The Passion of Relisha Rudd

The first ominous sign that the Relisha Rudd case was slipping from the local Washington, D.C. imagination was when the police alert signs posted on the roads into the city had their messages changed, or were removed entirely.

For weeks after the news that the little eight-year-old girl was missing broke on March 19, the digital display boards had broadcast the Amber alert in their amber lettering, its grim message truncated in a style all too appropriate for the digital age: “BLK Female, 8 YRS, 4’0”, 70-80 LBS,” along with a contact number to report sightings. Radio stations had urged citizens repeatedly to be on the lookout.

Because I tend to leave WTOP news radio on a little too often when the children are around, my ten-year-old son grew preoccupied with the case, and because he cannot admit to himself that tragedy is ever actually happening, came to me and said, earnest with his watery blue eyes, “Mom, you know they found that girl.”

Hoping, hoping. All of us were hoping—although apparently some of us not quite enough, because it soon came out that Relisha had been missing from her home since February 28, and had not been seen at all after March 1. “Home,” in fact, was the massive city homeless shelter located at the former DC General Hospital complex on the backside of Capitol Hill—the location also of the city methadone clinic, as news reports inevitably mention—where Relisha lived with her mother and multiple siblings in cramped quarters.

There’s a depressing and familiar story of family breakdown here—you can go online yourself and read the pronouncements of judgment placed on the ineffective, troubled mother—but there were also extended family members, mentors, and coaches who endeavored to make up the difference in providing cleanliness and warmth and hugs.

But because a traumatized child, in particular, is like a shade flower ready to bloom at the promise of any sun provided, there was an opening for the attentions of a fifty-one-year-old man named Kahlil Tatum, a janitor at the shelter who started out as a kind of uncle figure for Relisha, taking her on outings and buying her presents, and who later assumed the persona of a “Dr. Tatum” who forged doctor’s notes to ensure that the numerous school absences were excused.

It was with Tatum that Relisha was last seen, via the silent witness of hazy, time-stamped security camera footage, walking side-by-side down the hallway of a Holiday Inn Express just miles from my house, and entering one of the rooms. It is the overwhelming contention of commenters online that Relisha’s mother must have been trafficking her daughter in exchange for money and presents, and to watch the short and captured loop of film is to sense that one has witnessed some kind of depressing and illicit transaction indeed.

That hotel hallway video, however, only came out later: After the school and the shelter finally got their arms around why Relisha was missing, Tatum had disappeared himself. He and his wife of twenty-odd years checked into a faded suburban motel where the next day, the wife was found shot dead, presumably at Tatum’s hands.

After Tatum had been recorded buying extra-large leaf bags at a home store and his cell phone tracked to the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens park—an island of verdant green wetland at the heart of the city, and a mere mile or two from my house—the Metropolitan Police Department descended upon the park. What they found in an isolated storage shed, however, was not Relisha, but the body of Tatum, who had apparently (“had the good sense to,” I always find myself mentally adding) shot himself.

Now there is no apparent trail to Relisha, though the investigation continues. The MPD combed the park from end to end, later joined by neighborhood volunteers, but nothing was revealed. While most observers fear that she is dead, others in the online cadre believe she may have been sold into the commercial child sex trade.

Not two months after her disappearance, the attention around the case has started to ebb. At first the alert signs were gone, then the Washington Post ceased reporting on the case every day. I find myself praying for her, day and night, lying in my bed amid the vortex of urban thoroughfares that were some of the last places she was seen.

You might well wonder what the grounds for my emotional investment in this case, and Relisha, are. What can I, middle-aged housewife, surfeit with white privilege, someone who merely plays at living along the ragged urban edge, know or feel about these unexplainable circumstances? It is a question I cannot answer, beyond the demands of my faith that we are all responsible for one another’s children, that every soul, always, is irreplaceable and precious.

So I concentrate on Relisha Rudd instead, although I keep wondering why a media that reported on JonBenet Ramsey for more than half of my life moves so quickly to forget about Relisha’s. Nobody ever called that case a “local Denver story,” even though Relisha’s story gets so easily subsumed into a generalized hype about the District of Columbia and its much-vaunted failures.

