On this last episode, we look back on 23 years of joyous, difficult and always informative conversation.
What happened to Relisha Rudd?
In 2014, the second grader disappeared from D.C. General, a former hospital turned homeless shelter where she had been living with her family. By the time the city formally declared Relisha “missing,” 18 days had passed since the last time she’d been seen at school or in the shelter.
She has never been found.
In the first season of WAMU and PRX podcast “Through the Cracks”, host Jonquilyn Hill investigates whether Relisha’s disappearance was, as the city later claimed, “unpreventable.”
We look back at how the police investigation and media response played out, and speak with Jonquilyn and Black & Missing Co-Founder Natalie Wilson about the systemic issues that compromise our networks of safety, and widen the cracks through which the vulnerable fall.
Produced by Julie Depenbrock
- Jonquilyn Hill Host, "Through the Cracks"; @jonquilynhill
- Natalie Wilson Co-Founder and Chief Operations Officer, Black & Missing Foundation
KOJO NNAMDIWhat happened to Relisha Rudd? In 2014, the second grader disappeared from D.C. General, the former hospital turned homeless shelter, where she had been living with her family. By the time the city formally declared Relisha missing, 18 days had passed since the last time she had been seen at school or in the shelter. Elisha has never been found.
KOJO NNAMDIIn the first season of the podcast "Through the Cracks," host Jonquilyn Hill investigates whether Relisha's disappearance was, as the city later claimed, unpreventable. Joining us now to discuss this is Jonquilyn Hill. She's a senior producer with 1A and the host of WAMU's "Through the Cracks," a podcast about the gaps in our society and the people who fall through them. The first season is about the disappearance of Relisha Rudd. Jonquilyn Hill joins us now. She's familiarly known around the station as JQ. JQ, thank you for joining us.
JONQUILYN HILLThanks for having me, Kojo. It's great to be here.
NNAMDII miss seeing you in the hallways of WAMU, but hopefully we're both staying safe, at this point.
NNAMDIYou've been hard at work on this podcast for almost two years now. What made you want to investigate Relisha Rudd's disappearance?
HILLWell, when people ask that question, I'm honest. It's because she's a little black girl, and so rarely do the stories of little black girls get told. You know, they're some of the most vulnerable people in our society, but we don't hear about these stories that often. And, of course, if you were living in D.C. at the time, you saw Relisha everywhere. But as far as the staying power of cases like, say, JonBenet Ramsey, they don't get the same attention.
NNAMDIYeah, but this story stuck with you. Why?
HILLI think it's her missing photo. I remember it was maybe a few months after she'd gone missing, and I was riding the Metro on the way to work. And I got off at Union Station, because I was working at The Hill at the time. And I just remember seeing her photo in the window of a restaurant there. And just her eyes were so sweet, and there was just this innocence there. And it broke my heart that there hasn't been a real conclusion about what happened to her.
NNAMDILet's take a listen to an excerpt from the first episode of "Through the Cracks."
HILLEvery morning around 10:30, I get a text from my mom. It's usually along the lines of, good morning, how are you? We used to talk about what we were up to that day, my hair appointment or a workout class my dad's taking at the Y. Now, she asks how I'm doing on staples like toilet paper or talks to me about the latest headlines.
HILLOne time, though, I forgot to answer her text. I was at work writing a script, and I got really caught up. My phone was set to "do not disturb." Around 1:30, she called my desk phone, and my coworker answered. Your mom called, LOL, my coworker messaged me. She says to text her. Not everyone has this relationship with their mom. I get that. But what about their coworkers or their friends, their roommates? Everyone has someone who would notice their absence. The question is, how long would it take? This is what I think about every time I think about Relisha Rudd.
NNAMDIJQ, Relisha was eight years old when she went missing. What do we know about her as a person?
HILLWell, with this podcast, I've been able to talk to lots of her family members and get a feel for her personality. She was the oldest of four, the only girl, and she was the big sister, and she did what a lot of big sisters do. She was really protective of her brothers. She loved playing with them. Antonio Wheeler, her stepfather, said that she really enjoyed riding her bikes with her brothers. They would race on their bikes. Her favorite color was purple, and her two favorite foods were crab and pizza.
