004 - Rico Harris: Into Thin Air
At the time of his disappearance, Rico Harris stood six-foot-nine and weighed in around 300 pounds. The former basketball player and NBA hopeful wore a size eighteen shoe and, suffice it to say, stood out in a crowd. This makes his vanishing even more startling, being that even strangers who had never seen him before couldn’t help but take a glance at the large figure moving beside them. This is the kind of guy that, when he walked through the airport, people noticed him.
Rico had a back and forth relationship with basketball. Although he loved the sport, he had walked away from it in his past for one reason or another. When he finally made the decision to devote himself to the court, he was almost unstoppable. Though he hadn’t been the best student, struggling with to make his grades, he managed, through the help of his friends, to buckle down and pull his high school GPA up to a 3.0. UCLA would eventually offer him a scholarship, but due to poor SAT results, the scholarship was rescinded.
Rico attended Arizona State University, but was under academic probation which required him to raise his grades in order to attain eligibility to play. In 1996, Harris along with other members of the basketball team, was charged with “unlawful imprisonment” but the charges were later dropped when investigators found inconsistencies in the alleged victims stories. However, Arizona State required Harris to sit out another season as a result.
Rather than wait, Rico withdrew from ASU and returned home to California, enrolling at Los Angeles City College where he returned to basketball and drew comparisons to NBA player Lamar Odom. Rico lead the team to their first ever state title, and was named MVP for that season. At this point, Rico signed a letter of intent to attend college in Rhode Island, and play there, but he stopped attending a psychology class he needed to pass to maintain his eligibility. Some speculated at the time that Rico had purposefully done so in order to avoid having to move across the county and be away from his family and friends.
Rico returned to Los Angeles City College, something he would later say he regretted, and began partying heavily. His drinking increased and friends and teammates noticed, but Rico’s game didn’t suffer. He continued to put up points and lead the team to victory. However, as the season wore on, Rico would receive a six game suspension and his coach labeled him as a disruption to the team. Rico’s drinking continued to get worse and while several colleges attempted to recruit him, Rico turned down their offers believing they were only interested in his play and not his education. Instead, Rico put himself into the NBA draft. Rico was invited to attend a pre-draft camp in Chicago, but Rico failed to respond and withdrew himself from the draft.
Rico then attended Cal State Northridge, playing there but he was no longer the Rico Harris of old. His points per game began to fall off, and while Rico still had great potential, some of that fire that had caught the attention of NBA scouts previously was burning away. As a result of his poor play, NBA scouts began showing less and less interest. Early in the season Rico was suspended by his coach for arguing with his teammates and other coaches. Towards the end of the season, Rico was suspended again. This time, Rico never returned to discuss coming off suspension and Rico Harris, the former NBA hopeful and giant of college basketball, never played for a college team again.
Rico decided to play semi-professional basketball since his eligibility to play with any college team was passed. After bouncing through a couple of semi-pro outfits, he was offered a spot on the Harlem Globetrotters. Unfortunately, just a month after joining the team, Rico was involved in an altercation and was struck on the back of the head with a baseball bat. The head injury caused lingering issues with resulted in Rico leaving the Harlem Globetrotters, and his basketball career, behind him.
Rico’s life began a downward spiral and now without a college to attend, a team to play for, or a job to pay the bills, he moved into his mother’s home in Alhambra, California. Rico began to drink heavily, and soon found himself indulging in heroine, meth and crack. During the 2000’s, Rico racked up over 100 arrests and most of these were for public intoxication. According to friends and family, Rico would spend a few days in jail, sober up and the go back to drinking. He would panhandle and beg on the street to support his habit. When Rico turned thirty, he overdosed on pain medication and this seemed to jolt him out of his stupor. Rico entered rehab. The program was hard, and Rico spent a long time pursuing the goal of becoming sober and eventually, he successfully completed it.
Now clean and sober for he first time in years, Rico moved in with a friend he made at rehab and got himself a job working security. It was here Rico would meet Jennifer Song, with whom he would begin a friendship that would eventually become a romantic relationship. Jennifer lived in Seattle, Washington and despite the distance, the two were more interested in what they had between them instead of the distance. In 2012, they began traveling back and forth, taking long weekends to stay with each other.
Two years later, their relationship going strong, in 2014, Rico and Jennifer began to discuss the possibility of marriage. Rico’s then roommate, Wilfredo Mayorga, argued with Rico about his relationship with Jennifer, among other things. Rico suddenly made the decision to move in with Jennifer, moving out of their shared apartment and leaving Mayorga to deal with their shared bills.
