The day that Bob Poulnot’s job killed him began like any other.
He took out the trash at 7 a.m. He prepped for a busy schedule of attorney meetings and casework. But he felt tightness in his chest, and then a surreal sort of wooziness.
It was September 2008, and Poulnot — pronounced “pool no,” an heirloom from a French attorney who emigrated in the 1700s — was overworked and overweight.
As a private investigator with a reputation for doggedness, Poulnot was working 28 felony cases at the time, an exhausting load. His services for defense attorneys and private clients commanded north of $100 an hour, and many would say the fee was worth it. Sheriff Butch Conway, head of the 700-employee Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department, calls Poulnot “as good a caliber if not higher than most of the investigators we have.”
In addition to his regular casework, Poulnot had been working pro bono on a high-profile case in which he’d emerged as a central figure and source of hope: the disappearance of college student Justin Gaines.
That case was keeping Poulnot up at night, and by day his work constantly put him on the road. Most meals involved a drive-thru.
A U.S. Army veteran, Poulnot drove that day to Atlanta VA Medical Center in Decatur, where his blood pressure was off-the-charts and EKG abnormal. A cardiologist entered Poulnot’s curtained-off room and asked him to draw a circle with his index finger around the area of discomfort.
As Poulnot did that, he flat-lined and turned blue. His eyes rolled back in his head.
A doctor jumped on top of him and beat his chest as nurses readied the defibrillator, which, after several attempts, finally brought his heartbeat back. Poulnot remembers nothing.
Later, after an operation at Emory University Hospital, Poulnot was allowed one visitor in his room, but only for five minutes. He chose his rock — his wife of 44 years, Donna. He expressed his love for Donna and their two children, informed her where his life insurance policy was located, and issued very specific instructions: Gather all my Justin Gaines notebook files, secure them, and if I die, make sure they get to Sheriff Butch Conway.
Photo: Poulnot’s open case files on Justin Gaines fill binders and CD boxes.
Seven years later, Poulnot is retired — nay, “semi-retired,” he says — and Gaines is still missing. Like others, Poulnot is convinced he knows what happened, and he’s hopeful to see those he believes responsible behind bars soon.
But to say he’s been able to put the Gaines case behind him, or to ease off it, would be inaccurate. Letting go would be against his nature — and his track record. Some bloodhounds can’t stand the porch.
It’s a chilly, sunny afternoon in February, and Poulnot waves outside his brick house in Snellville, tucked in a quiet cul-de-sac in a subdivision of large homes on hilly lots. To the right of his front door is his command center, his office. He points the way and unsmilingly assured me I’m not being recorded.
At age 69, Poulnot is husky in an Abercrombie & Fitch shirt and blue jeans, with a side-swept tuft of gray hair and a tendency to sing his vowels — “At that tiiiiime ...” he might say. Perpetually chatty, he’ll preface a 20-minute story with, “Long story short ...” His mind is his thickest case file. He can recall minutiae from mysteries solved a decade before.
So what’s different about semi-retirement?
“Not having to worry about Mr. Jones or Mr. Smith going to prison next week because I haven’t gotten the evidence on their case — these are the things you go to bed with and wake up with when you’re into a case,” he says. “I don’t have that worry anymore.”
Yet when Poulnot discusses his chief leisurely objectives in retirement — improving a golf game he describes as comical and fishing for bass, as his father had once taught him at their family’s Lake Sinclair cabin — his voice lacks passion.
There was no party when Poulnot officially shelved the fedora and magnifying glass. Beginning in 2015, he gradually let his cases trail off, without accepting others, until his workload became part-time and then something less.
I’m retired, he’d tell attorneys who called.
Sure you’re retired, they’d laugh.
You’re very kind, Poulnot would say, but I’ve really got to let this go.
The website for his company, Investigative Connections, is active, and he still maintains his license with the Secretary of State — like 1,600 other Georgians — to practice as a private investigator. He’s still employed in a case of a 25-year-old Buford man who was found dead of a gunshot in Lake Lanier last year.
And the Gaines saga still surrounds him — literally.
Around Poulnot’s desk, the shelves are full of black binders, each about five inches thick, that contain what he calls “front-burner” information on the Gaines case. Each is numbered as it pertains to a certain suspected player. The binders are the fruits of a nearly nine-year investigation with a level of complexity that makes all the other cases Poulnot has worked seem easy.
Leap of faith
Poulnot grew up a “spoiled brat” only child in Decatur, the son of Jack Poulnot, a Rich’s Department Store manager who’d fought in World War II and Korea with the Army, and Stella Poulnot, an American Cancer Society secretary. As a boy, he loved to take apart complex things — lawn mowers and radios mainly — for the challenge of putting them back together.
