Timothy Carney left his Butler apartment early in the morning, the way he always did, but failed to attend a church prayer meeting that was part of his usual routine. He called work and said he'd be a little late because of the rain.
His car was found days later, abandoned at a Newark construction site on Route 21.
More than three years later, his parents say they still believe he's alive and are trying to rekindle interest in the case.
They used to argue with their son about his membership in the Pequannock-based Gospel Outreach Church, saying he had been donating a large chunk of his salary to the church and sometimes was so broke that he borrowed money from co-workers for lunch and even to pay tolls on the way home. They said he wanted to leave the church and may have disappeared to accomplish that goal.
But those who know him also say he was close to his parents, and his failure to call them deepens the mystery. Carney's parents say they can't be sure whether their son disappeared on his own, as they said police told them was the most likely scenario, or whether he was the victim of a random crime.
"We thought he would be back after a week," said Phyllis Carney of Edison, Timothy's mother.
Officials with the Kristen Foundation, a nonprofit group from North Carolina that specializes in helping to find missing adults, heard about the case last year. The foundation paid $500 to put up a billboard visible from the northbound lanes on Route 23 in the Butler area.
The sign, which includes a picture of Carney, went up last month and will remain until the end of January. The Carneys said they hope someone will see the billboard and recognize him.
"I want to know, is he well? Does he have amnesia? Is he in the state?" Phyllis Carney said.
Law enforcement officials have labeled Carney a missing person and say the case remains open. The 25-year-old left his apartment on Sept. 28, 2004, and was last seen by his roommate at 5 a.m., according to a police report. He failed to show up at a 7 a.m. prayer meeting, according to the report, and the last time anyone heard from him was 8:20 a.m., when he called work, a state unemployment office in Elizabeth.
Days later, $1,000 was withdrawn from his bank account.
Phyllis Carney said she recognized her son in a bank video surveillance tape of the withdrawal even though his face was obscured and he was wearing a baseball cap - and he was never known to wear baseball caps. She said $100 was left in the bank account.
"I still get bank statements in the mail every month," she said.
Timothy Carney spent more than four years before his disappearance as a member of the Gospel Outreach Church, which met at various locations.
Some of the church's practices had been compared to a cult in a lawsuit filed in Passaic County three years ago by a former member. The suit claimed church members were pressured to give large donations - as much as 25 percent of their salaries - that members were berated, and that some gave up careers and worked for companies connected to the church, according to a published report at the time.
Gospel Outreach officials filed a federal lawsuit in 2005 - since dismissed - against some of their detractors claiming, among other things, that the church had been harmed by those who wrongly compared it to a cult. They also said in the suit that they had been unfairly implicated in Carney's disappearance. Church officials did not respond to messages last week.
Ronald Rhodes, 40, a plaintiff in the lawsuit against Gospel Outreach, said he can't talk about the church because of an out-of-court settlement. He did talk about his friend, Carney, last week, describing him as a likeable, quiet young man who loved to read and who was especially fond of Tolkien. An English major at Montclair State University, Carney used to write short stories, according to his parents.
Carney talked about leaving the church more than a year before he disappeared, Rhodes said, but was dissuaded. Rhodes said Carney always talked about his family, his parents and two sisters, even though visits home weren't encouraged.
"He would sneak home to see his parents," said Rhodes, who lives in Pompton Lakes. "That was a no-no."
Rhodes added that he would have expected Carney to call his family at some point, had he simply gone away on his own.
"He loved his family," Rhodes said.
Carney also was fond of his church and its pastor, James Lethbridge, his parents said last week. Carney lived for a time in a house rented for the men of the church while women lived in separate quarters. He later moved into an apartment with another church member. And his girlfriend was a church member, his parents and others who knew him said, although they broke up at some point, possibly because Carney had college loans.
"The group doesn't believe in having debt," said Beth Davies, who used to run a cult support group at a Passaic County church and is friendly with several former Gospel Outreach members.
Davies said Carney was considered a "weaker brother" at the church because he was quiet and reserved. The church had about 35 members at the time, she said. It's unclear how many still belong, or where it meets, although the church does have a voice mail message at a local phone number.
No one responded to messages left by the Daily Record at that number last week. Lethbridge, the pastor, did not return messages left on his home phone.
Gospel Outreach filed a federal lawsuit in 2005 against various people, including Rhodes and Davies, who allegedly disparaged it. Church officials said in court papers that Butler police were given information by church critics and had questioned members about the pastor's finances as part of their investigation into Carney's disappearance. They claimed that police harassed one member and eventually offered an apology.
Butler Police referred all questions last week to officials in the Morris County Prosecutor's Office, who said they didn't have enough details about the investigation conducted more than three years ago to comment.
Church officials also claimed in the lawsuit that defendants knew the whereabouts of Timothy Carney, and had conspired to keep it a secret. Church officials said they believed Carney had been sent to a cult deprogramming center in Ohio called Wellspring Retreat and Resource Center.
"It was absurd," Davies said of the claim, adding that she had referred some people to Wellspring, which offers a two-week program
The suit was dismissed by U.S. District Court Judge Harold Ackerman, who said the charges didn't belong in a federal court. The judge also said in his written decision that the church seemed to be using the lawsuit to gain publicity and to "intimidate and harass defendants" because of the lawsuit filed against it by Rhodes.