A small Texas town dealing with a big-time mystery: Where is Thomas Brown?
Thomas Brown had everything going for him. He was class president of his high school, he was well-liked, and he even earned two state titles playing football. Then on the night of Nov. 24, 2016, Thomas Brown suddenly vanished.
Canadian, Texas is a small town about an hour northeast of Amarillo. Everyone in the small Texas town knows about Thomas Brown.
"There's not one person in this community that doesn't think about this," said Hemphill County Sheriff Nathan Lewis.
After more than a year of investigations and searches, the mystery surrounding the 6-foot-tall senior class president's disappearance has only deepened.
With few clues uncovered and key evidence kept concealed, a community is left living in fear, and a mother is left frustrated.
"At this point I know more about the Las Vegas shooter than I do about my own son and his disappearance," said Penny Meek, Thomas Brown's mother.
When the class of 2017 graduated from Canadian High School, they left an empty seat for the class president. Instead of a diploma and a round of applause for Thomas Brown, there was a moment of silence.
Penny Meek hasn't seen her son for more than a year. It was the night before Thanksgiving 2016, and Thomas was going out for the night. His brother Tucker was home visiting from college. Thomas then headed out to meet friends Christian Webb and Kaleb King. Like most small towns, there isn't much for teens to do at night in Canadian, Texas.
"We just rode around and listened to music pretty much all night, talking," Kaleb King tells Crime Watch Daily. "It was a pretty boring night in Canadian."
"We went out to the wagon bridge and walked around, walked to one end and back," said Christian Webb.
A little after 11, they were ready to call it a night. So Christian headed back to the middle school where the boys had parked their cars.
"We'd made plans to go out to Christian's Thanksgiving night," said Kaleb King. "Those were the final parting words, was, 'I'll see you tomorrow.'"
According to the county sheriff, at 11:26 p.m., a school security camera captures Thomas pulling out the parking lot in his red dodge Durango. He heads west for about half a mile, then stops for gas on 2nd Street, where he fills up with his mom's debit card.
"I have a school mate who came by the house a day or two later and said that he saw him getting gas there," Penny Meek said.
A half-hour later, Penny knew something was wrong.
"Thomas never misses curfew," said Penny.
"My mom came in and said 'Have you heard from Tom?' and I said 'No, not in a couple hours,'" Tucker Brown tells Crime Watch Daily.
Then something even more out of character.
"I had texted him, his brother had texted him, and he didn't respond. His messages showed as red, but no response," said Penny.
Minutes later their texts stopped going through.
"I said 'There's no way your brother would turn his phone off,'" said Penny.
So Penny and Tucker take off in separate vehicles to search. About an hour later she called his friends. No one knew where he could be. She then called the sheriff's department.
"It was nothing out of the ordinary that night when we didn't have a senior in high school, 18-year-old, not show up on curfew," said Sheriff Nathan Lewis.
Thomas wasn't an average high school senior. He was elected class president two years in a row, one of the most popular kids on campus.
"He had lots of different friends, lots of different varieties of people he hung out with," said Christian Webb.
"Everybody liked him," said Kaleb King.
And from sports to theater, he did it all.
"He had played football throughout high school on two state championship football teams, he was very involved in theater, always had a very good supporting role in their fall production," said Penny Meek. "And he had just gotten into 4-H Speaking. He finished 10th in the state."
But on Thanksgiving morning, Thomas's proud mom just wanted him home. By sunrise they'd driven nearly every street in Canadian.
Soon the search was airborne.
"We flew around the train tracks, flew around Lake Marvin," said Christian Webb.
Christian's dad owns a helicopter business. She scoured the ground while he piloted the helicopter. When they reached the eastern edge of town, Christian spotted Thomas's red SUV parked under some trees. But inside the SUV there was no trace of Thomas Brown. Shortly after it was spotted from the air, deputies on the ground had it surrounded.
The truck had been abandoned on a dirt road that leads to a water treatment facility. A window was down and the doors were unlocked.
"No sign of a conflict, an assault, an abduction, nothing, nothing to suggest any of that," said Hemphill County Sheriff's Chief Deputy Brent Clapp.
