Cherita Janice Thomas

Thomas, circa 1980; Jimmie Nelson, circa 2004

  • Missing Since 08/03/1980
  • Missing From AuSable Township, Michigan
  • Classification Endangered Missing
  • Sex Female
  • Race Black
  • Age 20 years old
  • Height and Weight 5'5, 135 pounds
  • Clothing/Jewelry Description A white blouse and maroon pants.
  • Associated Vehicle(s) Brown AMC Matador (accounted for), Blue pickup truck
  • Distinguishing Characteristics African-American female. Black hair, brown eyes. Some agencies give Thomas's middle name as "Janet." She smokes cigarettes.

Details of Disappearance

Thomas in AuSable Township, Michigan on August 3, 1980. She and her friend and next-door neighbor, Patricia Call, went out for drinks at a local bar and then to a baseball game. They left Thomas's four-year-old daughter and Call's two children with Call's sister.

Thomas left the game before Call, driving Call's brown AMC Matador. She planned to pick up the children from the babysitter, leave Call's truck in her driveway, then go home.

While Thomas was en route to Call's sister's home, the car stalled at the intersection of U.S. 23 and River Road. Three passersby helped her get it started again, but it stalled once more on Sunset Street, about two blocks from the babysitter's home and barely a mile from the local police station.

Thomas was seen on Sunset Street 11:15 p.m., getting into a blue pickup truck driven by a bearded Caucasian male. The truck drove off in the direction of Old U.S. 23.

When Call arrived home, her car wasn't in her driveway like Thomas said it would be. She called her sister, who told her Thomas had never arrived at her house to collect the children. Call went to Thomas's home and found her fiance, who said Thomas had never arrived home.

They went out to look for her and found the AMC Matador parked on the roadside. The car keys were missing, but Thomas's cigarettes, house keys and a note with directions to the babysitter's home were inside the vehicle. Thomas has never been seen or heard from again.

In 2004, investigators arrested Jimmie Allen Nelson in Houston, Texas and charged him with lying to police and obstructing the investigation into Thomas's disappearance and probable murder. He was Call's brother-in-law, and had participated in the original search for Thomas. A photo of Nelson is posted with this case summary.

In January 2005, he was charged with Thomas's murder as well as additional counts of perjury. He lived on Sunset Street with his wife and children in 1980, and worked at an area logging company. He resembled the man Thomas was last seen with, and he drove a blue truck.

Police investigated Nelson shortly after Thomas's disappearance, but he was not a serious suspect in the case because a violent federal fugitive had been seen in the area around the time she disappeared and the authorities thought it was he who had abducted Thomas.

Investigators interviewed the fugitive in prison thirteen years later, but he had an alibi for the time Thomas disappeared and was ruled out as a suspect. The focus returned to Nelson.

Nelson gave inconsistent statements about the day Thomas vanished: at first he had denied seeing Thomas the day of her disappearance, but he later admitted that he was the one who gave her a ride when her car broke down.

He said he took her to a friend's home and then to Wiltse's Restaurant. The restaurant was closed, but employees who were cleaning the establishment let her inside anyway. He said he had not told authorities about this earlier because Thomas had asked him not to. Other witnesses reported that Nelson had asked them to lie for him to back up his story, but they refused to help him.

In October 2005, the murder charge and nine of the perjury charges against Nelson was dismissed for lack of evidence. In October 2006, he was convicted of five counts of perjury and one count of obstruction of justice, but acquitted of eight other perjury charges.

He was sentenced to one year in jail and two years on probation; he could have faced a maximum of twenty years' incarceration. Because Nelson was given credit for time served while awaiting trial, he spent less than a month in custody before he was released.

In April 2009, Nelson was again charged with Thomas's murder. He was convicted of second-degree murder in her case in October 2010 and sentenced to 25 to 50 years in prison. Authorities theorized Thomas's death was a racially motivated hate crime. She lived in a predominantly Caucasian, conservative area, and Nelson had a reputation as a violent racist.

In February 2014, the case against Nelson was overturned, in part because the prosecutor requested it. According to the court, some new evidence has surfaced that implicates another individual in Thomas's presumed murder, and under the circumstances a jury would probably not find Nelson guilty behind a reasonable doubt.

This evidence has been sealed from public view. It's unclear whether anyone else will face charges in Thomas's case.

Foul play is suspected in Thomas's case due to the circumstances involved.

Updated 10 times since October 12, 2004. Last updated March 2, 2014; details of disappearance updated.