At Atlanta’s Briarcliff High School, Poulnot played quarterback, compensating for his relative shortness — 5 feet 11 inches — with a powerful arm. He graduated in 1965, and his arm was strong enough to win him the quarterback job at The Citadel, where he says his studies often took a backseat to being hazed.
After two years of electrical engineering studies, he quit to join the Army. Poulnot served for three and a half years, ranked up to lieutenant and was deployed overseas but won’t discuss it. It’s the one subject over the course of several conversations that rendered him silent.
Back home in 1971, at a legendary nightclub off Peachtree Road called Uncle Sam's, he spotted a pretty girl — Donna — sitting at a table with her sister and asked her to dance. They exchanged numbers, were married in a Gainesville church the next year, and together they attended Woodrow Wilson College of Law at night, while Poulnot clerked full-time for a downtown Atlanta law firm.
It was there his interest in investigative work — and the satisfaction of helping clients navigate legal waters they didn’t necessarily understand — was born.
Poulnot graduated law school in 1975 but failed to pass the Georgia Bar Exam. He didn’t sulk for long, as a large firm offered him a lucrative job examining real estate titles in booming Gwinnett County. Poulnot’s income allowed Donna to quit her stressful job handling child neglect cases with the Division of Family and Children Services and stay home when their children, Julie, now 38, and John, 30, were born.
They bought a large home near Brookwood High School and didn’t want for much, but Poulnot couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d sold out and ignored his calling.
In 1995, Poulnot decided to use his law degree to become licensed and launch his own private investigation company.
His son John, in grade school at the time, remembers being awed by the concept of P.I. work when his father came home with the news.
“It was certainly cool, and fascinating,” says John.
But for a greenhorn in his late 40s entering an industry where reputation is paramount, it wasn’t easy, and the family had to downsize houses in 1998. Attorneys were initially reluctant to give Poulnot a chance, so when a couple of jobs finally came, he had to prove himself, even if it meant hiding in bushes with equipment befitting a James Bond movie.
A licensed private investigator in Georgia has no arrest power and can’t take out warrants, but they are permitted to surreptitiously follow people for surveillance purposes provided they have a verifiable, legal reason and remain on public property.
To build his business, Poulnot had to accept more domestic cases than he would have liked, which typically meant spying on rendezvousing spouses. But he took the work seriously and bought the necessary equipment: a video camera with night vision, a pro camera with a telephoto lens, a tracking device, a camera with a small, bendable eye and another tiny camera for his car visor.
The work entailed staying up all night and working long hours the next day in zombie mode. Weekends off? Forget it. And in the early days, his typical fee was $1,500 or $2,000, no matter the workload or where the investigation took him.
But the small victories were sweet. Like the case of a panty-fancying husband.
About 20 years ago, the wife of an Atlanta CEO kept finding women’s panties in his suitcase after business trips. The husband promised to stop; the wife reached out to Poulnot to make sure he did.
It wasn’t long before Poulnot — crouched in the woods behind the husband’s office complex with his night-vision camera — videotaped the man in his car, kissing a woman. Poulnot learned the name of the man’s secretary and began following her — a less-suspicious target.
That led him to a Duluth hotel, and when Poulnot saw the husband arrive to meet the secretary, he walked into the lobby, flipped though some magazines and overheard their room number.
“I stayed at this motel a long time ago,” Poulnot fibbed to the clerk, “and really liked staying on the third floor.”
To remain inconspicuous, he called Donna, and they posed as a traveling married couple while entering a room that neighbored the husband’s. Poulnot lay on the floor and positioned his camera with the flexible eye so that it captured the lovebirds in the hallway at various times throughout the night. At one point, they kissed.
Bingo, thought Poulnot.
During the divorce negotiations, the wife’s attorney presented Poulnot’s tape in a meeting with the husband and his high-dollar lawyers. The shocked husband leapt up from a conference table, snatched the tape from the VCR and bolted from the room, clueless he was carrying a copy of Poulnot’s original.
“They gave up, folded, wanted to settle,” Poulnot smiles. “She got the house, her car, and child support. Sure did.”
Successes like this bolstered Poulnot’s reputation, and soon he was working a full slate of meatier felony cases for defense attorneys who might not have had the time — or skills — to interview a full cast of witnesses, pursue every lead and hunt for crucial evidence like retail surveillance footage.
Having a determined ally like Poulnot was essential for defense attorneys such as Lyle Porter, who began adding Poulnot’s fees to his retainer in the late 1990s. “Didn’t matter their race, religion, color, national origin — folks were just willing to talk to him,” Porter says. “And that’s invaluable.”
