By RICK CURL
Of The Record Staff
Another layer in the mystery of a missing Florida man was peeled back this week in Johnston County Superior Court.
Assistant District Attorney Paul Jackson told Superior Court Judge Kendra Hill that the state believes Mr. Thomas was murdered on Nov. 24, 2016.
The statement came during the first of two bond-reduction hearings for suspects Jeremy Carpenter and Anthony James.
Both are charged with obstruction of justice and failing to report or concealing a death. Both charges are lower-class felonies.
“I’m asking the court to look beyond the class of charges, because these charges arise out of extraordinary and tragic circumstances,” Mr. Jackson said. “They involve what the state believes to be the murder of Cole Thomas.”
Following the hearings, Chris Thomas, the victim’s father, said they were another step closer to finding his son.
“I think it went well,” he said. “I’m just waiting for the rest of it. I want to find out what happened to my son. That’s what I want to find out.”
When asked if he or any of his family had been told of the state’s belief that their son had been killed, Mr. Thomas said, “No, not at this moment.”
When asked if he had any thoughts on what happened the night his son disappeared, Mr. Thomas would only say, “I’d rather not comment right at this second.”
What the state believes happened
The assistant district attorney described the circumstances surrounding Mr. Thomas’ death from the viewpoint of the state in the opening stages of Mr. James’ hearing.
The events took place Nov. 24 of last year and, to date, no trace of Mr. Thomas has been found.
Mr. Thomas was last reportedly seen at an intersection in Benson where he reportedly ran off and left behind two passengers.
Extensive searches have produced no results or significant evidence as to Mr. Thomas’ whereabouts.
“ … These charges arise out of extraordinary and tragic circumstances …
They involve what the state believes to be the murder of Cole Thomas.”
— Johnston County Assistant District Attorney Paul Jackson —
The state claims Mr. Thomas and his two passengers — Mr. Carpenter and Julian Valles of Mount Olive — were in North Carolina to purchase methamphetamine, allegedly from another man indicted in the case, Rudolfo DeLeon.
Mr. DeLeon, who’s bond-reduction hearing was postponed until Sept. 5, currently sits in the Johnston County Detention Center under a $1.5 million secured bond.
Mr. Jackson told the court the state believes the three men — who were working as electricians in Minnesota — met with Mr. De-Leon and purchased two ounces of methamphetamines from him. The state also claims that over the course of the encounter, an additional ounce of methamphetamine was “fronted” to Mr. Valles, Mr. Carpenter and Mr. Thomas.
Mr. Jackson connected Mr. James to the case when he told Judge Hill that Mr. James and Mr. DeLeon were neighbors. The assistant district attorney said Mr. James was present when Mr. Thomas and his companions were at Mr. DeLeon’s residence — including when the drug transaction took place.
According to Mr. Jackson, Mr. James made several statements regarding the matter and later recanted.
“Two ounces are bought, one (more) ounce was fronted,” Mr. Jackson said. “There may have been more, but that’s what the codefendants have said.”
According to statements made to investigators, Mr. Jackson said the three men were en route back to Minnesota when a series of bizarre events unfolded that led to Mr. Thomas’ death.
Mr. Thomas was at the wheel of Mr. Valles’ vehicle when they encountered a sheriff’s deputy’s car near Mount Olive.
Because of the amount of methamphetamine in the car, Mr. Thomas became “paranoid” and started driving on back roads.
Mr. Jackson said the statements describe Mr. Thomas’ behavior as “driving crazy” and “acting paranoid.”
The assistant district attorney also said that during the interviews the two men admitted to being uncomfortable themselves, which led to them throwing three ounces of methamphetamine out the window.
Mr. Jackson referred to statements made by both Mr. Valles and Mr. Carpenter as he described what happened when the three men arrived in Benson.
There were reports that Mr. Thomas and Mr. Carpenter prayed at a church near the intersection where the vehicle was abandoned. From there the state claims the sounds of a door slamming and of a gunshot firing could be heard. A shot they implied took place during what Mr. Jackson would later characterize as an execution.
