About three dozen people gathered Tuesday night in Benson to light candles and pray for a man most of them have never met.
Benson’s role in the disappearance of 22-year-old Cole Thomas, said to be bound for Durham from Minnesota for Thanksgiving, remains unclear, but residents here said they feel their town could have been any other town and Thomas their own son.
“I have a kid; this could be my kid,” said Marchelle Raynor, who organized Tuesday’s candlelight vigil. “When I was growing up, my grandmother would say that a neighborhood raised a kid. Even though they’re from Florida, they’re still our neighbors. It’s really time America starts back loving their neighbors.”
The account released by the Benson Police Department is that Thomas, a Florida native traveling from Minnesota to Durham with two work acquaintances, jumped from the car he was driving through Benson at 3 a.m. Nov. 25 and disappeared. The two other people in the car searched the area around Morgan Street in Benson and then reported him missing. In the 51 days since, Benson police say they have conducted 27 searches and, with the State Bureau of Investigation, have logged more than 1,500 hours searching for Thomas.
On Tuesday, connected by nothing more than tragic geography and a parent’s heartache, Benson residents stood beside Thomas’ parents, Christopher and Kathy, holding candles and singing “Amazing Grace.” The Thomases have been in Benson for nearly all of the 51 days since their son’s disappearance and accepted a donation from a church to help with hotel expenses.
“We went home for Christmas, because we have a younger son; it was just miserable,” Kathy Thomas said. “I can’t even describe to you how bad Christmas was without Cole.”
It’s a seven-hour drive from Benson to Live Oak, Fla., and, while far from home, Raynor said she organized the vigil in an effort to show the Thomases that people here care about their struggle.
“I can’t sleep because I see Cole in my head,” Raynor said. “I don’t know what happened. I don’t know anything about the case. But what I do know is it could be your kid and it could be my kid and we could be walking in their shoes. We need to stand by them. ... Something’s not right; this kid needs to come home.”
Nadine and Michael Raines, who drove up from Live Oak for the Benson vigil, said their son grew up playing sports with Cole.
“My heart just led me here; it’s been weighing heavy on me since Thanksgiving,” Nadine said. “(Cole) was amazing, driven, a great student, focused on success, a tremendous friend, athlete; he loved people, kids, encouraged other children. Cole was one of my son’s first friends when we first moved to Live Oak, meeting on the county rec teams; we lived down the road from him. This is not Cole.”
Raynor encouraged those in attendance to search their properties for Cole or for anything out of the ordinary. She also urged those in attendance to share information on social media in hopes that someone might come forward. Benson Town Manager Matt Zapp said that’s most likely what will break the case.
“Our heart just bleeds for (the parents),” Zapp said. “Every aspect of law enforcement is being exhausted. It’s going to take additional pleadings with someone who knows his last whereabouts, or alternative circumstances could exist.”
The struggle for many is reconciling the bizarre circumstances of Thomas’ disappearance, the abrupt flight from the car, vanishing into the night. Though nothing has turned up yet in searches, people know he’s out there.
“I have a grandson who’s 21 years old; I can’t imagine what this family is going through,” Lois Grissom said. “My first reaction when I heard about this, if he jumped out of a vehicle and ran, he has to be somewhere.”