HILLAnd she also -- you know, she lived in a shelter with her family. And when the Homeless Children's Playtime Project would come and they would have activities, her favorite activity was arts and crafts. So, she loved to put crafts together and draw and color and things like that.
NNAMDIWhat happened when Relisha Rudd disappeared, and why did it take so long for those around her to realize that she was missing?
HILLRight. So, Relisha was missing for 18 days before the city realized something was wrong. She was left in the care of Khalil Tatum, who was a janitor at the shelter and also, at the time, was considered a family friend. She'd missed several days of school, but the school had gotten notes, excusing her. Some of the notes were from a Dr. Tatum. Tatum was not a doctor. And between just all of that confusion, no one realized anything was wrong until a school employee went to the shelter to check on Relisha and found out that Tatum wasn't a doctor at all, but a janitor who worked there.
NNAMDIJQ, what was D.C. General like, at that time?
HILLSo, Relisha was at the D.C. General Family Shelter, back when it was at its peak population. She was one of about 600 kids living there. D.C. General was closed and has been replaced by shelters throughout the city. But it was a hospital-turned-shelter. And when you speak with people who lived there at the time, it very much felt like a hospital. You could open doors and still find old medical documents. Families were staying in old hospital rooms. They would have cart beds, and there was also a bathroom attached, with a toilet. But if they wanted to take their kids to shower, they would have to walk down the hallway and go to sort of these dorm-style showers.
HILLOne woman I spoke with said that there was even an incident where someone who didn't realize it wasn't a hospital anymore went there with a gunshot wound. And it was really scary for the parents and for the person who'd been injured, because it wasn't a hospital anymore.
NNAMDIOne question that comes up a lot, and that you navigate throughout the series is: How does a family lose track of a child? What answers have you gotten, here?
HILLIt's interesting, because I think there are a lot of unanswered questions. But at the same time, you realize it's this big extended family, and not everyone is keeping track of everyone all the time. And then you add on the things like the trauma of experiencing homelessness, the trauma of eviction and, you know, the things that her parents and grandparents went through, cycles in foster care and abuse. And you start to sort of understand why it would be difficult to keep track of this little girl.
HILLAnd, you know, the family isn't the only one who wasn't able to keep track of her. There was staff at the shelter. There was staff at school. So, there were a lot of adults in her life, from family to officials, who didn't pick up on the fact that something was wrong, here.
NNAMDIHere now is Wallace in Bowie, Maryland. Wallace, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
WALLACEHow you doing, Kojo? I've called many times, and this is the first time I'm gotten through. But my point is, someone knows where Relisha Rudd is. Someone knows what happened to her. My question is: Has there ever been a remote viewing of where she might be?
NNAMDIWhat do you mean by remote viewing?
WALLACEThere are people out here who have the skills necessary to remote view where other people are and what happened to them. And I think that skillset should be applied to finding out where and what happened to her.
NNAMDIJonquilyn, we only have about a minute left in this segment, but care to respond?
HILLWell, shortly after she went missing, the police and also several advocacy organizations went searching for her, particularly in Kenilworth Park. She was not found, but they did find the body of Khalil Tatum, the man who she was last seen with. Reports say that he was found dead from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But there have been renewed searches throughout the years. From what I recall, there was a search underneath D.C. General. There have been searches through parks in Southeast D.C., but they still haven't found her, or any remains.
NNAMDIGot to take a short break. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
NNAMDIWelcome back. We're talking with Jonquilyn Hill. She's a senior producer with 1A and the host of WAMU's "Through the Cracks," a podcast about the gaps in our society and the people who fall through them. The first season is about the disappearance of Relisha Rudd. When was Relisha last seen in school, JQ?
HILLSo, it's hard, at times, to determine when she was last seen at school, just because she missed so many days. She missed about 30 days of school before anyone realized -- well, she missed about 30 days of school that semester and was not seen for 18 days before anyone realized something was wrong. So, it's hard to say regarding school, but in late February, that's the last time she was seen, period. And it was in the Days Inn on New York Avenue in the care of Khalil Tatum.
