The Vanishing Man
One-time prep basketball sensation Rico Harris set off for a new life in Seattle … and disappeared
Two months ago, Officer Danny Del Castillo of the Yolo County Sheriff’s Office in Northern California pulled into Lower Site, a parking lot pushed back from the winding, seldom-used Route 16. His job was to survey the area, to look around various campgrounds and rest stops and take note of anything out of the ordinary. When Del Castillo noticed the same black Nissan Maxima he had spotted the day before pulled up tightly against a row of bushes, alarms immediately went off in his head.
He stepped out of his police cruiser that Oct. 14 and walked toward the car. The doors were locked and the interior was in disarray — CDs, credit cards and papers were scattered across the floor. Del Castillo ran the license plate. The car wasn’t stolen, and there were no outstanding tickets or warrants. He next called his headquarters in Woodland, 40 miles south, and the sheriff there decided the best thing to do would be to contact local authorities where the car was registered. That happened to be in Alhambra, a working-class town just northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Soon, two Alhambra police officers walked up the steps toward a small yellow duplex and rang the doorbell. When Margaret Fernandez answered the front door and was told officers had found an abandoned car belonging to her eldest son, her face flushed white.
Not a week earlier, Rico Harris had driven 1,100 miles from Seattle — where he had recently relocated to be closer to his girlfriend, Jennifer Song — to Alhambra in order to pick up some belongings and see his family. At 6-foot-9, Harris had gained more than 80 pounds since his basketball-playing days, when he was once mentioned alongside future NBA star Paul Pierce as the best high school player in California. Harris later had a short-lived career as a member of the Harlem Globetrotters. Now at 37, his stomach sagged and his knees wobbled, but he still had the same round face and piercing eyes from his youth.
Harris’ trip to Alhambra was brief. He had dinner with his brother, then spoke to his mom and retrieved a few mementos and keepsakes before turning around and heading on the 18-hour drive back toward Seattle, a place that, to him, represented a new start and a chance to peel away the scars of a tumultuous and often destructive life.
The next day, Harris had plans to attend a barbecue with Song and meet some of his new neighbors, followed by a scheduled job interview with a real estate appraising company in Seattle. It was a big deal. When Harris had a job, they were mostly labor-intensive occupations that relied on his God-given size or athletic talent: basketball player, security guard, large-order cook.
Now, as Harris confided to his girlfriend, he could finally be respected for his mind.
As he drove up Interstate 5, Harris called his mother. He later spoke to his brother and his roommate, before sending a text to confirm the job interview. At about 10:45 a.m., just north of Sacramento, he called Song. If he felt uneasiness about going back to Seattle, he didn’t let on. Instead, Harris told her he was going “up into the mountains to rest.” He likely hadn’t slept more than a few minutes in more than 36 hours. Half an hour later, his phone lost reception for good.
After Del Castillo found Harris’ car, almost five days after Harris left the LA area, a search and rescue team began scouring the hills and the creek along Route 16. Dogs and helicopters were called in. A team on quads and motorcycles took to the terrain, while an airplane equipped with a heat-sensing device flew overhead.
Three days later, the rescue efforts slowed. There was no body and few clues as to where Harris could be. The search team finally disbanded and everyone left the Capay Valley with the same question: How could a 6-foot-9, 300-pound man just simply vanish into thin air?
How could a 6-foot-9, 300-pound man just simply vanish into thin air?
As the last few seconds of the 1997 California Community College state championship game in San Jose ticked off, Rico Harris let out a tight smile before allowing his lips to widen until his whole face was beaming with pride. He had led an underdog Los Angeles City College (LACC) squad to its first state title over heavily favored San Jose City College. It was only his first year at the school, but Harris had devastated opponents throughout the playoff tournament. “He could do it all,” his teammate Derrick Anderson told me. “He was Lamar Odom before Lamar Odom.”
On the court, Harris was a free spirit. He grew up worshipping Magic Johnson and the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers and played with the same fluidity of his idol. One moment, he stepped to the perimeter and launched NBA-range threes. The next, he led the fast break, firing no-look passes. Then he’d head under the basket and turn slower big men inside out with a series of Dream Shakes and McHale-esque fakes.
Margaret Fernandez often said her son “was born to play basketball.” At least, if you watched him during that magical run to the state title, it seemed that way. But just four years earlier, he was a shy, lanky 15-year-old who had grown tired of basketball and gave the sport up. Harris decided he wanted to become an actor, so with his best friend, David Lara, who grew up across the street, he commuted an hour and half each way to Hollywood High School.
