A search continued late Wednesday for the body of a missing Gwinnett County teenager, but lawmen expressed confidence the information leading them to the Walton County location might solve the 8-year-old mystery of what happened to Justin Gaines.
Nearly 50 law enforcement officers gathered for the third day at a site along the Apalachee River in the High Shoals community, where they searched a forested area riddled with wells, crumbling structures and a canal left from a 19th century town.
But they approached this search with an air of confidence.
“I’ve been confident so many times that it’s hard to be confident, but we’re hoping, and I think, we’re close to solving this case,” Gwinnett County Sheriff Butch Conway said while surrounded by news media from Athens to Atlanta.
The key evidence was provided by an unidentified woman.
“We finally got in the right situation where this person felt like they had to talk,” Conway said about the woman, who was brought to the location Wednesday morning. She is being lodged in the Walton County Jail on charges unrelated to the Gaines disappearance, authorities said.
Gaines, who was a freshman at Gainesville State College (now University of North Georgia), was last seen in November 2007 in front of Wild Bill’s nightclub in Duluth. Over ensuing years, officers searched several locations for Gaines’ body, including a well in Dacula last year.
Investigators believe the key “players” in Gaines disappearance are from Walton County, according to Conway, who has been working closely with Walton County Sheriff Joe Chapman.
There are several suspects involved in the disappearance of Gaines, Conway said.
“I’ve never seen a case like this where you’ve had so many involved and nobody has talked over such a long period time,” the sheriff said.
Due to the publicity, the suspects would know if law enforcement is close to finding the body, but Conway was not concerned.
“They can run, but we will find them,” he said.
Chapman said Conway contacted him about three years ago in regards to the case because the investigation led officers to believe the prime suspects resided in Walton County.
“He has not let this go. He’s like a pit bull on this Justin Gaines case,” Chapman said. “A lot of people don’t have the tenacity he does.”
Conway said the suspects are familiar with the search area, located along Georgia Highway 186. While the location is sparsely populated today, it was once a bustling town in the 1800s when the High Shoals Manufacturing Co. was in operation. The mill, which was built in 1848, burned in 1928 and the town’s population began to dwindle. The property was recently owned by the late Gaynor Bracewell, who lived across the river in Oconee County. Bracewell’s daughter, who inherited the property, gave law enforcement officials permission to bring in heavy machinery to clear paths to the key locations, authorities said.
Searchers had examined three wells by Wednesday, one which was still being pumped of water late Wednesday. In addition, a canal, which draws water off the Apalachee River and supplies a small power plant, was being searched by officers with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
A submersible submarine equipped with a camera and sonar unit was deployed in the canal’s water. The equipment is often used to search for drowning victims and other articles, according to DNR Cpl. David Allen of the Thomson office.
“The area, as you can see, is extremely complicated. A lot of water sources here. A lot of moving water,” said Lt. Col. Carl Sims, who is the lead investigator in the Gaines disappearance.
But Sims said the manpower gathered for this operation is worthwhile.
“We believe the information is credible,” he said. “Obviously we wouldn’t spend these resources, time and effort. (But) it’s not based on one person’s statement. It’s a totality of the investigation.”
Follow writer Wayne Ford on Facebook at www.facebook.com/WayneFordABH.