It was still winter according to the calendar, but 18-year-old Colin Gillis was on spring break. He planned to return home to Tupper Lake, New York, a tiny logging town with a population of around 6,000 people. He was looking forward to reconnecting with some of his high school friends. His college classes had finished up on Friday, March 9, 2012, and Colin headed for his parents’ house after that.

Colin, a 2011 graduate of Tupper Lake High School, was the middle child of the family, with an older and a younger brother. He had just celebrated his 18th birthday less than a week earlier, on March 4th. It had been clear from an early age that he was gifted academically, and he had skipped a grade. This made him a year younger than most of his classmates, but it had never held him back socially. He played football and basketball, and always had a lot of friends. He was known for having a great sense of humor, and he liked to go out and party with his friends.

Colin was a freshman at the State University of New York at Brockport, about five hours away from Tupper Lake. He had been accepted into their pre-med program, concentrating in biology. His ultimate goal was to go to medical school and become a doctor, and no one doubted that he would do so. He had adjusted well to college life, and found it easy to make friends.

John and Patty Gillis, the owners of a woodworking shop in Tupper Lake, were thrilled to have their son home for a few days, and Colin spent most of the day on Saturday with them. The family had dinner together, and then watched a college basketball game on television. After watching the game, Colin got ready to go out with some of his high school friends. It was a cold night, with temperatures dropping into the teens, but Colin wasn’t bothered by New York winters. Although he was only wearing jeans and a short-sleeved shirt, he had a jacket in the bookbag he was planning to take with him. It was around 8:30pm when he left the house, telling his parents he’d be back later. They watched as he left the house, carrying his red and orange backpack. They had no way of knowing that this would be the last time they would see their son.

Colin started the night by going to visit with friends who lived just down the street from him. From there, he got a ride with a group of friends to a residence on Lincoln Avenue. It’s unclear if Colin and his friends had any concrete plans for the evening, but at some point they decided to leave the Lincoln Drive home and go to a party about five miles away. The party, which was at a private residence on Paskungameh Road, was being thrown to celebrate the 21st birthday of one of the homeowner’s relatives. Colin and his friends weren’t really friends with the group holding the party, and they hadn’t actually been invited. Of course, in a town as small as Tupper Lake, there are no strangers. They knew some of the people at the party, they just didn’t normally hang out with them. Most likely, they had heard that this party was taking place and knew there would be plenty of alcohol, so they made a spur-of-the-moment decision to go.

Colin and nine of his friends ended up at the party on Paskungameh Road, and things appeared to be fine for a while. At some point, however, an argument broke out between some of the partygoers, and this soon escalated into a physical altercation. It’s unclear why the brawl started, but Colin’s friends decided it would be best if they left. If someone ended up calling the cops, no one wanted to get busted for underage drinking. Colin, however, refused to go with his friends. He was having a good time and wanted to stay. They tried to persuade him to leave — they could find another party somewhere — but Colin was adamant about staying. The nine friends he had come to the party with all left; no one could figure out why Colin was so intent on remaining behind.

With his friends gone, Colin was left with a group made up of some people he knew but had never spent time with, and some people he didn’t know at all. Police stated that there had been about 40 people at the party before the fighting broke out, and they believe that all of them were local. There were some rumors that there were people from out of town in attendance, but if there were, they never came forward to speak with police about that night.

Colin is believed to have left the party, on foot, around 1:00am. Police have stated that the party broke up around 1:30am. It’s unclear if the earlier fight had anything to do with ending the party, but it is believed that more than one fight broke out that night and Colin may have been involved in at least one of them.

When Colin left the residence where the party had been held, he walked north up Paskungameh Road until it terminated at NY-3. Paskungameh Road is a winding rural road with no sidewalks and no streetlights, and Colin would have had to walk up a steep incline. The few houses that he passed on this walk would have been mostly obscured from his vision, as they are set a hundred or more feet off the road and behind trees. The moon was almost full, which may have provided some navigational assistance, but it wouldn’t have been an easy walk to make. When Colin got to NY-3, he should have turned right to follow that road back towards his home. For some unknown reason, he turned left on NY-3, heading away from Tupper Lake towards the town of Piercefield.

Although NY-3 is more heavily trafficked than Paskungameh Road, there are still no streetlights and no sidewalks, though there are shoulders on each side of the road. The street is lined with trees on both sides, and there is a small guardrail running the length of the road. It is not the kind of road you would expect to see a pedestrian on at 1:40am on a cold winter night, but that was exactly what Rich Rosentreter saw as he approached the Franklin/St. Lawrence County Line on NY-3 that night.

Rich, who at the time was the editor of the Lake Placid News, was almost at the end of an 80-mile trip; he was driving his mother from Massena, NY to her home in Tupper Lake. He was surprised to see a male figure walking in the direction of Piercefield. Even odder, the man wasn’t wearing a coat despite the frigid temperature. Although he was concerned about the man, it was around 1:45am, on a dark road with no streetlights, and he had his elderly mother in the car with him. He didn’t feel comfortable stopping, so he kept driving towards Tupper Lake and headed directly to the police station. It was a short drive, less than four miles, and he went inside to report what he had seen.