After a year, the urge to play again was too strong and Harris left Hollywood High. While living at his mother’s home in Alhambra, he used the home address of his father (now divorced from Fernandez) to enroll for his junior year at nearby Temple City High School.
Harris only played two years of high school ball, but his talent was so transcendent, so natural, that he immediately turned Temple City High — a previous backwater in the competitive prep basketball landscape — into a must-see destination for scouts and basketball aficionados.
“Somehow, this small high school team landed Rico,” David Benezra, Harris’ summer AAU coach said, “and other teams would double- and triple-team him. But you could just watch for a couple plays and you could see the player he could be.”
The eldest of four children, Harris grew up in a tiny two-bedroom duplex. With his father absent, and his mother struggling with a full-time job, he was the glue that held the family together. His mom would say, “I don’t know how my kid has so many qualities me and his dad don’t have — patient, loving, super enthusiastic.”
I don’t know how my kid has so many qualities me and his dad don’t have — patient, loving, super enthusiastic.
In high school, though, Harris was shy and initially withdrawn. He struggled in class and only found safe haven on the basketball court. Then he met Melinda Young, a radiant brunette who helped give him the foundation he sought. “She was the love of his life. Her family embraced him and he spent a lot of time over there,” Lara said. “They were very academically inclined.” Harris became more outgoing and studied hard, earning himself a 3.0 GPA.
On the court Harris was nearly unguardable. He averaged 28 points and 15 rebounds during his senior season and was recognized — along with future NBA players Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and Chauncey Billups — as one of the top players from the western United States.
And when the buzzer sounded at San Jose State’s Event Center, a 67-62 victory for LACC, a sweat-drenched Harris looked up into stands to find his girlfriend and his mother, who attended all his games, surrounded by college coaches from every major conference in the country hoping to catch his gaze. A few weeks later, Harris committed to Jim Harrick’s revival at the University of Rhode Island.
“At the time it was a proud moment, but we knew it was just the beginning,” Fernandez said. The family has few pictures of the celebrations after the game, and none from the party that followed, but why would they? This was a moment that should have only been a footnote in a long, illustrious hoops career.
Rico Harris, 19 years old, had received a winner’s medal and the state MVP trophy. He had also reached, perhaps, the pinnacle of his adult life.
While riding through the Capay Valley in the passenger seat of an unmarked Dodge Charger, Detective Dean Nyland leans toward me, his bushy black and white mustache jumping up and down as he talks. Each time a gurgling voice buzzes through his police radio, he’ll pause, listen and then resume his thought. A native of Southern California, Nyland left the automotive industry eight years ago and headed north to Woodland to become a police officer then detective in the Yolo County Sheriff’s Department.
When he talks about his job, Nyland’s face lights up. “There’s a rush when you solve the big cases,” he tells me. “I still have the enthusiasm as if I was a 21-year-old just starting out.”
Most of Nyland’s cases involve stolen property or local disputes. Occasionally, he’ll get handed a missing persons file. “Most cases are runaways. You do your work and you write it off because you have other cases to do,” he says. “But this one has me consumed.”
When the Harris case landed on his desk, he first contacted AT&T to map out Harris’ movements using the cell towers his phone was pinging from before he lost phone service. In his Charger, Nyland then began retracing the route, at least 12 or 13 times by his count: North on I-5, east of Route 20, before pausing and turning around and heading west back across I-5, then turning south toward the Capay Hills on Route 16.
“I drive up here and just try to understand what was on his mind,” Nyland says. He looks for traces of blood or loose clothing. One time, after he drove back through the valley on his way home, he thought he might have glimpsed a pair of unusual tire markings so he returned first thing in the morning only to find it was just the evening light reflected across the pavement.
As we venture further up Route 16, the hills roll alongside us, then jut skyward, almost vertically, as the small, winding Cache Creek carves a path through the valley. At a sharp turn in the road, Nyland pulls onto a patch of gravel. We get out and he points to a yellow ribbon tied to the rail, signifying where Harris’ backpack and phone were found — nearly two miles from Lower Site, where Harris’ car was spotted.
After searching through the backpack, Nyland saw only a charger and a number of, as he puts it, “nonconsequential items.” There were no rips of the backpack cloth or scuffs on the phone. It seemed as if they had been neatly placed on the side of the road. He would later conclude they were left there by Harris, either accidentally or because he wanted to avoid detection through his phone’s GPS transmitter.
