Parents of missing teen turn to 'tunnel kids' for help
Developmentally disabled 19-year-old last seen Feb. 26
A week after Eli Rabago went missing, his parents have sought the help of Tucson's "tunnel kids" — teenage runaways who take shelter in the city's tunnels — to find their 19-year-old developmentally disabled son.
Ruben and Martta Rabago have been searching for the Phoenix teenager since Feb. 26 when he was last seen at his grandparents' home near Skyline and Sunrise drives.
The latest sighting of Eli around 3:45 p.m. when someone saw him getting off of a bus at 22nd Street and Randolph Way. Around 2:30 p.m. a sighting was reported in the area of Tucson Boulevard and Elm Street, according to his family.
On Saturday, Ruben and Marta went into tunnels in washes and storm drainage systems hoping to find some clues to the whereabouts of their son who is in need of medication and likely afraid he is in trouble for disappearing, they said Sunday.
"I went into the tunnels. There's a whole network of 'tunnel kids' — a lot of good kids in bad situations," Martta said. "It's the hardest thing. we wanted to help them."
The Rabagos took food to the teens, hoping to earn their trust and gather potential information on Eli, who has the intellectual abilities of an 11-year-old.
"We gave them a hamburger and and asked them to listen to us. They didn't want to trust adults. They saw our other children and felt safe," she said.
The search for Eli is now concentrated on the areas around First Avenue from Fort Lowell Road through Limberlost Drive, the couple said.
There have been several sightings of the teen in those areas, the first tips coming in the day after he went missing from people who said he'd been seen near Fort Lowell and First. Then reports of sightings near Limberlost began coming in late in the week.
The Rabagos said they've heard about a couple who helps teens in that area and believe it's possible that he may be getting food and clothing from them.
Eli may have been taught to use Tucson's bus system, his parents said. Volunteers have been riding Sun Tran buses around the city looking for him.
On Saturday, the family organized four search parties that began at 9 and ended in the afternoon. More than 200 people turned out to search and at least 2,000 fliers with information about Eli's disappearance were distributed, the Rabagos said.
The family were searching the First and Limberlost area Sunday and more than 40 friends and volunteers turned out to help, the Rabagos said.
The family calls their supporters the "Pink Shoelace Crew" after the pink shoelaces Eli wears in his tennis shoes in honor of an aunt who died from breast cancer, according to a post on the Rabago Family Support Page on Facebook.
"Today we met at LA Fitness and 40 people showed up. They kept coming, and coming, and coming," Martta said.
The family is worried that people could be withholding information about Eli, thinking they are helping him.
"They are not helping him. We are not an abusive home; we are a loving family. It's a good place to be," Marta said. "Helping him is getting him home to his family."
The Rabagos believe that Eli may have taken off from his grandparents home because he was anxious about upcoming AIMS testing and worried about his grandfather, who is hospitalized with a terminal illness, Martta said.
They also believe that Eli is now afraid because he believes he's in trouble for being missing.
"If he thinks he's in trouble, he's not. The most important thing is to let him know, 'you're not in trouble,' " Martta said. "One of the best things we can say to him is, 'we understand, but come home.' "
Law enforcement has been helpful, but they are limited in how they can help, said the couple.
"Police officers are so sympathetic, but there's only so much they can do," Martta said.
Pima County Sheriff's deputies and detectives are looking into the sightings, said PCSD spokeswoman Deputy Dawn Barkman.
"We're still investigating as we get them. The family is very involved and we are involved as we get the sightings," Barkman said Friday.
The family is counting on Tucsonans to report any sightings immediately to police.
"Get our son back to us. We want him home," Martta said.
The Rabagos are grateful for all the help and support of the community.
"Tucson has embraced us. It is one of those unique places that no matter how large it grows, it still has its small town feel and sense of neighborly compassion," the family wrote in a Facebook post.
"We know as time goes by, it becomes more difficult (to find Eli)," Marta said. "We're hopeful we'll find him in a few days.
Eli Rabago is Hispanic, 5 feet 10 inches tall, and weighs 145 pounds. He was last seen wearing blue sweat pants — but now may be wearing black shorts, a red shirt, a gray hoodie, and gray New Balance tennis shoes with pink shoelaces. He may be carrying a red bag with personal items and may be walking with a limp from a recently sprained ankle.