NNAMDIWell, what is supposed to happen if a child doesn't show up for school for long periods, and what happened in Relisha's case?
HILLSo, typically, what's supposed to happen is that there's supposed to be follow-up calls with parents. And there's supposed to be some intervention from the District and possibly from Child and Family Services Agency, depending on what's determined to have happened. What makes it difficult for Relisha's case is that, technically, a lot of her absences were excused. They just weren't excused by an actual doctor. There had been forged notes from Khalil Tatum, the janitor she was seen with, as a Dr. Tatum. So, at the school, they were under the impression that she was in the care of a doctor.
NNAMDIThere are a lot of questions, including why someone with Khalil Tatum's kind of felony record was working at that shelter. Have you gotten any answers?
HILLWell, technically, no. What's really interesting is that -- you're right, you know, people with a felony record were not supposed to be working at the shelter, and Tatum was. And I think there is a conversation to be had about, you know, access to jobs for people who have been formerly incarcerated. But, at the moment and in that time, he was not supposed to have been working at the shelter.
HILLLooking through shelter monitoring documents from the time, they pulled 14 random files from people who worked at D.C. General Family Shelter, and none of them had gotten a background check from Metropolitan Police or the FBI, and they were supposed to. So, there were people working in the shelter without background checks, and Khalil Tatum was one of them.
NNAMDIAfter Khalil Tatum was found dead, D.C. ordered a review of city agencies that worked with Relisha and her family. What did that report find?
HILLIt's interesting, because the report says that her disappearance was not preventable, that it was a tragedy that was unpreventable. At the same time, they have recommendations. Her city came in contact with various city services, child and family services, the Department of Behavioral Health. There were several caseworkers involved, but those caseworkers were not communicating with one another.
NNAMDIOur mayor at the time was Vincent Gray. It's my understanding you tried to get an interview with him. Were you successful, and why did they deem Relisha's disappearance unpreventable, as far as you know?
HILLWell, it's hard to say why, because I did reach out to Councilman Gray's office, and was declined an interview. The offer for an interview still stands, so if they would like to speak with me, I am open to an interview. But I don't know quite where the administration was coming from, because I have not been able to speak with them.
NNAMDIJen in Washington, D.C. Jen, your turn.
JENI have been -- hi, Kojo and JQ. Thank you so much for this. I've been listening to the podcast, which is just phenomenal. And I just was reflecting on my initial reaction when Relisha went missing and how that's changed since listening to your podcast. I think initially I just felt like, oh, gosh, how could this possibly happen?
JENBut now having a daughter of my own and understanding all of the different agencies that come into play and all of the different ways that you're trying to cover yourself and your kids, you know, struggling with jobs and getting all the context that you put into that podcast, it's really, I think, helped me to see that my initial reaction was one of great privilege.
JENAnd I really am just so grateful that I've been able to understand better what people are struggling with. And the stresses of, you know, covering housing and taking care of children and jobs. And what's available to me is not available to a lot of folks in the city. So, I just want to say thank you for the podcast and thank you for helping me to understand better, you know, other people's perspectives and how that affects their lives.
NNAMDIAnd, Jen, thank you for your call. This would seem to be an appropriate time to introduce Natalie Wilson, the cofounder and chief operating officer of the Black and Missing Foundation. Natalie Wilson, thank you very much for joining us.
NATALIE WILSONThank you so much for having me.
NNAMDINatalie Wilson, you heard what our caller Jen just had to say. How common is that sentiment?
WILSONWell, it's definitely common, and I'm hoping that there are lessons learned that can protect other homeless children or kids that are in foster care from just disappearing or slipping under the cracks. And, you know, we are not living that life that they are struggling with, so sometimes we don't understand all of the dynamics.
NNAMDIWhat does an organization like Black and Missing do, and why is it, in your view, necessary?
WILSONSo, at the Black and Missing Foundation, we are a voice. We're advocates for missing individuals of color and their families who are desperately searching for them. And we bring awareness to the hundreds of thousands of persons of color reported around the country. And our organization is necessary, because these voiceless groups of missing individuals, oftentimes, they do not receive media coverage or law enforcement assistance, or even our community involvement to be found.