When we eventually wind our way up to Lower Site, it’s quiet and only a single car is parked in the distance. The lot faces a white structure of bathrooms and a series of hiking trails, one across the creek up into the hills and smaller trails along the water. Nyland leads me toward the banks of the creek, stops and looks down at the dirt. He points out exactly where Harris’ size 18 shoe prints were spotted in the first days after he was reported missing, as well a single size 18 insole.
Nyland then gazes out across the calm knee-deep creek glistening under the sunlight, “To him,” he says, “to see this, this must have been heaven.”
Three weeks into the investigation, Nyland has only theories as to where Harris could be. Each time his phone rings he looks down with a tinge of hope that someone on the other end will have some bit of information that will help unlock the case and he can tell Harris’ family something, but so far every tip has just led him in circles.
“It’s hard because I have other cases, and not only do I not have time but I’m not motivated,” he says. “I want to find this guy.”
Jim Harrick was in the process of building a formidable program at the University of Rhode Island. Lamar Odom was on his way, alongside Zach Marbury, but Rico Harris was the final piece in Harrick’s plan. Two years earlier Harrick had recruited Harris while he was the head coach at UCLA, but Harris, despite his strong high school grade point average, struggled taking tests and had bombed the SATs. UCLA had no choice but to pull its scholarship offer. Harris decided to instead sign with Arizona State as a Prop 48 candidate out of high school, meaning he could attend class his freshman year but couldn’t play.
It’s hard because I have other cases, and not only do I not have time but I’m not motivated. I want to find this guy.
At Arizona State — and without basketball as his anchor — Harris struggled to adjust and would call home daily. He reverted back to the shy Rico of his youth, silent in class and with few close friends. But soon enough, his name would be all over the ASU campus. In March of 1996, he was arrested for an incident involving teammates Gee Gervin (son of NBA Hall of Famer George Gervin) and Tommie Prince. Two women accused the players of holding them against their will and forcing them to perform sex acts.
While all three were arrested on suspicion of false imprisonment, Harris was the only one not accused of the more serious charge of sexual assault. All charges were later dropped when investigators stated the women gave conflicting stories to police. Nonetheless, ASU officials asked Harris to sit out another basketball season. He refused.
Deeply embarrassed Harris returned home to be close to his mom and girlfriend, Melinda. That’s when he enrolled at Los Angeles City College, a two-year community college, with a renewed focus and hope for a fresh start.
Under coach Mike Miller, Harris was allowed to fully express himself on the court, sliding from under the hoop to out on the perimeter and everywhere in between. After winning the state title in his first season, Harris had one class to pass — a psychology course — before he could attend Rhode Island. But halfway through the semester, he stopped going to class and failed the course. As the Los Angeles Times surmised back then, “It’s almost as if Harris purposefully failed the summer class to avoid heading east.” Unable to transfer to a four-year university, Harris returned to LACC for a second season.
The problem, however, was that Harris no longer wanted to be at LACC, either. Harris was so much more talented than anyone he was playing against that his focus waned. He had one foot out of the door but with no place to go. Harris instead began partying and drinking with his brother, Tito, with whom he shared an apartment across the street from campus, as well as some of his teammates.
While others sobered up, Harris would cure his hangover with a beer in the morning, another one before practice and a few before bed. Derrick Anderson, his former teammate, recalls one time when Harris showed up to a game after a particularly long night out.
“I’ll never forget, we were playing at home, and he came in and we were already in the lay-up line and he got in the warm-up line with black sunglasses on,” Anderson says. “He probably didn’t get no sleep and up all night — then dropped like 35 that game.”
Harris inherited his rare ability from his father Henry, who was also a gifted basketball player. A star forward for Idaho State University in the mid-70s, Henry Harris met Rico’s mother, Margaret Fernandez, when she was 17 and he was in LA playing in a semipro league. She soon became pregnant with Rico and, within the year, they moved to Oregon together where Henry had a job offer.
Their relationship was a combustible mix of passion and violence. They would be inseparable for long stretches. Then Henry’s mood would turn without warning, and he would verbally and physically abuse her, according to Fernandez. They returned to Los Angeles and had three more children, and as their kids grew up Henry would berate them as well, imposing his disappointments and the abuse his father had doled out on him onto his young children — especially the eldest, Rico, who recoiled under the generational rage that fell squarely on his shoulders.
