Anytime someone goes missing without a trace, alarm bells go off throughout the affected town, city, state, or country. However, some communities fall victim and do not receive the help they need to search for their loved ones. The story of the disappearance of Relisha Rudd, an 8-year-old girl who went missing from the D.C. homeless shelter she was living in, will likely send chills up your spine.
Now, even if it is too little too late, Relisha Rudd has the world looking for her. Local news, podcasters, detectives, and other organizations are dedicated to bringing this girl home to those who love and care for her. It takes a village to raise a child, but at the same rate, it can take a village to fail one as well. This is the story of Relisha Rudd.
A Rocky Start
Relisha Rudd did not have an easy time growing up. She was born on October 29th, 2005, into a troubled environment with a teenaged mother and a father that went to prison when she was only two years old. Her mother, Shamika Young, was doing what she could to support her daughter and other children in poverty.
The family spent time living in close quarters with other family members in government housing in Washington, D.C., and eventually had to move into a homeless shelter in the city. Prior to even making the transition to the homeless shelter, Relisha would receive phone calls for plans with her “godfather” – a man whom some of her family members did not even know. This man would later play a pivotal role in her disappearance.
Living in Unstable Housing
Relisha, her mother, and brothers had overstayed their welcome in their aunt’s home, which had limits on how many people could occupy the space since it was part of government housing. The family then moved into the D.C. General Family Homeless Shelter. No one wanted to be in a homeless shelter, let alone a young girl of 7-8 years old.
Relisha hated the shelter; she even went as far as to call it a “trap house.” It was renovated from a former hospital, Inside Edition reported. Though it has since shut down, at the time, it was the largest family shelter in D.C. and, at its height, housed around 1,000 people – roughly 250 families at once. This transition of housing happened less than a year before her disappearance.
Getting Strange Calls
Relisha and her siblings would spend time with their Aunt Ashley every week. While living with her aunt, the family would receive calls from a man claiming to be her godfather. He was always calling to take her shopping, to take her to pool parties for his grandchildren, and so on. Ashley had no clue of who this man claiming to be her niece’s godfather was and immediately thought it was rather strange.
Despite the concern, Aunt Ashley felt the case went unreported, as Relisha would be gone for days with this man. Ashley knew that Relisha’s real godfather was Ashley’s fiancé Melvin – she knew for sure that Melvin did not have Relisha in custody at the time. Even when her sister Shamika, Relisha’s mom, would say that Relisha was with her godfather, she knew something had to be up. Ashley told Inside Edition, “I wouldn’t question her much. If you don’t feel like you owe me an explanation because you’re her mother, then I won’t ask no more,” Ashley said. “I should have questioned it.”
She Had a Gut Feeling
Aunt Ashley’s gut could tell almost instantly that something strange was afoot. She received a phone call to her home one day from a man she did not know – claiming he would be there soon to pick up her niece for their day together. This was a cause for concern instantly. “How did you get my number? How did you get my address? How do you know where I live?” she asked the man.
She asked her sister about it, and Shamika referred to him as her godfather, which she knew he was not. Her sister would say that Relisha knew him as that and that he had permission to pick her up.
Racking Up Absences
Before the family moved into the shelter, Relisha had been missing more and more school. In 2014, her absences were racking up, and it did not take long for her absences to no longer be counted by the days but by the weeks that passed. She would eventually rack up 30 absences, to which the school finally took action.
It is unclear why the school waited so long to reach out, but they finally decided to look into what might be going on. The school reached out to the D.C. Department of Child Protective Services. Both the school and the agency reached out to determine what might be going on. What happened next was shocking.
The Schools Failed to Reach Out
Though schools require multiple emergency contacts, no one seemed to be contacted in search of Relisha, at least not in a timely matter. Someone from the school finally got in contact with someone. Who it was they spoke to was unclear, but eventually, they heard from someone claiming to be a doctor who was treating Relisha.
This man, Dr. Tatum, claimed that Relisha was in his care. He said she was being treated for a neurological disorder, which may have explained her numerous accidents. The school asked him for some type of proof, something beyond his word.
The Doctor’s Note
Dr. Tatum said he would leave medical records at the shelter for their reference. You would think officials might have wanted to set up a face-to-face, but this seemed good enough to them. A representative came by nine days later to collect the records. Yes, they waited a whole nine days to follow up.
When they arrived at the shelter, they learned that there were no medical records of any kind waiting for them. In fact, no one had seen Relisha in weeks. There was also no Dr. Tatum in the shelter, but there is a Mr. Tatum. He had not been around recently, but he certainly was not a doctor – he was a janitor at the shelter!
