"How can a person just disappear?"
It's a question that's been at the forefront of the minds of Cole Thomas's family for nearly two months.
"We've thought and brainstormed every scenario out there," Darla Gatewood, Cole's aunt, told Dateline. "It's baffling."
According to authorities, Cole, whose full name is Christopher Cole Thomas, was last seen on November 25, Thanksgiving weekend, on a trip from his new residence in Minnesota to North Carolina. He was reportedly traveling with two acquaintances he met at his new job. The 22-year-old had been studying Sports Medicine at the University of Florida, but had decided to follow a new path and become an electrician.
In October he had moved from his hometown of Live Oak, Florida for an electrician apprenticeship in Minnesota.
No one in Cole's family had any idea he was making the roughly 17-hour drive to North Carolina that holiday weekend, his aunt Darla said.
"I had invited him to spend Thanksgiving with my daughter and I in Kansas, since it was closer than him having to go to Florida," recalls Darla. "He told me he would have wanted to, but he had to be at work Friday morning so he couldn't really go anywhere."
The last images of Cole show him inside a convenience store in the late hours of November 24 outside Mount Olive, North Carolina. He can be seen purchasing a few beverages, then getting in the driver’s side of a vehicle, according to Darla. Family members said he had been texting with them that night, but there was no mention of his travels.
That is where things get fuzzy.
According to an application for a search warrant, filed by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations, obtained by NBC affiliate WRAL, the men Cole had been with told authorities the three of them had driven to the area "to do a big drug deal." They said once the deal had been made, Cole became paranoid and began driving erratically. He then stopped the car at the intersection of North Elm and East Morgan streets in Benson and ran off. It was sometime around 3:00 a.m.
That information was shocking for Cole's family. It doesn't sound like something the Cole they know would have been involved with. And if, for some reason, he had gone down that path, they still have no idea where he is.
"There are no facts that we know of to base those statements off of," Cole's aunt Darla told Dateline. "Even if drugs were somehow involved, where is he? You don't just run away in the middle of the night and not be found."
The Benson Police Department is investigating, but little information about the case has been released. A call for comment from Dateline was not returned as of Monday afternoon.
Cole's mother and father have temporarily relocated to Benson in their efforts to find their son. The small town has been more than welcoming and supportive. "People there have treated Kathy and Chris like family. People open their doors, restaurants are helping them eat. Everyone has signs up about Cole," Darla said.
Family members are pushing for searchers with the CUE Center for Missing Persons to come in and assist in the case. They want the Mount Olive area to be searched, as they said they are not sure Cole even made it to Benson. But that has not yet happened. Cole's loved ones want to know why, but told Dateline they have not received an answer from authorities.
Whatever the circumstances, they just want Cole brought home. Family members are running the Facebook page 'Find Cole Thomas,' with nearly 3,000 members. There is a $10,000 reward offered by the family for information leading to the direct location of Cole.
They simply want to know where Cole is.
"We need people to know he is missing. We've been told this thing is bigger than just a missing person case. But to us, we just want Cole home," Cole's aunt Darla told Dateline. "Let's get him home."
Cole Thomas is described as 6'1" tall, weighing 230 lbs. with light brown hair and blue eyes.
Anyone with information regarding his whereabouts is urged to call the Benson Police Department at (919) 894-2091 or the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigations at (919) 779-8188.