Shortly after moving in with Jennifer, Rico began to take steps to solidify Seattle as his new home. Rico exchanged his California license for a Washington State license and began hunting for jobs. Reportedly, there was some friction between he and Jennifer initially. Rico missed his family, and the familiarity of California. Rico didn’t feel at home in Washington, and he couldn’t find work. Jennifer has said that the change was difficult for Rico, but that he tried to keep his hopes up. Soon, Rico’s hopes would turn positive as he found a part time job selling time shares. Things were beginning to turn around for Rico, and soon thereafter, Rico’s employer wanted to discuss the possibility of promoting him to a full time position as a property appraiser. According to Jennifer, Rico was excited and hopeful for the future. The early pangs of sadness and depression which had struck him upon moving to Seattle seemed to be in the past and everything was falling into place. Rico had managed to take a difficult, troubled past, and was now transforming it into a bright future. He made arrangements with his employer to discuss the job on October 10th.
However, prior to this meeting, on October 8th, Rico decided he needed to return home to Alhambra and see his family. There is some speculation as to the reason for this trip, with there being some who have stated that Rico was having issues with Jennifer, his then fiancé, and that he was looking to get away for a short time. Others, however, have said that Rico was upbeat and happy and simply wanted to visit his family. Jennifer has said that she believed Rico wanted to see his family, to find closure for his mistakes of the past and to assure his family that he was on the straight and narrow and that he was excited to be getting married and starting a life.
Rico began the thousand mile drive from his shared residence with Jennifer to his mother’s home in Alhambra. According to Rico’s friend, David Lara, he spoke with Rico on the phone during the trip and Rico seemed to be in good spirits and was happy with the direction his life was heading. Regardless of Rico’s reason for the visit home, he didn’t stick around very long. According to his family, Rico arrived in Alhambra on October 9th. He took one his brothers out to dinner and gave him a gift, a new cell phone. Following dinner, Rico returned to his mother’s home where the two sat down to have a private conversation. Rico’s mother has stated that she believes Rico was looking for something, or trying to get something from their conversation. She wasn’t quite sure what, but she does feel like Rico didn’t find the answer or information he was seeking. Shortly after midnight, Rico packed some of his person belongings into his car. Rico’s mother found it odd that he had traveled all the way back home just to get a few random items and believes he returned for others reasons, possibly just because he missed them. At this point, Rico’s mother says that she told him to come inside and take a nap, and to leave for Seattle early in the morning. She laid down on the couch, waiting for him, and fell asleep. The next time she heard from Rico was at 1am when he called her and said he was on his way back to Seattle, taking Interstate 5 north.
This is a pretty rapid turn around and long trip to make twice in two days. According to his family, Rico hadn’t slept more than a few hours since he’d left Seattle the day before. Rico had left seattle, driven over a thousand miles, had dinner, talked with his mother and then hit the road to begin the journey back. Rico had said he needed to be back that day because of the meeting he had with his employer and he didn’t want to miss it. According to Rico’s fiancé, Rico had been awake for nearly 30 hours when he left Seattle, and nearly 40 when he left his mother’s house.
According to the police, Rico stopped in Lodi, California, forty miles south of Sacramento, to get gas. Later that morning, at 3:30am, he placed a call to Jennifer telling her that he was feeling tired and that he was planning to stop in the mountains and rest. Jennifer reportedly tells him that he should find a rest area to park in and get some sleep for a few hours. Jennifer encourages Rico to stop before getting to the mountains, knowing that he has been awake for nearly 40 hours and that the mountain roads are curvy and dangerous, especially at night. Jennifer placed a call to Rico at 8am, and he answers, informing her that he is eating and stopping for gas. According to Jennifer, Rico sounds exhausted and worn out. After getting off the phone with Jennifer, Rico places a call to his mother to check in and let her know where he is and that he is doing all right.
Approximately two hours after Jennifer last spoke with Rico, she received a text message from him which read “I am doing well, I love you.” This is the last known communication from Rico and was received around 10:45am. As the hours pass and neither Jennifer, nor Rico’s mother hear from him, both begin to get worried. Jennifer calls Rico multiple times, but the phone goes unanswered. Jennifer notes this as not being like Rico, as he always answers the phone if he can and if he doesn’t, he is quick to call back but the call never comes. Jennifer thought it was possible that Rico was passing through a stretch of highway where he didn’t have reception and it isn’t until eight hours later, at 7pm, that her concern can no longer be contained.
