Sunday, November 18, 2007

tony harris

U.S. government officials in Brazil are closely watching a police investigation into the disappearance of former Washington State University basketball star Tony Harris in South America's largest country.

"We are aware of the incident, and we know the local officials are engaged and we're closely monitoring them as they handle the investigation," Steve Royster, spokesman for Consular Affairs at the State Department in Washington, D.C., said Wednesday.

U.S. Consul-General Simon Henshaw in Brazil said his office is working "not as investigators, but to get the story and help in the investigation." He said Brazilian authorities have jurisdiction in the case.

Henshaw said his office learned about the disappearance of the Garfield High School graduate on Nov. 5, the day after Harris last spoke by phone with his wife, Lori Harris, who lives in Kent.

"We've spoken directly to everyone involved," Henshaw said.

Now his office is re-interviewing people who last saw Harris in hopes of turning up clues.

"So far we haven't found we have missed anything," he said. "It's a mystery still."

Tony Harris left Seattle on Oct. 31 to play basketball for a professional team in Brazil's capital, Brasília, where he previously had played for several years. The former Cougar guard, who led WSU to the NCAA tournament in 1994, had most recently been employed at a juvenile-detention center, but he was laid off in February, according to his wife.

Harris was supposed to return to Washington for a visit in December, when the couple's child is due.

After only a few days in Brazil, Harris was anxious and talked about wanting to come home, Lori Harris said.

The last time he was playing in Brazil, "he didn't leave on good terms," she said. "He heard that his old coach said some things that were not true, [things] that could put him at risk." She declined to give further details.

Harris couldn't leave because the team was holding his passport, she said, so his plan was to stay with a friend in northern Brazil and wait for a replacement passport.

Lori Harris last heard from her husband a week and a half ago, when he was on the way to the friend's house. He used a Brazilian taxi driver's cellphone on his last call to his wife. He told her he loved her and would talk to her later, his wife recalled.

Brazilian media showed photos of Tony Harris to people in the Brasília area and asked if they recognized him. The media outlets told Lori Harris that two people claimed they had seen him and that he had apparently been asking for food and money. Both sightings were unconfirmed.

On Wednesday morning Lori Harris' stepfather and a friend purchased airline tickets for Brazil. The two are flying out Friday and will stay for a week.

"They are going to be a family presence there, so that we can get a better idea of what is really going on there," she said.

Seattle Times staff reporters Jayda Evans and Jennifer Sullivan contributed to this report. Concerned by lack of response and exposure, the family of missing basketball star Tony Harris wants to go to Brazil in hopes of finding the player themselves.

Harris, who made his athletic name at Garfield High and Washington State, signed a month-to-month contract to play in Brasilia, the capital city in central Brazil. But the last his family in Seattle heard from him was a phone call on Nov. 4, when Lori Harris, his wife of two years, said he feared for his safety.

Lori Harris has tried to get assistance from the Brazilian government and local government, yet officials seem disinterested in the case, she said. She has only recently been offered help from Tony's team, with housing for her stepfather and his friend once they make the trip to Brazil. Lori, a social worker, will remain in Kent because she is expecting the couple's first child in December.

"If I wasn't pregnant, I would have been down there a week ago," she said in a phone interview. "My biggest hope is that they can be a thorn in the side of the consulate and the media. They can be there every day saying, 'What are you doing, what's the plan?' And my husband knows my stepdad very well, so maybe just seeing his face on the news ― if my husband is hiding because he's scared ― he'll see he has family there and that it's safe for him. He can come home."

Tony, who'll turn 37 this month, was unemployed and joined the Brazilian team as a way to make money for his family, which includes his 14-year-old son, his wife said. He starred in Brazil from 2000-05, earning Player of the Year honors and winning a championship for Uberlandia before retiring.

Harris' current team is owned by the same organization, but has a different coach. The previous coach and Harris had a shaky relationship, according to Lori, and upon Tony's return to Brazil on Oct. 31, he learned he might be in trouble.

The former coach wasn't happy that Harris had left the team in the middle of the 2005 season, she said.

"He found that the coach had made some statements about him that made him feel like it could maybe impact his ability to do well," she said. "It might upset people and might even put him in harm's way."

On Friday [Nov. 2], "He called me and said, 'I need to come home,' " Lori said.

Since his passport was being held by the team, Harris was prevented from taking an immediate flight out of the country. Until a replacement passport could be obtained, his plan was to wait at a friend's house, a two-day trip to northern Brazil. Erika Abdulmassih, the Brazilian friend, had befriended Harris at the hotel where Harris used to live, Lori said. Two days later, on Sunday [Nov. 4], Harris called to tell Lori that he was in a taxi for an eight-hour drive to meet a bus, where he'd take a 20-hour ride to meet Abdulmassih, communicating with Lori on the taxi driver's cellphone.

Lori was told later that the taxi driver stopped for gas in a small town. He left the car to get some food, while Harris waited.

Then sirens went off.

"It's still unclear to me whether they [the police] were driving by or whether they stopped, but Tony was just gone," Lori said. "His laptop computer, credit cards and personal effects were left. It's a nightmare. Erika called me Monday morning and was like, 'Where is he?' I said, 'I don't know.' "

Lori Harris said since then she has received two unconfirmed sightings of her husband.

Harris, a guard, led an unlikely 1994 Cougars team to the NCAA tournament, where WSU lost in the first round to Boston College 67-64. He went on to play in Cypress and South America.

