Six Years On, Family of Relisha Rudd Still Has Many Unanswered Questions About 8-Year-Old's Disappearance
For Relisha Rudd, March 1, 2014 was like any other day. She and her three younger brothers spent the morning at her aunt Ashley Young’s house, where Relisha had her hair done in “some pink and white bow-bows,” as she called them, Ashley told InsideEdition.com.
Relisha hadn’t been feeling well that morning, so she stayed home from school and waited with Ashley for her mom to pick her up. Ashley recalled watching a sweet social media video Relisha and her mom Shamika recorded as they were leaving her home. Little did Ashley know, that would be the last time she ever saw her young niece with her own two eyes.
March 19 marks six years since young Relisha seemingly disappeared without a trace. The National Center of Missing and Exploited Children released a new age-progression photo on Feb. 27 to show what Relisha might look like today, at 14 years old. She was just 8 when she disappeared.
Despite few leads in the many years since Relisha disappeared after staying in a homeless shelter with her mom and her younger brothers, the community has kept her at the forefront of their minds, continuing to hold vigils, speaking with the press and work with investigators to keep her case relevant.
“It’s an open investigation. There’s always leads coming in and [police] follow up on every lead. I even followed some of the leads myself,” private investigator Henderson Long told InsideEdition.com. “The body will present us with so much [information] when we find it. Was she murdered?”
Long, who founded D.C.’s Missing Voice, works with detectives to track down vulnerable, missing persons in D.C. He has been involved in Relisha’s case in a pro bono capacity since she went missing. “[We’re] going to find Relisha one way or another,” he said.
But why was it that no one seemed to know she was missing? Even though Relisha was reported missing on March 19, 2014, the last time she was confirmed to have been seen alive was nearly three weeks before, on March 1. Close family members like her aunt Ashley seemed shocked when they found it had been that long since anyone has seen her.
“When the police showed up here with their guns drawn, that’s why they finally told me she was missing,” Ashley told InsideEdition.com. “I didn’t even know my niece was missing.”
Less than a year before Relisha’s disappearance in the summer of 2013, her mom Shamika Young, who was in her late 20s at the time, moved her family into the D.C. General Family Shelter.
“Relisha used to call it a trap house,” Shamika's mother and Relisha's grandmother Melissa Young told InsideEdition.com.
The homeless shelter, renovated from a former hospital, shut down in 2018 but at the time Relisha lived there, it was the largest family shelter in D.C. At its height, it reportedly housing around 1,000 people making up about 250 families at a time.
The Office of the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services called it “too big” and “too old” on their website, and the shelter had been in the process of shutting down since 2014.
Comments on the shelter’s Facebook group makes clear why the D.C. General was a major sore point in the community. Allegations of discount drug deals, sexual assault, bed bugs and spoiled food were scattered between the shelter’s own posts on outreach and community programs.
“They got a playground out there, but it’s no safe place for a child to play,” Ashley said.
Shamika and her kids had been living with Ashley before their stay at D.C. General, but Ashley said she had to send them away because she was on a government housing subsidy.
Ashley believes that strained their relationship.
“I felt she was upset and hurt because she didn’t want to go to the shelter,” she explained. “I guess she felt I was putting her out, I’m not sure. We talked, but we didn’t really talk.”
Ashley said she continued to watch Shamika’s kids while they were out of school that summer, but even though her nephews were at her home every week, she was seeing Relisha less and less.
“I would get the kids every week, but I wouldn’t really get Relisha,” she said. “Well what the hell do I have to do? Do I have to make an appointment just to see my niece? Why can’t I see my niece?”
When she asked about Relisha, Ashley said Shamika would tell her “she was with her godfather,” even though Relisha’s godfather was her fiancé Melvin, who didn't have her during those times, Ashley said.
“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.”
On one rare day that Relisha had been staying at Ashley’s home, she said a man she didn’t know called her phone, letting her know that he would be dropping by her house to pick up Relisha.
“How did you get my number? How did you get my address? How do you know where I live?” she asked the man, she said, before she called her sister to find out more information. Shamika then told her that Relisha knew the man as her godfather, and he had her permission to pick her up.
That was Ashley’s first interaction with Khalil Tatum, who later became the sole suspect in Relisha’s disappearance.
Tatum, then 50, was a janitor working at the homeless shelter.
Even though Shamika seemed to trust him taking care of Relisha, Shamika's mother Melissa said she was suspicious of him from the beginning.