Jennifer calls Rico’s mother and discovers that she has not heard from him either. Jennifer suggests filing a missing persons report, but claims Rico’s mother tells her you can’t file a missing persons report until the person has been gone for 48 hours. Just for the record: It is often said on television shows and been purported by media outlets in the past that the law requires a person to wait 48 hours before filing a missing person’s report. However, this is a myth developed from fiction. The Police do not have a specific waiting period which must be adhered to. If you know someone is missing, report it immediately. The forty eight hours lost can make a large difference between finding and not finding someone. Police urge these reports to be filed as quickly as possible.
When several days pass and no one has heard from Rico, Jennifer and Rico’s mother decide to file a missing person’s report. Police begin investigating, but since Rico is an adult and on a road trip, they aren’t immediately overly concerned. They put out notifications on his vehicle and description, but no overarching search is issued for him. Everyone involved assumes that Rico is either visiting somewhere, or his phone has died, but both Jennifer and Rico’s mother believe they will hear from him soon. On a previous trip Rico had disappeared for a short time, having stopped in San Diego for a few hours before continuing on his journey. It isn’t unlike Rico to change his plans without notifying Jennifer. According to Jennifer, Rico’s mother and Rico’s friend David, Rico had a tendency to wander. He often went off alone and cut himself off from others to clear his head or just to unwind. However, this usually was for a few hours, not a few days. As hours slowly turned into days and Rico didn’t make contact with anyone, Jennifer and Rico’s mother become gravely concerned.
On October 14th, Yolo County Sheriff’s deputy Danny Del Castillo is cruising down route sixteen. He pulls into Lower Site, a parking area a ways back from the road. He is on routine patrol, checking the area and nearby campgrounds for anything out of the ordinary. Del Castillo makes note of a black Nissan Maxima parked near the bushes. The vehicle is not in a parking space, instead parked off to the side of the parking lot. Del Castillo realizes something is amiss as he recalls spotting the same vehicle, in the same location, the previous day.
Del Castillo parks his cruiser and approaches the vehicle. The vehicle is locked, but he can see the interior is in disarray. Through the window Del Castillo can see papers, cds and credit cards strewn about the interior as if someone had ransacked the vehicle looking for something. However, the fact that there are items of value, including credit cards, in plain sight, doesn’t immediately trigger alarms in his mind. However, he runs the plate. Del Castillo finds the vehicle hasn’t been reported stolen, and there were no outstanding tickets or warrants. Del Castillo radios in and speaks to the Sheriff who advises him that they will contact the local authorities where the vehicle is registers: Alhambra, California.
Shortly after receiving word from the Yolo County Sheriff’s department, two officers from the Alhambra police department knocked on Rico’s mother’s door and informed her that Rico’s abandoned vehicle had been located and that Rico was nowhere to be found. The Yolo County Sheriff’s department began a search and rescue operations, in search of Rico in the nearby hills and mountains. Search dogs and helicopters were called in, along with all terrain vehicles and a plane utilizing a thermographic camera. The search team focused first on a five mile radius around the parking lot, but eventually twenty-seven miles of route sixteen were covered, checking over each inch of the surrounding canyon. No sign of Rico was located at first. Search teams were baffled. Rico stood six foot nine and weighed around three hundred pounds. Searchers couldn’t wrap their head around how someone of this size could go without being noticed, not to mention, Rico was now thirty seven years old and not in the same shape he had been in when he played basketball. This was rough terrain for an experienced hiker, let alone for someone of Rico’s size, without any supplies or familiarity with the area. The area being searched was populated with mountain lions and bears and has been described as very rough terrain with cliffs and hard to pass rock. During their search, Police manage to locate a single footprint from an athletic shoe. The footprint appears to be the size Rico would have worn. However this is the only clue found from the initial search. Three days pass, and no new evidence or sighting are reported.
Rico’s description is reported to the local press, fliers are printed up and the Yolo County Sheriff’s department notifies other local police agencies of his status as a missing person. A traveler later called the Sheriff’s department and stated that he had seen Rico sitting on a guard rail overlooking the creek which ran adjacent to the parking lot the day he vanished. The Yolo County Sheriff’s Department towed Rico’s vehicle and began a forensics inspection. According to their results, the battery was nearly dead and the black Nissan Maxima was completely out of gas. Rico’s wallet is found, and after checking it over, all of his credit cards are located except for a Discover card, registered in his name. To this date, no charges have been made on the Discover card since the day Rico vanished. Rico’s California driver’s license is also in the vehicle. Rico’s phone is missing from the vehicle and it is believed he had taken them with him. It is tentatively theorized that Rico, having run out of gas, has vanished while in the process of seeking out a service station or someone to give him a ride. Did he perhaps get into the wrong vehicle, or fall victim to a hit and run, or something worse? The police also find two plastic bottles in Rico’s car. One was nearly full to the brim with liquor. The other bottle is empty, but smells of the same liquor. In addition to the alcohol, investigators find a “bindle” in Rico’s car. A bindle is a piece of ziplock bag, or plastic baggy, usually cut into a small piece and wrapped up in a rubber band. It is frequently associated with drugs, such as cocaine or methamphetamine. Forensics testing finds no traces of illegal substances on this bindle.
