THE grieving family of “free spirit” Rico Dardis have spoken for the first time of their heartache as they prepare to say their final farewells.

Bournemouth Crematorium will provide the setting tomorrow for the funeral service of 30-year-old Rico, whose remains were recovered from the sea at Friars Cliff in Christchurch on May 27.

Paying tribute to his only son, Rico’s father Mick Dardis said: “I was so proud of him; Rico was the most loving and devoted son anyone could have wished for.

“Attending the funeral of your own child is a heartbreak no parent should ever have to endure.”

Rico’s former partner Paula Barrett, the mother of Rico’s eight-year-old son Tyler, recalled: “I was only 18 when we met on a blind date; it was love at first sight.

“Rico had tremendous charisma; he was really affectionate and always smiling. But he was a free spirit and he liked to stay with friends and go to clubs. He took part in rapping contests and usually won; he was really passionate about music. Rico touched so many hearts and had time for everyone.”

A year after Tyler was born the couple went their separate ways. Paula, 29, who now lives in Burton near Christchurch, said: “We remained close friends and Rico kept in contact with Tyler. He was a fantastic dad.

“We got back together again but, while I was happy with being a mum, Rico loved being out. I compared him to Peter Pan; he always had to return to Neverland. We ended up taking different paths but I’ve no regrets.

“The last time I heard from Rico was a text message about three months ago; he sounded fine.

“Tyler knows his daddy has died but he is still my baby and I want to protect him. Hopefully the funeral will bring some closure; his favourite songs will be played and a wake will be held at the Rhumbar Caribbean restaurant; Rico loved Caribbean food.”

Speaking on Rico’s family behalf, Paula thanked staff at Sopley primary school, where both Tyler and his step-brother Bobby attend, adding: “Since Rico died they have been beyond brilliant”.

“I can’t accept Rico isn’t here anymore; it’s unbearable that Tyler has to spend the rest of his life without his daddy.”

Two Bournemouth men, a 49-year-old and 50-year-old arrested in connection with Rico’s death, are still on bail.