Margaret eventually ended the relationship for good and moved to Alhambra. Henry rarely stopped by to see his children. Even when Rico was lighting up Southern California on the court at Temple City High, a few blocks from Henry’s apartment, his dad never showed up to a single game, according to Fernandez.
Paradoxically, it seemed the better Harris played on the court, the more he craved his father’s affection. When he was 17, in one of the few times Henry came by to check on him, Rico excitedly turned to greet him. As he did, Henry spotted an earring in Rico’s ear. In a fury, Henry turned and grabbed a hockey stick and beat him across the chest, according to Fernandez. Rico was stunned and retreated to his room. Rico justified the attack by saying it was just his father’s “defect” and continued to ask around about his dad, to see if he needed any help. Two years later Rico hoped to reconcile and start their relationship anew, but Henry told him he wasn’t cut out to be a father.
During Harris’ second year at LACC, as his scoring average increased during the season, so too did his drinking.
“Rico was like most of us just trying to escape,” says Antonio Simpson, one of Rico’s teammates at LACC. “He realized people supported him for what he could do on the court. He knew it wasn’t real, so he tried to escape to what he thought was real.”
When Harris drank, he isolated himself. He had grown apart from his friends, he went home less on weekends, and his relationship with Melinda had broken down completely — they rarely spoke. He’d turn the lights down low and slowly sip from a bottle. He didn’t become playful or even violent, Simpson says. Instead, he shrunk into the recesses of his mind, attempting to untangle his complicated thoughts.
As the season ended and more college recruiters came by the gym, Harris didn’t return their calls or even open their letters. “The recruiting process drove him crazy,” Simpson says. “He could see right through people.”
Harris felt college coaches were phony, telling him what he wanted to hear and seeing a value in his ability but not in his character, so he chose to bypass four-year colleges entirely and apply for the 1998 NBA Draft. Scouts thought so highly of him that he was invited to the premier pre-draft camp in Chicago. But a few days before it started, Harris felt he wasn’t ready and he pulled his name out of draft consideration.
Everyone assumed Harris would still join Harrick at Rhode Island the following season, but seeking guidance close to home, he called Bobby Braswell, the head coach at Cal State-Northridge and a disciplinarian he felt he could trust. They’d built a relationship three years earlier when Braswell recruited him while at the University of Oregon.
Braswell answered the phone and congratulated Harris on choosing Rhode Island. Harris informed him he was instead going to play ball for Northridge. Braswell, along with the greater college hoops community, was shocked. There had never been a player of his caliber — a potential NBA power forward — who had considered enrolling at little Cal State-Northridge.
Many observers, including his coach at LACC, felt Harris was sabotaging his future NBA prospects.
Those closest to Harris understood and applauded his decision. It was calculated and mature. He wasn’t ready to leave home and needed the guidance Braswell could provide. And, of course, Harris would help Braswell win the conference championships he so craved.
Fernandez continued coming to every home game, cheering from behind the bench, but it did little to assuage her eldest son. The anger Harris held so tightly was now pushing through his shy exterior. When he felt like all other relationships around him were crumbling, Harris knew he could trust alcohol. It was stable and consistent, always there and never judgmental. He argued with teammates and coaches and was suspended briefly early into his first season.
And yet, his talent was still obvious. Harris averaged more than 10 points a game and led the team in rebounds, but NBA team scouts could see the downward turn and stopped coming to his games. His name was all but gone from their lists of potential draft picks.
Toward the end of the season, Harris was again suspended for two games. When Braswell called him into the office to reinstate him, he never showed up and then left school entirely. Without any remaining eligibility, he had no choice but to venture away from LA and toward the sport’s minor leagues.
Harris bounced around with the International Basketball League’s San Diego Stingrays and St. Louis Storm. He even played a few games with a traveling team sponsored by rapper Master P. For a few weeks here and there, he was able to curtail his drinking. He would perfect his jumpshot while still clinging onto fanciful ideas of playing in the NBA.
Then, in the spring of 2000, Harris landed a gig with the Harlem Globetrotters. It wasn’t the NBA but he was content. A big man with the skills of a point guard, he fit perfectly into the Globetrotters’ traveling spectacle. His stint, however, lasted only a month.
On a night out with a girl in south Los Angeles, he had an argument with another group of people. Instead of driving off, he got out of his car to confront them. While talking to one of the men, someone picked up a baseball bat and whacked him across the back of the head.
