UPDATE September 25, 2019:
Charges have been dropped against four men who were once connected to the disappearance of Cole Thomas, WRAL-TV reports.
UPDATE August 14, 2017:
Julian Valles Jr., 34; Anthony Ridell James Jr., 26; and Rudolfo DeLeon Jr., 27, are each charged with one count each of felony concealment of a death in Thomas’s November disappearance, WRAL reports.
A fourth man, Jeremy Carpenter, was arrested in Minnesota and was charged with four counts of obstruction of justice and one count of felony concealment of a death, WRAL reports.
May 15, 2017:
Crime Watch Daily joins in a family's mission to find their missing son.
Cole Thomas's father says he will not rest until his family gets answers about what really happened to their missing straight-A student son.
Crime Watch Daily has surveillance photos from that night that may provide a huge clue.
Cole Thomas, 22, disappeared without a trace on Nov. 25, 2016. The story his traveling companions tell defies belief, only raising deep suspicion among Cole's loved ones.
Cole Thomas is a clean-cut kid with a super-clean record: an honors student in high school, with a scholarship to the University of Florida and a rock-solid family behind him and a young woman who loves him.
But Cole's parents say they were concerned when he suddenly dropped out of college and moved to Minnesota. He was traveling with his friend Steven with plans to work with him as an apprentice electrician.
"We were upset that he decided to take a break from school 'cause he was so close to finishing, but that's what he wanted to do so we supported him in it," said Kathy.
But Cole keeps in close contact with family over the next few months. His Aunt Darla remembers the last time she talked with him a few days before thanksgiving. Later that same week he sent a text to his dad, Christopher Thomas, last Thanksgiving Day.
Early last Thanksgiving morning Cole volunteers to help drive two of his co-workers on a long-distance trip, more than 1,000 miles south from Pine Island, Minnesota to Durham, North Carolina.
His family does not know the men he is traveling with, and they have no idea that he is even on the road.
"He knew both of the guys in the vehicle with him for two and a half weeks, approximately," said Chris Thomas, Cole's father. "I didn't know he was making the trip to North Carolina."
Later that night this chilling surveillance image is recorded in a convenience store in Mount Olive, North Carolina.
It's one of the last times Cole Thomas is seen alive. Three days later Cole's on-again/off-again girlfriend Gabrielle Timmerman says she gets a Facebook message from a mutual friend -- and they are words that that leave her in stunned disbelief.
"She wrote me and she said 'Cole's missing and we think he's dead,'" said Gabrielle. "My heart literally sank to my chest."
Gabrielle gets Cole's family on the phone.
"My mom comes outside on the phone and said that she had gotten a call, that he had went to North Carolina and that he was dead, and I said, 'I don't believe that, I don't feel that, I don't believe that ,'" said Kathy Thomas, Cole's mother.
Moments later, a second call, this time from the police in Benson, North Carolina, about 30 miles from where Cole was seen on that store surveillance video.
"They told me that he was registered as a missing person and I didn't know what to think," said Kathy. "I didn't know what to do. I was shaking."
Cole's dad, arrives home from running errands to his stunned family.
"I knew something was wrong," said Chris Thomas. "And I got out and they said 'Cole is missing. He went missing Friday morning after Thanksgiving from 1 to 3 some time.'"
His parents drop everything and head to North Carolina to search for him, a 500-mile drive on a holiday weekend.
"We weren't thinking the worst, I think we were praying for the best," said Kathy Thomas.
The moment they get to Benson they march straight into the police station at about 3 a.m. looking for answers.
"There was a sergeant on duty that let us in and he immediately starts calling one of the guys that Cole had been with and starts getting information from him," said Kathy Thomas.
"They walked over to the officers and told them that my son got out and had a panic attack, and took off," said Chris Thomas. "They told several different stories in the beginning."
"I don't think they realized how serious it was. I think they just thought it was a man jumping out of a vehicle," said Kathy Thomas.
Just jumped out of the vehicle and disappeared? That's the story Cole's travel companions report to police. But it makes no sense at all to Cole's family.
"They told several different stories in the beginning," said Chris Thomas.
"He wouldn't come back to the car so they sat there and waited on him and he disappeared," said Cole's father Chris Thomas.
But Chris is about to find out it's not that simple -- not by a long shot.
"Supposedly got out of the car, took the keys and had a panic attack and left," said Chris. "But later on we found out that that's not what happened."
Cole's dad is now on a mission to find out exactly what happened to his son, and he's tracked down the last two people known to have seen him: Julian Valles and Jeremy Carpenter, both co-workers at Cole's new job in Minnesota.
They reportedly invite Cole to go home with them for Thanksgiving. But it's more than 1,100 miles away near Durham, North Carolina.
"Originally the story was to go to Thanksgiving with one of the co-workers' family, go to his house for Thanksgiving," said Chris Thomas.
It's about a 17-hour drive and Jeremy Carpenter reportedly doesn't have a driver's license. Friends say Cole wouldn't mind driving, but wonder why he never told anyone at home about the lengthy road trip.
"If those guys asked him to drive a car he probably would. Honestly I didn't even know he was making this trip," said Gabrielle Timmerman. "The last time I talked to him was the day before, and he never mentioned it to me. I think he thought we would get pretty angry if we knew he was so close. So that could be a reason why he didn't mention the trip."
They reportedly left before dawn on Thanksgiving morning. One of the last-known images of Cole Thomas was captured at 11:30 p.m. Thanksgiving from a surveillance camera inside a convenience store 100 miles south of Durham.