NNAMDIWhat motivated you to get into this work?
WILSONThere was a young lady by the name of Tamika Houston, and she went missing from Spartanburg, South Carolina. And that's the hometown of my sister-in-law and also the BAM FI cofounder. And Tamika disappeared in 2004, and we learned how her family really struggled to get media coverage, particularly national media coverage around her disappearance.
WILSONAnd weeks later, Lori Hacking, she disappeared, and her family received around-the-clock news coverage. And Tamika's aunt, who was in media relations, she reached out to the same reporters for the same networks and the same programs, and there was just no interest in Tamika's story at all. And, of course, Natalee Holloway disappeared a year later, and her name dominated the news. So, Derrica and I decided to use our professions. I'm in media relations and Derrica's in law enforcement, and those are the two critical elements needed to help us find our missing.
NNAMDIWhat did you think when you first heard about the disappearance of Relisha Rudd?
WILSONWell, we were very alarmed, but we were determined to find Relisha. Relisha was last seen on March the 1st, 2014, and she was reported missing 18 days later on March the 19th. And we learned of her case as the rest of the city did on March the 20th, when a press release was issued by MPD. And as the details surrounding her disappearance were released -- you know, such as Tatum's wife being found dead in a hotel -- we weren't sure what we would find.
WILSONAnd it was just so baffling that Tatum somehow befriended Relisha's mother and convinced her that it was a great idea for him to have this, you know, second grader under his supervision. So, there was just so many unknowns, but we were very determined to help find Relisha.
NNAMDIWhat has struck you about the media coverage of Relisha's disappearance?
WILSONWell, I will say that I've been impressed in how D.C., MPD, and the local media outlets stepped up to the plate in Relisha's case. Because of our numerous media partnerships, particularly with black press, we were able to get some national coverage. But we would've loved to see that this was a national story and so many other national media outlets pick up Relisha's story. Because Relisha could've been anywhere, from Pennsylvania to Florida to California.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Joan in Alexandria, who says: Please stop saying this little girl has gone missing or went missing. People do not go missing. They go to school. They went to the store. She disappeared, at best. She was snatched. She was kidnapped. It was not of her volition. It just makes me nuts when people use this neutral language. Natalie, there are a lot of things about Relisha's case that the media and society tend to stereotype...
NNAMDI...black, poor, living in a homeless shelter. How do you go about deconstructing those stereotypes, and how do you avoid the use of the word missing when somebody may, in fact, be missing?
WILSON(laugh) Okay. Well, a couple of things. We need to change the way law enforcement classifies missing children. Now, not in Relisha's case, but oftentimes our children, when they are missing or they're no longer at home, they're classified as a runaway. So, if you're classified as a runaway, you do not receive the amber alert or any type of media coverage. And we need to change the narrative that missing black and brown individuals are stereotyped as being involved in some type of criminal activity. And that's how the news media tend to represent us.
WILSONAnd although there's diversity in the newsroom, most of the media owners and the journalists are still predominantly white. So, they are not telling the stories of these individuals. And I think, as a community, we need to get more involved. So, once a child has been reported missing and we get that involvement within our communities, we need to start making phone calls to the media outlets and making demands for the media to show these African-American or Hispanic children, they need to show that they are just as important as other children.
NNAMDIWhy is a program, a podcast like "Through the Cracks" so important here?
WILSONWell, programs like "Through the Cracks" are vital, as they keep these cold cases in the forefront. You know, it provides families with hope that their loved one would return home, or at least they could have the answers or the closures they need. And it lets the families know that they are not alone, and they're not forgotten.
NNAMDIJQ, I'm wondering if this was your original objective for the podcast, to keep Relisha's story alive.
HILLOh, definitely. You know, like I said, this is a story that has stuck with me years later. And I think a lot of people who have stayed in D.C. or native Washingtonians or people who were in community with Relisha remember her story. But there's another side to D.C. that's very transient. There are so many people I've spoken to who move here and have no idea about her story, but they know Natalee Holloway's name. And I think that's something that's been really important with this, just asking the questions: Who do we value, what stories do we value, and what stories do we remember?
