Ware County names suspect in 1991 killing

Despite never finding body, man to be prosecuted on murder charge

Craig Lester Thrift (right) is charged with the May 1991 abduction and murder of Terry Eugene Rouse.

WAYCROSS, Ga. – The Ware County Sheriff's Office has issued a warrant for the arrest of Craig Lester Thrift in the 1991 disappearance and killing of Terry Eugene Rouse.

Sheriff Randy Royal stated that about 8 p.m. Tuesday, a warrant was issued to the Ware County Sheriff's Office for Thrift's arrest.

The Georgia State Patrol found Rouse's 1979 Ford Thunderbird sitting near the railroad tracks at the entrance to Okefenokee Swamp Park on the afternoon of May 11, 1991. When park employees said it had been sitting there all day, it was reported as an abandoned vehicle.

Since Rouse's clothes and personal items were in the car and no one had heard from him, a missing persons investigation began. Investigators learned Rouse attended a party the night before and left between 5 and 6 a.m. the day he disappeared.

"During the course of the investigation, detectives and agents followed many leads that always resulted in a dead end, but we never gave up," said Ware County Sheriff Randy Royal.

Between the Sheriff's Office and the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, hundreds of leads were followed between 1991 and 1997, but none definitely established what happened to Terry.

Out of numerous suspects identified over the years, the only one the sheriff said was never cleared was Thrift, who refused to submit to a polygraph test in 1997 and told detectives, "Without a body you don't have anything and I'm not taking a test."

Soon after, Thrift moved from Ware to Camden County and the investigation became a cold case.

Royal said he asked that the Rouse case be re-evaluated after he took office in 2009.

"Terry Rouse and Craig Thrift were best friends as well as cousins, and that they also worked together in the concrete business," Royal said. "At the time of the disappearance, Thrift had a suspended driver's license and Rouse was his means of transportation to work on most mornings."

Earlier this year, Ware County detectives were told by acquaintances of Thrift that he confessed to them he killed Rouse over an affair that Rouse was having with Thrift's wife. Royals said Thrift told several people he physically assaulted Rouse and shot him with a gun, then hid his body.

Last week, Ware and Camden County detectives jointly executed a search warrant at Thrift's home and seized marijuana and firearms. The Sheriff's Office said other items of interest in the missing persons case were seized.

Thrift, 47, of Woodbine, was arrested and booked into the Camden County Jail on charges of possession of marijuana with intent to distribute and possession of a firearm during the commission of a crime.

Tuesday afternoon, Waycross District Attorney Rick Currie reviewed the evidence and decided to proceed with a murder prosecution without the body.

"While I wish that I could report that Mr. Rouse has been found alive and well, the investigation has proven otherwise," Royal said. "This is a very tragic case that has haunted the Terry Rouse family and Ware County for nearly 21 years."