Missing 8-year-old Relisha Rudd has become more than a face attached to an Amber Alert. The strange details surrounding her disappearance from a D.C. homeless shelter has made headlines and raised the question, was Relisha sold? Suspicions have been fueled as it was revealed that Rudd’s mother, Shamika Young and stepfather, Antonio Wheeler, had posted pictures of material goods and wads of cash on their social media accounts.
Derrica Wilson, President and CEO of Black and Missing Foundation (BAM), has been very vocal and feels very strongly about the possibility that Rudd may have been trafficked.
“If you’ve been following the story and paid very close attention to the mother’s story, it’s very inconsistent,” says Wilson who believes this is one of the first clues. “The fact she lives in a shelter with not only Relisha, but her other three children who are boys (and that) she allowed a man who is a complete stranger to become close with her daughter. He was very charismatic, always giving gifts and overly nice to a certain extent to where the fraternizing policy at the shelter should have been enforced."
Wilson points out how Rudd’s mother never reported her missing. Eventually it was Rudd’s school and other city officials that sounded the alarm, after a check into why Rudd had been missing from school for more than 30 days.
“The icing on the cake for me is when I see the mom posting pictures of herself with her boys and her fiancé, Relisha’s stepfather, with new Jordans, a new cell phone and the stepfather posted photos with stacks of $50 bills in his mouth,” says Wilson.
In a brief look at the timeline of events; Rudd was last seen March 1 with her alleged abductor, 51-year-old Khalil Tatum. Tatum, who worked as a janitor at the shelter, was known to Rudd’s family, so much so, Young felt comfortable enough to allow her daughter to spend time with Tatum. By March 20, Tatum’s wife is found dead in a local motel with a gunshot wound to the head. On March 27, acting on evidence and a tip that Tatum not only purchased contractor size garbage bags and a shovel, he also spent a considerable amount of time in a local park, D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier launches a search and possible recovery mission, stating that “we cannot ignore the possibility that Tatum may have killed her.”
After five days, it was Tatum's body that was recovered from the park with a self-inflected gunshot wound. There has been no sign of Relisha Rudd since.
Wilson, a former law enforcement officers with the Arlington County Sheriff’s Department in Virginia, was at the park during the search for Rudd. Her instinct was telling her that the little girl was not in the park.
“I went in there with my mind already set that she wasn’t in the park. I’ve stuck to my story consistently,” says Wilson who instead believes Rudd is alive and her appearance maybe altered. “Her hair could be cut off and she could be made to look like a boy. She could be as close as two blocks away from home or she could be across the country.”
Human trafficking is a multi-billion dollar industry in the United States, with hubs in Maryland, Georgia, Illinois, Texas and California. Though we often associate it with immigrants, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, the majority of sex trafficking victims in this country are U.S. citizens—with 40 percent of the victims being Black.
“What happens to our girls is they are prostituted out and are drugged to gain control of their mind to get them to do what they wouldn’t normally do,” says Wilson. While it is hard to digest that an individual would prey on someone as young as Rudd for this purpose, Wilson is quick to remind that it is no different from the 2009 North Carolina case of 5-year-old Shaniya Davis, where her mother Antoinette Davis offered her up to be raped for $200.
“You have a lot of twisted individuals out here, playing on children as young as 2 and 3-years-old for internet porn,” says Wilson.
Wilson is also quick to note that sex trafficking does not exclude our boys, with studies showing that boys are just frequently trafficked as girls. Statistics gathered by BAM shows an overwhelming 300,000 reported missing cases for each gender.
The most dishearten truth for any parent to swallow is not being able to spot a potential predator immediately.
“Honestly, it’s hard to paint a picture of what a predator looks like. Now what they are doing is using the kids’ peers to recruit,” says Wilson.
BAM is very hands on with any missing persons case that comes across their radar. Wilson co-founded the organization with her sister Natalie Wilson. In cases involving human trafficking, BAM works strategically with law enforcement and the FBI taskforce on human trafficking to rescuing a child.
Offering help where she can, Wilson is dedicated to not allowing Rudd’s case go cold. The search continues as Rudd’s brothers have been placed in foster care and a grand jury may charge Young with obstruction of justice.
Despite wondering if the public outrage against Young is along the lines of shaming a black mother, Wilson believes the outcry is warranted and believes Young should be held accountable. “She is not the young homeless mom who was arrested for leaving her kids in the car while on a job interview. Child Protective Services has a case file on her. There have been multiple documentations of abuse and neglect,” says Wilson.
In an interview with NBC Washington, Young defended herself against the public scrutiny.
“I’m going to continue to hang on to hope. Until you bring me a body, this little girl is out there,” says Wilson. “When we find her, I can promise you we will not let any person or agency fail her again. ”
Tiffany E. Browne is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Follow her on Twitter: @TiffanyE.Browne