On October 18th, eight days after Rico disappeared, another witness calls in a sighting of Rico. According to the witness, he had driven passed the parking lot where Rico’s car had been found and saw a large man wearing light colored pants, much like what Rico had last been seeing wearing. Police once more looked over the area and discovered a new size 18 shoe print consistent with Rico’s known shoe, leading from the parking lot and heading down toward the creek. In addition to this new shoe print, a large pair of shoe insoles are found not far from the footprint. Had Rico returned to this spot, hoping to get back into his car, but upon noticing it missing, it had been impounded by the Sheriff’s department, decided to hitch a ride or wander off into the woods, or the creek? Search dogs were called in, and although they could not pinpoint anything for sure, the dogs led investigators down through the parking lot and to the creek.
Yolo County Sheriff’s department detective Dean Nyland received Rico’s case and immediately places a phone call to AT&T, using cell phone pings to map out Rico’s travels in the day leading up to his disappearance. Once arriving in the area where his vehicle was located, Rico’s phone loses reception and cannot be tracked. According to the cell phone pings, Rico had stopped in Lodi, California, 40 miles south of Sacramento to fill up his gas tank. After making an apparent wrong turn, Rico corrected his direction and passed through Sacramento, turning onto Route 16 and into the Capay Hills where he would later pull off into the Lower Site parking lot. Detective Nyland is confused by this for several reasons. Rico filled his gas tank, and given the distance between the filling station and the Lower Site parking lot, Rico should have had around 13 gallons of gas left in his tank, yet it is empty when they find it. In addition to the discrepancy in gas supply, the Lower Site parking lot is 50 miles west of interstate 5, the road leading to Seattle. Essentially, to have arrived in the Lower Site parking lot, Rico would have driven fifty miles off his charted course, and if he was simply looking for a place to pull over and rest, this doesn’t make a great deal of sense.
Police find a ping on Rico’s cell phone that shows it in a location in the Redwood Valley area, 75 miles northwest from the location of his car. Police begin searching and place calls to residents of Redwood Valley, eventually finding a man who is in possession of Rico’s phone. According to the man, he was with his wife and grandson driving near the Lower Site when they saw a black backpack on the side of the road, but no one else around. They pulled over and began calling out, looking for the owner but received no answer. When they didn’t get an answer, they decided to take the backpack with them on their trip home. The location of the backpack was reportedly 1500 feet away from the guard rail where an earlier witness has reported seeing Rico sitting.
In the backpack police found Rico’s phone, phone charger, jumper cables and quote “nonconsequential items.” The backpack was not damaged in any way, and neither was the phone. All were in good shape and apparently had been simply left behind. Upon inspection of Rico’s phone, police find several photos and videos. There are photos of the nearby creek and a selfie of Rico striking a pose in front of a sign welcoming drivers to Yolo County. The videos appear to have been taken by Rico accidentally and show odd behavior. In the videos Rico can be seen singing, rapping and laughing. However, the videos also show Rico throwing CDs inside of his car, playing with his rearview mirror and ripping up papers and throwing them around as well. Time stamps on the videos show them having been made during the night of October 10th, meaning that Rico had in fact been alive and in his vehicle, hours after his last communication.
An odd detail of the contents of the backpack were the jumper cables. Jennifer claims they are Rico’s and that he always kept them in the trunk, so why were they in the backpack instead? If Rico had been out looking for someone to jump his vehicle, remember the battery was nearly dead, why wouldn’t he simply leave the cables behind and then use them if he found someone to come help him? Rico’s mother believes that finding the backpack is a good sign that Rico is in the area. Jennifer, however, has the opposite feeling stating that Rico never went without his backpack, that he carried it around like a purse and that if he left it behind, something is very wrong. At this point, another set of witnesses call in stating that they had seen Rico in the parking lot near his vehicle, looking confused and pacing back and forth.
On October 22nd, 12 days after Rico was last seen, the sheriff’s department began scaling back their search efforts. The next month, in November, a team of divers were called into search the creek and some sink holes within it and cadaver dogs were led through the surrounding hills and woods, but nothing was found. One cadaver dog is reported to have indicated toward one of the sink holes in the creek, but nothing is found.