Harris drove off under his own power, but soon he began having intense headaches and his balance was off. “It was part of the cycle of poor decision-making,” David Lara says. “From that point on, nothing was the same.”
Before he was 24 years old, Rico Harris’ once-promising basketball career was done.
Without a place to go and with no job, he returned to his childhood bedroom in his mother’s home as a broken man.
When Dean Nyland, the detective in Yolo County, first got ahold of Harris’ phone, he sifted through each message and phone call. He saw texts from Harris’ brother and roommate, as well as a couple of business-oriented messages. There were also the expected calls to his mother and girlfriend but little else of interest. There were no calls suggesting he was meeting anyone at Lower Site or anywhere else.
Further into Harris’ phone, Nyland noticed a series of photos and videos. The recent photos were misty landscape shots from the edge of Cache Creek toward the Capay Hills and some playful selfies, including one smiling in front of the Yolo County sign at the rest stop. The videos, according to Nyland, were taken as if by accident late Friday night, after Harris was supposed to be in Seattle. It’s nearly dark and what can be heard, the detective says, is Harris singing out of tune, and tossing the contents of his wallet and CDs across the car, clanking against the panel and steering wheel.
“When I see those videos,” Nyland says, “I see a free man.”
When the car was impounded, it was out of gas and the battery was dead. A closer search inside the vehicle turned up Harris’ wallet and most of his credit cards. There was no cash in the wallet and his new Washington state driver’s license was missing, as well as a Discover card, but it hadn’t been used. After printing out bank records from an account Harris shared with his girlfriend, Nyland saw no money had been taken out since he headed north to Seattle.
Nyland felt quite certain then that there was no foul play involved. Harris had come at his own behest and stayed there, in his car, through Friday night. On Saturday, the day of his job interview in Seattle, an eyewitness spotted him at 5:30 a.m. sitting on a guardrail overlooking the creek some 500 yards from where his phone was found. Another tipster said he was walking along Route 16 at around 8 a.m. … and then there’s nothing.
In order to figure out where Harris might have gone, Nyland knew he had to understand Harris better — his motivations and frustrations. Over the next few days, Nyland interviewed people close to Harris, starting with his girlfriend, Jennifer Song.
Nyland asked her why, if Harris was expected to be in Seattle on Friday night, she didn’t file a missing persons report until the following Tuesday — after the police had already contacted Harris’ mother — or just call the police. She claimed she had called his mother and that they agreed to wait, hoping he would eventually turn up on his own. Nyland could see in Harris’ phone that she had tried multiple times to connect with him, but it still didn’t seem like normal behavior to him, especially since she admitted Harris wasn’t especially prone to disappearing without warning. He’d done so only once for a few hours in San Diego.
Nyland briefly spoke to Harris’ brother, Tito, and his roommate, Wilfredo Mayorga. And while talking to Harris’ mother gave Nyland a better understanding of this missing man’s mindset, he still had no concrete leads to pursue. “We know when he left LA, where he stopped, and the route he took. We know where he was at least before noon that Friday,” Nyland tells me. “After that, there’s nothing we’re sure about.”
Meanwhile, as officers continued to canvas the area, they spotted something unusual. On Oct. 19, eight days after Harris left Los Angeles, a new trail of size 18 sneakers, not there in previous days, was spotted a few yards south of where Harris’ car was found. There was also an eyewitness who came forward claiming he’d seen a large man near where the shoe prints were spotted in the early morning hours the day before wearing light-colored pants, the same hue Harris was wearing when he left LA. Harris’ car was no longer in the parking lot, but Nyland thinks he returned for it. Then, like Bigfoot, he disappeared back into the woods or toward another town.
“Initially, he probably voluntarily walked away or got a ride. We have no sightings, so he probably got a ride,” Nyland says. “But how does this guy not pop up somewhere? I mean, big guy has to eat three or four times a day. … I can see how a lot of people who don’t stand out can disappear, but this guy stands out.”
Three weeks later, a larger search team was sent into the valley.
For seven long years, Rico Harris wandered the vast desert of addiction. He was depressed and would self-medicate with anything he could find. Without basketball, he had lost his sense of self and was left with only these raw, bitter emotions he’d long repressed.
