Life is less bright for the friends and family members of 72-year-old Joyce Thomas, who are praying for the day they’ll see the Ville Platte woman’s warm smile again.

Thomas has been missing since Wednesday, when she was last seen at her apartment complex on Chataignier Street in Ville Platte. Phillip DeWoody, a 53-year-old from Opelousas, was arrested Friday on a count of aggravated kidnapping in her disappearance, but family members and friends said they don’t feel any closer to answers or Thomas’ safe return.

DeWoody has a lengthy criminal history, including armed robbery convictions and convictions for a 1993 prison escape that include a second-degree kidnapping charge for holding a Lincoln Parish prison guard at knifepoint. He was paroled in June 2019, according to records from the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections.

About 50 people prayed outside Thomas’ apartment complex Sunday . Supporters clasped hands and bowed their heads in front of white poster scrawled with messages like “Lord, show us where she is…guide us” and “God send her home.”

Family members said they’re trying to remain focused on her recovery.

Jermaine Gallow, Thomas’ nephew, said his aunt is a strong woman. She and her sisters are women who speak their minds, assert themselves and don’t allow themselves to be pushed around. She has fire inside of her, Gallow said.

“I have a feeling she’s still alive because she’s a strong woman,” he said. “She’s going to put up a fight.”

Gallow said he’s visited Thomas’ apartment every day since she disappeared to ring the doorbell and knock, hoping each time that she’ll open the door. Gallow said he comes by the complex to visit Thomas and his uncle, Larry Thomas, almost every day and is struggling not being able to see her.

The 42-year-old said he’s fighting to remain positive and to keep spirits up for his other aunts and uncles.

“If I hurt, they hurt and I’m trying to keep them confident and keep them strong until we get more information. We’re not fearing the worst, we’re hoping for the best. It’s just hard not seeing her. It’s very hard,” Gallow said.

Lance Thomas, Joyce Thomas’ grandson, said the weight of his grandmother’s disappearance has been incredible, but he’s leaning on his family, faith and his experience in the U.S. Army National Guard to keep his focus on finding her. 

Lance Thomas said his grandmother is unlike anyone else.

“She’s the best person to be around in all aspects,” he said.

He described his grandmother as a woman of high standards, who expects the best of herself and the best of others. She wants everyone to give their all in everything they do and when she gives love and respect to others, she expects it in return, he said.

She’s also funny and loves to poke fun and tease her friends and loved ones. Though deaf and mute, Joyce Thomas always finds a way to express her thoughts and feelings with others, Lance Thomas said.

“While she may not be able to talk to you, she could always communicate, even if you never met her a day in your life. She had a certain communication skill. She’s a very strong people’s person,” he said.

A surveillance photo released by family members depicted a man at Joyce Thomas’ apartment door the morning she disappeared. Law enforcement officials have not confirmed if the photo was of DeWoody, but the two men have similar features.  

Haley Gallow, 38, said she visits the apartment complex daily to care for her mother and the other residents. She and Joyce Thomas built a strong relationship and the older woman loved to play with her 11-month-old daughter, sweeping her up into hugs and planting kisses on her head, Haley Gallow said.

“She was kind. All she wanted to do was make you understand her, and she wanted to understand you,” she said.

The 72-year-old was also discerning, and when she met someone, or they knocked on her door, she’d analyze their face to assess their facial expression and mood. If she didn’t trust you, she wasn’t afraid to slam the door in your face, Haley Gallow said.

Rose Ben, Joyce Thomas’ neighbor, agreed the 72-year-old was particular about who she would let into her apartment. The two were neighbors for six years and Ben said she knew Joyce Thomas to let very few people inside; maintenance staff only came to check her television and she’d meet Meals on Wheels volunteers or prescription deliveries at the complex’s front door, Ben said.

“I’m still believing that this can’t be happening,” she said.

Ben said she would see Joyce Thomas every morning like clockwork as she did her laundry. She saw her Wednesday morning before she disappeared around 9 a.m. and has been missing her since, she said.

While sharing thoughts about Joyce Thomas, Ben told the gathered prayer group how her neighbor would scratch and tap on her wall at night if her television was too loud, feeling the vibrations through the wall.

“I could use that little scratch right now,” she said.


Email Katie Gagliano at kgagliano@theadvocate.com