Tyrone Ford is a kid with immense natural talents: "God's gifts," says his preacher. At age 13, he has led three church choirs, and just last year he was honored for his role as the "wonder boy of Gospel music" by President Reagan.
Then, about three months ago, he began showing up at the Fellowship Baptist Church in Northeast Washington wearing a beeper. And whenever it would go off, he'd fidget a bit, then slip out through a back door.
Two weeks ago, he just disappeared from his home in Washington's Petworth neighborhood. And when he did show up Friday night, he lied, telling D.C. police that he had been kidnaped by two men with a Doberman pinscher when, in fact, police later learned, he had been hanging out on the street with friends.
In the parlance of the church life that Ford was so deeply immersed in, it was as if the Devil had reached into the pulpit and simply snatched the child, while friends and family watched helplessly.
His grandmother says she wants to take Ford to a doctor and make him take a urine test to determine if he has used drugs. Ford says he does not use drugs, that he had had just "been out for a while." His preacher says it could be worse.
"I believe he fell into the hands of the wrong people," said the Rev. Walter Coles, pastor of the Fellowship church. "One guy calls himself the 'godfather,' a short guy, about 5 feet 2 inches, slicked-back hair tied into a ball, and dressed in real sharp clothes. I had to tell him, 'Stop coming to my church interfering with my congregation.' That's when Tyrone started slipping out to meet him."
Coles says the "godfather" and other men, ages 19 to 31, come to the church to entice Ford with gifts and money. At best, the reverend figures, they want to promote the youngster's musical career.
Whether Coles' assessment of Ford's new friends is accurate or not, the fact remains that the youth who started playing piano and singing at age 4, who became a leader in the church and this community before becoming a teen-ager, had suddenly become uninterested in his music, his church, his family and maybe even his life.
Once the person whom youth choirs looked up to for motivation and inspiration, Ford began missing choir practices. Too many other engagements, he'd say. Not long after joining the church usher board, he resigned, and for a while he stopped attending church altogether.
"My daughter spotted him one evening up on 14th Street NW, near where the drug dealers and prostitutes hang out, and when he saw her, he ran away," Coles recalled. "I spent two days looking for him after that, but he was nowhere to be found."
A precocious child, charismatic and adult-like, Ford was not even fazed by his selection as one of four "Young Heroes" honored by Reagan in February 1986. He had already come a long way. Orphaned as a small child, he had found a new home and a new life as singer, preacher and pianist.
"I don't feel much different," he told reporters after meeting Reagan. "But it was nice," he said coolly.
Ford apparently took his grown-up attitude home, laying down the law to his guardians as to when he would come and go.
"He was the only male in the household, and he was bringing in money, so he thought he could do what he wanted," Coles said. "I felt that he was being overexposed, that he was getting too much, too soon. The church began offering the family $100 a month so it would take some of the pressure off of Tyrone. But nothing seemed to work."
Ford's aunt, Toni Ford, said the family has done its best to help the extraordinary youngster and that they are just thankful that he has returned home safely. This was not the first time that Tyrone Ford had disappeared, but it was his longest absence. Until they can figure out what is luring their child out onto the streets, they will settle for the solace of his presence until he decides to leave again.