The callers refuse to believe that Relisha Rudd is dead.
Night after night, for two to three hours, hundreds of them flock to an obscure Internet radio show — run out of a D.C. nursing home by a tattooed 32-year-old with a Mohawk — to discuss how to find the missing 8-year-old.
It doesn’t matter to them that D.C. police have described the search for the second-grader as “a recovery mission,” meaning that investigators are looking for a body. They are certain that Relisha is alive somewhere, hurting, scared, waiting for someone to find her and bring her home. They are certain she needs them.
It is that possibility that has also prompted the girl’s family members to take part in “The Finding Relisha Radio Show.” Several of her relatives, some of whom have not spoken publicly anywhere else or have done so only briefly, have repeatedly called in, answering questions posed by strangers who, at times, curse and berate them for not doing enough.
On a recent night, a caller asks the girl’s mother, Shamika Young, why she isn’t showing any emotion about her daughter’s disappearance. Why isn’t she screaming? Why isn’t she fighting?
And then it happens. After answering questions for more than an hour, Young’s voice trembles.
“Nobody don’t know how I feel over here,” she says. “I’m hurt, real hurt. We’re talking about my firstborn that I spent 18 hours and 36 minutes in labor with. I ain’t sleeping at night. When I go to sleep I keep having these dreams where my daughter is reaching for me, and I can’t get her. How do you think I feel about that? Waking up, keep crying. Is this what you want? Is this what y’all want — for me to act a fool on the radio?”
“I do,” the caller says, sounding satisfied. “Shamika, yes, I do. I’m sorry to say, but I do.”
There are no timid questions on the show. Dark theories and cutting accusations are casually swapped. The conversation is messy and raw, reflecting emotions that have raged since Relisha — a wide-eyed girl who slept with a teddy bear — was taken nearly two months ago by a custodian at the Southeast Washington homeless shelter where she lived with her mother and three younger brothers. The janitor, Kahlil Tatum, 51, allegedly killed his wife, Andrea, before fatally shooting himself in a Northeast Washington park.
The Relisha radio show is at once a church, a courtroom and a group therapy session. It is asearch party.
“We got to find this baby, y’all,” the show’s host, Keith Warren, says the night after Young breaks down. “We got to find this baby. Seriously, it’s hurting us all.”
A pale yellow curtain divides Warren’s room at the nursing home in two, leaving him and an elderly roommate each with a living area about the size of a parking space. On Warren’s side, a wall is plastered with posters of his heroes: The Obamas, Batman and a professional wrestler known as the Undertaker. From the ceiling hangs a dream catcher. Warren says that he used to have nightmares but that they stopped after he hung it.
There is not much furniture, so Warren often sits on his twin bed to host the show. His desk is a thin sliding table, the kind designed to hold a food tray in a hospital. On it, he keeps everything he needs to do the program: headphones from his X-box and two laptop computers, one with a broken screen.
Warren, who wears a tongue ring and whose hair until recently was dyed stop-sign red, says he’s amazed at the community that has formed around the show, which is operated through Blog Talk Radio, an Internet platform, and can be reached by phone or computer. With a few clicks, he brings up a chart that tracks who is listening. In the course of four days last week, the show had 2,356 listeners. A related Facebook page, “The Relisha Rudd Task Force,” has more than 850 members.
“As I say on my radio show, this 8-year-old girl brought all these strangers together,” Warren says. “Like someone mentioned on my show, ‘We’re all family, and Relisha is our child.’ ”
Warren has lived at the nursing home for two years after having medical problems that cause him to rely at times on a wheelchair. He has no formal training in broadcasting or experience as a community activist. He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. But he grew up in the District, and he understands what it’s like to have a relative vanish.
Several weeks ago, Warren stood outside a Southeast apartment building, attending a vigil for a cousin, Unique Harris. The 24-year-old mother put her two children, ages 3 and 5, to bed one night in October 2010, and when they woke up, she was gone. Warren’s daughter, who was 9 at the time, had spent that night at Harris’s apartment and made the call to say she had vanished.
“Every time the phone rings, I’m hoping my aunt or sister is calling me to tell me they found her,” Warren says. He says disappearing is harder than death on loved ones. “You have all these thoughts in your head of what might have happened, of what could be going on.”
Unique’s mother, Valencia Harris, who is on the board of the Black and Missing Foundation, describes the situation as a state of limbo “between grace and grief.”
