Relisha Rudd was an eight year old girl living with her family in southeast Washington, D.C when she vanished late in the winter of 2014. She is formally listed as missing on February 26th, although this is not actually the last time her whereabouts were accounted for, as we will discuss. Relisha had led a somewhat rocky life for someone so young. She was the oldest of four, and had three younger brothers. The family was homeless and had lived in the D.C General Family Shelter for between 1 and 2 years (sources differ), and Relisha usually stayed there with her mother, Shamika Young, and her mother’s boyfriend, Antonio Wheeler. However, she also spent time in the care of her grandmother, Melissa Young, and her maternal aunt, Ashely. Some sources imply that Sheila and her daughter Ashely shared a living space, and I have not found any mention of Relisha being in the care of one but not the other at any point, so I will be assuming this is true from here forward. Another member of Relisha’s extended family was Belinda Wheeler, Antonio’s mother. I am being very careful to include all the relevant names and their relationship to Relisha, because there will be a lot of conflicting accounts between all these individuals after Relisha’s disappearance.
Relisha’s life was far from ideal, even before the family moved into the Family Shelter. In the past, there had been allegations that Shamika left her children alone for extended periods of time, that living conditions in her home were unsafe or unhealthy for the kids, and there have even been references to possible medical neglect in physical abuse towards Relisha’s brothers. Relisha had an uneven attendance record at school, and it was noted that she did not like living in the shelter very much. Nevertheless, those who remember her describe her as a well-behaved, helpful child, and said that she was a good big sister.
I want to speak briefly about conditions within the shelter, as these too will be necessary to make sense of certain later events. Now, I have never lived in a major urban area, so the housing and abuse shelters I have ever visited house a relatively small number of people and do not look all that different from regular homes. I suspect that description is what comes to mind for many people, but the situation at the D.C General Family Shelter was considerably different. The building was actually a former hospital that could house up to 800 people. When entering, residents were required to present ID and go through security. There was a nightly curfew, and each floor was independently guarded so that residents were restricted from moving between them. Most importantly for our story, minors were not permitted to leave without a parent present, and shelter staff were strictly forbidden from fraternizing with residents.
The first sign that something was amiss with Relisha was on March 10th, 2014, when a counselor at Payne Elementary School contacted D.C Child and Family Services with concerns about Relisha’s attendance. It has been reported that Relisha had missed 30 days of school–however, this seems to have been cumulative rather than consecutive, and one of the many details missing in this case is when, exactly, Relisha last attended school. One source said there were records of her attending as late as March 7th, but this was the only source to state this and, in light of other information, this seems highly unlikely. Shamika Young had apparently attended a parent teacher conference about her daughter’s frequent absences on March 5th, although what exactly was said at this meeting is not clear. (It should be noted at this point that Relisha’s younger brother had not missed any school during this same time period). A social worker contacted the shelter and was told that Relisha was suffering from a serious neurological condition that was under the care of someone named Dr. Tatum (who they spoke to is also up for debate). When school officials learned this, they made arrangements to come to the shelter and either meet with Dr. Tatum in person* or pick up Relisha’s medical records. On March 19th, the officials arrived, but there were no records and no Dr. Tatum. In fact, no one at the shelter had ever heard of a Dr. Tatum–but they did know a Kahlil Malik Tatum. This Tatum was 51 years old, and had worked for two and a half years as a janitor at the shelter. And, oddly enough, he just happened to have clocked out early that day and had left the building by the time the school officials arrived.
So who was Kahlil Malik Tatum, and why had he been posing as a doctor? Well, among other things, he had been a model employee. His coworkers all had positive things to say about him, and they denied ever witnessing any contact between he and Relisha. Tatum’s landlord and neighbors described him as always appearing well-dressed and well-groomed, and, because he was somewhat vague about his job description, no one thought he worked as a janitor. He was married to a woman named Andrea; however, a few weeks previously, he filed for divorce for unknown reasons. It has never been made clear if Tatum and Andrea ever did finalize their divorce, so I’m going to refer to them as legally married for the rest of this article. He did not have any children of his own, but Andrea had children and grandchildren from a prior relationship. In fact, neighbors would claim to have witnessed Relisha playing outside Tatum’s apartment with another little girl that was most likely Andrea’s granddaughter. Tatum also had a criminal record and a history of drug abuse, as did Andrea. He had been imprisoned for larceny, grand theft, and breaking and entering. And, needless to say, he had never practiced as any kind of medical professional.