His mother, who worked as a caregiver for elderly people, took care of everything. She cooked for him, bought him clothes and fed him. He was her child again. She had three sons, each of whom had their own substance abuse problems, each running from something they couldn’t see. She had learned she couldn’t force change and did her best not to judge but hope.
“That time was very difficult,” she tells me. “I just kept thinking he would snap out of it.”
But Harris didn’t. Instead, he moved to heroin, to crack, to meth. “Name a drug and he did it,” his friend David Lara says. “He would sniff Ajax just to feel the burn.”
Harris became a fixture on the Alhambra police blotter, arrested more than 100 times, by Lara’s count, and usually for public intoxication. He’d spend a couple nights in jail and then it was straight to the liquor store.
“It’s a local tragedy. He was the best ballplayer this city ever saw, and then you’d see him in the street, drunk and asking for quarters,” Lara says. “It was despair, bro. It was down there. It was the darkest of the dark.”
One time after another arrest, police put him in jail to sober up. There, according to Lara, in his drunken stupor Harris saw a man that looked vaguely familiar. He walked closer, then sized up the taller, older man.
Finally, he spoke. “Henry?”
His father turned and shook his hand. It was the first time they’d seen each other in years.
This didn’t lead to an epiphany about his destructive path. In fact, quite the opposite. “I remember one night I told him, ‘If you keep spiraling down the rabbit hole, the only way this ends is with you being dead,’” Lara says. Two weeks after that conversation, Harris was on the floor at his mom’s house, incoherent and vomiting.
I remember one night I told him, ‘if you keep spiraling down the rabbit hole, the only way this ends is with you being dead.’
After Harris’ 30th birthday, Lara had stopped by his childhood home across the street from where Harris was living. Soon, Fernandez came storming through their front door.
“It’s Rico!” she screamed. Lara ran across the street and there laying on the ground was Harris with bile and vomit stained on the side of his mouth. He was convulsing and cursing.
Lara consoled him while the ambulance came. In an urge to find a new high, Harris had overdosed on prescription pills. His family held vigil while doctors pumped his stomach.
A few days later, Harris was released from the hospital and sent home. He soon checked himself into the Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center in downtown Los Angeles and began the long, painful road toward sobriety.
Harris essentially had to rebuild his life. The hardest part was learning to let go of his anger toward others, but also, mostly, towards himself, for his own failures. He attended support group meetings daily, and his mom would come and sit by his side. She held his hand and pacified his fears.
Harris was given a job in the soup kitchen to help prepare the meals for the hundreds of patients in the clinic. He took to it immediately. He could use his math skills to calculate how big each meal was. He was needed, and the work gave him purpose.
“It took him a long time to get to that place where he was socially comfortable again. He had gone into his own world, so when he reemerged the world was a different place,” Lara says. “People had turned their back on him and were no longer interested in being his friend. He worked really hard to prove that he was a hard-working, good-natured, lovable human being,”
He made amends and mentored others, and soon volunteered at a shelter himself. When he finished the program, he got a job in the nearby city of Bell, working long hours in security detail.
Harris also made new friends who understood his struggle. One day at a time, they’d tell each other. He met Mayorga in this program. They became inseparable and moved into an apartment together near downtown LA. Then, at a party for a friend, Harris met someone.
Jennifer Song, a 34-year-old insurance broker, was in town from Seattle and they hit it off immediately. “He asked if I had an email,” she says. “He was very polite, very gentlemanly. A little shy, but he was a charmer.”
Harris hadn’t had a longterm relationship since his high school sweetheart Melinda, and he and Song decided to take it slow. For two years they flew back and forth for long weekends. He was nearing his seventh year of sobriety and he seemed happy. They talked about kids and marriage.
“If it’s a girl, let’s name her Gabrielle Sol,” they’d say. “A boy — Roice.”
In late September, he drove to Seattle with Song and moved into her place. He started to build a new community for himself and he soon found a potential job as an appraiser.
However, underneath there was a fear stirring. Before deciding to leave Southern California, he had a fight with his roommate over Song, according to Fernandez. Mayorga gave him an ultimatum: Me or the girl. Harris, always wanting to avoid conflict, left in the middle of the night, essentially ending their friendship and leaving Mayorga with all the bills.
Four days later he and Song left for Seattle. But soon he was beginning to question that decision. She could be controlling, according to interviews conducted by Nyland. They shared a Facebook page, credit cards and a bank account, and they were arguing in the days after he first arrived. His mother, perhaps not quite ready to let go, was also voicing concerns about his
relationship with Song, “It was always a honeymoon because they saw each other every three months or so. ‘It’s different if you live together,’” she told him.
