One year ago, 8-year-old Relisha Rudd vanished.
The second-grader had been living with her mother and three brothers in a grimy shelter for homeless families at the former D.C. General Hospital. As D.C. police set off on a frantic search for the missing child last March, they discovered that Kahlil Tatum, the shelter janitor who took her, had killed his wife and then himself, leaving behind a mystery: Where is Relisha?
In a city where hundreds of children are homeless, Relisha became of a symbol of the poverty and neglect that mar so many young lives. Her haunting eyes forced many in the District and beyond to consider the “other Relishas,” children failed by their teachers, their social workers or their own families.
While police think Relisha is dead, some hold on to hope. They’re determined to find the little girl who slept with a teddy bear named Baby and dressed as a princess for Halloween. They still plaster her photos online and on fliers across the city. And they still comb through the Northeast D.C. park where police found her abductor dead, because they yearn for the faintest hint of an answer.
One year later, they have not given up on Relisha.
Standing at the edge of the Anacostia River, Brenda Brown points to the frozen water as Relisha Rudd’s mother and aunt peer into the stillness.
This is where a volunteer search-and-rescue dog in October picked up the scent of the man who was last seen with Relisha, along with the smell of a cadaver, Brown tells Shamika Young and Shamika’s sister, Tiffany Young. It’s also where Brown is arranging for volunteer divers to plunge into the water once the river thaws in the spring, hoping they’ll discover what the police couldn’t after a week-long search last year at Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens.
“What if she floated somewhere else?” asks Tiffany Young, looking downstream.
“They might find something,” Brown says. “They might find a piece of clothes. You don’t know. You want to at least close that door. If she’s weighted down, she will still be there.”
Brown pauses and looks at Relisha’s mother: “Now — I apologize, Shamika — but it will be bones.”
“Ma!” says Shamika Young, 28, who believes her daughter is still alive.
Brown and Young are not related and didn’t meet until last year. But the two have been working together to search for Relisha. And when Young needs someone to talk to or cry with, she contacts the woman she calls “Mom Brenda.”
Together they have organized a Sunday prayer service and candlelight vigil at the D.C. General shelter, where Relisha and her family once lived, to mark the anniversary of the second-grader’s disappearance. There, they plan to hand out “Relisha Rudd Care Kits” filled with toiletries for shelter residents.
When Relisha first went missing, Brown would harass Young on social media, calling for Young’s arrest as a neglectful mother. But after some prayer and a few messages to Young on Facebook, Brown decided it was not her place to judge, and she became one of Young’s biggest supporters.
Brown, 63, helped Young move out of the homeless shelter and into an apartment in Southeast Washington. She bought Christmas presents for Relisha’s three younger brothers, who are now in foster care while a D.C. judge decides whether Young and her fiance, Antonio Wheeler, still deserve to be parents. And Brown has played an active role in helping Young search for her daughter. Brown has continued to organize search parties in Kenilworth Park, even hosting the volunteer search-and-rescue team that brought the dog in the fall.
“At first, it was about trying to find out what happened,” says Brown, a retired federal employee. “But now . . . we’ve got to find this child whether we find remains or whether we find her.”
Young and Brown disagree on whether Relisha is alive. But Young says that, thanks to Brown, her biggest detractors on social media have been bashing her less and keeping the focus on finding her daughter.
“I’m very grateful,” Young says. “I’m glad that people stopped trying to judge me, because at the end of the day, the only person who can judge me is God.”
Brown says she is always thinking about Relisha or thinking about ways to honor Relisha. The city and her family might have failed this girl, Brown says, but now it’s time for her and the community to step up.
“She’s not just another missing girl,” Brown says. “She is everybody’s child.”
She asks the question almost every day: “GM where is Relisha Rudd?”
The “GM” is shorthand for good morning, because DeShaunte Williams is up by 6 a.m., posting her query on Facebook and Twitter and in the comments section of news stories for an hour while she sits in her wood-paneled apartment in Southeast Washington. Then she heads to work as an armed guard, patrolling D.C. government buildings.
“It’s like I’ve fallen in love with this little girl,” says Williams, one of many people with no personal ties to Relisha or her family who have become fixated on the missing girl.
Williams, 44, says she spends about three hours a day tapping out the question on her smartphone dozens of times. With each post, she adds an image of Relisha, hoping one of them will spark leads.