Detective Nyland, who had initially run the pings on Rico’s phone, begins digging deeper into the case. He begins with Rico’s fiancé, Jennifer, wanting to know why, if she was so worried, she didn’t file a missing persons report earlier. Jennifer explains that both she and Rico’s mother had thought it best to wait as Rico had gone off course in the past. However, at some point, Jennifer explains that Rico may ben having substance abuse issues again. According to Jennifer, she had visited Rico prior to his move up to Seattle and he didn’t seem himself. His bedroom was a mess and he was distant and withdrawn. Allegedly, Rico told he that he had slipped up and broken his six years of sobriety. Nyland feels suspicious and considers it odd that it took so long to file the report.
Nyland begins searching through homeless shelters and areas where transients often gather. Nyland is frustrated, noting that this is a large man who is hard to miss, but who also has to get hungry. How is it possible that no one has spotted him walking along the road or eating in a local restaurant? His complete and total disappearance is absolutely baffling to him. The nearest gas station to the Lower Site parking area is 30 miles away and unless Rico was given a ride, more people would have seen him along the way. However, he does have a theory.
Nyland believes that Rico purchased and used Meth sometime right before, or after, parking his car in the Lower Site parking lot. Nyland believes Rico was likely on meth when he left his mother’s home, and links the meth to the reason Rico had been awake for such a long period of time. A reporter would later write a story that he had spoken with an unnamed source who reported that he had seen Rico and that a friend of his had delivered Meth to Rico in the Lower Site Parking lot and that Rico had then began walking toward the creek however this cannot be confirmed. Nyland looks into Rico’s bank account, which he shares with Jennifer, but sees no activity that could be linked to Rico. Both Rico’s family, and Jennifer, question whether or not it is possible that Rico could have another bank account they don’t know about, but Police find no evidence of this.
Nyland theorizes that Rico’s vanishing is not linked to foul play, and suspects that Rico has chosen to go off the grid. Nyland sites that there are no signs of a struggle, that his backpack and phone were both in perfect condition and appear to have been purposefully left behind. Nyland believes Rico chose to leave them behind, not wanting to be tracked. According to Nyland, he believes Rico had doubts about his future and his move to Seattle and that Rico chose, instead, to go his own way. When asked about the videos on Rico’s phone, Nyland states that Rico seemed like a quote “free man.” Nyland believes that Rico chose to hike in the area, to clear his head, to think things over, to attempt to overcome his resurfacing substance abuse struggles, or perhaps, be consumed by them. According to Nyland, quote “We have no sightings, so he probably got a ride.”
Rico’s family feel as though the investigators wrote Rico off based on his previous struggles with drugs and alcohol, and the evidence that he may have been relapsing. Rico’s mother feels that the police found out about his history and made the decision that Rico was just another druggie and not worth the effort. Detective Nyland, however, states that he has investigated every report and every piece of evidence brought before him. According to Nyland, he still checks Rico’s financial records, looking for signs of Rico or perhaps identity theft that could lead to someone with more information. Nyland is baffled by the case, and cannot wrap his head around what could have happened, other than Rico choosing to wander off. Nyland does, however, believe that Rico ended up in the Lower Site parking lot not due to a desire to rest, but to find a quiet, secluded spot in which to do drugs.
In the nearly three years since Rico’s disappearance, there have been no additional sightings reported. Rico has had no contact with his family, nor with his fiancé Jennifer.
Detective Nyland’s theory is simply one of several possibilities. One theory floating around is that Rico, succumbing to his previous addictions, and with the evidence of liquor in his vehicle, parked his car in the Lower Site parking lot and began drinking heavily. Being that he had been away from liquor for years, he may have jumped in with both feet and drank himself into a blackout, and in his drunken stupor, wandered off into the surrounding forest and gotten lost. By the time he sobered up he’d have no knowledge of where he was, or which direction to go. Even if he’d wanted to get back to his vehicle, he’d be lost in a heavily wooded, hilly area.
Some people suspect that Rico simply didn’t want to move to Seattle, but also didn’t want to return to his past in Alhambra and as a result, chose to leave his life behind and begin a new one. Although this is always possible, it seem unlikely. Rico has a history of not wanting to be far from his home and his family, and so if anything, it would seem more probable that he simply would have gone home rather than to have wandered off into an area in which he had no familiarity, friends, connections or prospects.