At 10:04 pm on March 19th, the same day that the ruse began to unravel Tatum and Andrea checked into a Red Roof Inn in Oxon Hill, Maryland. He was witnessed with a group of unknown individuals, and less than an hour after checking in, three unknown people were caught on surveillance leaving his room. The following morning, at 5:40 am, an unnamed man came to the room and alerted police, who discovered the body of Andrea Tatum lying face down on the bed. She had been killed by a single gunshot wound to the head. The same man told police that he had helped Tatum to purchase a gun in the past. I’m a bit unclear as to whether this man ever actually entered the room and found Andrea’s body or not. One article stated that “police did not permit him to enter the room” but it’s not clear if he had actually been able to enter the room prior to that point. If he was, it’s not clear how unless the door was not fully shut, and if he wasn’t, it’s not clear why he felt the need to alert authorities. However, this point of uncertainty may not be crucial to overall mystery of Relisha’s disappearance, so I will move on from it.
Naturally, police began searching for Tatum and the vehicle he was driving. Apparently, he left the scene in a stolen vehicle, since he was charged with auto theft in addition to Andrea’s murder. The white truck was eventually found abandoned in nearby Hyattsville, although I could not find an exact date for when this happened.
So, to summarize, a man who had been pretending to be a doctor in order to excuse Relisha’s absences from school has left his workplace before he could be confronted, killed his wife, stolen a truck, and fled the area. Then investigators turned to Relisha’s family members for information, and the story gets even stranger. It soon became obvious that Relisha had been spending a great deal of time alone with Tatum, and that this had been allowed by the members of her family. However, the precise details of who knew what and when are still quite muddy. Shamika, for instance, claims that she believed Relisha to be with her aunt and grandmother during the weeks she was missing. Having no phone or means of regular contact, she assumed the child was still in the care of Melissa and Ashely. She has also denied ever telling the school that Relisha was ill, and says that Antonio had been the only one in contact with school officials. Melissa, on the other hand, said she believed Relisha to be in Shamika’s care during that period. According to Melissa, the relationship between Relisha and Tatum began when the kids would be up earlier in the day then Shamika and Antonio, and would want to get breakfast in the shelter cafeteria. Tatum would help them get breakfast, since they could not do so unless accompanied by an adult. From there, it seemed that Tatum began spending a lot of time with Relisha, taking her on trips, giving her gifts, and watching over her when none of the other adults in her life were able to. According to Belinda Wheeler, this was fully permitted by Shamika and Antonio, and Tatum always brought Relisha back on time. For her part, Shamika has stated that she still thinks of Tatum as a kind and helpful man, but also denies ever knowing that Relisha was spending so much time with him. Now, as stated previously, shelter rules would have prohibited this type of relationship from developing if it had been noticed. In order for Relisha to have been given over to Tatum’s care, a parent would have to have allowed her to leave with him, or he would have had to pick her up at some place other than the shelter. The latter situation, at least, did happen, according to Melissa, who has stated that Tatum would pick Relisha up while she was staying with her aunt.
During the period after Relisha’s last known whereabouts but before she was reported missing, there was a reported exchange between Melissa, Tatum, and Shamika that I think is very illustrative of the situation as a whole. This was on March 12th, a week before the “Dr. Tatum” ruse was uncovered at the shelter. Apparently, Tatum had purchased a computer tablet for Relisha at one point, but the tablet was no longer working. Melissa, Relisha’s grandmother, called him to ask about the warranty. He told her he would pick up the tablet and take it in for the warranty four days later, on March 16th. Melissa then asked if Relisha was with him at the moment, and Tatum initially said no. Later in the conversation, he said that Relisha was with him, and that she and his family were with him in Atlanta at a medical conference. Melissa then asked Shamika about this, who said that she knew Tatum was planning on this trip, but that she had denied him permission to take Relisha. Melissa then spoke with Tatum again and told him that he had to have Relisha home again in four days, but otherwise did not indicate that she was bothered by the situation.
