D.C. police searching for missing 8-year-old girl find body of woman linked to case


Police found a woman dead in a Red Roof Inn in Prince George's County on Thursday in their search for a missing 8-year-old girl. (Lynh Bui/The Washington Post)

D.C. police said early Friday morning that the white truck they had been looking for in a search for a missing 8-year-old girl was found Thursday in Hyattsville.

The search for the missing girl urgent Thursday as D.C. police issued a regional alert after finding the body of a woman linked to the case in an Oxon Hill motel room.

Dozens of officers and detectives converged on the Red Roof Inn as well as at a homeless shelter at the former D.C. General Hospital, where the girl’s mother lives. Last month, police said, the mother allowed her daughter to be cared for by a shelter janitor, whom a relative described as someone the family has come to know during its 18-month stay there.

The missing girl was identified as Relisha Tenau Rudd, who stands about 4 feet tall and weighs 70 to 80 pounds, and a photo distributed by police shows her with her hair in braids and barrettes. Police, who were alerted to her disappearance Wednesday, said they did not know what she might be wearing because it has been weeks since she was last seen by close family members.

The Amber Alert initially identified two people thought to be with the girl — Kahlil Malik Tatum, the janitor, and Rickie Sheridan Lyles — and said they were in a white 1976 GMC truck with the Maryland license plate 305015. But Thursday night, D.C. police issued a second alert that did not include Lyles’s name because they didn’t believe he was traveling with the girl.


Relisha Tenau Rudd (D.C. Police)

The alert includes warnings that flash on smartphones, break into television and radio programming, and are stripped across highway overpass signs.

“Relisha is a sweet, quiet girl,” said Jamila Larson, executive director of the Homeless Children’s Playtime Project, which runs programs at five D.C. shelters, including the one at D.C. General.

She said many volunteers and staff took time off work to post fliers to help in the search.

“Everyone just feels desperate to do something to help,” Larson said.

About midnight Thursday, authorities issued a news release with pictures of Relisha, a black Honda Accord and a red Chevrolet TrailBlazer. But fear for the girl’s safety heightened hours later when police, acting on a tip, went to the Red Roof Inn, off Oxon Hill Road, and found those vehicles abandoned in the parking lot and the woman’s body in a room.

Police said they believe that the dead woman was Tatum’s wife, although her name was not released. The body showed signs of trauma, they said, but they would not describe how they think she was killed.

The investigation is moving quickly across suburban Maryland as well as the District, and the child’s mother and other relatives have been interviewed. But a city official and police with knowledge of the search said that detectives are frustrated by contradictory statements, the inability to pin down a definitive timeline of events, and the unclear relationship between Tatum, Relisha and Relisha’s mother. One question still unanswered is precisely when the girl disappeared and whether authorities missed earlier opportunities to intervene.

Based on accounts from the girl’s family, police say the mother asked Tatum to care for the girl on Feb. 26. Belinda Wheeler, Relisha’s paternal grandmother, said the girl’s mother described the janitor as someone who brought Relisha “a lot of gifts. . . . This Mr. Tatum was a friend of the family. . . . He was trying to be Relisha’s godfather.” But she added that Tatum did not know the family before they moved into the shelter.

Wheeler would not say where the girl had been staying since she left with Tatum on Feb. 26.

Police and a D.C. official with knowledge of the investigation said that Tatum was employed by a nonprofit group that runs the shelter and that a background check was conducted in 2012. Nothing unusual emerged, although a search of court records in Virginia show numerous arrests and several convictions in the late 1990s and early 2000s for larceny as well as breaking and entering.

The D.C. official said that Tatum did not report that he knew one of the clients, as is required. That official also said that school authorities and social workers flagged numerous absences by the girl from Payne Elementary School in Southeast, including a string starting on or shortly after Feb. 26. The official said the mother provided varying accounts, such as the girl was staying with her grandmother. “She was on our radar screen several times for absences,” the official said.

D.C. schools are required by law to call the city’s Child and Family Services Agency when students younger than 13 have more than 10 unexcused absences, a rule meant to encourage better attendance and to ensure that social workers intervene to determine whether truancy might be the result of neglect or abuse.

D.C. Council members have pushed the public school system to comply with that law over the past two years, particularly after data from the 2011-12 school year showed that principals at traditional elementary schools referred only one in five students with such attendance problems. The District official said authorities are trying to determine whether the rule was complied with. Spokeswomen for the school system and Social Services declined to comment.

On Wednesday, the D.C. official said social workers finally called police to investigate. Within hours, D.C. authorities labeled Relisha a “critically missing child,” giving the case the highest of importance and resources. A command center was set up outside D.C. General Hospital.

D.C. police officials said that the girl’s mother has not considered her child missing and said that she had talked to her by phone as recently as Wednesday. But the mother also had met with Tatum and asked him to return Relisha, the same officials said. He promised to but did not follow through, the police said.

On Thursday, as police went room to room at the Red Roof Inn, several patrons said they had not seen a young girl during their stay.

Khrysta Anderson, 25, has been at the motel for four days, on the floor above where the body was found. She said she first saw the red SUV and black Honda on Wednesday. She added that she was awakened by armed officers banging on her door about 8 a.m. and that guests were on lockdown much of the day.

Emma Brown, Hamil R. Harris and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.

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