At rally, friends and relatives praise missing Relisha Rudd, 8

At nightfall Saturday, candles flickered in Southeast Washington as dozens assembled on behalf of the 8-year-old homeless girl who vanished while apparently in the company of a man who is now a suspect in a killing.

With the light draining from the sky, those at the vigil joined together outside the old D.C. General Hospital, now used as a homeless shelter. They gathered to speak of Relisha Tenau Rudd, expressing their wishes, emotions and recollections at the shelter where she lived.

An Amber Alert was issued for her Thursday by D.C. police.

“I miss my daughter,” the girl’s mother, Shamika Young, said at the vigil. “I cry every night for her.”

In addition to the candles, there were signs and statements urging: “Bring Relisha home.”

Authorities said they believe that Relisha had been placed in the care of Kahlil Tatum, a janitor at the shelter. Tatum was charged in Prince George’s County on Friday in the death of his wife.

The search for the two expanded throughout the East Coast on Saturday, but no information emerged about their whereabouts.

Amid tears, adults and children at the vigil gave accounts of the Relisha Rudd they knew.

Relisha “is a sweet girl who is an artist, who loves dolls,” said Kelli Beyer, who works for a project that runs programs at the D.C. General shelter and four others. “She is a typical little girl,” Beyer said. “Let’s bring her home.”

Beyer works with the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project. Volunteers with the project organized the vigil to keep Relisha’s face and story before the public.

One speaker was another child from the shelter.

“When I would wake up,” the girl said, “I would be angry.” But she said, “I would see Relisha when I went outside and she would always give me a hug and make me smile.”

Feelings ran deep at the vigil. When the girl’s stepfather, Antonio Wheeler, took the microphone, tears came, but not words.

Finally someone hugged him and Wheeler managed to say: “I just want my baby back, y’all.”

The group at the rally included relatives, shelter residents and concerned citizens.

In her remarks, the girl’s mother recalled her daughter as a normal child.

“She said she wanted to be a model,” Young said of her missing daughter. “She wanted to be a basketball player.”

The search for the girl officially began Wednesday, but worries grew after relatives and authorities learned that the child’s mother had left the girl for nearly a month with Tatum.

On Thursday, Prince George’s police, who were looking for the girl, found Tatum’s wife, Andrea Denise Tatum, dead at a motel in the Oxon Hill area.

The next day police obtained the warrant charging Tatum, 51, in her death.

They said that Tatum’s wife had suffered an apparent gunshot wound. The couple lived in the 2500 block of N Street in Southeast Washington, the police said.

The initial Amber Alert posted by D.C. police described a vehicle that police linked to the case. The vehicle was later found in Prince George’s, but apparently yielded no information about the whereabouts of Relisha or Tatum.

In many Amber Alert cases, the description of a vehicle has enabled authorities to locate the missing child. With the vehicle described in the recent alert producing no uselful information, Relisha’s case appears more challenging.

As time passed, some of the girl’s relatives have expressed increasing concern.

“I’m still hoping and praying that she’s okay,” Belinda Wheeler, Relisha’s paternal step-grandmother, has said. “But in the back of my head, I’m feeling discouraged.”

Relisha stands about 4 feet tall and weights 70 to 80 pounds. A photo that police have released of her shows her hair in braids and barrettes, but it is unclear what she was last seen wearing. Police are asking anyone who may have seen Relisha or Tatum to call 202-727-9099 or 911.

Lynh Bui is a Prince George's County public safety reporter and former Montgomery County education reporter.
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