There was likely drugs, and certainly alcohol, involved in Rico’s disappearance. Is it possible that Rico made an attempt to purchase drugs and got into the car with someone he shouldn’t have and things went wrong? Absolutely, but without a shred of evidence, all theories are possible and impossible to prove. So how does a six foot nine, three hundred pound man simply up and vanish? The disappearance of Rico Harris is a baffling, frustrating case of dead ends. All we have to go on are the random pings of a cell phone, light hearted selfies and perplexing videos that show the last known moments of a man who may have been becoming unwound. So did Rico choose to walk away, was he pulled away or are there others involved who know exactly what happened to Rico Harris?
[Thoughts & Theories]
Rico Harris’ disappearance is a confounding event. In a lot of missing person’s cases there are no items of evidenciary value. A person vanishes and there isn’t a trace of them to be found. No sighting, no personal items, nothing. On the contrary, in the case of Rico Harris, there is quite a bit of evidence found by investigators. However, clues and pieces of evidence can sometimes only make a disappearance more confusing, and that certainly appears to be the case when it comes to Rico Harris.
It has been established that Rico had a troubled past. Issues with drugs and alcohol, a failure of convinction in terms of his plans to be a basketball player. However, does that make him irredeemable? I don’t think so. Rico made mistakes, and there’s no denying that, but he also worked hard to correct his course in life. I can’t really comment on what his mindset was, but I can relate to some of the choices he made. I never found myself heavily involved with drugs or alcohol, but I’ve known many people who have gone down that road.
There was a lot of speculation that Rico’s choices in regard to basketball had less to do with his desire to play, and more to do with his desire to stay close to his family. I can understand that. I’d be lying if I said I never made a choice based on how far it was going to take me away from the people I care about. Some people were born to wander, and others hold tight to their familial connections. Rico was raised without a father. Although he knew who his father was, according to Rico’s mother, his father faced many of the same substance abuse problems that Rico did, but he wasn’t nearly as successful at overcoming them. This left a vacancy in Rico’s life, and established a firm connection with the mother who raised him and his siblings on her own. There is a story about Rico, later in life, when he was in the midst of his battle with drugs and alcohol, where he was arrested for public intoxication and gets thrown into the drunk tank for the night. According to Rico’s mother, his father was in that same cell with him that night but was so drunk and out of it, he didn’t even recognize his own son.
Obviously Rico had a lot of demons to deal with, and unfortunately for him, it took him a long time to overcome them, but he did. And for six years Rico managed to stay clean and sober. During those six years he worked on building a new life, and in the course of building that life, Rico met and fell in love with Jennifer Song. It was his relationship with Jennifer that drove him forward and, according to a close friend, Rico was full of hope and love, was looking forward to settling down and starting a family. According to Rico’s mother, a few months before he was to move to Seattle, she became suspicious that he was drinking again. Jennifer states that she flew down to visit Rico and realized something was off. His room, which he normally kept clean, was a mess. The flowers he usually gave her when she visited were absent and he seemed distant. According to Jennifer, when she confronted him about the changes in him, he admitted that he had fallen off the wagon. Jennifer never specifies in what way, but it sounds as though he was definitely drinking again. Whether or not he was using other substances can’t be known for sure.
Alcoholism is a strong disease, and if you speak to any recovering alcoholic, they’ll tell you that it’s an everyday battle. That’s why they say “One day at a time.” It’s not uncommon to fall off the wagon a time or two before kicking the habit for good. Rico, like many, used alcohol and drugs as a coping mechanism for the stresses in his life. Based on past experiences with his basketball career, Rico had concerns about being too far away from home. So, it’s entirely possible that the move to Seattle was weighing heavy on his mind. Jennifer has said that when Rico first moved up to Seattle, he seemed depressed and that he didn’t unpack his boxes for a few weeks. However, once he found a job and began exploring the city, he began to feel more at home. So what leads to his utterly strange disappearance?
There are a few theories which have been developed over the years since Rico’s disappearance. The first theory is that Rico met with foul play. Having driven up into the Lower Site parking area to rest, Rico could have been approached by a stranger and been drawn out of his vehicle under the guise of assisting someone. Rico is commonly referred to as a giant teddy bear by friends and family, saying that despite his size he was a gentle giant. If this is the case, and Rico was the shirt off his back type of man, he could have been talked into going off with someone who didn’t have the best of intentions.
I don’t think this theory carries a lot of weight, though. Considering Rico’s backpack being found on the side of the road, his footprints and insoles being found by the creek and the sightings from passersby who saw him the next day when it was light out. Although Rico’s family strongly feels that someone knows what happened to him, I honestly don’t think that this is a situation of a stranger abduction, murder, robbery gone wrong or etc. The evidence just doesn’t support this theory, and although it’s always a possibility, I think it’s the thinnest theory in relation to his disappearance.