NNAMDINatalie Wilson, it is my understanding that Black and Missing Foundation helped out with that search effort. What was that like? Where did you search?
WILSONAbsolutely. We were one of two community groups who assisted MPD in searching Kenilworth Park. And we also distributed flyers near the shelter where Relisha and her family live and the Metro station. So, we were very involved with MPD. We were, you know, lock in step with them in trying to find Relisha.
NNAMDIHere now is Jill in Alexandria, Virginia. Jill, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.
JILLHi. I'm calling as a parent and a longtime Washington resident. And I just wanted to share that this story, when it happened, and every time I hear Relisha's name, it just -- it's heart wrenching, it's sickening. It's just incredibly distressing, I think, for everyone who's heard the story. And I didn't know that a school -- someone from the school had gone and really had raised the red flag, initially.
JILLI think that, ultimately, the responsibility has to come down to the family, and it's something I think we're not talking enough about. But I think anyone who has children knows that it would be a very poor decision to give custody or care of your child to a male family friend. And I can't begin to understand the stresses that are on the family, but ultimately, the responsibility of a child must fall on the family. Thank you.
NNAMDIThank you for your call. Jonquilyn Hill, you have interviewed many people over the last couple of years, but, in particular, what was it like to speak with Relisha's family members? What did you learn from them?
HILLIt was, admittedly, a lot, emotionally, just revisiting this really traumatic event with everyone. You know, a lot has changed since it happened. Initially, after Relisha went missing, there was conflict within the family and through the years. That has changed. It's also been really interesting because a lot gets left to memory and time. And we know that, you know, the way our brains remember things when something traumatic happens, is more difficult.
HILLI think also one thing that's been interesting to explore is the history of the family, because Relisha's not the only person who's slipped through the cracks throughout their life, but just about every person in her family did. There's been history of abuse. Both her stepfather and her mother were in the foster care system. Her stepfather's little sister was murdered when she was two, and that's how he ended up in the foster care system.
HILLSo, the more I talked with the family, the more layers I was able to pull back and kind of learn that Relisha's not the only person here who fell through the cracks, that there is a lot of stuff going on and a lot of people were failed in different ways by different people.
NNAMDII want to take a listen to another clip from "Through the Cracks." This is Relisha's stepfather, Antonio Wheeler.
ANTONIO WHEELERWell, the first year I didn't have a job. I would drink a lot of alcohol. I was smoking a lot of cigarettes, and I was sleepless. I would eat less for a whole year. So, it was hard. For the first year, it was hard. Even with my kids being in foster care, it was really hard eating, sleeping. Just trying to get up in the morning, open my eyes. I just wanted to lay there all day.
ANTONIO WHEELERAnd then when I was up, I went -- found myself at the liquor store, buying liquor, buying cigarettes, you know, smoking marijuana, you know, trying to hide the pain. And I'm just now coming to grips that I couldn't control a lot of things that I couldn't. But still, I haven't really processed the fact that she -- that Relisha is missing.
NNAMDIJQ, what was Antonio's role in Relisha's life?
HILLSo, he played the role of stepfather. At the time that Relisha and her family lived in the shelter, he was engaged to her mother, Shamika. So, he was sort of like a father figure in her life.
NNAMDIYou also spent a lot of time talking with Melissa Young, Relisha's grandmother. I'd like to take a listen to some of your conversation with her.
HILLRelisha's grandmother Melissa is a gatekeeper for the Young family, their matriarch. I've had to go through her to get to other members of the family. In her apartment, there are always kids playing, food cooking, a TV on. When I visited, she took me to her bedroom.
MELISSA YOUNGRight now, what you all are looking at is my dresser that I decorated with my granddaughter Relisha Rudd's picture that I've had now for five years from the first event when she went missing. All her little teddy bears, like this one right here, the elephant that's saying I love you. That's her first teddy bear when she was, like, two. Her father gave it to her on Valentine's.