“The reason this comes into play is because once Jeremy Carpenter and Cole Thomas leave the car and flee the area, Julian Valles makes a call to Rudolfo DeLeon,” Mr. Jackson said, “who is the source or the middle man of a large amount of drugs.”
After the phone call was made, Mr. James and Mr. DeLeon allegedly came to Benson to pick up Mr. Valles.
Mr. DeLeon was reported to have made a telephone call to another individual, and that other people arrived later.
It was reported to authorities by Mr. James that Mr. Thomas was beaten by Mr. Carpenter with a bat, a statement he later recanted.
Upon a later visit to his probation officer, it was discovered that Mr. James had bruises.
“One thing that is significant is that when (Mr. James) was talking to his probation officer about the last statement he gave, the probation officer noticed that he was badly bruised,” Mr. Jackson said. “When the probation officer asked him what happened, he told him, ‘somebody beat me up.’ When the probation officer asked him if it was associated with a drug transaction, he indicated that it was.”
In subsequent statements Mr. James recanted that story as well. “Mr. and Mrs. Thomas are still left wondering exactly how their son died,” Mr. Jackson continued. “The question is, ‘How do we know Cole is deceased when we don’t have a body?’ One thing that is significant, your honor, is that after this happened — all contact after the shots are heard, the door slams, immediately thereafter — any sign, any footprint that Cole Thomas had on this earth is dead, dark.”
Mr. Jackson also said there were reports that Mr. DeLeon had a gun at his residence. There was also a revelation that after Mr. Carpenter returned to Mr. DeLeon’s residence he was stripsearched in an effort to find the missing drugs.
Citing the totality of the circumstances surrounding the case, Mr. Jackson requested Mr. James’ bond remain the same.
In announcing her decision to reduce the bond for Mr. James from $350,000 to $200,000, Judge Hill said, “I think a significant bond continues to be necessary, but if I look at the potential role of this defendant, I feel the bond of $200,000 is more reasonable.”
No reduction for Mr. Carpenter
It was a different story for Mr. Carpenter. Judge Hill refused to reduce his bond even though he passed a polygraph.
In his statement to the court, Mr. Jackson said the polygraph centered on whether Mr. Carpenter participated directly in Mr. Thomas’ death. He said no questions were used that referred to whether he lied to investigators or did other things to obstruct justice.
“This is based on the totality of the circumstances we are dealing with, in what the state believes is an execution related to drugs,” Mr. Jackson said.
Mr. Jackson also noted that Mr. Carpenter has ties to both Alabama and Minnesota. He reemphasized the belief that he would be a flight risk, despite claims by the defense that he had a job waiting for him upon his release.
“The critical thing, with regard to this defendant’s obstruction of justice in this case, is that he was the very last person that we know was with the victim in this case, immediately preceding his death,” said the assistant district attorney. “I would tell the court there is video surveillance showing this co-defendant along with the victim walking into — I think — a gas station, calm and everything OK.”
Mr. Jackson went on to cite Mr. Carpenter’s admission that there was a conspiracy to buy a large amount of methamphetamine and that the drugs were disposed of when the three men got worried.
“We believe this co-defendant has the most information with regard to the murder of Cole Thomas and has withheld that information,” Mr. Jackson said. “We believe he is a flight risk. There are concerns there are other parties that are involved in this and that there might be pressure put on him.”
He described the two men as being scared and possibly in danger.
“I’m worried that he has a strong incentive to not make himself available in this case,” Mr. Jackson said.
In rendering her decision not to reduce Mr. Carpenter’s bond, Judge Hill cited her concerns about the nature of the case and the allegations involved.
“We’re talking about significant issues, talking about the presumed murder of a victim,” she said. “One, who was, immediately prior to his death, involved in a transaction with illegal drugs and, immediately prior to his death, was with this defendant.”