“I asked who he was and she said he was a friend, he was Relisha’s godfather,” Melissa said. “I’m like, what is he doing with her? That’s a man – don’t look right for your 8-year-old to be with a grown man who had no relation to her.”
Ashley said that because Tatum worked at the homeless shelter, he was not allowed to be seen around the facility with Relisha. D.C. General had clear rules that stated there must not be fraternization by staff with residents, a policy that Tatum signed for his employment, according to a report on findings, released jointly by the Government of the District of Columbia, Office of the Deputy Mayor for Education, Office for the Deputy Mayor for Health and Human Services in September 2014.
Following public outrage at the disappearance of Relisha on the heels of social services' spending years looking into her family’s well-being, the city under Mayor Vince Gray issued a report that examined how each government agency failed, and offered what changes we're to be made to serve the community.
But the report was highly criticized at the time by both the community and local politicians as it ultimately pointed blame at poor communication and concluded that “no justifiable government actions would have prevented Relisha’s tragic disappearance.”
The report found that even though other staff at D.C. General knew of Tatum and the Young family’s relationship, it went unreported.
“I didn’t know he worked at the shelter until it all came out that she was missing,” Ashley said. “Me and my sister don’t hardly talk due to miscommunication.”
After his initial meeting with her family, Tatum openly spent more and more time with Relisha. “They would go shopping, he would take her down to the places people would tour, like the monuments and stuff,” Melissa recalled.
In Melissa’s eyes, sending Relisha off with Tatum was Shamika’s way of protecting her daughter from the dangers of the shelter. “Relisha didn’t care who she went and spent time with as long as she was away from the shelter. ...She could have done a whole lot better with her parenting, don’t get me wrong and I’m not saying this because that’s my daughter, but Shamika is a very good mother.”
While Long only knew the family after Relisha went missing, he said he also believes Shamika had sent Relisha away to protect her. “She probably let her daughter go thinking it was a better opportunity. That shelter was a hell hole. She probably made a mistake — a grave one.”
In an interview with WUSA9, Shamika denied ever having allowed Relisha to go off with Tatum.
Relisha started spending nights and weekends at Tatum’s house. “At first, [Shamika] was only allowing Relisha to go with him on Fridays when school let out and he brings her back Sunday,” Melissa said.
D.C. General did bed checks every night to make sure everyone was accounted for. Shamika, her sons and Relisha, in addition to another mother and her children, resided in the same room, Ashley said.
Investigations following Relisha’s disappearance found that her children were rarely all there overnight. Not only were they all present less than 50% of the time, shelter workers also were not diligent in recording who was present and who wasn’t, the findings report said. They only indicated how many children were there each night.
“How do you know if they’re there, just because they knock on the door and say ‘We’re all accounted for?” Ashley said.
Even though the findings report didn’t disclose which kids were staying at the shelter on the occasion not all of them were present at the bed checks, Melissa said it was only Relisha who stayed at Tatum’s overnight. “The boys never stayed over at his house,” she said.
But Melissa eventually warmed up to Tatum.
“I didn’t feel uncomfortable with being around him,” she said. “I have spent time over at D.C. General when I spent time with my daughter and her kids. I’ve seen him when he was getting off work, and have had little short conversations with him and felt very comfortable. I trusted him. I felt comfortable with him. And, I don’t trust everybody.”
That’s why Melissa was so shocked when on March 19, she was told that Relisha had disappeared.
Melissa was supposed to pick up Relisha the evening of March 19, but she had been delayed in leaving. That evening, she instead was met by law enforcement.
“When the police showed up here to pick me and Shamika and Relisha’s brother to take us to D.C. General, I was asking what was the problem, I'm authorized to be with them,” she said. “[The police] said to me, ‘Did you know your granddaughter is missing?’ I’m like, ‘No, she’s not missing, she’s with Khalil Tatum. I spoke with her twice.’ … me and Ashley had just talked to her that morning.”
Investigators found the last time Relisha was seen alive was on security footage March 1. Authorities said she was seen walking with Tatum into a room at a Days Inn in Washington, D.C. Previously, security footage from February 26 showed the pair walking down the hallway in a Holiday Inn Express, also in Washington D.C.
According to Long, it’s not clear when she was last seen in person. “There’s hardly a concrete timeline, you don’t even know when she went missing. They’re all pointing the finger,” he said, explaining that each of the family members had given him a different story about who was looking after Relisha last.
