Andrea Kelly Tatum likely never saw the bullet coming.
Police officers had been searching for a missing 8-year-old girl when they arrived at Room 132 at a Maryland Red Roof Inn on the first day of spring and found Tatum instead. The 51-year-old lay face-down on the bed, her petite, 126-pound body bearing no signs of a struggle: No bruises, no cuts, according to an autopsy report obtained by The Washington Post. Her long artificial nails, painted purple and blue, remained intact. The barrel of a gun had been placed behind her left ear, and a bullet tore through her skull, into her brain and out a quarter-inch hole in front of her right ear.
The man who pulled the trigger, police and ballistics tests say, was her husband of more than two decades, Kahlil Tatum. Tatum would later use the same gun to kill himself, taking with him critical information investigators were seeking: Where had he left 8-year-old Relisha Rudd?
More than five months after Relisha went missing, the autopsy report, along with additional information from police and interviews with those who knew the Tatums, offers a more penetrating view into a case that has been shrouded in unknowns.
An entire city has wondered: Why did the second-grader’s relatives allow her to spend time alone with Tatum, a 51-year-old custodian at the D.C. homeless shelter where Relisha lived with her mother and three brothers? Where was she in the month before police became involved, when she wasn’t at school or with her family? Where is she now?
But alongside those questions are these: Why did Tatum kill his wife before killing himself? What, if anything, did she know?
“It’s so puzzling,” said Amelia Melton, who considered Andrea Tatum a sister. “What did she not tell me? What did she hide?”
There were signs of discord: Court records show that Kahlil Tatum had filed for divorce in February, and Andrea Tatum’s daughter would later tell police that her mother had considered leaving him. But others who knew the two describe them as caring people who had struggled with poverty, drug addiction and incarceration but seemed stronger together.
They say their deaths are as much a mystery as Relisha’s disappearance, and that while they mourn for the lost girl, they also grieve for a couple who started a life together 24 years ago both wearing white.
Andrea Tatum pinched a piece of cake between her fingers and brought it to the mouth of the man she had just married. He did the same, letting the cuff of his white suit brush against her lacy sleeve as their arms crossed.
That simple gesture, captured in photos from the couple’s reception that July Saturday in 1990, marked a symbolic commitment by the two to nourish and take care of each other.
Two decades later, Kahlil Tatum would reference that day on his Facebook page. Next to a picture of Andrea sitting on his lap, he wrote, “In the beginning there was man and woman, look at [us] now. 21 years later, love sure looks good on (WE)!”
Kahlil Tatum’s nephew, Deshawn Tatum, said his uncle loved his aunt “with the utmost passion.” If his uncle killed his wife — and Deshawn is not sure he did — it had to be because of stress in the wake of Relisha’s disappearance, Deshawn said.
“If you’re under so much stress with everyone constantly saying, ‘You did this, you did that,’ it’s going to make you turn crazy pretty much,” he said. “It’s too much stress on the mind. It’s too much stress on the heart.”
When he first saw his uncle’s face on the news, he assumed Kahlil was the victim of a crime, not the perpetrator. Even now, he doesn’t believe his uncle is the kidnapper or killer portrayed by the police. “If anything, my uncle took care of that little girl,” he said. “It was like she was his own daughter.”
Deshawn said he believes the girl’s family handed her over to him because they couldn’t take care of her themselves. Court records show that when a social worker interviewed Relisha’s mother, Shamika Young, after her daughter had missed a month of school, she described Kahlil Tatum as a “godfather” to the girl and didn’t want to file a missing person report. Relisha’s relatives said Kahlil bought her gifts and took her for sleepovers and on outings to the movies and the mall.
Deshawn Tatum also pointed to a video authorities released that shows his uncle with Relisha at the Holiday Inn Express in Northeast D.C. on Feb. 26. In it, she casually walks down the hall next to him, seemingly unafraid.
Relisha was last seen days later at a hotel across the street, according to law enforcement sources. On March 1, Relisha walked past the fountain in front of the Days Inn on New York Avenue, along the cream-colored tile in lobby and into a room with Tatum. It is unclear whether she ever walked out. Investigators searched the room extensively and released this detail: The day after Tatum checked into the hotel, he purchased a box of 42-gallon trash bags and visited Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.
Police launched a massive search of the park for Relisha’s remains. What they found, on March 31, was Tatum’s body in a park shed. He was killed by a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Authorities have since, through ballistics, linked the gun found next to him to the one used to kill his wife.
The last time Edna Young spoke to Andrea, she was in bed, settled in for the evening because she had promised to babysit her grandchildren the next day.
That was about 6 p.m. on March 19. The next morning, Young said, Tatum’s daughter called and said her mother had been killed.
Young’s son, Gerald Wills, who had lived with Andrea during the long years when Kahlil was in prison and describes her as the love of his life, had taken the call.