Then there are those who believe that Rico simply chose to walk away. This is somewhat of a common theory in adult disappearances. When someone is over the legal age to make the choice to walk away if they choose to, you frequently hear people say that the person has a right to walk away if they choose to. I hear this theory a lot in cases where there isn’t a lot of evidence or there doesn’t appear to be signs of foul play. In relation to Rico Harris, the theory has been put forth based on the fact that Rico has reportedly had a tendency of going off on his own to think things over and try to get his head space where he wants it to be. Although this is entirely possible, Rico’s history of taking time out for himself has a typical time limit on it. Nowhere have I been able to locate a record of anyone reporting Rico having gone off, without telling anyone, for more than a day or so. In addition to this, in these instances, Rico didn’t leave important personal items behind, like his cell phone and car.
In interviews with Detective Nyland, he has even said that there is a high possibility that Rico chose to walk away. He has pointed out the lack of evidence of foul play and the lack of indication that anything forced Rico to leave his car and backpack behind. Although the evidence does lack any indicators that would typically stand out and show a reason for his disappearance, this seems more like the result of there being no answers. It’s an assumption to fall back to when all other clues lead to nowhere. However, Nyland has also said that wherever Rico went, he likely didn’t go alone. Nyland believes its entirely possible that Rico caught a ride from someone. Being that the nearest gas station was 30 miles from his car, it’s highly unlikely that he walked there without being sighted more along the way. Rico is not an easy to miss figure, and had he been wandering down the road for a long stretch of time, more people would have seen him. Since they didn’t, that only leaves a few possibilities: more people saw him, but didn’t report the sightings to the police or Rico was picked up by someone, or Rico didn’t in fact walk toward an area of people, but instead walked into the countryside itself.
The one piece of evidence, which to me suggests that Rico may have been attempting to walk into town or get a ride, is the fact that his car’s jumper cables were found in his backpack. This has been pointed out as an odd thing. In interviews I’ve seen comments from Detective Nyland, and even Rico’s mother, about how Rico would always keep his jumper cables in the trunk and that it was strange for them to have been in his backpack. However, I’ve tried to look at this piece of evidence from every possible angle and I think my own personal level of anxiety and my hyperawareness of the untrustworthiness of people has led me to a possible reason. Rico was six foot nine and nearly three hundred pounds. By no means would he appears as the gentle giant that people often described him to be. He was likely well aware of how people viewed him, and considering that he had previously worked security jobs, he was likely aware that he cut an intimidating shape. I think it’s highly possible that Rico took the jumper cables with him so that if he managed to flag someone down for assistance, he could show the cables as an assurance that he was in fact having problems with his car and perhaps lessen the fear someone might feel if he approached them in their vehicle. I obviously can’t know this for sure. It’s also possible that he brought them because, although there are good people out there, there are others who just don’t want to help out and might say that they couldn’t help because they didn’t have jumper cables, and he could show them that wasn’t a problems because he did. Purely speculative, but this is the only reason I’ve been able to come up with as to why Rico would take the cables with him instead of leaving them in the car. I don’t know what the traffic in and out of that parking area is like, but I can’t help but wonder if Rico had stayed near his car if he might not have had more luck in getting a jump.
Another theory revolves around the environment in which Rico found himself. Footprints and shoe insoles were found down by the creek. Some theorize that Rico wandered down to the creek to either look at the scenery, get a drink of water or, perhaps to get out of sight and relieve himself. In the course of one of these actions, it is highly possible that Rico slipped and fell into the creek. From what I’ve seen of the creek, it’s fairly wide and deep, including multiple sink holes of greater depth inside of the lake. We know about these because divers were sent down to search them. Although this is very possible, I have a problem with it and that’s, again, Rico’s backpack. Why would he pack his bag, walk out of the parking site, head down the road, sit on the guardrail as a witness spotted him, place his bag down on the side of the road where anyone could grab it when he wasn’t there, and remember that Jennifer stated this bag was like his purse and went everywhere with him, just to go down to the creek? It’s a backpack and all he’d have to do is throw one arm through the strap and bring it with him. Another problem with the creek possibility is that Rico was spotted a week after he was reported missing, seen in the area where his car had been parked prior to police towing it. We can’t know for sure if the sighting is real, or accurate. It could have been another day, it may have never happened, but that is considering a reliable piece of evidence so I have to factor it into this theory. Too often people pick and choose which pieces of evidence work for their theory and ignore the ones which don’t.