“You can’t grieve because you don’t know where your loved one is,” she says. “And you can’t be happy because my daughter could be out there being tortured every day, all day. So there is no peace in the situation at all. You wake up with it. You go to bed with it. Even just coming home from work, I could break down in my car just thinking about it.”
It was at the vigil that Warren decided to do the Relisha show. For five years, he has hosted a show on wrestling, his passion, but he figured his time would be better spent on this case, which has captivated him.
Warren speaks about Relisha as if he knows her. He talks about how she likes Michael Jackson, which is something they have in common, and how she is just the right amount of sassy. On the group’s Facebook page, he posts “Relisha Facts.”
“Relisha Fact #1: She hates when you say her name wrong she will say her name is Relisha, that’s Relish with an A. Then she will say if you can’t remember that then just call me lisha or Re Re.”
“Relisha Fact #2: She use to like Dora.”
“Relisha Fact #3: One of her favorite characters is Tinkerbell.”
“When we do find her,” Warren says, “I’m going to give her the biggest hug.”
Warren has vowed to do the show until Relisha comes home, and from the phone numbers that appear on his screen each night, he can tell that the demand is there. Hair colorists, mail processors and correctional officers are among the many Washington area residents who have tuned in. Other listeners live as far away as Michigan and Texas. Then there are Relisha’s relatives. Warren says their phone numbers — which he has memorized — pop up even when they aren’t invited on the show.
One after another, they dial in on the night that Warren introduces “a special guest,” the nephew of Kahlil Tatum. Relisha’s grandfather calls first. Then Young’s boyfriend, who is the father of Relisha’s two youngest brothers. And finally Young herself.
“Besides you seeing my daughter at the shelter, have you actually seen her with your uncle?” Young, 27, asks Tatum’s nephew, Andre Tatum-Jones, 23.
“Actually, I’ve seen her walking with my uncle to the store that’s closest to the shelter — the convenience store,” he says. “I’ve seen your daughter plenty of times.”
“Did she ever mention anything of how she had gotten with Tatum that day or?” Young asks, not finishing her thought.
“No, she never mentioned how she actually met my uncle or what was their relationship,” Tatum-Jones says. He says every time he saw Relisha she was cheerful, playful. He believes, he tells listeners, that if his uncle was buying Relisha gifts and spending time with her, it was to help her. He was not a pedophile, he says.
“The way he spoke to me about Relisha was as if she was his own daughter,” says Tatum-Jones, who doesn’t believe that his uncle would have killed her. “The way he was talking to me was that she was in a bad situation.”
In the days after that exchange, several of Relisha’s relatives would come on the show separately and then together to defend themselves and sling accusations at one another.
Young, who has been accused of giving police conflicting information about her daughter’s whereabouts, is under investigation by a grand jury for possible obstruction of justice, according to people familiar with the case.
But none of the relatives has escaped scrutiny, at least on the Relisha task force’s Facebook page. Warren calls its members “shoulda-been detectives” and “shoulda-been lawyers” because they sift every statement, searching for inconsistencies.
Many of them have never met Relisha, but now she belongs to them, too. “I actually have to see a therapist because of all the [lost] sleep and anxiety and depression that I go through dealing with this,” a woman says on the show, “because Relisha Rudd could have been anybody’s child.”
“God pleeease bring this baby home safe,” another woman pleads. “Pleeease.”
Shamika Young’s sister Ashley Young, 26, says she is thankful to Warren and “people out there that do care and that are very concerned.” Despite the criticism of her family, she says, she participates in the show because it is a way to keep word of Relisha’s disappearance alive.
“Whatever I can do to help find Relisha,” Ashley Young says, “I’m willing to help, no matter how people look at me and what they think.”
Warren’s ambitions have now stretched beyond the show. He plans to organize a search in the days to come and to hold vigils for Relisha, knowing that there’s a difference between asking people to listen and inspiring them to act. A fundraising Web site that he started — one that promises the money will go toward a reward for Relisha’s return, her medical care or, “God forbid,” her funeral expenses — has been shared 44 times. The total it has raised: $5.
Still, Warren says he is not discouraged. On a recent night, an 11-year-old girl calls into the show and reminds him why the effort matters.
“She’s probably scared and frightened,” the girl says of Relisha. “I think everyone should work 10 times harder to find her.”
Lynh Bui and Jennifer Jenkins contributed to this report.