“He dropped the phone and went out in the hall and fell down,” Young said. “He was hollering.
“I said, ‘Oh, God, have mercy.’ I don’t understand. She was in for the night.”
Andrea, who called her “mom,” helped Young weekly. On Tuesdays, she would pick up donated bread that Young handed out to senior citizens in her building. On other days, she would bring Young her medication, bingo supplies and sometimes groceries.
Wills, 58, said he had known Andrea for about 30 years and loved her for nearly as long. He said he was the one who took care of Andrea when Kahlil was incarcerated from 1993 to 2003 and again from 2004 to 2011 for burglary, larceny and breaking and entering. Wills watched her back when their shared drug habit took them to dangerous corners. They lived in a car together for four years, he said. Once, in a moment of desperation, she pawned a wedding ring he had given her. “But I wasn’t mad at her because I loved her,” he said.
“That’s a big part of my life that is gone right now,” Wills said. “That girl meant everything to me.”
People at Andrea’s last place of employment, the Glorious Health Club — a gay establishment in Northeast that rents rooms for as cheap as $10 a day and carries a sign in the entrance that reads “Maybe it’s not Home Sweet Home, Adjust” — described Wills as Andrea’s “other husband.”
In a brief, cryptic e-mail about Andrea, her boss, Robert Siegel, said she loved both Kahlil Tatum and Wills. “She was loved and hated by many people,” he wrote. “Honest and loved her family.”
Wills said he can’t help feeling he “failed her.” In the past decade, he had watched Andrea embrace sobriety and her role as a grandmother. She took her grandchildren to the playground and movies and, just a few weeks before her death, to a dinosaur exhibit, he said. In the past she had talked about divorcing Tatum, he said, but he believes she stayed with him because Narcotics Anonymous teaches people to make amends.
“He couldn’t have loved her, because look what he did,” said Wills, who never saw the Tatums with Relisha, although he vaguely recalls Andrea once mentioning a little girl being at her house. “I think she found out something. That’s why he did it. He thought she was going to tell.”
Documents charging Kahlil with Andrea’s murder say the couple checked into the Red Roof Inn in Oxon Hill at 10:04 p.m. on March 19, the day a school social worker reported Relisha missing. Three people accompanied them but left after about 90 minutes. One of the men later told investigators that when he returned at 5:40 a.m. to pick up Kahlil, he saw Andrea lying on the bed. Kahlil wouldn’t let him in the room, he said.
Andrea’s children from a previous relationship did not respond to numerous requests for comment. But her daughter told investigators that her mother was having “domestic problems” with Kahlil and was contemplating leaving him.
Court documents show Kahlil filed for divorce in February, listing the separation as “mutual and voluntary.”
The crowd spilled out of the tiny Unity of Love Praise Temple Church in Southeast on the day hundreds of people showed up to say goodbye to Andrea. A fundraising site set up to pay for the event described her as “a loving mom and grandmother” and raised more than $4,000.
One of the many who contributed was Laci Elliot, a minister who had attended McKinley Tech High School with Andrea.
Andrea’s struggles with drugs had landed her behind bars more than once, according to jail records. But once she was sober, Elliot heard people say that “you couldn’t use a dump truck to pull her in the wrong direction.” (The autopsy report revealed she had not been drinking before her death, and a spokesman for the Maryland Medical Examiner’s office said that if she had consumed any drugs, that would have been noted.)
Andrea volunteered with her church and helped the homeless.
“She mattered,” Elliot said. “She matters. It’s not even past tense. Everybody wants that little girl found, and there are no answers. But a mother has lost her life. A grandmother has lost her life. She was a friend. She was a wife.”
“Nobody saw this coming,” she added. “I doubt she did either.”
Juvia Bush, who lives below the modest apartment the couple occupied on N Street SE, can’t recall ever hearing the Tatums fight. She is still chilled by this realization: “We lived right next door to a killer.”
Another neighbor, Casey Jones, said the Tatums went to the Bahamas last year and were planning a trip to Jamaica. They hoped to retire in 10 years, she said, and wanted to “open a little place to help families in need.” Kahlil had taken an interest in mentoring young men in the neighborhood, she said, and often wore a vest or suit.
“He always wanted to show black males that you can look nice,” Jones said. “He said he felt strongly about kids. They were both about the community.”
Jones recalled seeing Relisha playing happily in the snow last winter with another little girl who Jones assumed was Kahlil’s granddaughter.
Despite the circumstances of their deaths, Jones said, Andrea remains the woman who wrote get-well cards to sick neighbors and Kahlil remains the man who greeted his wife with a kiss.
She said, “I’m going to have to hold on to the way I remember them.”
Peter Hermann and Jennifer Jenkins and Wesley Robinson contributed to this report.