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Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, an oasis of beauty, is haunted by Relisha Rudd mystery

A man jogs through the blossoming lotus July 31 at Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington. Though Relisha Rudd has slipped from the headlines, the mystery of her disappearance haunts her family, friends, detectives and those acres of lotus blossoms and water lilies where hope for her was once thick. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

Few things in the District are as bizarre and wonderful as the exotic lotus blossoms of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, flowers of mythical power in ancient cultures that rise improbably from a mucky Washington swamp every July.

They are towering and leggy, about six feet tall, glowing pink and yellow, like something from another world.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

And to many folks, they whisper just one word this year: “Relisha.”

There is sadness haunting one of the region’s summer miracles.

“I love how my page is decorated by various [Facebook] friends’ lotus blossom photos,” Elizabeth Festa, a regular at the park who takes her kids there every year, posted on her Facebook page.

Leo Hayes, 7, tries to detect a flowery scent from an Indian Lotus while on an outing at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington on July 31. (Linda Davidson/The Washington Post)

But this year, Festa said, she could not think of the beautiful grounds without remembering that they also may hold the answer to the disappearance of a little girl.

In March, police and rescuers searched the land in a grid pattern, divers dunked into the waters and cadaver dogs sniffed the grasses because there was a mystery to solve.

Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old who has been missing from the nearby D.C. General family homeless shelter since March, may have been there. May still be there.

She was last seen March 1 with one of the janitors from the shelter, Khalil Tatum, a man known for giving gifts and cash to other little girls.

Searchers eventually found something — Tatum’s body.

Tatum killed himself in a shed near the park. But the search for Relisha continued at the park because detectives believed Tatum spent hours there after he bought a box of contractor-size garbage bags.

Five months later, there is still no sign of Relisha.

A praying mantis at the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens in Washington on July 31. (Linda Davidson/Linda Davidson)

It’s hard to walk past the baby turtles, frogs, dragonflies and herons of the park without doing a double-take at each flash of pink. Is that Relisha’s coat? Her sweater?

And though she’s slipped from the headlines, the mystery of her disappearance haunts her family, friends, detectives and those acres of lotus blossoms and water lilies where hope for her was once thick.

The gardens are truly a hidden gem in the District.

They are tucked behind some quiet homes and some rowdy apartment buildings in Ward 7. I take my boys every year, and they find dried lotus pods and snakes and frogs and turtle eggshells. And muck.

Most of the year, folks from outside the neighborhood don’t come.

But around July, the park is a riot of crazy water flowers, lilies and lotuses, and it looks like a Monet painting, an Asian tapestry or a scene from “Avatar.”

The park buzzes with people, usually as soon as the gates open at 7 a.m. because that’s when the flowers bloom biggest.

“These flowers are important in my culture, in East India,” said a woman who was visiting from Maryland and asked a National Park Service ranger if she could cut one, just one, to bring to her “church celebration” that night.

“You know what would happen if we let everyone just take one?” the ranger asked.

The woman knew, but she thought she’d ask. She comes every year, but she said she was thinking about Relisha this year.

“You really can’t come here and not think about it,” she said.

The Park Service is not seeing a decline in visitors. In fact, their campaign to bring more awareness to this unique place — it was a private water lily nursery that President Calvin Coolidge used to visit in the 1920s — has made it more popular than ever.

“Visitation is up this year, with 20,000 in July alone,” said Jenny Anzelmo-Sarles, a Park Service spokeswoman. “So we are definitely not seeing a decline in visitation as a result of the [Rudd] case.”

Relisha’s disappearance has weighed heavily on the members of the Friends of Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, a nonprofit group of volunteers who love and support the park. On their annual Good Neighbor’s Day in May, they observed a moment of peace and remembrance for Relisha and had clergy there to bless the park, said Tina O’Connell, head of the organization.

“The park has been and continues to be a place of beauty, reflection, healing and hope,” O’Connell said.

Hala Hayes brought her kids, 7 and 4, to visit this summer.

“When you go there, you don’t even feel like you’re in Washington,” said Hayes, a regular visitor.

She didn’t have Relisha on her mind when she arrived. Then, walking among those stunning blossoms renowned for their ability to rise from the muck and the gunk around them, she couldn’t shake the image of the little girl’s face.

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