But since Williams began posting, she has gotten more prayers and comments than information that could help the authorities. Her phone — filled with dozens of Relisha photos culled from Instagram and Facebook — constantly pings and buzzes with every “like” and reply to her efforts.
“Who ever has her please let her go,” one person pleaded Feb. 13 under a black-and-white picture of Relisha with a candle.
Another person posted under a missing-person flier: “STILL SEARCHING LITTLE ONE, EVEN IF YOUR WITH OUR LORD JESUS CHRIST, I STILL HOLDING ON TO MY FAITH FOR YOU!!”
Williams says Relisha’s disappearance called to her. She has a niece Relisha’s age, and “the story itself is heartbreaking.”
“She has become a symbol and opened up a lot of people’s eyes to a lot of things that really needed to be looked on in D.C.,” Williams says. “The ball was dropped on her. That’s why a lot of people are drawn to this case.”
Her devotion to Relisha extends beyond social media. When a member of a Relisha Facebook group said a psychic believed that the little girl was in Atlanta with a “heavy set woman,” Williams called a friend in the area, asking her to check if Relisha was enrolled in any Georgia schools.
“I have to do this,” Williams says. “I have to be a voice for her.”
Once, Williams says, she was so overcome with worry thinking about Relisha that she had to see her doctor for the stress.
What Williams does generates backlash. “I had a commenter yesterday ask me what did [Relisha] have to do with the weather,” Williams says of a post she placed in the comments sections of a local television station’s news story.
Sometimes, people call her crazy: “They said, ‘She’s dead, give it up.’ ”
But Williams vows that her morning ritual will not end until Relisha is found.
“It is like she has come to be our family,” Williams says. “We need justice for this little girl. We need closure.”
Of the hundreds of cases that Derrica and Natalie Wilson have encountered since they started the Black and Missing Foundation in 2008, none of them, they say, have compared to Relisha Rudd’s.
The Maryland-based nonprofit group has seen runaways and parents abducting their own children, but never a kidnapping like this.
“She is the face of missing homeless children who are being preyed upon,” Natalie Wilson says on a cold morning outside the D.C. General homeless shelter, where Relisha lived with her mother and brothers.
“The spotlight is on Relisha, but how many other Relishas are there?” asks Derrica Wilson, Natalie’s sister-in-law.
On March 2, the foundation will return to the shelter and other places where the little girl was last seen alive and hand out fliers.
They want to keep Relisha’s profile in the forefront because “someone knows something.”
Although Relisha’s case has received significant media attention, the Black and Missing Foundation usually works with families who are struggling to even get police to help them find their loved ones.
Based on FBI statistics, 40 percent of people who are missing in the United States are minorities, but they don’t receive nearly the same amount of media coverage, Natalie says. It’s a phenomenon academics call “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” and it’s the reason why the Wilson sisters started their nonprofit.
In May 2004, Tamika Huston disappeared from Spartanburg, S.C., where Derrica, 36, was born and raised. Huston’s family frantically worked to drum up media attention to help bring the 24-year-old home but struggled to generate interest in their story. Almost exactly a year later, Natalee Holloway vanished in Aruba, and her case immediately dominated the news.
“I couldn’t believe that someone from my home town just went missing and vanished, and it didn’t seem as if anyone was looking for her,” says Derrica, a former sheriff’s deputy in Virginia who now works for the D.C. government.
With Derrica’s background in law enforcement and Natalie’s in public relations, the sisters channel their professions to help families get the attention they need to find their missing loved ones. They help families file police reports, circulate fliers, hold candlelight vigils, work with the media and participate in searches. All told, the Wilsons say, their organization has helped more than 125 families find their loved ones.
“Sadly, not all of them were found alive, but at least their family members had some closure,” says Natalie, 45.
The women are hopeful that Relisha will be found alive, because they believe that she is a victim of human trafficking, not murder.
When minorities go missing, they’re often classified as runaways or it’s presumed that they’re involved in criminal activity, Derrica says, so they might not get an Amber Alert or the same amount of media attention other families do. In some cases, they learn that police never filed the requested missing-person’s report.
“I don’t feel that we’re valued as a community and that we’re taken seriously,” Natalie says. But “someone holds the key, because they’re not vanishing in thin air.”