Sound the Alarm
Alarm bells went off instantly for everyone involved. Weeks’ worth of bed checks in the shelter had counted Relisha as missing, so where was she at that time? Also, why did no one think to ask questions? After putting pieces together that she had not been seen in weeks, it was confirmed that the janitor had not been seen in weeks either.
This realization, only after officials came looking for the supposed medical records, made officials realize that this little girl had been unaccounted for and for an unreasonable amount of time. She was finally reported as missing, and law enforcement was left to figure out how long it had been since anyone had seen Relisha in person.
Where Did She Go?
Officials needed to know why this was the first time they were hearing about this little girl gone missing. Someone, somewhere, had to have known that Relisha was missing, and someone had to have some kind of idea of where she might have been. Did she leave at her own volition, or was she forced out some other way?
So many other questions came from this as well. Who was Mr. Tatum, and how did he know the Rudd family? Had her family seen her, or were they unaware that she was gone? Was her mother the one to call in the report of her “treatment with Dr. Tatum,” or was that a cover-up?
The Devil is in the Details
Relisha’s mother, Shamika, had allegedly given a bogus school note that said she was under the care of “Dr. Tatum,” though she later denied ever being the one to write the note or make the phone call. However, Shamika would later pay the price of her negligence, and fingers would be pointed at her when she was busy trying to get to the bottom of her daughter’s case.
Shamika admitted to not having seen her own daughter in weeks. There would end up being some back and forth, with Shamika pointing fingers at her mother, Relisha’s grandmother. The grandmother would point right back at Shamika, though. No one really knows what to believe, which made the early days of the investigation more than just a little sticky.
All the Inconsistencies
Though the story appeared to change here and there, a few things are clear: Shamika Young was seen as a negligent mother, the school should have tried to contact family members right away, and it was unclear if the family had a relationship with the man who allegedly took Relisha. Police had finally figured out how long it had been since this little girl was last seen in the flesh.
Not a single person laid eyes on little Relisha Rudd in a whopping 18 days. This little girl had been unaccounted for and possibly in the care of this 51-year-old creep, Khalil Tatum, for 18 days. Police and officials knew they needed to act fast – they did not know how much time they really had to find her or if she was even still alive.
The Motel Footage
The footage depicted Khalil Tatum and Relisha Rudd together at a motel in the area. She was seen looking comfortable with him – which would make sense if she spent as much time with him as her mother and other families let on. She was seen holding some bags, including a shopping bag. Usually, a shopping bag might not have seemed as concerning, but there is a specific detail that deserves significant attention.
Apparently, Tatum had been taking the young girl out for shopping days, overnights, and even a series of “pool parties” he claimed were happening for his grandchildren. Looking at the situation now, a thought may come to mind: was he grooming her for something more sinister to come?
Grooming the Girl
Tatum’s efforts to shower this young girl with affection, who was not even a family member, would make any person with a conscience question his intentions. Apparently, Shamika Young did not see anything wrong with the relationship and even said he was “a good guy.” This may be why Relisha did not appear uncomfortable or in distress in the footage.
It is unclear as to how Shamika knew Tatum before they moved into the shelter or why she was comfortable letting them head off together without much hesitation. She would let them leave together often, family members disclosed, and most did not question why. The family was living in poverty, so an important question comes to mind; was she desperate for someone to take her kids off her hands because she needed help becoming more stable?
Two In, One Out
Relisha was not seen on the motel footage ever again. What could have happened in the meantime, and why don’t we see her on-screen again? If there was footage of them going into the room together, why is there not any of them coming out?
This question changed quickly when he was next seen on camera in a store making some truly horrifying purchases. Tatum was shown in this new footage purchasing a few notable items: large black trash bags, a shovel, and lye. Lye has the potential to be extremely dangerous to human contact, and in this case, may have been used in place of bleach. These purchases are seen as what many know as a “murder kit.”
A Disturbing Discovery
Police were able to track Tatum and his wife down to a motel not too far away in Maryland. After tracing him back to this motel, they did not find him, but they found something disturbing instead. They found his wife Andrea face down on a bed, with a fatal gunshot to the head.
It is unclear what his wife’s role in this was. Was Andrea complicit and part of the overall situation, or was she left in the dark by her husband? According to Inside Edition, Tatum had filed for divorce shortly before her death. Read what you want into that. (On our end, we’re wondering if she started to catch on to what he was doing with Relisha, and he saw her as a threat to get in the way of what he wanted to accomplish).
