America TonightMon-Fri 9:30pm ET/6:30pm PT

The mysterious, troubling case of missing Relisha Rudd

A year after the 8-year-old went missing from a Washington, D.C., family shelter, no trace has been found

WASHINGTON – The 8-year-old had large brown eyes, a smile filled with crooked teeth and a spunky pose for photographs. She loved cheerleading, dancing and going to school. Relisha was also homeless, one of hundreds of children who stayed with their families at Washington, D.C.’s homeless shelter, D.C. General.

A year ago, she disappeared. Detectives haven't been able to find her.

“It’s painful. It’s hurtful. It’s too quiet in my house. I’m not used to this. I don’t have anybody to talk to like I normally do," said Shamika Young, Relisha's mother. "My daughter would be that person and she’s not here right now."

But even Young has come under fire in a case with many complexities, one that exposed a system with holes just wide enough for a little girl to slip through. Some fear she's dead; others think she may have been a victim of sex trafficking. But whatever happened to Relisha, police say this is no cold case.

The disappearance

A picture of Relisha Rudd on the door of Shamika Young's apartment.
America Tonight

A year ago, Young, her longtime boyfriend, Antonio Wheeler, three sons and her only daughter, Relisha, were crammed into one room at D.C. General, which is often described as a dismal place.

“It’s a mess. To be honest with you, it’s no place for children, unfortunately,” said Young.

Young said Relisha disliked the shelter so much, she was often allowed to spend time at the homes of relatives. Sometimes, she would go days without seeing her mother.

Against the homeless shelter’s fraternization policy, she also spent time in the care of a shelter janitor, Kahlil Tatum.

He was the last person to see Relisha alive.

“Seemed like a nice guy,” said Wheeler, who said Tatum once bought Rudd a Kindle Fire tablet. “But you know, the devil got two sides.”

Court records show Tatum may have been posing as a doctor to excuse Relisha from school. She missed 30 days of classes and hadn’t seen her mother in about three weeks when social workers determined something was wrong.

But it was too late. Relisha was already gone.

Kahlil Tatum
FBI handout

In March last year, police found Tatum's wife shot dead in a Maryland hotel room. Later, they found Tatum’s body in a storage building at Washington D.C.’s sprawling, 700-acre Kenilworth Park. He'd shot himself in the head.

Detectives, volunteers and dive teams searched the park extensively, but they found no sign of Relisha.

Many suspect Tatum killed Relisha then took his own life. But Young refuses to believe the friendly janitor from the shelter hurt her child.

"I just don’t think he did anything to harm her," she said. "… As a mother I would have felt it. I just can't accept that as an answer. I don't."

A detective who investigates the sexual exploitation of children confiscated an iPad and papers from Tatum’s work locker, and detectives also found children’s clothing and a photo of Relisha at his Washington, D.C., home. But police have not said publicly if those items are significant.

In October, Metro Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier said they're prohibited from revealing many details about the ongoing investigation, happening in conjunction with the U.S. Attorney's Office.

“We got a late start on [searching for] Relisha, and that late start hurt us,” she said at a news conference on Relisha's ninth birthday, seven months after the search began.

“My hope is that she’s still alive.”

Metropolitan Police Department Chief Cathy Lanier
America Tonight

Shannon Smith, Relisha’s former cheerleading coach doesn’t believe the police have done enough to find her. Every few months, she prints and distributes new T-shirts featuring the little girl's face and she teaches her cheer squad chants calling for her to come home.

"Instead of me having them walk around feeling so sad about her being gone, I pretty much put them to work. Let them cheer. I let them express themselves by shouting it out," she said. "…I want to keep her alive. If I have to do this every day, every month, I believe she's coming back."

Young also holds out hope that her daughter is alive. She said she feels victimized by the media and the police.

“I believe they’re not doing anything because at the moment we was homeless, poor and we’re colored people,” Young said. “If we was like first class, rich, with a lot of money, living famous, they would have did more.”

The police department repeatedly declined America Tonight's requests for interviews with the lead detectives and the police chief, but we asked Chief Lanier about the accusations at an unrelated news conference.