A murder case from 2005 remains a highlight of both their careers.
An 85-year-old World War II veteran had been fatally shot during a burglary at his Lawrenceville home, and the victim’s wife picked out Alan Craig Smith, 29, from a photo lineup.
When Porter and Poulnot met with the accused in jail, Smith claimed he couldn’t have been at the crime scene because he was shopping at Wal-Mart — he just couldn’t recall which one. Porter thought Smith was lying.
He pulled Poulnot out of the interview and said, “I don’t even know where to start. But if we don’t get on it right away, they’ll record over those VHS surveillance tapes.”
Poulnot started whittling down possible Wal-Marts. He learned Smith’s girlfriend had a white sticker on the back of her car. With that small clue, he convinced store security to hand over tapes, and he sifted through piles of grainy surveillance footage until he found time-stamped video of the couple arriving in a Wal-Mart parking lot and then shopping at the exact time of the murder — several miles away.
All charges were dropped.
“I’m telling you right now, it was Bob Poulnot that saved that guy’s life,” says Porter. “There’s nobody else like him when it comes to that determination. Once he gets fixed on it, he ain’t gonna let it go.”
Which makes Poulnot’s frustrations with the Gaines case understandable.
In 2007, Gaines was a Gainesville State College freshman living in Athens, an outgoing kid known for his endearing smile and linebacker’s build.
One Thursday night in November, Gaines came back to his mother’s house in Snellville, got his fake ID and headed to a huge Duluth nightclub called Wild Bill’s with two friends. Both pals declined to pay the cover charge, but Gaines went in for a night of dancing with more than 2,000 other revelers.
Throughout the night, Gaines bumped into friends and made cellphone calls to others. At a little past 1:30 a.m., he walked outside the club and made numerous calls to friends, asking for a lift home. His last call was made at 2 a.m., and then he vanished. Searches began two days later.
Throughout a 20-year career and some 2,000 cases that ran the gamut from getting innocent guys off the hook for armed robbery to finding missing children, there may have been no more powerful moment than when Poulnot met Gaines’s frantic mother, Erika Wilson.
At a makeshift command center in the fellowship hall of a Methodist church off Pleasant Hill Road in Duluth, Wilson walked up to Poulnot and introduced herself, her face wet with tears.
I beg of you, Wilson said, don’t stop investigating this.
Poulnot replied: I promise I won’t quit until I find out.
While maintaining his regular case load, Poulnot began pro bono work on the Gaines case, interviewing hundreds of people with some connection to the missing man. He slept maybe four hours a night. Over time, tips led him throughout the Southeast. Various scenarios of what may have happened to Gaines constantly tossed in his mind.
He can’t count the number of false leads he pursued. The vague phone calls, weird emails, input from psychics. For years, it kept coming. On each anniversary of Gaines’ disappearance, fresh media reports brought new waves of tips.
The false information would beget other bad leads, and they would feed on themselves, mushrooming into a time-killing distraction that brought Gaines’ family no closer to closure — Mr. X told Mr. Y that he killed Justin Gaines and the body’s at C location, and players A, B, C and D were there, and they saw the whole thing.
Poulnot took it upon himself to check every facet of this maddening alphabet. He consulted with a retired detective he revered, who said he’d done everything right. Still, he was haunted by the notion he had missed something, that he hadn’t tried hard enough.
Almost every day for eight years, something has reminded Poulnot of Gaines. Whether in the middle of the night or while driving his car at noon, he’s besieged by the same question: Where are you, Justin?
Over rolling hills dotted with black cattle, down twisty country roads, Poulnot drives his BMW to a Lake Lanier marina on a peerless March afternoon. At the end of a steep driveway, he parks in a lot and casts his eyes to Dock B, which juts into green-blue water, with banks of red clay beyond. Squirrels scamper in the leaves, and crows caw overhead.
Back in 2008, a tip that Gaines’ body had been dumped in these coves brought Poulnot here with another volunteer. From daybreak to late evening, they searched the murky waters with sonar equipment but found nothing. A dive team from Hall County tried, too, with similar results.
But after years of investigating — and following confessions last year by Walton County resident Thelma Ballew, 51, and her son, Dylan Glass, 28, who’ve both had numerous arrests — Poulnot, like Sheriff Conway, believes this marina holds the key to Gaines’ fate.