And even though it contradicts everything I claim to believe about violence, I find myself wanting to believe that Relisha shot Tatum, turned on her feet and ran through Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens, and is holed up somewhere warm and safe. Or running: Endlessly alive and on the move, like the runaway girl Esmeralda in Don DeLillo’s Underworld whose movement keeps her from being dragged into the South Bronx’s undertow of drugs and violence. Or is she now merely an apparition?

Somewhere, whether dead or alive, Relisha has a body and soul. If she is alive, I pray for that body’s safeguarding, and if she is dead, I trust that her soul is with the blessed, for she has already faced her judgment.

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

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  • Maureen

    Thank you, Caroline, for writing so sensitively about Relisha Rudd. You have “recovered” (to use the police lingo) her in a way no newspaper story to date has. I join you in prayers for her body and soul.

    • Caroline

      Dear Maureen: Thank you so much for these words I treasure. I love the idea that we all are praying together, and I appreciate your contribution especially since this is a local story for both of us. Tikkun olam indeed–

      Time to meet for lunch with Paulette Beete! At last!

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    I just add “Amen” to Maureen’s comment. Thank you, Caroline, for caring so much for Relisha, and for pouring that concern into your caring prose.

    • Caroline

      Thank you, dear Peggy. We will continue to pray together.

  • When I was somewheres around your son’s age, my mother took my brother and me to see the Costa-Gavras film Missing. I think she wanted to see it primarily on account of the ethnicity of the director, as she was a Greek immigrant (and not a film buff). I sat in the row behind the two of them with my head in between and watched the story in disbelief. Afterwards I said repeatedly that the movie was incomplete: they really found that young man. I have long since found it a great deal easier to resign myself to the brutality and caprice of this life.

    P.S.: Χριστός ανέστη!

    • Caroline

      Alithos Anesti, Virgil! I haven’t seen Missing in years and years, but might just have to go check it out. I can imagine you as a young man having my son’s reaction. Peace be with you…

  • Praying, praying, praying. Thanks for this, Caroline!

    • Caroline

      You are welcome. I am honored that this means so much to folks. We will pray for her, and I will pray for you…

  • ~*V. von Schweetz*~

    This explains so much of how I feel. That child is on my mind everyday and every night. She is even the screensaver on my phone so that when anyone asks about the picture, I can remind them that she is still out there somewhere. I check online for updates daily, and unfortunately those updates are growing fewer and farther between. Hurts.

    • Caroline

      Thank you for posting here–I am so glad that I have a sister in the spirit on this. We shall keep praying for her, and I shall keep praying for you. Thank you again…

      • ~*V. von Schweetz*~

        And I thank you as well. May God bless Relisha and keep her safe always. You are in my prayers as well

        • Caroline

          YES, and thank you, again.

  • Tracy Dowling

    Lord, when did we see you hungry, thirsty, helpless, bereft? Here he is, all around us…in the daughter, in the mother, in that hopeless man who took his wife’s life, his own, and probably Relisha’s. How easy it is to look for a place to lay the blame, and she was the sacrificial lamb who had to take it with Christ for all of us.

    • Caroline

      Tracy: Amen, amen, amen. May we all see the icons in each other. Thank you for reminding us of the icon in the mother and the “uncle” as well.

    • Brandon Horsford

      Powerful word’s let’s hope she is ok, because this is becoming to great, amen in truth! !!

      • Caroline

        Thank you, Brandon, for your comments here–we’ll be remembering her together, and I will lift you up, too!

  • Brandon Horsford

    Dear devil i hope you didn’t get to her yet, greetings from New York! !

  • Cara Costa Hartwell

    Thank you for this. I found it because I look for Relisha everyday, all the way from San Diego, CA.

    • Caroline

      Amen, Cara. Thank you so much for posting this. I am encouraged–peace be with you.

  • Pleasant

    I share your concern, and find myself asking the same questions. Many times I think of her, and find my eyes welling up with tears in doing so. I will continue praying as I’m sure yourself and many others will. If nothing else, Relisha was sent to teach us. To care, to help, and to love as many and as often as we can.

    • Caroline

      Dear Pleasant: Thank you so much for reaching out, and also for posting the notice and photograph.

      We will all keep praying together. There is also a web radio show dedicated to the search…I will find it later and post the link.

      Peace be with you. What a beautiful name–I can tell it reflects your spirit.