His dreams of basketball stardom vanished first. Now his mother says, ‘I am not giving up on finding my son’

Rico Harris slipped out of his mother’s duplex on a dead-end street in Alhambra and into the darkness.

The big man with “BALLIN IV LIFE” and a basketball tattooed on his left arm folded himself into a black Nissan Maxima. Harris had been awake for almost 30 hours. His mother had urged him to rest at home for a few hours. He seemed out of sorts.

Late on the warm October night 2½ years ago, the car would have been another anonymous streak of lights winding north on Interstate 5. Each mile pulled Harris farther from his past.

Some of the country’s top college basketball programs once pursued him. At Temple City High School, he clung to a childhood goal of being a first-round pick in the NBA draft. Harris fixated on providing for his mother when — not if — he made it. And, really, fulfilling the dream seemed inevitable for the 6-foot-9 kid with an uncanny ability to shoot a basketball.

“He fell off into his own world,” Lara said.

One day during that bleak time, Harris brought a badly injured kitten to his mother’s house. He found it alongside a road. He didn’t want it to die alone.

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The big man met Jennifer Song at an L.A. restaurant in early 2012 while he worked security. Harris snapped her picture; she was visiting from Seattle and asked if he could text it to her. That started their connection.

Harris had been sober for about five years, helped by a program in downtown L.A. operated by the Salvation Army after an overdose almost killed him. He eventually took a job as a cook for the organization, then helped out as a security guard at a homeless shelter in Bell.

“It was different dating someone who looked really normal, but slowly learning that he’s adjusting to life as a whole different person,” Song said during a brief interview.

Harris would vanish for four or five days without warning. That’s how he cleared his head. He loved to drive. Arizona. Nevada. The destination didn’t matter.

Harris worked security with Alataua Lilo at underground parties in L.A. for $25 an hour to supplement his job at the event management company. Even then, Harris dropped out of sight several times. He’d resurface with mysterious stories for Lilo about going on cruises (he wouldn’t say where) or meeting women (he never mentioned names or ages).

Sure, Harris could break up a fight with one push from his giant arms. But Lilo thought of him as a 300-pound teddy bear, maybe a little timid at first, a little slow to laugh at a joke. But Lilo couldn’t find a more loyal employee.

Lara noticed his friend grinning again, laughing, focused on the security career. But he wondered if Harris had traded one addiction for another, if work became a drug.

The same question nagged Song, but the relationship moved forward. They discussed having children. But he didn’t want them to experience the same pressure he felt playing basketball.

“He saw all the bad in it,” Song said.

::

They replay their last conversations with Harris, searching for clues. They wonder if a different word, a different reaction could’ve changed what happened.

Harris called while Lara parked at Disneyland. Harris said he had a rough couple of months, struggled with depression, started drinking again.

“He was a man who had been broken by many things, by life’s general weight, by the weight of dreams unfulfilled,” Lara said. “I think he was a broken human being.”

Harris sounded jittery when he spoke to Lilo and kept apologizing for disappointing him.

“I’m sorry,” Harris kept repeating. “I didn’t want to let you down.”

Lilo didn’t understand what his friend was talking about.

Harris drove alone from Seattle to Alhambra on Oct. 8 to collect more clothes at his mother’s house for a job selling time shares. He sipped a beer with his stepfather at the duplex and wondered if moving was the right choice.

“I said, ‘Then why are you doing it?’” Charles Taylor said. “He said, ‘Well, I’m ashamed of the things that happened down here and I want to start another life.’”

As Harris pulled clothes from bins, Fernandez told him about her disappointment in the relapse to end seven years of sobriety. She urged him to pull it together. He agreed and apologized.

“Something broke in him to the point where he felt like his comfort was going to be in alcohol,” Fernandez said. “He needed to self-medicate to make himself feel at least some kind of joy.”

::

Not long after authorities found the empty Nissan, a family returning from Sacramento noticed a cellphone on the pavement next to the road about a mile south of the park. The battery was dead, but the phone didn’t appear damaged. A black backpack leaned against the guardrail next to the phone. Inside were jumper cables, a few pieces of clothing and two bottles filled with what appeared to be alcohol and an energy drink.

The family told Sgt. Dean Nyland, the lead detective in the case, they searched without success for an owner.

On the phone, Nyland found a video of Harris sitting in the car at the park. The camera faced the dome light. Music blared as Harris tore through papers in the glove box and flung them around. His wallet — including credit cards — landed in the back seat amid the mess of paper.

“This is a pain that’s deep, that goes down to your core,” she said, wiping away tears that keep coming. “It’s like you’re on a merry-go-round and can’t get off. Nothing is going to quiet the pain. Nothing is going to make it go away. … He could be alive. Maybe he’s not. I don’t know what the truth is. I don’t know. People don’t just vanish.”

Fernandez keeps her son’s clothes in bins awaiting his return. She flips through thick scrapbooks filled with newspaper clippings from his basketball career, remembers the way he grabbed her shoulders and kissed her cheek, posts pleas on Facebook.

“Something sinister is lurking in that part of California.”

“Rico you are not forgotten ever.”

“I am not giving up on finding my son.”

nathan.fenno@latimes.com

Twitter: @nathanfenno

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