Now, among the many strange things about this anecdote is the fact that this trip to Atlanta almost certainly never happened. Tatum is documented to have been in the D.C area and working at his job at the shelter as usual during that time period. So, if this exchange happened as stated, he was lying to Melissa and had previously lied to Shamika about a trip that he no reason to take. It also indicates that Melissa and Shamika both had fairly regular contact with Tatum, even if Shamika was not as permissive about Relisha going on trips with him. It is also evident that neither of them were keeping regular tabs on who had custody of Relisha, and that Melissa was accustomed to Tatum giving Relisha gifts. One possible interpretation of the “medical conference” story is that this was used as a temporary cover for Relisha’s disappearance before the school officials began to investigate. For reasons that will soon become clear, Tatum never provided any testimony from his perspective.
Last Surveillance Footage
After police began searching for Relisha, they uncovered a chilling (in context) image of her on surveillance from a Holiday Inn in northeast Washington D.C., dated from February 26th at 7:25 pm. I am uncertain if there was a reason that they checked the security footage from that particular location, or if it was discovered by happenstance. It shows Relisha and Tatum walking down the motel hallway, walking out of the camera frame, then returning and entering one of the rooms. Relisha appears unharmed and uncoerced, and she is carrying a plastic shopping bag. Both Melissa and Antonio Wheeler have stated that they believed that Relisha was going to a pool party with Tatum’s granddaughter, and at some point he had taken her shopping for a swimsuit. It has been theorized that this was what was in the shopping bag Relisha was carrying in her hands. It is uncertain if footage exists of Relisha and Tatum exiting the room later on, but, in the light of other evidence that has been uncovered, I think it likely that there is.
Now, there are not many innocent explanations for a 51 year old man to be chaperoning an eight year old girl to a motel, unaccompanied by anyone else. I’m not saying that there aren’t any men out there from whom I could accept this, but given the fact that Tatum had kept up a running deception and that Relisha went missing shortly after this, the footage carries some very dark implications.
This, apparently, was not the last footage of Relisha, although it is the last that has been publicly released. There is also footage of Tatum and Relisha from March 1st, this time at a Days Inn in the area. Like the Holiday Inn, this motel was used to house overflow population from the city’s homeless shelters. Unlike the Holiday Inn, the Days Inn only had doors that opened to the outside, with no interior hallways. What Relisha was doing in this video, and the exact point at which she was last seen, are unknown.
The following day, March 2nd, Tatum was observed making some disturbing purchases at a local Home Depot. I am not sure if this was determined by surveillance, receipts, or both. The items he bought included a shovel, a box of 42 gallon trash bags, and a bottle of lye. Lye, otherwise known as sodium hydroxide, is a highly caustic liquid that is used to break down organic tissue, quickly. In short, Tatum was purchasing a murder kit.
Now, speaking of Tatum, weren’t we in the middle of a manhunt for him after he killed his wife Andrea? Yes, about him. There was no trace of him until March 31st, when authorities acted on a tip and found his body in a shed in the extensive Kenilworth Park. He had died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound, from the same gun he had used to kill Andrea. His autopsy would show that he had been dead for at least 36 hours. Where he was and what he was doing between March 20th and March 30th are not known. Despite a very extensive search of the park and surrounding areas, there was no sign of Relisha.
With Tatum’s suicide, authorities lost a lead who might have been able to provide them with valuable information as to Relisha’s fate. While many people continue to describe Tatum in positive terms, and deny that he had inappropriate relationships with any shelter residents, others have stated that he did fraternize with them–especially with younger girls. In the meantime, family members have cast suspicion on another. Antonio Wheeler has made statements implicating Shamika and Melissa in Relisha’s disappearance, while he himself as drawn scrutiny for posting a picture of himself holding a healthy wad of cash and displaying new shoes that he had purchased for the younger boys. For her part, Shamika says that she never had contact with the school about Relisha’s supposed illness, and that Antonio was the one handling those communications. She has stated that she last saw Relisha on a Friday in March under the care of her aunt, Ashely. She had brought the child some clothes, did her daughter’s hair, and then went to take some cupcakes to her son’s classroom. Later, Shamika was staying with a friend her kicked her out of the apartment they shared, claiming she had discovered that Shamika had been untruthful about her daughter’s disappearance. It is unclear what Shamika was supposed to have been untruthful about.
