Relisha Rudd was an 8-year-old second-grader living at the District’s largest homeless shelter when she went missing in early 2014. Her disappearance came to symbolize rampant dysfunction within the city’s bureaucracy — she had missed school more than 30 days before her absence was reported to officials.
On Saturday, Relisha, presumed dead by police, would have turned 11. At the Deanwood Recreation Center in Northeast, members of the Facebook group “We Are Relisha” hosted an event honoring the young girl. Although Relisha’s mother, Shamika Young, did not attend, several of Relisha’s other relatives did, including her aunt Ashley Young, 29, who lives with Shamika Young in the District; her great-grandfather James Hagens, 74, of Maryland; her step-grandfather George Turner, 62; and her grandmother Melissa Young, 47.
“I wish she was here to celebrate her 11th birthday,” Melissa Young told the crowd of about 40 adults and children, “but she’s not . . . due to certain circumstances.”
The official search for Relisha began March 19, 2014, six days after a counselor at her school, Payne Elementary, wrote a referral to the D.C. Child and Family Services Agency calling attention to the girl’s absences. Officials said those absences were “excused” because the family had said Relisha was sick and in the care of someone named “Dr. Tatum.” But when the Payne Elementary counselor arranged a meeting on March 19 with “Dr. Tatum” at the D.C. General Family Shelter in Southeast Washington, he was a no-show. On that day, D.C. police launched a missing person investigation.
What authorities discovered next would stun and dishearten the city: Kahlil M. Tatum, 51, was no doctor. He was a janitor at the shelter where Relisha lived with her family. On March 19, the day police started looking into the girl’s vanishing, Tatum checked into the Red Roof Inn in Oxon Hill, Md. The next day, authorities found his wife, Andrea Tatum, 51, dead, shot in the head. Tatum was charged in connection with the killing, and a manhunt was underway. The next month, on April 1, his body was found in the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Northeast Washington. He died of an apparently self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
There was no sign of Relisha.
Since then, volunteers have periodically fanned across the city to search for her body, and officials have drawn up a plan to shutter the D.C. General Family Shelter.
Ashley Young said in an interview Saturday that she and Relisha’s mother struggle most days. “One day, it’s okay. Others, it’s rocky,” she said.
Shamika Young, she said, is applying for jobs at McDonald’s and with the driving service Uber. Relisha’s three siblings, all boys, are living in foster care, Ashley Young said.
Relisha’s aunt said she is hoping that her niece is still alive and that Tatum gave her to someone else to keep.
“I’ve never given up hope,” Young said.