"It was definitely him and it showed him in a store in town," said Chris.
From there, the three men reportedly head north again toward Benson, North Carolina, 35 miles away.
"Supposedly headed back to Durham to Julian's house," said Chris.
But Jeremy Carpenter reportedly says they made one more stop along the way -- and what he allegedly tells Cole's dad fills Chris father with fear.
"Julian was going to North Carolina to purchase drugs," said Chris Thomas.
Now Cole's dad is starting to wonder: Was this really a Thanksgiving homecoming, or was his son duped into an organized drug run?
"They got there and picked up whatever they picked up," said Chris Thomas. "Based on what I've been told he was selling drugs on that job in Minnesota and went back to North Carolina to get more."
Chris Thomas finds out Julian Valles is no choirboy. Valles has been in trouble with the law before and has even spent time in jail. Court records in Florida show in 2009 he was charged with conspiracy to traffic in methamphetamines and trafficking methamphetamines. Those charges were dropped, but that doesn't give much comfort to Cole's dad, especially when he claims he talked to Valles on the phone after Cole disappeared.
"He wasn't very cooperative," said Chris Thomas. "Every time I would say something, give him a serious question, he would act like he didn't hear me."
Crime Watch Daily also reached out to Julian Valles and Jeremy Carpenter, but got no response. Police have not charged either one of them with drug-trafficking related to Cole's case.
But Chris Thomas says Jeremy Carpenter told him his son wanted nothing to do with the reported drug deal that night.
"It was supposed to be methamphetamine, supposedly," said Chris.
Cole's dad says his son got caught in the middle of terrifying transaction.
"I believe he went to get drugs. I believe he got strip-searched, and Cole freaked out. They all got strip-searched and Cole freaked out," said Chris Thomas.
Cole's dad says he was told the guys were strip-searched to see if they were wearing a wire or carrying weapons. Once the deal was done, Cole couldn't get out of there quick enough.
"They left after they got the dope. He was nervous and didn't want no part of it, and Jeremy said his hand was shaking on the steering wheel. Cole thought somebody was following them from the guy's house they had just come from, and then Jeremy said 'As we kept driving we thought it was the law, cops.'"
Cole's dad says Jeremy told him Julian Valles was in the back seat holding the drugs while Cole trembled behind the wheel.
"Jeremy looked back there and said 'We'll go to jail if we get caught with this,'" said Chris. "Jeremy said he grabbed it from him and threw it out the window. Cole pulled up to this intersection and was nervous. Jeremy told me him and Cole got out of the car and was walking off. Jeremy was trying to calm Cole down."
After that, Jeremy reportedly says he and Cole got out of the car and left Julian angry in the back seat.
And sure enough, a surveillance camera captures what Chris believes is his son and Jeremy walking through late-night Benson shortly after 1 a.m.
Chris confirmed to police that the man on the right in a still frame from the surveillance tape is indeed his son. And it is the last-known recorded image of Cole Thomas.
"I seen it after they enhanced it, you still couldn't hardly see his face but it was his clothing that he had on in the Mount Olive surveillance video," said Chris Thomas.
According to Chris, Jeremy says that they keep walking until they stop near a church. And that's where the story spirals into the realm of the unknown.
"He said, 'Cole had to use the bathroom, I went around the back of the church to get on my hands and knees and pray,' and I said 'Pray for what?' He said 'Because I threw the dope out the window and these ain't good people,'" said Chris. "He got up, went around to the front of the church to look for Cole, he didn't find him, so he said 'Well, maybe he went back to the car,' so Jeremy said he started walking back towards the car and about five minutes into his walk, he heard two gunshots.
"He said 'I hope that ain't what I think it was,'" said Chris. "And I said, 'What'd you think it was?' And he said 'Well I thought maybe somebody shot Cole.'"
Chris says he believes much of Jeremy is telling him about what happened to Cole.
"He said 'I got about a block from the car, Julian seen me and he said "Hey, where the hell you all been? If my boys had seen you out here in this neighborhood it wouldn't have been good and there wouldn't have been nothing I could do about it."' He told me right then, 'Mr. Chris, I'm telling you I know that them boys come to that neighborhood and done something to Cole. I just didn't see it.'"
For now that's the only account Chris Thomas has about the last time his son was seen.
"I know them guys have done something," said Chris Thomas. "It's just a matter of time."
But Jeremy has a lot of people on his Facebook page who seem to believe he knows more than he is revealing.
Chris Thomas is hoping to hear a lot more -- from anyone.
"I know something's happened to him," said Chris Thomas.
"I think Cole is dead because he hasn't talked to anybody in five months, he's been missing for this long," said Gabrielle Timmerman.
"I would just like to be told 'We checked into this and we ruled this out.' You know, something, just anything," said Chris.
But Cole's family and several newfound friends in Benson are staying on the case and busy searching the area around Benson from top to bottom for any sign of Cole Thomas.
"I'm a diehard for everybody has a chance to still be some kind of miracle story, and without a body you still have hope," said Monica Caison, CUE Center for Missing Persons. "If he is deceased, which a lot of people believe he is, he needs to be found. He deserves to be found."
They are determined to get answers.
Chris Thomas says he has only one objective.
"I just wanna find my son. I just wanna know where he's at. Somebody please tell me where he's at. And I'm not going to stop searching," said Chris Thomas.
In an email response to Crime Watch Daily, Benson Police Captain Greg Percy says they have extensively interviewed both Jeremy Carpenter and Julian Valles, and they have been cooperative. But police are not releasing many details while the investigation is underway, and were not immediately naming any suspects.