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Published: Monday, March 31, 2014, 1:27 p.m.

Classmates, cousins hold missing boy close to their hearts

  • Loved ones of missing 14-year-old Denver Harris have written his name on their hands and arms. Harris was alone in a house on Steelhead Drive when the...

    Quinn Russell Brown / The Herald

    Loved ones of missing 14-year-old Denver Harris have written his name on their hands and arms. Harris was alone in a house on Steelhead Drive when the Oso mudslide hit.

  • Alex Green (left) and Justin Draper, cousins of missing 14-year-old Denver Harris, talk with Jorjah Johnson at the Darrington Community Center on Satu...

    Quinn Russell Brown / The Herald

    Alex Green (left) and Justin Draper, cousins of missing 14-year-old Denver Harris, talk with Jorjah Johnson at the Darrington Community Center on Saturday, March 29, one week after the Oso mudslide.

  • Alex Green (left) sits with Jorjah Johnson and Justin Draper at the Darrington Community Center on Saturday, March 29. The center has been converted i...

    Quinn Russell Brown / The Herald

    Alex Green (left) sits with Jorjah Johnson and Justin Draper at the Darrington Community Center on Saturday, March 29. The center has been converted into a Red Cross emergency shelter since the Oso mudslide.

  • Jorjah Johnson, a classmate of Denver Harris, shows the letters D.M.H. — for Denver Matthew Harris — written on her hand in Sharpie.

    Quinn Russell Brown / The Herald

    Jorjah Johnson, a classmate of Denver Harris, shows the letters D.M.H. — for Denver Matthew Harris — written on her hand in Sharpie.

DARRINGTON — Denver Harris had been missing for a week, but they talked about him like he was still there.
"He's right here in front of us," his cousin Justin Draper, 14, said to a small group of friends at the community center on Saturday afternoon.
"Outdoorsy, fun, funny," Justin said. "A great family member. My best friend."
"He always makes everybody happier," said classmate Jorjah Johnson, 12.
Jorjah had the letters D.M.H. — for Denver Matthew Harris — written on her hand. Alex McConnaughy, another cousin, had Denver's name on his wrist.
"I wrote his name on my face, and on my arms, and on my wrists," Justin said. "With a Sharpie. I don't want it to go away."
Denver, a 14-year-old seventh-grader at Darrington Middle School, was alone in a house on Steelhead Drive when the slide hit. The house belonged to his former step-dad, Brian Lester, who had gone out with his daughter earlier in the day. Denver's mom, Randi Lester, a fourth grade teacher, was at her home in Darrington.
Justin didn't hear about the slide until he got home from a wrestling tournament.
"I went on Facebook and it said Steelhead Drive," he said. "I didn't know if Denver was on Steelhead Drive or at his mom's. Then I saw it said 'Denver Harris — missing.' I screamed."
His first instinct was to go look for his cousin, but you have to be 18 or older to enter the debris field.
School reopened in Darrington on the Tuesday after the slide. Justin spent most of the day in the library. Jorjah talked to a counselor. Alex left midway through the day and went to his dad's bee farm, where he cleared his mind by swapping out the frames in honey boxes.
Jorjah said she gets sad when she looks at Denver's empty seat in class. She made a "Hope for Denver" T-shirt and inspired others to do the same. It was decorated in green and blue, Denver's favorite colors.
"He always loved hanging out with his friends," said Raegan Booker, 14. "Always loved making people laugh. Always being a rebel."
Raegan was in Kirkland with her mom, Tina Clark, when the slide hit. She heard Denver was missing and wanted to go help. Clark, a Darrington native and former EMT, understood why.
"Once you're raised in Darrington, you have ties that don't ever break," Clark said.
Raegan volunteered around town throughout the week. Clark spent some days out in the debris field.
"Every step is six inches in mud," Clark said. "You're out there digging and digging, and then you go home and fall apart."
Denver hasn't received much media coverage besides being mentioned on missing lists. A relief fund for his mom has raised only $565. While this is partly because his family is remaining quiet, Clark said she thinks it's also because Denver isn't a high-profile case.
"He doesn't have medals, he's not a military commander. He's not a celebrity. He's just a 14-year-old boy who is lost," Clark said. "I don't want this kid to disappear, I want him to be remembered. He's not gonna get swept under the rug, or fall through the cracks."
"If he did I'd pick him right back up," Justin said.
And that's the hard part: it hurts to think about Denver, but they don't want to forget him.
They go to his Facebook page and look at photos. They replay memories in their heads. Alex remembers a diving catch Denver made during a recent game of touch football. Jorjah remembers Denver helping her with homework.
"He was older than me, so he was smarter," she said.
The last time Justin saw his cousin was at chess club. They were putting an Afro pick in each other's hair, and it was getting stuck in Denver's thick, reddish-brown waves.
"I wasn't even going to try to comb it, I felt like the Afro pick would snap," Justin said.
Justin said most of his memories with Denver take place outside. They brought BB guns down to the woods, swam in the river, picked up sticks and acted like they were swords. Sometimes they played with Jovon Mangual, who lived next door on Steelhead Drive and is also missing in the slide.
As the rain fell that Saturday afternoon, the eighth day of an increasingly bleak search, Denver's friends were optimistic. They were surrounded by Red Cross workers and boxes of emergency supplies, but they had hope for Denver.
"I see Denver being found, alive," Justin said. "Maybe a few minor injuries."
"Same here," Jorjah said.
"I can't imagine Denver dead," Justin said.
When asked how they would describe Denver to someone who didn't know him, his friends said he was almost always joking and laughing. They said he was always on the move, often hiking or playing sports. Even during lunchtime, when students are required to stay seated, he moved around. They said he talked about joining the Army one day.
Above all else, Jorjah wants people to know one thing about Denver.
"He was loved," she said.
"He was," Justin said. Then he corrected himself: "Still is."
"It's hard not to say 'was,'" Jorjah said.
You can donate to the family of Denver Harris here.

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