On the day after Thanksgiving, at 3 in the morning, Cole Thomas disappeared in the middle of Benson – a town where he had no business and didn’t appear to know a soul.
He came into Benson the same way many people do: pulling off Interstate 40 on a long road trip. A Florida native, he’d been working as an electrical apprentice in Minnesota, and he was riding that night with two other men from the job. But for reasons that baffle his family, the 22-year-old Thomas stopped the car in an ordinary residential neighborhood, jumped out and vanished into the night.
The spot where he ran offers no obvious clues. The corner of North Elm and East Morgan streets stands about seven blocks from the interstate, and very near the police department, but it doesn’t have any gas stations or convenience stores that a driver might need. It’s not the place for an out-of-state traveler needing a pit stop.
But after more than two weeks, all that remains of Thomas is a police description: 6-foot-1, 230 pounds with brownish blond hair and a swirling tattoo covering his left shoulder and chest.
“The worst part is not knowing,” said his father, Chris, 43. “I don’t care if they’re 10 or 22, they’re still a kid. And he was a kid. He was harmless and had a big heart. He was smart. He was fun to be around. Everybody liked him.”
His father heard about Thomas’ disappearance on the Sunday after Thanksgiving, and he drove straight to Benson from Florida, his Facebook posts becoming increasingly desperate.
“Daddy here in benson NC,” said the first. “If u see this please contact me or ur mom.. I love you more than life itself, please please call me and I'll will get u.. I am gonna look first thing in the morning hard as I can.. dear lord I pray my son is found.”
And then, a few days later: “I love u so much buddy! I am slowly losing my sanity.. please someone bring him home.”
Chris Thomas has spent the last two weeks in a motel, unable to work at his welder mechanic’s job for Duke Energy. More than $4,000 has been donated to offset his expenses through a page at gofundme.com, and a reward for information on Thomas’ disappearance is set at $10,000. Among the dozens of pictures of Thomas now spanning Facebook, the most heartbreaking is a shot of his younger brother Zach holding a sign that reads, “Please help find my big brother ... I miss him.”
Thomas said he talks to Benson police and the State Bureau of Investigation several times a day, but the biggest challenge is to avoid staring at the motel walls and turning scenarios over in his mind. He does not know the two other men in his son’s car. He has no idea why they were in Benson – only that they were on the way to Durham. Jumping out of a car is not behavior that fits his son’s profile, nor is going more than two weeks without word.
“He texted me on Thanksgiving day,” Chris Thomas said. “He told me he loved me and I said, ‘I love you, too.’ ”
When we spoke Friday, Thomas described his son as an A-student who had an associate’s degree before he finished high school. But he left the University of Florida shy of a four-year degree. “He was trying to figure out what he was going to do,” his father said.
There are details his father couldn’t share with me, and being a father myself, I didn’t pry. Two weeks spent looking for a missing child must feel like an eternity of torment, and I admire Chris Thomas for keeping his calm and persistent vigil.
“I hope he’s out there,” he said. “Cole never did like to be by himself.”
Authorities ask anyone who may have seen Christopher Cole Thomas or who has information about his location to contact Chief Kenneth Edwards or Capt. Greg Percy at the Benson Police Department, 919-894-2091, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.