A state trooper was dispatched to see if the male on NY-3 needed help, but when he arrived in the area where Rich reported seeing the man, he found no one. He drove up and down the highway for a couple miles in each direction, but never spotted anyone walking along the road. He did not pass any other vehicles, either; there was rarely much traffic on that stretch of road. Eventually, he gave up.

Austen Toohey and his cousin, Jordan Amell, also saw Colin around walking that night around 1:30am. Austen was driving Jordan to his home in Piercefield when they saw Colin turning onto NY-3 from Paskungameh Road. Austen stopped and asked Colin if he wanted a ride, but he told them he was waiting for a friend to pick him up. Then, after Austen dropped Jordan off in Piercefield, he saw Colin for a second time as he was heading back home to Tupper Lake. He once again stopped and asked Colin if he wanted a ride, and once again Colin declined. Austen said that Colin was near the entrance to Bruce Richards Logging Company, located on NY-3 less than 1000 feet from the Paskungameh Road intersection, and was heading west towards Piercefield. If true, Colin was not walking at a very fast pace.

It’s unknown if Colin was actually waiting for a friend to pick him up. Cell phone service was spotty in that area, and it doesn’t appear he was able to get ahold of anyone to ask for a ride. He didn’t prearrange one with any of the friends he had originally come with, either. Nor has anyone come forward to say that they were supposed to pick him up on NY-3.

When Colin didn’t return home from his night out, his parents were not initially worried. It was not uncommon for Colin’s phone battery to go dead, leaving him with no way to get in touch with them. They just assumed he had ended up spending the night at a friend’s home, which is what he had done on Friday night. When they hadn’t heard from him by the next afternoon, they started to get worried. They made multiple attempts to try and reach him on his cell phone, but were unable to get through. They started calling his friends, but no one had seen or heard from him since the previous night. By 5:30, panic was starting to set in, and they called and reported Colin missing. The state police immediately launched a massive search effort.

On Monday morning, the New York State Police, the Tupper Lake Police, and the Department of Environmental Conservation worked together to coordinate the search, joined by hundreds of Colin’s family members, friends, and other volunteers. They combed through woods and streams, searching for any sign that might indicate they were on the right track. They were aided from above by military helicopters from Fort Drum. The search was conducted in an extremely organized and professional way, with searchers walking shoulder to shoulder to make sure they covered every inch of ground. Volunteers who were smokers were reminded to enjoy a cigarette before the search began, because there would be no stopping for smoke breaks one they started moving.

At a press conference held on Monday afternoon, police announced that they had recovered two items believed to belong to Colin. The items, which police wouldn’t identify at that stage of the investigation, had been found on NY-3 near Setting Pole Dam Road, in the area where Rich had reported seeing the teen. Several newspapers featured articles about Colin and identified the two items that had been found as his driver’s license and one shoe. They were half right: Colin’s driver’s license had been recovered. His shoe had not. During the search, several shoes were found, but none of them belonged to Colin. It would take two years before the second item was identified to the public as a tobacco pipe.

On Tuesday, the focus of the search shifted to areas around the Raquette River, Raquette Pond, and the Piercefield Flow. Conditions were rough, as the snow was waist deep in some areas. While volunteers participated in the ground search for Colin, most of them lacked the training and experience required to search the waterways. Both DEC Rangers and members of Search & Rescue of Northern Adirondacks, specially trained in wilderness searching techniques, led 18 search crews of eight to ten people each, in scouring the woods and the waterways between Tupper Lake and Piercefield. If Colin was somewhere out there, these were the people who would find him.

Although those without training weren’t able to take part in the physical search, this didn’t deter them from helping out. Volunteers had donated more than 10,000 hours of their time in the search for Colin in the first few days alone. Now, they were generous in their donations of money and supplies. They made sure that all those still searching the rough terrain had everything they needed to search safely, and provided them with hot meals. The entire town — and beyond — was praying that Colin would be found safe. But as days continued to drag on and no additional evidence was found, it was hard to stay optimistic.

On Saturday night, state police set up a checkpoint on NY-3 near where Colin was last seen. Troopers were hoping that there would be people passing through who had come through around the same time the previous Saturday. They stopped each car as they approached, handing out fliers with Colin’s information. Drivers who had used the same road the night Colin disappeared were asked if they had noticed anything at unusual at that time. Unfortunately, no one remembered seeing the young man.

On Monday, March 19th, the week-long search for Colin was downgraded to “limited continuous status.” Police would continue to do periodic searches of the area, both on the ground and from the air, but there would be no more large-scale searches unless new information warranted one.

Detectives continued their investigation into the disappearance, and were looking into allegations that Colin had been involved in some sort of altercation at the party. They interviewed all those who had been with Colin that night, and were also monitoring Facebook and other forms of social media to see if they could glean any clues about what might have happened.

