• Blue shirt discovery raised hopes.
By LISA FARMER and RICK CURL
Of The Record Staff
A Saturday search for the missing Cole Thomas turned up a blue shirt. Mr. Thomas was last seen wearing a blue shirt.
However, hopes were soon dashed when it didn’t appear it was the same blue shirt Mr. Thomas was last seen wearing.
On Sunday afternoon, another possible piece of evidence was found by searchers in Mount Olive and Benson Police were called. This time, it turned out to be animal bones and a tablecloth.
It’s been more than 100 days since anyone’s seen or heard from Mr. Thomas, 22, the Florida man who disappeared from a Benson street the day after Thanksgiving.
He was last seen in the early morning hours of Nov. 25, 2016, at the intersection of North Elm and East Morgan streets running away from the blue Chevy Blazer he had driven along with two passengers.
Saturday morning 18 searchers, private individuals, gathered at the Benson Singing Grove to head out to Sampson County.
They were prepared to look over a swamp area where they had been given permission to search from the landowner.
Before searchers reached the swamp, the blue shirt was found and the search was stopped around 10 a.m. — only the family were allowed to remain. As part of search protocol, officers in Sampson See Search, Page 3
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County were notified about the search in advance.
Benson Police Capt. Greg Percy, who has been heading up the investigation, was called to the scene to examine the shirt.
“He did not believe it was associated with Cole,” Benson Police Chief Kenneth Edwards said.
Chief Edwards said when he got the call about the shirt, “I was hopeful that we would locate him.”
The SBI’s K-9 team was called and finished searching the area. Nothing more was found. The area is private property located off Kenan Weeks Road east of Newton Grove.
Chief Edwards said over the course of dozens of searches, there have been discoveries, but none have panned out.
“On several occassions things have turned up like credit cards that were not connected to Cole. That’s what we believe to be the case here.”
Chief Edwards did not know why the group was searching Saturday in that area. Mr. Thomas and his friends were believed to have traveled from Mount Olive to Benson through Newton Grove on the night Mr. Thomas disappeared.
“This is several miles away from that,” he said.
The Mount Olive location was more plausible.
“On one hand I’m glad it wasn’t him,” Chief Edwards said of Sunday’s bone discovery, “but on the other hand I want to find him very much.”
Diane Wood, a Benson resident who had been searching for Mr. Thomas since Dec. 6, had organized Saturday’s search and had a hand in Sunday’s.
“A lady came to me and asked me to organize it and I did,” Ms. Wood said.
Ms. Wood and many others have not given up hope in finding Mr. Thomas, one way or the other.
“Many of the times I search alone. Most of the time me and one of my friends go out,” she said.
No matter the results of the searches, it was not in vain.
“Anything is a help because it eliminates an area,” she said.
There’s been allegations strewn about indicating a lack of cooperation from the Benson Police and the Johnston County District Attorney’s office when it comes to searching for Mr. Thomas.
Both Johnston County District Attorney Susan Doyle and Chief Edwards have denied those claims.
Chief Edwards went on the record during a board of commissioners meeting in January saying searchers, regardless of who they are, are free to search anywhere they like as long as they have the landowner’s permission.
In the aftermath of the disappearance, several other reports regarding the investigation have surfaced from both law enforcement and non-law enforcement sources.
In a request for a search warrant filed in Wake County in November of 2016 for cellphones of individuals involved in the case, one of the men traveling with Mr. Thomas on the night of his disappearance made allegations of a drug deal and of gunshots being fired in Benson.
According to a report on the website crimeonline.com, Mr. Thomas’ father told Chief Edwards one of the men involved in the case claims to have been worried the gunshots were directed at Mr. Thomas after an encounter with the man who provided Mr. Thomas and his two passengers with three bags of methamphetamine earlier. According to Chief Edwards, neither of those allegations have been confirmed to have taken place.
“There were statements made concerning shots fired,” Chief Edwards told The Daily Record. “However, there have been no confirmation of that claim to date to my knowledge. Chris Thomas (Cole’s father) is the person who directly told me of the alleged shots fired.”
Chief Edwards goes further by saying there is no indication of a drug deal in Benson the night Mr. Thomas vanished.
“There is no evidence nor any suggestion on behalf of any law enforcement officer, that any drug transaction related to the case took place in Benson, North Carolina,” the chief said.
Benson Police did locate a surveillance video of what is reported to be Mr. Thomas and one of the men who was traveling with him from a local business near the intersection where he disappeared.
The family agrees one of the men in the video generally looks like their son.
For now, however, the search continues by both private and law enforcement personnel.
“We are currently and regularly following leads in this case, including any reports of him being seen around the country,” Chief Edwards said. “We are committed to Cole Thomas, and the pursuit of justice, if any, be due him. We uplift him and this family daily and pray for a peaceful resolution.”
Last month Gov. Roy Cooper announced a reward from the state of up to $5,000. It is being offered for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the disappearance of Mr. Thomas.
The offer from the governor’s office is in addition to a $10,000 reward that had previously been established.
Anyone with information concerning the disappearance is asked to call the Benson Police at (919) 894-2091, the SBI at (919) 779-8188 or toll free (800) 334-3000 after hours.