Warrant is Out
After finding Andrea lifeless in the motel room, the FBI instantly issued an arrest warrant in connection to her death. The Washington Post reported that those close to the couple describe their relationship as a primarily happy one. But, who knows what else was going on under the surface?
To this day, Andrea Tatum’s murder remains as much of a mystery as Relisha Rudd’s disappearance. Though they may have been reported as happy, Tatum’s daughter shared with the police that her mother did consider leaving him. The two had struggled with poverty, drug addiction, and incarceration throughout the years – but to everyone who knew them, they seemed stronger together.
Tracing Tatum in the Park
On April 1st, the FBI had traced Tatum’s location to Kenilworth Park, which is around 700 acres in size. Initially, law enforcement believed they would be finding Relisha’s body buried somewhere within the U.S. National Park. Instead, upon arrival, the officials found something just as disturbing.
FBI officials found Tatum dead in a shed on the park’s property. He had a self-inflicted gunshot wound with the same gun believed to be used in his wife’s murder. Officials believed it was a murder-suicide. From the outside looking in, it looks fishy, like an admission of guilt.
Relisha Rudd was not an only child. She had three brothers, born to her mother by two different fathers. In June 2017, the negligence of her parents would catch up to them when her brothers were taken out of their mother’s care. Her brothers are living different lives, some still struggling, but it was determined that staying with their mother was not in their best interest.
Though Shamika may have tried, it seems she could have tried harder. Luckily, her eldest son was adopted into another family. Her middle son had been having a hard time getting placed in a local home, and her youngest was in foster care with a family in another state.
Appearing on The Steve Wilkos Show
If you are unfamiliar with Steve Wilkos or his show, the program is practically a spin-off of The Jerry Springer Show. Steve Wilkos actually got his start from Jerry Springer! Relisha Rudd’s family members came on the show to hash out their thoughts on the case and take lie detector tests.
Watching the episode will make anyone cringe. Melissa, Relisha’s grandmother, as well as Shamika’s ex-boyfriend Antonio, came back as having told the truth. Shamika did not take a lie detector test; she did not have to. On air, Steve Wilkos told Shamika that she was not doing herself any favors by refusing to take the test.
Wilkos’ Words Struck a Chord
“I talk to the police day today, and they look at other people, not me!” Shamika exclaimed on The Steve Wilkos Show. Wilkos responded quickly by telling her that as a former police officer who investigated acts of murder and crimes against children, she would be the first person that he would look at in this case.
“Hopefully, that little girl will be found…, and when she is, you will go away. The fact that you don’t believe the janitor had anything to do with it makes me think that you had an inappropriate relationship with that man.” Wilkos’ words struck even harder when he pointed out that Shamika did not believe he killed himself because there were two gunshots. He went on to accuse her of potentially being involved in his death as well, and naturally, the crowd went wild.
A Little About Shamika Young
Many parents try their hardest to give their children the best that they can. Shamika did not necessarily do herself any favors to take the spotlight off of her. However, it is important to take a look at this struggling mother’s background to gain a full view of the situation.
When Shamika was just a teenager, she received help when she struggled with a number of behavioral issues. This was reportedly an issue that had run through generations of their family. While Shamika was living in foster care, she was placed in a mental health facility for children.
The Foster Care System
It seems that cycles of abuse run through family lines for generations. Shamika and her sister Ashley spent time in the foster system as her mother was unable to provide stable and adequate housing throughout the years. Shamika’s mother had gone through this very cycle herself.
Every adult in Relisha’s life had been in the foster care system at one point or another. Antonio, Shamika’s boyfriend, had also been through the system. He was the oldest of nine children and was placed in foster care when his 2-year-old sister was killed by his mother’s boyfriend.
About Khalil Tatum
First, he was not a “doctor” – that was a lie. Then, he was her “godfather,” which also was just not true. So, who was Khalil Tatum, and what was his role in Relisha Rudd’s disappearance? Tatum, believed to be the predator behind the young girl’s disappearance, was a janitor at D.C. General.
He found his way into the family’s life, and her family members did not see anything wrong with the relationship between this 51-year-old man and the young girl. He supposedly had tried to create relationships with other young girls at the shelter, offering them gifts and overnight stays and so on. He took Relisha to get her nails done, to go shopping, to see Disney on Ice, and even bought the young girl a tablet for the holidays. Shamika young had no problem with him being around, despite having served prison sentences and having a long rap sheet himself.