Now, is it possible that Rico fell into the creek following this last sighting of him? I suppose so, though it seems somewhat implausible that he would return to the place where his vehicle had been, and finding it gone, rather than look around for help or try to get a passerbys attention, that he’d just walk down to the creek and maybe slip and fall in. Unfortunately, all of these theories are tested under the scope of logic, and there is at least one theory about Rico where logic doesn’t necessarily help understand what might have happened.
Rico had a drug and alcohol problem. We know from his mother, that she suspected Rico had been drinking. We know from his fiancé that he confessed to her that he had fallen off the wagon. Based on the forensic search of his car, we know there was a bottle of liquor inside and an empty bottle which appeared to have contained the same liquor. Police also found the empty bindle in the car, which may have contained cocaine or meth. There are the cell phone videos which exhibit erratic behavior suggesting that Rico was in fact under the influence of something while he was in his car listening to music that night. In additional to physical evidence, we know Rico had been awake for nearly 40 hours and, at least in terms of meth, a very common effective of use is not sleeping.
Sleep deprivation has remarkably frightening side effects, these include: impulsive behavior, irrational thoughts, paranoia and suicidal thoughts. In addition to these side effects, sleep deprivation leads to a lack of cognitive function, making it difficult to make decisions, and also impairs physical function. Reports say that driving while sleep deprived is as dangerous as driving drunk. Additionally, sleep deprivation has been known to lead to heart attack and stroke. Rico is in an unfamiliar area, a dangerous environment for a trained hiker, and he is suffering from sleep deprivation as a possible result of drug use.
We know for a fact that he hadn’t been sleeping, so we know that at a minimum he was suffering from problems with his cognitive function and a lack of physical dexterity. Just those two symptoms alone are enough to put someone in a life or death situation were he to wander off into the wilderness surrounding the lower parking site. Factor in the possibility of meth and alcohol and you’ve got a deadly combination.
Rico was likely disoriented and confused, which is how a witness described him when he saw him the parking lot walking back and forth near his car. What I consider the most likely theory is that Rico, under the influence and lacking sleep, walked into the wilderness where he either fell and was injured, or perhaps even killed, or until he reached a point where he passed out due to lack of food and water and either perished as a result of exposure or woke up, realizing that he didn’t know where he was and ended up wandering deep into the wilderness rather than walking out of it. As previously stated, there are wild animals in the area which could have come across Rico and injured or killed him. There are steep cliffs and rocky crags, deep creeks and predatory animals. This is not an ideal environment to be in under normal circumstances, let alone those under which Rico likely was.
Detective Nyland theorized that the entire reason Rico ended up in the parking lot itself was because Rico sought out a secluded location where he might be able to drink and use without a lot of people around. Being that the lower site parking lot was so far off from his plotted course to Seattle, this is definitely a possibility. Detective Nyland goes further, saying that based on the lack of gas in Rico’s car, and it’s distance from the gas station in Lodi, he could have driven somewhere else to possibly score drugs. Very possible, but there isn’t any solid evidence to support this. We also have to keep in mind Rico’s sleep deprivation and the high likelihood that he could have simply made a wrong turn and chose to park when he realized he wasn’t sure of where exactly he was. Being that cell phone reception is notoriously bad in mountainous area, its possible he was lost and couldn’t get a signal to GPS his way out.
To me, it is most likely that Rico did in fact get lost in the wilderness. I don’t lightly say that this is the most likely theory. Rico’s previous history of drug use doesn’t play a role in my thought process on this. It’s purely based on what we know and the evidence at hand. Rico was once again struggling with substance abuse issues, videos shot by Rico himself show him is a disoriented state of mind, witnesses described him as seeming disoriented and there was alcohol and possible drug paraphanelia in his vehicle. Rico was a large man and hard to miss, but had he wandered into the countryside, he would become much harder to spot.
Rico’s mother firmly believes that foul play was involved in the disappearance of her son. And although I can completely empathize with her point of view, and feel for her grief, there doesn’t appear to be anything that points to there being anyone else involved in this odd disappearance. I believe that wherever Rico ended up, he ended up there alone. It’s a remarkably sad story. Rico was full of potential, and was at the doorstep of starting a new life. He had a fiancé waiting for him, a new job for which he was excited and a myriad of prospects on the horizon. It has been nearly three years since Rico vanished. There has been no activity on his bank account, on his one missing credit card, nor in relation to his social security number. There has been no new evidence discovered, sightings reported or theories put forth. We can hope that someday there will be an answer as to what happened to Rico Harris, but as the years move onward, it seems unlikely that answer will be a happy one. Rico’s mother, his fiancé and his friends hold out that someday he will come walking back into their lives. Until some trace of Rico can be discovered, his disappearance remains a confounding, baffling end to a life with such great potential.