While the search for Colin in Tupper Lake was being scaled back, his classmates at SUNY — Brockport were returning from spring break and heading back to class. Although they knew it wasn’t probable, Colin’s family was hoping he would show up at school that Monday and return to class like nothing had happened. When he didn’t, they all felt somewhat deflated. Administrators at the college checked to see if there had been any activity on Colin’s student ID card, which had to be swiped to enter any of the buildings on campus. He had last swiped it on March 9th, the day he left for spring break. It was never used again after that. Detectives interviewed many of the students who lived in the same dorm as Colin, and everyone had only nice things to say about him. He was well-liked and had made many friends, and they had been stunned when they learned he was missing. Some had trouble focusing for a while afterward, worried it could happen to them. The school made sure counselors were available for those who wanted to speak with one.

John and Patty Gillis announced that they were offering a $10,000 reward for information that led to Colin. They believed there were people in the community who had the answers to solve the case, but were afraid to come forward. When the reward failed to bring in any useful leads, they raised it to $25,000.

Months went by, but there was still no sign of Colin. Except for the couple of personal items found on the first day of the search, there was no evidence found to indicate what might have happened. Spring turned into summer, and summer turned into fall. Police asked hunters to keep an eye out for anything unusual they might see while out hunting in the woods. Despite being extra vigilant, they found nothing. The case grew cold.

It’s been more than eight years since Colin vanished. His case is still open, and detectives still follow up on any leads they get, but they are no closer to determining what happened to him. There are many theories, but little evidence to back any of them up or rule them out. Early on it was suggested that someone could have accidentally hit Colin with their vehicle, then panicked and hid his body. Police are relatively certain that was not the case here. The road was not heavily traveled; there were very few people on it that time of night. Hit and run accidents tend to leave evidence behind, and they found nothing suggesting one took place. It can’t be ruled out entirely, though. Colin was seen walking close to the road, and one of the drivers that saw him that night almost hit him. But hitting someone at a relatively fast speed — the speed limit on NY-3 is 55 miles an hour — would likely have left easily discernable evidence, whether part of a car, a broken mirror, blood, or skid marks. On a road with no streetlights, attempting to remove all the evidence would have been a daunting task.

One of the more obvious possibilities is that Colin stumbled off the road and into the woods, where he fell victim to the frigid cold. It would certainly make sense, but police believe if this is what happened, they would have found Colin. The searches they conducted were very methodical, literally leaving no stone unturned. In addition to volunteer ground searches and aerial searches, they went through the area with canine units, specially trained to find dead bodies. They came up completely empty. If he got really far off course, it’s possible he ended up in a body of water somewhere, but DEC forest rangers were confident Colin was not in any of the areas they searched.

One of the more puzzling aspects of this case is the fact that Colin was walking in the wrong direction if he was trying to go home. If he was intoxicated or slipped some kind of drug this could account for his disorientation. Yet it’s possible Colin went towards Piercefield on purpose. Austen Toohey reported seeing Colin near where Paskungameh Road intersects NY-3, and Colin told Austen that he was waiting for a friend to pick him up. There’s no record of Colin arranging a ride with anyone, so it’s unclear why he told Austen this. It’s possible Colin spoke to someone in Piercefield earlier in the night and thought they were coming to pick him up, in which case walking towards Piercefield actually makes sense. It was cold out, and Colin could have wanted to keep moving so he didn’t freeze, and he may have decided to walk in the direction his friend would be coming from so he could meet him sooner.

Rumors abound about what happened at the party that night, and there are some people who believe that Colin was involved in at least one of the fights that broke out, and he ended up getting killed. Foul play is definitely possible in Colin’s case; the question is where it took place. Colin was seen on NY-3 by at least three drivers. This means that even if he did get involved in a physical altercation at the party, he was able to walk away. According to the witnesses, Colin was walking alone on NY-3. No one reported seeing anyone else walking along the road at any point that night, so it doesn’t appear that anyone was following Colin on foot. It’s possible that someone drove after him and caught up with him after the witnesses saw him, but there were no signs of a struggle along the road. There was snow on the ground, police should have been able to tell if a fight had taken place on the shoulder of NY-3. They found nothing. It is as if Colin simply disappeared into thin air.

Colin Gillis is still missing. He was 18 at the time of his disappearance on March 11, 2012. He had blond hair, blue eyes, was 6’1”, and weighed around 170 pounds. He had a scar on his left shoulder. He was last seen wearing a men’s size medium short-sleeved American Eagle V-neck shirt with black stripes, size 32/34 blue boot-cut Levi jeans, and size 10 red high-top Nike Air sneakers. He was carrying an orange L.L. Bean backpack containing a reversible black and red L.L. Bean coat. There is a $25,000 reward being offered in his case. If you have any information about Colin, please call the New York State Police at 518–897–2000.

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