HILLI've gone to her home several times, and each time, she's added something new to the tribute. Some of the items are Relisha's things, her first baby hat, a photo or a toy. Other times, they represent milestones Relisha has missed, a photo from a cousin's graduation or an uncle's funeral program.
YOUNGThis is my dedication and my tribute to help deal with the situation.
HILLMelissa still buys Relisha Christmas and birthday gifts every year, just in case she comes home. They don't want her to come back and have nothing under the tree.
YOUNGLately, since she's older, I pretty much done bought her, you know, like jewelry with her name on it. I had to send that with my father, her great granddad, so could nobody take it, because her earrings is like real diamonds. So, she don't play with toys. She stopped playing with toys when she was eight, so (laugh) I say, well, okay, she like makeup now, nail polish, stuff like that, smell good. So, I just buy her those stuff, drop them in the drawer. It's like a -- what I call it? Her little treasure chest.
NNAMDIRelisha Rudd's grandmother. JQ, there's one family member you have not spoken with yet. What can you tell us about Relisha's mother, Shamika young?
HILLRight. Well, Shamika has declined my requests for interview, excuse me. And, you know, she is Relisha's mother, also the mother of her three little brothers. And she's come under a lot of scrutiny in the years following Relisha's disappearance. And, yeah, so the invitation to her still also stands. You know, because of the scrutiny, I do understand why she has decided not to speak with me, but that door is open if she wishes to tell her side of the story.
NNAMDIA listener tweets: We cannot stop raising awareness of the alarming number of black girls and boys that go missing each year. JQ, you have new episodes of this podcast every Thursday. What have you explored so far, and what's to come?
HILLSo, so far, we've laid out the case of Relisha's disappearance, looked at her family, looked at the eviction that unhoused them. And this week, we're going to be looking at the conditions of the shelter where she lived. As the season goes on, we'll explore Khalil Tatum. We'll also look at the media, which, you know, we get a little meta with that, because this podcast is part of the media. We also look at the investigation, and then we look ahead to see what changes the city has made since Relisha disappeared, and if we can keep another child from falling through the cracks.
NNAMDINatalie Wilson, if someone wants to report a missing person or submit an anonymous tip through your organization rather than directly through law enforcement, what do you recommend?
WILSONSo, we do know that there's a sense of systemic distrust between law enforcement and the community. So. if someone has an anonymous tip, they can definitely go to our website at BAMFI.org, or they can call us at 1-877-97B-A-M-F-I.
NNAMDIFinal question, JQ. As we approach the seventh anniversary of Relisha's disappearance, the big question you're trying to answer here is: Could any of this have been prevented? What do you think, so far? You only have about 30 seconds.
HILLI definitely think so. I think there are several stops along the way where this could've not happened. Whether it was family or eviction, shelter, school, I think there are several inflection points in Relisha's life that could've kept this from happening. And I think the goal now is to look forward and say, okay, can we find these inflection points for other children and keep them safe and make sure nothing this tragic happens to them?
NNAMDIJonquilyn Hill, thank you so much for joining us. Natalie Wilson, thank you so much for joining us. This segment on WAMU's podcast "Through the Cracks" about the disappearance of Relisha Rudd was produced by Julie Depenbrock. And our conversation about a possible African-American burial ground in Georgetown was produced by Cydney Grannan.
NNAMDIComing up tomorrow at noon, despite a decline in homelessness in the D.C. region since 2016, the District's homeless rate is still twice the national average. We look at what's being done to combat this crisis. And join us at 7:30 tonight for our Kojo in Your Community event. We'll discuss proposals by local leaders for a black agenda and a new national black political party. But you need to register by 5:00 p.m. Go to WAMU.com/events.
NNAMDIAnd, somehow, yesterday our managing producer Ingalisa Schrobsdorff worked, despite the fact that it was her birthday, and despite my longstanding practice of encouraging all and sundry not to work on their birthdays. Of course, I broke my own rule this year, so Inga is forgiven. But maybe because of this, we somehow overlooked an on-air birthday greeting yesterday. Not today, though.
NNAMDIHappy birthday, Ingalisa, from all of us, to all of you. Thank you all for listening and stay safe. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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