The family described his Brazilian popularity as rock-star-like, in an interview on radio station KKNW (1150 AM) Tuesday afternoon. His photograph hung on restaurant walls and there were always autograph seekers surrounding Harris, Lori said.

The lack of communication is uncharacteristic of Harris, she said.

Calls by The Times to the Brazilian embassy in Washington, D.C., were not returned.

The family is trying to raise airfare for the trip to Brazil to investigate on their own.

"It's very disheartening because my husband gave his life to Brazil," Lori said. "He won championships for them and loved his team. This is how you repay him?" popular Seattleite goes abroad with the best of intentions and runs into deep trouble.

Family and friends at home wonder how something so awful could have happened -- and how it will end.

Sound familiar? Think again.

Getty Images
Former Washington State basketball star Tony Harris: His family fears the worst. (Al Bello /Allsport)
This is a story about Tony Harris, a former Washington State University basketball star -- not Amanda M. Knox, the University of Washington student accused in the sex slaying of a British woman in Italy.

But you haven't heard as much about Harris' tale: More than eight days ago, he disappeared without a trace in Brazil while playing professional basketball. Now his family fears the worst.

It's intriguing when someone like Knox, a relatively unknown college student accused of a gruesome crime, overshadows someone like Harris, a Seattle sports star who may be the victim of one. Society, of course, is obsessed with stories featuring sex and murder, and if you are a young American woman, pretty and middle class, what happens to you somehow matters more, even if you happen to be the suspect, not the victim.

Harris, whose family has deep roots in the Central Area and South Seattle, shone on Garfield basketball teams. "He was on two of my state championship teams," said Al Hairston, a former Garfield coach who now works for Seattle Public Schools. "Just a super kid -- a great young man."

In 1994, Harris, a guard, led a Cinderella Cougars team to the NCAA tournament. The team lost in the East Regional to Boston College, 67-64. Harris apologized at the time for taking an ill-advised, desperation shot with seconds left.

"I hate to see it come down to Tony's play at the end," WSU Coach Kelvin Sampson told reporters after that crushing loss. "Without Tony, I'm not standing here talking in the NCAA tournament."

After college, Harris played in Asia and South America.

Later, he got a counseling job at Echo Glen, a juvenile rehabilitation facility, but he recently left that job, according to his wife, Lori Harris, a social worker who is pregnant and due in early December. She says her husband decided to return to Brazil, where he once played for a few years, to get a "financial cushion" before the birth of their child.

What happened next is a mystery.

Lori Harris said her husband left Seattle for Brasilia in central Brazil on Oct. 31. She last heard from him early Nov. 4, when he spoke to her, fear in his voice, from a Brazilian taxi driver's cell phone. Two days earlier, he called and said "he didn't feel safe and that if he didn't come home now, he wasn't going to make it home," she said.

Harris said her husband had expressed concerns about people involved with the team, and was hearing upsetting rumors about himself. The basketball team's organization, she said, apparently held his passport, and her husband was trying to get to another city in Brazil where a friend could help.

Lori Harris, who lives in Kent, said the U.S. Embassy has been slow to act. As of Friday, she said, no top officials had gone to look for him. She has since reached out to Brazilian media to pressure local law enforcement. Military police are said to be on the case.

Efforts to reach the embassy in Brazil were unsuccessful. The staff was away for Veterans Day, said a receptionist who picked up Monday night.

Closer to home, Lori Harris also has called Reps. Jim McDermott, Norm Dicks and Adam Smith. She phoned the FBI -- with little luck.

Meanwhile, Harris' mother, Ophelia Harris, told me she hasn't heard from U.S. officials, the Brazilian team or even from local reporters wondering about her son. "You're the first to call me," she said Monday, breaking into tears at her South Seattle home. "We never expected anything like this. I just know it is foul play. My son knows I have a bad heart, and he would never do anything to stress me out."

She said before her son left, a representative from the Brazilian team flooded him with calls, asking him to come and play. The team told him, "Name your price," his mother recalled.

Now, she and her daughter-in-law wish he had never left.

They're holding out for good news by Sunday -- Harris' 37th birthday.

And they hope people care enough to take notice or say a quiet prayer or do whatever they can to help this American Tony Harris (journalist)
From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
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Tony Harris is a United States television reporter and news anchor. He has worked for CNN/U.S. since September 2004. Beginning on September 4, 2006, Harris started to co-anchor the first section of each day's CNN Newsroom newscast with Heidi Collins.

Harris entered broadcasting as a nineteen-year-old radio disc jockey in his hometown of Baltimore, Maryland. Two years later, he moved to television as a features reporter for an afternoon newsmagazine in Cleveland, Ohio. He rose to co-host.

Moving to New York City, he worked as an entertainment reporter for Entertainment Tonight and the Home Box Office. He returned to Cleveland in the early 1990s as a weekend news anchor, then again to New York, and Los Angeles, as a reporter for the Fox Network prime time newsmagazine Front Page.

He returned to local news as lead anchor for WBFF and WNUV in Baltimore, and then for WGCL-TV in Atlanta, Georgia.

Based at CNN Center in Atlanta, Harris co-anchored CNN Saturday Morning and CNN Sunday Morning with Betty Nguyen until he made the move to anchor CNN Newsroom. He is also a frequent substitute anchor on weekday news programs including American Morning, and CNN Live Today /Live From... which has been replaced by Newsroom. Tony Co-Anchors "Newsroom" with Heidi Collins.

Harris has won an Emmy Award.

He is a B.A. graduate in English from the University of Maryland Baltimore County.


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