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Parents of missing teen found in LA tell son's story

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Parents of missing teen found in LA tell son's story

Eli Rabago was distraught over ailing grandfather

  • Eli on the flight home to Arizona from Los Angeles.
    Courtesy Rabago FamilyEli on the flight home to Arizona from Los Angeles.
  • Courtesy Rabago Family

The mystery of why a 19-year-old intellectually disabled Phoenix man walked away from his grandparents' foothills home and how he came to be found in a Los Angeles-area park was explained by his family Monday.

Eli Rabago, who has the intellectual abilities of an 11-year-old, was reported missing after he was last seen at the home of his grandparents near Sunrise and Skyline drives on the morning of Feb. 26.

The search for Eli extended from family to friends and grew to supporters around Tucson and the country who received information via the family's Facebook page. Supporters came to be known as the "Pink Shoelace Crew" after the pink shoelaces Eli wears in his tennis shoes in honor of an aunt who died from breast cancer.

Hundreds of Tucsonans combed the city's streets and rode buses with flyers in hand in the eight-day hunt for Eli. The search was concentrated in the areas around First Avenue and Fort Lowell to the Tucson Mall.

The hunt ended March 5 when an LA County Sheriff's deputy found Eli in Plummer Park in West Hollywood, his parents, Ruben and Martta Rabago, said in a press release Monday.

On the day that Eli went missing, the teen walked from his grandparents' home in the Catalina foothills to the VA hospital on South Sixth Avenue in an effort to visit his grandfather, according to his parents.

The Rabagos said Eli found his way to California after hopping a freight train in Tucson that he believed would lead him home to Phoenix. Instead, he wound up in Los Angeles.

While in Los Angeles, the Rabagos said, Eli befriended a homeless man who encouraged him to return to Phoenix while showing him where to get food.

Eli was reluctant to panhandle or beg for food and wound up losing as much as 10 pounds from not eating. He slept in the park and was kept warm under a discarded blanket, the Rabagos said.

On March 5, LA County Sheriff's Deputy John Hatfield found Eli in Plummer Park. After speaking with him and determining Eli had child-like behavior, Hatfield searched law-enforcement databases for anyone fitting his description who may have been reported missing. Hatfield hit on a notice for Eli and contacted the Pima County Sheriff's Department, the Rabagos said.

Martta and Ruben were on the next flight to Los Angeles to pick up their son.

Eli was found to weigh a little less, but was otherwise in good physical and mental health, the family said in the press release.

"Eli assures all that this is NOT something he wishes to experience again," the Rabagos' said in the press release.

Martta and Ruben Rabago also expressed gratitude to Tucson for searching for him and supporting the family, and urged families in similar situations not to give up.

"To the families of all special needs and missing children we encourage you to never lose hope," the family said.

The Rabagos had one last thing to say to Tucson:

"We apologize to the Eli-look-alike whom most of Tucson was chasing around town while Eli was missing."

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