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Georgia mother still looking for answers in son Justin Gaines’s 2007 disappearance

The 18-year-old went out for a night of fun at a club called Wild Bill’s in Duluth, Georgia. He never made it home.

In 2007, 18-year-old Justin Gaines was a college freshman at the then-Gainesville State College. “He loved it. He would always update me on how he was doing,” Erika Wilson told Dateline about her son. In one of his first assignments for his English class, Justin wrote a paper about how his college experience was going so far. “In his paper he said he hoped he did well so one day he could take care of his mom — like me and my husband took care of him,” she said.

Justin was born in Westlake, Ohio. When he was 6, his family moved to Snellville, Georgia — a quaint suburb just east of Atlanta.

Justin grew up in a big family. As the second oldest of eight siblings, he always had someone around to play with. “They always loved to play games, go swimming, go out exploring,” Erika said. The family enjoyed camping and taking trips to Myrtle Beach, too. “We just always had a good time,” Erika added.

Justin Gaines on his graduation day with some of the members of his family.
Justin Gaines on his graduation day with some of the members of his family.Erika Wilson

Erika told Dateline that when it came time to enroll in college, Justin knew he wanted to stay close to home, where his friends and family were. Gainesville State College — now the University of North Georgia — is located in Oakwood, about an hour’s drive from Snellville.

Just a few months into his freshman year, Justin vanished.

It was Thursday, November 1, 2007, and Justin headed home to Snellville for the weekend. He had plans to hang out with his family and to make some extra money helping his stepdad, Steve, clean gutters. Erika remembers an interaction with her son just hours before he went out for the night. “I remember him picking up two shirts and asking my husband, ‘Hey, which shirt should I wear tonight for the ladies?’” Erika recalled.

She told Dateline that later that evening, Justin was picked up by his friend Chris, who then dropped him off at a nightclub called Wild Bill’s about half an hour away in Duluth. Erika said Justin was familiar with Wild Bill’s. “When he was younger, he would go up there sometimes for teen night on Sundays,” she said.

She said Justin went into Wild Bill’s alone that night, because his friend Chris didn’t have a pass to access the club. But that didn’t stop Justin. Erika said her son was very sociable and made friends easily. “He could walk up to a stranger and hold a conversation for hours,” she said. 

Erika told Dateline the bartenders at Wild Bill’s knew Justin and throughout the night, he was captured on the club’s security camera.

That security camera even captured the last moments before Justin’s disappearance.

It was around 1:30 a.m. on Friday, November 2, 2007.

Justin was seen standing outside of the club. Erika told Dateline that according to his phone records, Justin was calling friends to ask for a ride home.

When Justin didn’t come home that day, Erika said that initially she wasn’t too worried, thinking maybe he was just hanging out with his friends.

Erika Wilson with her son, Justin Gaines
Erika Wilson with her son, Justin GainesErika Wilson

But when Saturday came and Justin still hadn’t come home or returned her calls, she thought something might be wrong. She called Justin’s friends to ask if they had heard from him. They hadn’t, but they told her not to worry.

“In my mom heart, I just knew that something wasn’t right,” Erika said.

By Monday morning — November 5, 2007 — even Justin’s friends were concerned and calling Erika to see if she had updates. Justin was supposed to have given his friend Chris a ride back to school, but never showed up. His wallet, car, and identification were all still at his mother’s house. 

Erika had access to Justin’s school portal, so she checked it and saw that he hadn’t turned in an assignment that was due Monday morning. She said Justin was adamant about turning in his work on time, and not doing so was out of character for her son.

Friends and family gathered at the Wilsons’ house to pass out missing person flyers on Monday, November 5. They drove around the area surrounding Wild Bill’s looking for Justin. “We checked in dumpsters and all the area for any signs,” Erika said. But they found nothing.

As the week went on, the search party grew bigger. They had maps, a command center, and the help of a private investigator — but still no sign of Justin. Their search around the area continued every day for months, Erika said.

The Gwinnett County Police Department led the initial investigation into Justin’s disappearance. Erika told Dateline that investigators have received dozens of leads over the years and have a few theories about what happened to Justin — one being that he may have gotten a ride from the wrong person that night. “Some people do say he got into a black vehicle,” she added.

Investigators shared their working theory with 11Alive, NBC’s Atlanta affiliate, back in 2019. They believe Justin, who was wearing a diamond earring and flashing cash, caught the wrong person’s attention that night in Wild Bill’s. They believe that Justin may have been offered a ride by a blonde woman and was then taken to a house in Snellville, where he was robbed and shot to death. Then, they think that his body was dumped into Lake Lanier, but floated up a few days later, so the suspects then drove his body to another county to dispose of it in a well. However, the Chief Deputy of the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department told 11Alive that the hard part about all the theories is figuring out: “Are they credible?”

Nearly sixteen years later, the search for Justin continues. The Walton County Sheriff’s Department is now leading the investigation. Dateline spoke with Investigator Michael Rising, who has been involved with Justin’s case since February 2022. Investigator Rising told Dateline that the theories about what happened to Justin have remained relatively the same. “One theory is that he was interested in a girl that was someone else’s girlfriend, and that upset some people, and got in his face. The other theory is that he appeared as though he had some cash, he was wearing a nice earring, and the robbery may have been a motive,” he said.

Through the years, police have developed persons of interest, but no one has been held responsible for Justin’s disappearance yet.   

Investigator Rising told Dateline that the department constantly receives leads regarding Justin’s case. “I’ve got about three now that I feel good about,” he said. 

Justin Gaines
Justin GainesErika Wilson

Erika told Dateline that all the family wants now is closure. “It’s not even about arresting someone anymore, it’s just about bringing him home and having closure,” she said.

Justin would be 34 years old today. Justin was 5’11, 210 lbs. at the time of his disappearance, with blue eyes and brown hair. He was wearing a gray Abercrombie long-sleeve shirt and ripped blue jeans.

Erika told Dateline that the family received an anonymous donation of $25,000 to offer as a reward for any information leading to an arrest in Justin’s case. 

Anyone with information about the disappearance of Justin Gaines is asked to contact Walton County Sheriff’s Cold Case Investigator Michael Rising at 770-266-1558.

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to correct the contact information for Investigator Rising.