By then, Relisha had missed more than 30 days of school that year. Even though the school was required to report 10 or more unexcused absences to social services within two days. But school officials offered leniency to Shamika and delayed notifying authorities so that she had more time to get documents together to explain the absences, according to the findings report.
While Shamika told them Relisha had been sick and under the care of a "Dr. Tatum," a school social worker later discovered she was referring to Tatum, a janitor, the findings report said.
“She wrote a bogus school note and gave it to them,” Melissa speculated.
The last known sighting of Relisha Rudd was on security footage on March 1, when she was seen with Tatum. On March 2, Tatum was seen purchasing “a carton of black 42-gallon contractor trash bags,” former-MPD Police Chief Cathy Lanier said in a press conference shortly after she was reported missing. Tatum was seen out in public up until March 20, but Relisha was nowhere to be found.
Police searching for Relisha after she was reported missing on March 19 instead discovered Tatum’s wife Andrea shot in the head at a Maryland motel, authorities said. Andrea and Tatum had been married for 24 years, and despite court documents saying Tatum filed for divorce shortly before her death, those close to them say it was largely a happy relationship, according to the Washington Post.
The FBI issued an arrest warrant for Tatum in connection to the killing of his wife. But on April 1, Tatum, too, was found dead. His body was found in a shed in Kenilworth Park, and because he was shot dead with the same gun that killed his wife, officials believed it to be a murder-suicide.
The Metropolitan Police Department spent one week considering InsideEdition.com's interview request before declining to comment on the case.
It's been six years since Relisha vanished, but those six years have been a lifetime for her family.
Relisha’s siblings, three boys, are no longer in her mom Shamika Young’s custody, her family members and private investigator Long said. Shamika’s eldest son has been adopted by another family, her middle son is having a hard time being placed in a local home and her youngest is with a foster family in another state, Young said.
“I haven’t seen her oldest son since [he was in] the fifth grade [at] Payne Elementary School, when they allowed me to come to the graduation,” Melissa said. “I haven’t seen the two youngest boys since the day Relisha went missing."
Melissa continues to pray for a miracle, that Relisha will be found safe. “Return home in one piece so I can see her smile and I can hear her voice. But I know I’m not going to get that.
“Even if they don’t find her alive, if they find her body, I can bury her and I’ll be satisfied,” she said.
Searches for Relisha’s body continue to this day, Long said, noting he understands it may be a recovery mission at this point. “I want to do some searches and use some latest technology to go back and look at some areas I already searched. I want to surely be able to say Relisha is not there. I’m talking below ground.”
He believes there are people in D.C. who know what happened, and the key to getting them to come forward is to raise the reward offered for information in the case. Currently, the reward is $25,000 which Long says is issued for standard cases. Community members are urging the city to raise the reward to $75,000.
“Why is her reward still sitting here at $25,000? The code is ‘don’t talk to police’ -- they got no incentive to talk to you,” Long said. “Even if we don’t get one lead, the phones are going to be ringing more. Plenty of people are going to say something for that money.”
While over the years, some have pointed the finger to Shamika for having failed as a mother, Long insists that wasn’t the case. “It looks like she was complicit [in Relisha’s disappearance], but the more we fuel that, the further we’re going to push away from closure.”
“It’s not my fault,” Shamika told the Washington Post. “I am tired of laying my head down to get some rest and I can’t even reach out and grab my daughter.”
Shamika has never been charged in connection to her daughter’s disappearance.
Between both Melissa and Shamika Young growing up in the foster system, the family living in a part of D.C. known for “H.I.V., intravenous drugs, people shooting up, stealing, crack, trap,” and a lack of social support from the city, Long said the family has long faced a certain subset of challenges that made it possible for Relisha and her family to have fallen through the cracks.
Shamika and her family now speak, but she still has a hard time discussing the case and her daughter, her family said. Numerous attempts by InsideEdition.com to reach Shamika for comment were unsuccessful.
Kenilworth Park, where Tatum, the last person who is believed to have seen Relisha alive, took his own life, and with it, any answers about Relisha's whereabouts, is today a popular tourist attraction, filled with beautiful fauna and serene trails.
But for Relisha’s grandmother, Kenilworth Park is symbolic of something else entirely.
“It’s hard for me to sleep at night,” Melissa told InsideEdition.com. “Whenever I have a dream about her, Kenilworth Park is always in that dream.”
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