The Homeless Children’s Playtime Project
This organization is a godsend and remains an incredible resource to so many children experiencing homelessness across Washington D.C., including Relisha Rudd. Relisha loved this after-school program and spent as much time there as possible. She was even the subject of some of their promotional content.
Jamila Larson and other leaders at this lifesaving program reflected positively on their experiences and memories with the young girl. On February 14th, 2020, the project released a statement following the death of an infant at a motel in the area, one that Relisha was also spotted at. The statement discussed that too many children fall through the cracks and that something should be done in the name of prevention to get these children the help they need.
This whole case is a breeding ground for speculation. Everything about this case is heartbreaking and upsetting, and every theory that comes with it just makes the wound feel deeper and deeper by the day. We have so many questions that will continue to haunt us until we have answers.
Social workers, police, the FBI, and naturally the detectives of modern technology (that’s you, internet sleuths!) have come up with their own theories of what may have enticed the family to allow Khalil Tatum to take her into his custody and what might have happened here. Among these theories include human trafficking and murder.
Behind the Scenes of the D.C. General Homeless Shelter
The D.C. General Homeless Shelter was a former area hospital that went bankrupt. Like many other homeless shelters, the city took advantage of the now-abandoned facility to give a safe haven to some of the most disadvantaged members of the D.C. community. Though it was meant to help those who lived there, it was far from a good place to stay.
Relisha absolutely hated the shelter and would do whatever she could to stay away. She would stay with family members when she could, and even hung out at school and would ask if she really had to go home or if she could stay. The shelter was known for bed bugs, spoiled food, drug activity, and even some sexual exploitation. The shelter is now closed.
D.C.’s Missing Voice
Henderson Long is a D.C. local who refuses to let Relisha’s case fall through the cracks even further. Long founded the advocacy organization D.C.’s Missing Voice, helping D.C. residents continue the search for their missing family members. Every year on the anniversary of her disappearance Long organizes an event to raise awareness of the case.
Long stands on New York Avenue in Washington D.C. with police officers and community members to pass out fliers with an age-enhanced photo of the young girl. They stand on this stretch of the avenue not only because it is busy but because it is the location of the motel where Relisha was last seen.
A Team of Searching Saints
Henderson Long and his dedicated team of volunteers and law enforcement together did not take a rest when the coronavirus pandemic hit. Volunteers, specifically Long himself, sported t-shirts with Relisha’s face on it. They continued their efforts while wearing masks – doing their part to help the problem while still seeking answers.
Long understands what so many policy experts are saying about this situation, reported WAMU 88.5, believing that so much could have been done to prevent this situation. There were countless times when alarm bells should have been sounded, but due to negligence and a community that fails to take care of marginalized individuals.
Her Own Mother Did Not Want to File a Missing Person’s Report
You read that right. For 18 days, Relisha had been missing. Her own mother actually refused to tell the police and did not raise any alarms through her school or other entities. For some strange reason, she was not the one to file the report about her daughter, who had since disappeared.
It is unclear why Shamika did not want to report her own daughter missing. This has led to a ton of speculation about the role she may have played in her child’s disappearance. It is widely believed that she had some type of inappropriate relationship with Tatum, as even to this day, she still denies that the janitor had anything to do with her disappearance… even though she constantly gave the approval to let her daughter spend time with him.
All of Tatum’s Lies
Aside from receiving the title of “doctor” for no reason, Tatum was far from a doctor. There is nothing wrong with making an honest living as a janitor… but why keep that a secret?
Listen, we are in no way saying that someone who works as a janitor would not have nice things outside of the workplace. However, he would actively make claims that he was an employee of the city, often sporting a variety of nicer clothing and suits that may depict him as a man of higher status.
Strict Shelter Rules
The D.C. General Family Homeless Shelter had a strict set of rules that were seemingly created to protect the people who stayed there. These rules, however, might have made a huge difference in the outcome of Relisha’s case and could have prevented everything. Hearing some of the rules that were not enforced may make you shudder.
Some rules from the shelter that went ignored were groundbreaking and could have changed the fate of the situation. The shelter did not allow children to leave the premises without their parents – they were not allowed to leave alone or with anyone else under any circumstances. They could not even go get food without a parent. Staff members were not allowed to fraternize with residents, and they were supposed to report someone as absent if they were not around for their bed check. So many of these rules, if followed, could have potentially saved the young girl’s life.
Who Initiated the Conversation?