In a town with no murder rate, many thought the same thing.
"Within minutes after the car was found, my husband received a call from the sheriff saying that they believe Thomas committed suicide," said Penny Meek.
"We haven't really discussed suicide that much," said Sheriff Lewis.
The family said at one point you said perhaps it was suicide.
"I have never said it was suicide. Never have," said Lewis.
"You know, most suicide victims want to be found," said Penny Meek.
And despite days and weeks searching, Thomas Brown wasn't found.
The water treatment plant was drained. The nearby 63-acre Lake Marvin was surveyed with sonar. The Canadian River was searched into Oklahoma. Every search came up empty.
Then, finally, a clue.
Two months after the truck was found abandoned, Thomas's backpack was spotted by an oil worker about four miles away.
"I couldn't tell you how the backpack got there," said Sheriff Lewis.
It was on the other side of a barbed-wire fence along the road that leads to Lake Marvin.
"It had to have been placed there after the fact, because they searched that area, they searched it up and down that day and days after," said Tucker Brown.
Sheriff Lewis believes it had been there a while.
"It had an indention in the ground where the backpack was sitting. It was wet inside and out, pages were almost molded at that point," said Lewis.
Thomas's school-issued laptop computer was still inside, but hadn't been used. And because of the bag's condition, it didn't provide any clues.
"We did not find his cellphone," said Sheriff Lewis.
"I believe whatever happened, happened at the gas station. And then beyond that I don't have a clue," said Penny Meek.
But more than a year after he disappeared, Penny Meek and detectives believe someone in their town does know.
"Someone knows something," said Sheriff Lewis.
Did Thomas Brown simply run away, as some people in Canadian, Texas think -- or did someone make him disappear?
Just two months on the job, Hemphill County Sheriff Nathan Lewis faced what soon became the most mysterious case of his career.
"We observed a similar vehicle, the same type, make and model of the vehicle Tom Brown was in throughout the night in Canadian," said Sheriff Lewis.
Video footage shows several of those sightings. Video shows from the Abraham Trading Company at the corner of 2nd Street and Main Street, about a half-mile from where Thomas filled up around 11:30 that night. Ninety minutes later, a red SUV similar to his Dodge Durango goes by for the first time.
When Thomas missed his midnight curfew, the family went out searching. At one point on the video, the mystery red truck goes by. Then nine minutes later Thomas' brother Tucker passes, heading in the same direction. Despite the close encounter, their paths never cross.
Then just before 6 a.m. on the edge of town, a camera at the county's recreational complex shows the red truck turn onto a dirt road, which leads to a water treatment facility. Two hours later, Thomas's SUV was spotted.
"That's to me when I realized something was wrong and that someone had to have played a part in his disappearance," said Christian Webb.
That's because Christian says she never knew that road or water treatment facility existed. Penny Meek doesn't believe her son Thomas did either.
So what's the connection in your mind when you found his car there?
"That somebody else drove it there, or somebody made him drive it there," said Penny.
And she believes that person is no stranger to Canadian.
"Because of the location of the car it leads me to believe that somebody from Canadian left it there. Not everybody knows where that's at," said Penny Meek.
Do you think someone in Canadian knows what happened?
"Oh, I believe there are people in Canadian who know what happened," said Penny. "I think I know some of them, yes."
Canadian has about 2,500 people living there. All over you'll see signs seeking help finding Thomas Brown. It'd be unlikely to find anyone in the area who doesn't know about this story -- and the family doesn't want them to forget. They want answers.
Thomas Brown's family believes whatever happened that night happened at the Fronk Oil gas station on 2nd Street. There were no cameras at that gas station.
What's your thought about what happened after he gassed up?
"I think that he was definitely taken by force," said Tucker Brown, Thomas's brother. "I don't see this as a runaway situation. I don't see it as a suicide situation. If it was suicide, we would have found his body."
Detectives say there was no sign of a struggle inside Thomas's truck. But a small drop of blood was found on the driver's side door.
