“Mr. Tatum,” as he was known to the residents of the D.C. General family homeless shelter, cut a unique figure for a janitor.
He dressed sharply, often in Polo designer clothing, sometimes in a suit and tie. He kept his burgundy SUV, decorated with an oversize Redskins window sticker, spotless. And he was given to seemingly random acts of generosity for the hundreds of children living in the former hospital campus, according to shelter residents.
Sometimes it was quarters for the shelter’s gumball machine. Sometimes it was much more.
Kahlil Malik Tatum, 51, is now the subject of a multistate search in connection with the disappearance of 8-year-old Relisha Tenau Rudd. Authorities say the girl’s parents, who live at the shelter, placed Relisha in Tatum’s care after he offered her a series of gifts.
Now Tatum has been charged with killing his wife, found dead last week in an Oxon Hill motel room, and Relisha may be in his custody.
Dozens attended a weekend candlelight vigil for Relisha. “I miss my daughter,” the girl’s mother, Shamika Young, said at the vigil. “I cry every night for her.”
Back at the shelter, some residents reflected on their interactions with Tatum in recent months and wondered whether they had overlooked reasons to be suspicious.
When Sheron Woods’s 11-year-old daughter got a pet turtle, Woods said, Tatum showed her pictures of his own turtles and promised to bring her an old tank she could use for hers.
When it arrived, “it was a brand new tank,” Woods recalled. “I offered him some money for it, and he said no.” Later, he offered to give Woods some gravel and plants to put in the tank; she declined.
Woods, 53, said her daughter later came to her with a $20 bill — money, the girl said, that came from Tatum. Woods confronted him.
“I said, ‘She’s 11. She’s too young to be taking that kind of money from a man,’ ” she recalled. “He just looked at me and walked away.”
Outside of his interactions with the residents at the shelter, little is known about Tatum and his wife, Andrea Denise Tatum, who was found dead of a gunshot wound Thursday.
Tatum was employed by the Community Partnership for the Prevention of Homelessness, a nonprofit organization that operates the shelter under contract with the city. Sue A. Marshall, its executive director, confirmed that Tatum worked for the group but did not know when he started working at the shelter and declined to comment further about him.
Court records indicate that Tatum, previously known as Karl Lee Tatum, was arrested and prosecuted several times since the early 1980s in the District and Virginia on breaking-and-entering and larceny charges, most recently in 2003.
In recent months, Tatum and his wife lived in an apartment in the Fairlawn section of Southeast Washington, not far from the Sousa Bridge. Neighbors there described the couple as quiet and unassuming.
“Nothing out of the ordinary,” said Shirley Miller, 46, who lives in the building next door.
Last June, Tatum was included among several plaintiffs in a lawsuit accusing the city of improperly denying prescription drug coverage to Medicaid recipients.
In the lawsuit, filed in federal court in the District, Tatum was said to be without “steady employment” and “relies on income from working odd jobs to pay for his living expenses.” It said Tatum needs medication to treat high blood pressure and had been on Medicaid since January 2012.
The lawsuit listed an address for Tatum at the Cedar Heights Apartments in Anacostia. A woman who answered the door there Sunday declined to comment on Tatum or his link to the missing girl.
A family friend who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that Tatum was a hard worker at the shelter and that his wife had many friends from her church. The friend, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the case, said Andrea Tatum was a successful graduate of a substance abuse recovery program and that hours before the police found her body, “She was headed to church.”
Several shelter residents recalled Kahlil Tatum speaking, often unprompted, about his church and his marriage.
A clutch of young mothers stood with their children Friday under the concrete portico in front of the shelter, discussing the case. They had seen Tatum around, sweeping the floor or dealing with a flooded hallway. He smiled a lot, they said. He did his job.
“You would never have thought he was like that,” said Arriana Faulcon, 22, who has lived there since January and has two children. “I was shocked,” she said, adding that she also thought to herself, “That could have been my baby.”
But the mothers said they are wary of shelter employees, who have been known to have sex with young female residents.
“I know a janitor that has a baby by one of the people that live here,” said Robin Pinkney, 23, a mother of five who has lived at D.C. General since early February. “She met him while she was here. They flirt with girls.”
She shook her head. “I don’t trust no man around my kids, godfather or not,” she said. “I’m not giving my kids to any man.”
Pinkney said she has not heard the shelter staff say a word about Relisha’s disappearance. “If I hadn’t watched the news or come outside or my family hadn’t called me, I would have never known. . . . They should have had a meeting, and put out some rules — your kids can’t run around the halls unsupervised. It’s easy to snatch a kid from here.”
Since the news got out, some residents have talked about moving, the mothers said.
“People are saying they’re going to find somewhere to go — they don’t feel comfortable,” Pinkney said.
Shannel Watson, 23, nodded. “It’s unsafe for kids to live here,” she said. “Who wants to think, ‘My child will be snatched in my sleep?’ ”
On Sunday, Woods said Relisha’s disappearance had frightened her daughter: “She asked me, ‘Is Mr. Tatum going to come back here and get me?’”
But Woods says she’s not concerned that Tatum will return to the shelter.
“If that man were to show up here today,” she said, “he wouldn’t make it off these grounds.”
Lynh Bui, Hamil Harris and Peter Hermann contributed to this report.