An incredibly in-depth episode of the true-crime podcast, “What Did You Do?!” poses so many necessary questions about this case. The hosts, Charneil Bush, and Dee Williams, are both dedicated to building community from tragedy, and some are even survivors of abuse and the foster system themselves. This podcast comes from the perspective of a licensed social worker and a current student in the field of human services and forensic psychology.
Their episode of Relisha Rudd’s disappearance is crucial to anyone who wants to learn more about this case. We referenced this podcast specifically because they posed a necessary question: if Khalil Tatum was in cahoots with Shamika Young, who initiated contact, then who initiated the conversation? If Khalil did have ties to sex trafficking, an unfortunate option of what may have happened to the young girl, the podcast questions if Tatum approached Shamika or if it was the other way around.
Shamika’s Own Trauma
Shamika Young had constantly told reporters when she was still taking interviews that she did not want her children to have the same rough upbringing that she had. Shamika had been receiving services to help her and her family overcome their rough patch.
Despite claiming she would do what she could to help her kids, she didn’t seem to put it into practice. Unfortunately, so much of what happened, in this case, follows a cycle that many others in their community had faced. Shamika was unable to keep a steady job or make a livable wage.
D.C. Child and Health Services were involved in Relisha’s life from the young age of two. She had bounced around between homeless shelters and family members’ homes, typically showing up to school covered in filth and in dirty clothes. Her housing was constantly inadequate, and they did not have safe food options available.
The children were constantly unsupervised, but luckily there were some resources at school to keep it from being a problem for her when it came to interacting with her peers. Throughout her life, she had to rely on community resources to receive the resources necessary for her survival.
Teachers Finally Noticed
It took an inappropriately long amount of time for the teachers at her school to mobilize on the situation at hand. Under D.C. law, students between the ages of 5 and 13 years of age who had accumulated ten unexcused absences within a single school year would automatically be referred to the Child and Family Services Agency. This law makes sense and should have been followed more closely, especially in this case.
Unfortunately, the negligence of the school is a major factor that contributed to the problem at hand. The school allowed so many days to go unchecked – no efforts to reach out to emergency contacts had been recorded. The school allowed Relisha to miss 30 days of school before they decided to step in and check out the situation. Educators across the world are reading this and cringing, wondering how on earth this could have happened.
Medical Conference in Atlanta
One of the many excuses that Shamika Young apparently used to excuse her daughter’s absences from school was that the young girl was attending a “medical conference” in Atlanta with her doctor, “Dr. Tatum.” This in itself should have set off alarms to the school and other area authorities, but somehow, it went unchecked.
The two were supposedly off on this trip together, and Shamika claimed that they left on March 8th. She was not sure when they would return. Though she said she spoke to her daughter as recently as the 17th of that same month, the police did not necessarily buy it. They chose to mobilize on that information and checked out his apartment, which was empty.
Threats to the Family
The family was the center of a ton of scrutiny when the public found out the timeline of events. The family received death threats, and protests were staged in their city against the family. The mother points her finger toward Relisha’s grandmother, and the grandmother points right back to the mother.
Though Shamika thought that the police had moved on from her and “cleared” her name, she did not do herself any favors. Shamika has no education or background in law enforcement, so she does not quite understand how these investigations work; until the case was closed, she would still remain a prime suspect, even if the police told her otherwise, due to the high-risk factors in her life.
The Black and Missing Foundation
The number of missing people of color has gone up exponentially throughout the years. In 2020, that number was around 230,000 people of color who were reported missing in the United States. Fortunately, organizations have been created as part of an effort to bring attention to these cases we don’t hear about nearly enough.
Derrica and Natalie Wilson founded the Black and Missing Foundation (BAMF) in 2008 to bring awareness to the issue which is severely underreported in the mainstream media. They offer resources to families of missing people of color. The founders came from a background of law enforcement and public relations and pooled their resources to hit the ground running and help the cause as best as they could.
Hoping for the Best
We could spend forever floating theories of what happened to the young and beautiful Relisha Rudd. On our end, we hope that she’s alive and well somewhere out in the world. There are theories centered around the murder, around her being trafficked into the sex trade, and so many others – but that is a rabbit hole that is best left to the professionals in the law enforcement field.
As the saying goes, if you see something, say something. We hope that Relisha can someday be returned to her family, to those who actually care for her enough to truly give her the best life possible. It only takes one person to make a difference. Anyone with information is asked to call the D.C. police at (202) 727-9099 or the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children at 1-800-THE-LOST. You can also submit an anonymous tip to the Black and Missing Foundation at bamfi.org.