“A mother who is speaking on behalf of a missing child, I’m sure, is in a great deal of pain and I certainly understand that,” she said. “…We have exhausted a lot of resources and we will continue to do so. But I’m not going to react to a comment like that any other way other than to say that every child matters to us."

The family

Relisha Rudd at the Homeless Children's Playtime Project, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit that organizes play activities for homeless children.
Courtesy of Shamika Young

Concerned community members have raised concerns about Young and her mother, Melissa Young, accusing them of neglecting Relisha. Young hadn’t seen her for three weeks by the time police got involved. No family member called 911 to report the little girl was missing.

At a news conference last year, then-Mayor Vincent Gray said they deserved some of the blame for not taking better care of the little girl, saying, “Remember, parents have a responsibility also."

Some people have cast harsher suspicions, and say the family has been less than forthcoming about the circumstances surrounding their child’s disappearance.

"Me, nor my daughter, did not sell her baby," Relisha's grandmother Melissa Young said, adding that she didn't call the police because she was in shock. "If my mind went blank and I went into shock, I'm not thinking straight."

Relisha's mother and her boyfriend said they didn't call the police because they didn't have a phone.

The family is the key to solving this case. Somebody knows more because we’ve seen.

Keith Warren

host of the "Search for Relisha" radio show

“The family is the key to solving this case," said Keith Warren, a community member who started an online radio show focused on finding Relisha. "Somebody knows more because we’ve seen – we’ve heard so many different stories and so many stories that flipped. You know, they’ve changed their stories.” 

In the search for Relisha Rudd, community members have become citizen detectives, putting up fliers, making T-shirts and organizing people on social media.
America Tonight

Warren didn’t know Relisha, but her case hit close to home. His cousin disappeared in 2010 and is still missing.

“I jumped on this because I don’t want another person – another kid – to be missing and it will be five, 10 years from now, and she’s not found and everything,” he said. “This child has to be found."

He added: "We believe the police has given up. But the community's not giving up on finding her."

In his show, which can last as long as a few hours, Warren takes calls from community members, politicians and Relisha’s family members. And he has taken criticism for questioning the family’s involvement in Relisha’s disappearance and creating drama between feuding family members.

One Thursday night earlier this month, Young's boyfriend Wheeler called in to complain.

“You are bashing my family, bashing my kid’s mother, I asked you to stop," he said. "If the focus is on Relisha, let’s focus on Relisha."

“It's gotten to a point now where I don’t know who to believe,” Warren said. 

A new start

Shamika Young
America Tonight

A year ago, another concerned community member, Brenda Brown, was also suspicious that Relisha’s mother had something to do with her own daughter’s disappearance and she said she wrote nasty comments about Young on Facebook.

“I was just as angry and upset and judgmental as everybody else," said Brown, who never knew the family personally. "I bashed the family, everybody, even Shamika [Young], but as time went on, I shifted."

Brown volunteered to help search for Relisha and met Young in person.

“I try to put myself in her shoes, and if I were in her shoes, I would be lost," she said. "You have everybody hating you. You have everybody thinking you did something to your daughter. [Shamika Young] had nobody and I was just drawn to that."

Young hasn't had an easy life. She said she felt abandoned by her own mother, and said she spent her childhood a series of foster homes and shelters. She insists she's a good mother, but in the wake of Relisha's disappearance, her three other children were put into foster homes.

Brown felt compelled to help Young get her life back on track. She said she helped her find, rent and furnish an apartment after she was forced out of a homeless shelter for families. Brown also helped arrange a search dog to help sniff an area where police already exhausted their efforts, made Relisha Rudd T-shirts and now runs the "We Are Relisha" Facebook page.

“I asked her, ‘What do you need? What do you want?’ And I offer her advice – advice that a mother should give a daughter,” said Brown.

“I’m in it for the long haul. I believe there is a higher element that is placing me here for its own purpose.”

Young said she feels like Brown is a mother figure.

“I’ve never really had this much support before,” said Young. “It made me feel like a newborn baby to have a fresh mother that can help me start from the beginning of my life and bring it up.”

More from America Tonight

Find Al Jazeera America on your TV

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter

Get email updates from Al Jazeera America

Sign up for our weekly newsletter