center for Missing Persons have helped around 9,000 families in their search for missing loved ones. She’s seen a lot of cases like Cole’s.
Monica: It's so hard on these families because they can't continue on. They have to have some kind of resolve to be able to heal. Even when there's no justice, at least if they get their loved one back, they can begin to try to heal.
Amanda: When a child goes missing, everyone wants to help. But often, when it’s an adult, the interest peters out quicker. People figure the person probably just left, or did something to deserve his or her own demise. It’s a pretty cynical way to look at it, but that’s how it is.
Here’s the thing, though, everyone is someone’s child…
Monica: I don't care what age the kid is – 4, 14, 40. They are still that child when you talk to that mom or that family member. They're still that child.
Amanda: And look--we know people sometimes make bad choices, they get caught up in things, fall in with the wrong people, struggle with their personal demons, or any number of things, but these cases are just as important as any other missing person case. They’re about the families left behind. I can’t tell you how many family members I’ve talked to who’ve had children go missing. Their pain is so real, so raw, as a parent myself it’s impossible to wrap my head around it, to understand how they’re still functioning, still standing there in front of me able to put sentences together.
Monica: You know, so many families, um, they start out wanting them found safe, you know – found alive, found safe. We're going to end this thing. And then it goes on some time period passes then it's like, I just want them found. Now, okay. Now you, you go ahead and start accepting they’re probably not going to be alive, but now I just want them found. Years later you have a mom saying, I just want you to find one bone. And it's like how freaking hard is it, you know, to give these people some peace?
Amanda: Chris still has hope that someone will eventually tell him the truth about where his son’s remains are…
Chris: I don't, I don't need to know anybody's name. I just want to find my son. And I know there's some people, there's too many people involved so sooner or later, someone, you know, people get drinking and they get to talking. Nobody can be quiet forever.
Amanda: Advances in DNA testing and forensic science have also helped in even the coldest of cases, but the science is no good without new evidence to provide that DNA.
That’s why it’s so important to have people like Monica Caison and her organization who continue to search for people long after police have gone home, and to have families like Cole Thomas’ who refuse to give up.
As hard as it is to believe in this day and age, people still go missing all the time. And their only hope is that someone – a family member, an investigator, an advocate like Monica – cares enough to stay the course on that tough road until it ends.
On the next episode of What Remains… How do you prosecute a murder in court when you don’t have the body of the murder victim.
Amanda: Lorrin, how important is it to have a body when you're prosecuting a murder case?
Lorrin Freeman, Wake County, NC District Attorney: Yeah, I think it's obviously a key piece of evidence ...and certainly, you know, helps to establish that the victim, you know, in fact died as a result of someone else's actions.
Amanda: This episode of What Remains was written by me, Amanda Lamb, and produced by Anita Normanly. Our executive producer was Wilson Sayre who also edited the episode with mixing from Marc Maximov. What Remains was directed by Shelly Leslie. Please subscribe to our podcast on whatever app you use. That makes it easier for us to get you the latest episode. Thanks so much for listening.