In early October, Harris was feeling the weight of his past pulling him south. He knew he needed to go to back to Alhambra from Seattle to speak to his mother and closest brother and reconcile lingering issues. “I think he realized some things and he wanted to talk to her,” Song says. “I think there are things that happened in his childhood and early adult life that continued with his decision to move to Seattle. He wanted her to trust him and trust us and believe in our relationship.”
On the way south, he called David Lara. The childhood chums had rekindled their bond and now talked often. Lara was now married and finding success in the music industry. “He told me he wants what I have — family and kids,” Lara says. “He seemed to have his head together and had a plan to open himself up to experiences.”
Harris spent only a few hours in town. He had a meal with his brother and gave him a new cell phone, then spoke to his mother alone. Perhaps he was hoping to cut the cord from his youth, but when he left, he didn’t seem to be a man who had exorcised any past demons. “The last conversation with me,” Fernandez says, “he wasn’t in a good place and he had to clear his mind.”
After saying his goodbyes to his family, Harris picked up his final belongings. He left Alhambra near midnight under the cover of darkness, hoping to leave behind his scars. He headed straight north. As the sun came up, Interstate 5 spread apart in front of him like a fault line; the breaking apart of two lives. One life — destructive and redemptive — stared back at him through the rearview, while his new existence, full of the unknown, was pushing him tepidly forward.
He was alone, but he was free. Perhaps, he thought, if only he could stay suspended in this in-between realm, everything would be OK.
Harris stopped in Lodi, 40 miles south of Sacramento, to fill up his tank. After making a wrong turn, he corrected himself and passed north through Sacramento, eventually curling onto Route 16, until he was enveloped by the Capay Hills. When the sun reached its apex, he found a rest stop and pulled over.
A few days after Harris’ Nissan was impounded, Detective Dean Nyland found two plastic bottles inside, one empty and one half full, both smelled of hard alcohol.
Perhaps scars can’t be outrun after all.
I returned to the Sacramento area in mid-November. Nyland had just completed another and more extensive search through the valley. Cadaver dogs were brought out, and professional divers checked the sinkholes in the creek. The detective then rechecked local homeless shelters and transient camps. After a full weekend, again they found nothing. Rico Harris had been missing for six weeks, with barely a trace.
Nyland suspects he bought meth, so I drove from Woodland up to the town of Clearlake, known as a methhead haven, and spoke to one local vagrant. He declined to be named, but he was certain he’d seen Harris on the day he had arrived in the Capay Valley. He also said one of his friends had sold Harris meth in the Lower Site parking lot before he walked toward the creek. That’s all he knew.
Even if true, that explains only so much. In fact, either way, it explains nothing. With the unpredictability of a man possibly strung out on meth, he could now be anywhere, dead or alive.
Harris’ family has held onto the belief that he’s alive and well and just in hiding, taking some time away. They wonder if maybe he has another bank account he doesn’t share with his girlfriend.
The good detective, so consumed with thoughts of finding Harris, works on the case after his shift or while at home. Each time I speak to him, he rehashes what he knows. “I do believe the man left LA torn and conflicted,” Nyland says. “This is going through his mind as he’s coming up. I can see him making that left as he goes through the mountains. I can see him just wanting to hike or listen to his music, just get out of Dodge. ‘Hey, I don’t have to be here,’ he thought.”
Without fail, Nyland always hits the same dead end: “But what happened after that?”
On my second trip to Lower Site, I stand once again alongside Nyland on the banks of Cache Creek. I’ve brought a film crew to interview Nyland and film the spot where Harris disappeared. When the camera stops filming, Nyland lets his collar loose and breathes out. I look over at him as his eyes scan the hillside slowly one more time, then the creek, then down across the dirt in front of him, looking for something he’s missed, for a wandering man stuck between two worlds.
Nyland exhales again, and I walk away and allow him to sit with his thoughts, the ones that have consumed him for the last six weeks. They are the same thoughts of the missing man’s family, and they always start the same way.
Where are you, Rico?
FLINDER BOYD is a former European professional basketball player turned writer. His features have appeared at Newsweek, SBNation Longform, and on the BBC among others. He grew up in Los Angeles, before attending Dartmouth College and later Queen Mary, University of London. On Twitter he can be found @FlinderBoyd.