When John Alpert left his Palmdale home in search of an adventure riding California's rail lines, his mother's heart ached.
"Don't worry," the 19-year-old repeatedly told Cecilia Alpert by phone and by text message in the first week of his March journey. "It's safe."
And then the communications stopped.
Almost two months to the day after his last contact with family, a fisherman discovered Alpert's remains on the banks of Dry Creek, near Roseville's famed railyards.
Authorities later determined he had suffered blunt force trauma, and likely died shortly after he rolled into the switchyard on a freight train March 16 or 17.
Alpert had never illegally hopped a train before. But police suspect he began his journey in Southern California with some experienced rail riders – and that there are people out there who could help the case, yet haven't come forward.
"I know there's people out on the rail lines in America that have information about what happened to (Alpert)," said Roseville police Detective Vince Dutto. "I'm encouraging them to call us."
Dutto said the teen had never been in trouble with the law, and was a caring young man beloved by his family and friends.
"This isn't a story of someone that's been in this lifestyle for years and years and knew the risks involved," the detective said. Instead, Alpert seemingly was following an urge to travel "like many people do at many points in their life."
Born and raised in Palmdale, Alpert and his twin brother, Josh, graduated from Highland High School in 2012. When Josh went to Santa Barbara to attend community college there, John decided to stay home to help take care of his parents, his mother said.
Cecilia Alpert described him as a devoted son, big-hearted young man and talented artist who enjoyed drawing and rapping to beats.
An animal lover who deplored cruelty, John ate a vegetarian diet. He had expressed interest in becoming a chef, but most recently had been enrolled in graphic arts classes at nearby Lancaster Community College, Cecilia Alpert said.
His rail-riding journey came as a surprise. He told his mother of his plans at the last minute, just before heading out the door Sunday, March 10. When she objected, he asserted his independence, reminding her he was an adult and that he was following his dreams of traveling, she recalled.
"He gave me a hug and that's it," Cecilia Alpert, who was born in the Philippines, said in a tearful interview with The Sacramento Bee. "If I knew that was the last hug, I would've kept it longer."
John told his mother he was taking a bus to Bakersfield, where he would hop a freight train to Stockton and then to Roseville. He told his mom she could call or text him every day. And then he left, carrying only a bag of clothes, an iPod and his wallet.
His last Facebook entry – dated March 10 – reads: "im at the crossroads and for the first time, im scared."
Cecilia Alpert said John told her who he was traveling with, but the names didn't register in her memory, even though he referred to them as friends. Josh didn't know them either, she said. She speculates John might have met them online.
"He's so trusting, and that's the thing that cost his life," Cecilia Alpert said.
The two spoke or text messaged on the phone every day until the following weekend. He conveyed that after getting off a train in Roseville, he would take a bus to visit an aunt in Reno, and then head home.
John said he intended to be back in time for his grandmother's birthday, and a midterm exam at school, his mother said.
His last text message came March 17 at 2:30 p.m. After that, his mother's calls went to voicemail and were not returned. When his grandmother's birthday passed without any sign of the teen, Cecilia Alpert reported her son missing.
A fisherman found his remains May 15, though his identity was not confirmed until late June. Cecilia Alpert said John had suffered fractures to his ribs and spine. None of his belongings were with him, she said.
Dutto, the detective, said his investigation has taken him into the well-connected yet mysterious world of rail riders, among whom Roseville is well known because of its large switchyard.
One officer from the Police Department is assigned to work with the city's transient population, and a large portion of his work involves those who illegally arrive on trains, Dutto said.
"You deal with all types in that subculture," Dutto said. "They usually stay under the radar – but not always."
Meanwhile, John's family is still searching for answers – and some kind of solace.
Cecilia Alpert said she tries to be strong. She cries mostly at night, when her husband, Richard, and sons Josh and Rich can't see. She struggles with grief and regret, and questions whether she could've done something different to avoid her heartbreak.
"I miss him. I wish that I could go back in time and I will trade places with him, because I'm an old lady and he's too young to die," she said tearfully. "That's what I was hoping – I go first. It's so hard to lose a son at a young age."
She does not know how long it will take, but Cecilia Alpert said she wants to see those responsible for John's death held accountable.
"I want justice for my son," she said. "My son doesn't deserve to die like this."
POLICE SEEK HELP
Anyone with information about John Alpert's death – including anyone who saw him in Roseville in mid-March or who had any contact with rail riders in the city around that time – is asked to call the Roseville Police Department's Investigations Unit at (916) 774-5070.