Now, there are so many things that scream trafficking about this case. Some of Tatum’s behavior towards her could easily be interpreted as textbook grooming, and there circumstantial indicators that he had unexplained wealth coming from somewhere, and that Relisha and her family were benefiting from his largesse. However, law enforcement has stated that this angle has been ruled out. I am not sure if this statement should be taken to mean that trafficking has been ruled out as the reason for her disappearance, or if it means trafficking could never have been a factor. However, based on what we know, I think we have to accept that there is no clear evidence of this at this point.
Needless to say, Relisha Rudd was failed by a lot of adults in her life–essentially all of the adults in her life, to some degree or another. I do understand that Shamika and Antonio had a lot of other challenges in their lives, and this needs to be taken into account. I try not to be judgmental when I cover cases, and usually I think I succeed. However, in this instance, it’s almost impossible to ignore the fact an eight year old went missing and it took eighteen days for anyone to even notice. Still, I think some of the principal actors are more responsible than others for what ultimately happened to Relisha.
To me at least, it’s fairly evident that Tatum was the key to the case. Regardless of what Relisha’s family members should or should not have done, Tatum was the last person known to have custody of her. He may have harmed her directly, or he may have been complicit in someone else doing so, but I think he knew what happened to her. His wife Andrea may have had some knowledge of this as well, and this may have been Tatum’s motive in murdering her. We have the unreleased March 1st surveillance footage, the disturbing purchases from March 2nd, and the fact that Tatum fled on the day that he knew his story would fall apart. One source brought up a creepy, although most likely irrelevant fact. Apparently, there is a network of tunnels running under the entire city of Washington D.C. that would have been accessible from the shelter, and that Tatum might have known about and had access to. However, if he did in fact dispose of Relisha’s body, it is probably more likely that he did so by burying it under soil with the shovel that he purchased.
As for the exact how and why of what happened to Relisha after the last footage of her, I cannot say. Tatum may have simply been a predator who was molesting Relisha and ultimately killed her, although if that is the case she would be his only known victim. Based on his record, Tatum was not exactly a model citizen, but there’s nothing in it to indicate that he was a habitual child predator (which certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility). I still do think it is possible that he had gotten her involved in some kind of trafficking, and that this was what led to her death. Other, more bizarre scenarios are also possible as well, but they all hinge on Tatum. With his suicide, this case might never be completely solved. However, I do think it is still entirely within the realm of possibility that Relisha’s remains will be found, most likely in Kenilworth Park or someplace similar. Kenilworth Park is actually huge, according to the link I posted above, and it’s not a stretch to think a body could remain concealed for years there even after a rigorous search.
I thought some of the times and dates might be a bit confusing to follow in narrative format, so I compiled my own timeline below.
- February 26th, 7:25 pm: Relisha seen with Tatum in the hallway of the Holiday Inn, carrying a shopping bag and entering a room
- March 1st: Relisha and Tatum captured on surveillance at a Days Inn; this is considered to be the last time Relisha was seen alive
- March 2nd: Tatum goes to the Home Depot to buy the shovel, trash bags, and sodium hydroxide. After that day, he seems to have been at work at the homeless shelter, as usual.
- March 5th: Shamika attends parent teacher conference about Relisha’s absences
- March 5th, 7th: Relisha attends school as normal according to some sources? This is incompatible with implication that Tatum murdered and disposed of Relisha on March 1st or 2nd.
- March 10th: School officials speak with Tatum–or speak with someone who references Tatum–about Relisha missing school due to a neurological condition
- March 12th: Melissa speaks with Tatum on the telephone and claims that he tells her first that he is not with her, then that she is with him and his family in Atlanta (false).
- March 16th: This was the day that Tatum said that he would pick up the broken tablet: however, it is unclear if ever did this
- March 19th, day time: School officials go to the shelter and learn that there is no Dr. Tatum; the actual Tatum has clocked out early
- March 19th, 10:04 pm–Tatum and Andrea check into a Red Roof Inn; it is this night that Tatum is seen in the presence of unknown individuals.
- March 20th, 5:40 am: Andrea Tatum found dead in the Red Roof Inn from a gunshot wound
- March 25th: the February 26th footage is publicly released; it is confirmed that Relisha was last known to be alive on March 1st
- March 31st: Tatum found dead by suicide in a shed in Kenilworth Park. Extensive search of the area follows.
At some point between March 20th and March 31st Tatum’s abandoned vehicle was found, but I am uncertain as to the precise date.
*That should have been a red flag if accurate. Most doctors have, you know, offices where they meet people.