Thursday’s end to the week-long search for Relisha Rudd in a Northeast Washington park brought relief to police that she was not found dead but mounting concern that the mystery of her disappearance has only grown deeper.
“It’s heart-wrenchingly frustrating,” D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said as she stood next to still-sealed entrance to Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens late Thursday morning.
Unlike previous days, the park’s expanse along the Anacostia River appeared empty. The searchers in reflective vests, who for 16 hours a day had walked through ballfields, picnic spots, dense woods and streams, were gone. They’d uncovered nothing that brought police closer to finding the 8-year-old girl.
“We don’t have answers about where she is,” Lanier said of Relisha, who has been missing since Feb. 26, when her mother allowed her to go with Kahlil Malik Tatum, a janitor at the homeless shelter where the family lived. She was last seen March 1.
Police, firefighters, cadets and volunteers spent seven days at the 700-acre park in search of a “potential grave site” for the child, even as Lanier expressed “hope she’s still alive.”
On Monday, searchers found Tatum’s body in a shed at the park. Police said that he apparently died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head and that his body had been there for 36 hours to a few days. Police have said they think it is possible Relisha was killed by Tatum, 51.
Lanier said police may release additional information in coming days — including a photo of a man they are seeking to identify. Police would not immediately say where the photo was taken or how the man may be linked to the case. But the chief said, “The one person who could have given us the best answers, Mr. Tatum, can’t give us the answers anymore.”
Relisha’s aunt, Tiffany Young, said she thinks that Relisha is dead. And finding her niece will be even harder now that the search at the park turned up empty. “If they searched the whole thing and still didn’t come up, there’s nothing else that they can do,” she said.
Police said they concentrated their search on the park based on a tip and because Tatum was spotted there after he bought 42-gallon trash bags about the time Relisha was last seen. That March 1 sighting of the girl occurred on Bladensburg Road, near motels that police say Tatum had stayed in, including at least one stay with Relisha.
Police first started searching for Relisha on March 19, after a counselor at her school inquired about her mounting absences and tried to find Tatum, who had been listed in school records as her doctor. Relisha’s mother never reported her missing. The next day, police found Tatum’s wife fatally shot at an Oxon Hill motel. Tatum was charged in her killing.
Lanier said it was unfortunate that there had been a 22-day delay in getting police involved. She said that “the hope is that a child that young” would be noticed missing earlier. “It led us to a very late start,” the chief said. “It was very difficult to catch up.”