There’s a long list of possible players, and a few aspects remain muddled, but based on statements from Ballew and Glass and other information he’s collected, Poulnot believes Gaines’ final night unfolded as follows:
As Gaines struggled to find a ride home from the nightclub, he was lured into a vehicle by one or two females who’d proposed going to a house party in Snellville, at a home near Gaines’ mother’s house. Poulnot believes a plan unfolded to rob Gaines, and at the home he was assaulted by several people in the garage; he fought back but was overtaken, choked to unconsciousness, fatally shot, wrapped in plastic and taken to Lake Lanier in the back of a work van, to a dock where one possible accomplice kept a houseboat.
According to Poulnot’s theory, this crew weighted the body and dumped it in the lake. They kept watch over the area in fear it would resurface. And when it did a few days later, they loaded the body into a large toolbox and trucked it to a remote location near a river on the easternmost side of Walton County.
That theory triggered large-scale excavations by authorities in Walton and Gwinnett counties around old wells near the Apalachee River last September — the second major dig in Gaines’ case in as many years. Both efforts attracted headlines but produced no evidence.
Ballew later admitted she’d lied about seeing the body dumped in a well — and subsequently was charged with making false statements — but the remainder of Ballew’s story regarding Gaines’ death and the lake checks out, according to Poulnot and Conway.
Still, nobody faces murder charges related to Gaines’ disappearance at this point.
Danny Porter, Gwinnett County District Attorney, says winning a conviction solely on the testimony of criminals is not impossible — it happens frequently, in fact — and prosecutors don’t necessarily need physical remains to prove Gaines was murdered.
A bigger hurdle is convincing Gwinnett’s top prosecutor that Ballew, Glass or any of their cohorts had anything to do with Gaines’ disappearance. Over the years, their statements have been inconsistent with one another, and their versions of the truth have varied widely, according to Porter.
“Every yo-yo that gets locked up in Walton County claims to know something about the Gaines case,” says Porter.
Still, Poulnot is resolute. Weeks after the meeting at the marina, he emails a statement he hopes reaches anyone who may have harmed Gaines: “There is no statute of limitations on murder, and we will never give up until you have been arrested, tried and convicted.”
Photo: Poulnot (left) enjoys a round of golf with daughter Julie Perry and son John Poulnot at Bear Creek Golf Course in Monroe last month. Improving his golf game is top priority since he semi-retired.
Optimism is one of Poulnot’s best characteristics, say his friends and colleagues. But as the backhoes left the wells last year, as more lies manifested, and as no trace of Gaines was found once again, John Poulnot was crestfallen.
Asked what it would mean to him to see the Gaines case resolved one day, Poulnot’s shoulders drop as his face lifts into a grin: “That would be one of the better days of my life.”
The relaxed demeanor looks a little odd on him, but it’s what he’s aiming for in semi-retirement. He cherishes time spent with his daughter’s child, and he’s giddy for the arrival of John’s first child this year.
With the insertion of three stents, his heart is healthy again. He walks every day at Alexander Park and avoids fast food, save the occasional Chick-fil-A.
“He’s a lot less stressed,” says John Poulnot. “He’s enjoying life.”
These days, Gaines’ mother speaks with buoyancy in her voice that was absent in more desperate years.
Though she hasn’t found closure, Wilson has overcome crippling grief and reactivated her real estate license for the first time since her son vanished. She shudders to think what the last eight years would have been like without Poulnot.
“I never have to wonder if someone’s thinking about Justin, because in my heart I know that Bob is,” Wilson says. “It gives you sanity, hope, faith — everything. There’s a lot of good people in the world, and Bob is No. 1.”
ABOUT THE STORY
As a reporter covering Gwinnett County crime in 2007, freelance writer Josh Green attended some of the first searches and vigils for missing college student Justin Gaines, which is where he came to know Gaines’ family and Bob Poulnot, the private investigator who was volunteering his help. In the ensuing years, Green and Poulnot have spent many hours in various settings discussing the case for subsequent stories. But not until recently did Green turn the focus toward Poulnot himself, to learn what a private investigator’s life and career is like — and what toll the job can take on someone so committed.
Suzanne Van Atten
Personal Journeys editor
About the reporter
Josh Green is a freelance journalist and fiction author who lives in Atlanta with his wife and daughters. An Indiana native, Green’s newspaper journalism has won top awards in the Hoosier state and in Georgia, where he relocated to work for the Gwinnett Daily Post in 2007. Green is a contributing writer at Atlanta magazine and editor of Curbed Atlanta, and by night he’s shopping a novel.
About the photographer
Hyosub Shin was born and raised in South Korea. Inspired by the work of National Geographic photographers, he came to the United States to study photography and joined the AJC photo staff in 2007. Past assignments include the Georgia Legislative session, Atlanta Dream’s Eastern Conference title game, the Atlanta Air Show and the Atlanta Braves’ National League Division Series.