"The blood indicated to us that it was not fresh, and it was very small. As if you were to get a cut on your knuckle or finger," said Sheriff Lewis.
However, that's not what a team of private investigators believes.
"I hired the private investigator within about five days, because our sheriff was newly elected," said Penny Meek. "He is young, so there is some inexperience."
The private investigator, who declined our request for an interview, works separately from the sheriff, but the two share information. He believes the blood could be from a struggle. He also says a shell casing from a .25-caliber pistol was found in Thomas's truck.
"I don't understand why the car was returned to me within hours of Thomas going missing," said Penny Meek.
Was it, in your opinion, treated like a crime scene?
"No," Penny tells Crime Watch Daily.
The private investigator says a cadaver dog got a brief hit inside Thomas's SUV and at Lake Marvin, not far from where the SUV was abandoned. The P.I. believes Thomas Brown is dead, and that foul play is involved.
"It's hard to say those kind of things without evidence to back it up or support it," Sheriff Lewis tells Crime Watch Daily.
Do you think he's alive?
"I do," said Lewis. "I have no evidence to support the fact that he is dead. I don't."
But if there is no evidence that something sinister happened, the family can't understand why the sheriff is going to such great lengths to keep the case concealed.
"I do feel like being an ongoing investigation, the case does not need to be open to the public," said Sheriff Lewis.
In December, when the Texas State Attorney General ruled the sheriff had to turn over evidence requested by the family, he filed a lawsuit against the attorney general.
"That's all legal stuff that I don't have to handle," said Lewis.
But it was the sheriff's attorneys that filed the counter-lawsuit.
"If there comes a point to where there is a suspect or there is criminal activity, then I've got to have everything, all my ducks in a row to get that thing done and get it accomplished and push it through the justice system," said Lewis.
Attorney Rosanna Abreo, who represents the Brown family, believes releasing some evidence, including all of the video showing what's believed to be Thomas's truck that night, could finally bring the family and the community some closure.
"We see crime videos all the time on the news or on shows, and, you know, maybe it'll spark something with somebody," Abreo tells Crime Watch Daily.
But so far the only video the family has been able to obtain is the one from the 2nd Street business, which was given to them by the owner.
Is that something you would release to the media?
"Not at this point," said Lewis.
Even though it may lead to tips, information?
"We want the investigation to stay not public," said Sheriff Nathan Lewis.
For a mother who's been desperately trying to find her son for more than a year, that simply doesn't make sense.
"It seems to me that it's more political than it is about a young man's life who hangs in the balance, or about a family who should be able to grieve their son, who is possibly not living," said Penny Meek.
Sheriff Lewis says he understands her frustrations.
"I absolutely do," said Sheriff Lewis. "It has been hard not telling the family and anybody, you know, things that I would like to tell them. But it's not hiding anything from them."
He says the community can rest assured that the investigation is moving forward.
"There's so much happening. There's things we're looking at, there's things that we still have in a crime lab, there's things that we're still analyzing, that's coming from Texas DPS," said Sheriff Lewis. "We want to get the piece of the puzzle that leads us to Tom Brown."
One thing both teams of investigators agree on: Someone in Canadian isn't telling the truth.
You think someone knows something?
"Someone knows something," said Lewis.
What would you say to them?
"Come forth. Let's get this taken care of," said Lewis.
But until then, everyone has their own answer to the one question that's on everyone's mind: Where is Thomas Brown?
You believe he was murdered?
"Yes, I do," said Christian Webb.
By someone he knew?
"Yes, just because how small Canadian is," Christian said. "It makes going home very difficult."
Is your brother alive?
"I believe that yes, he is alive," said Tucker Brown.
Do you think your son is out there?
"I would like to think that he is, but I have no idea," said Penny Meek.
On Jan. 26, 2018, the Hemphill County Sheriff's Office requested the Texas Attorney General's Office take over the investigation after public dissatisfaction about the county attorney's lawsuit against the A.G.'s Office.
There is a $40,000 reward offered for information in the case. If you have any information about the case, contact the Texas Attorney General's Office at (512) 463-2191, or submit a tip to Crime Watch Daily.