A weeklong search for a missing 8-year-old girl that has spanned the East Coast shifted Thursday to a large wooded parkland in the District, where police mounted a "recovery operation" and said they couldn't ignore the possibility that Relisha Rudd was killed.
Investigators descended on Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Northeast based on information that the man with whom Relisha was last seen was in the park area for several hours the day after the girl disappeared.
Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier made the grim disclosure that Kahlil Malik Tatum, 51, visited the area after buying a carton of contractor-sized trash bags.
"We're not making any assumptions, but I think that it would be prudent for us now to make sure we search — and this is a very large area — search this area very well," she said. "We cannot ignore the possibility that he may have killed her."
Chief Lanier also revised backward the reported timeline for the child's disappearance. She said the last time police can confirm that the girl was seen was March 1 — a week before some public reports suggested.
The chief said Mr. Tatum, who had worked as a custodian at a homeless shelter where Relisha's family lived, was seen in various locations until March 20, when his wife was found dead in an Oxon Hill motel room. He was charged in Prince George's County with first-degree murder but remained at large.
The investigation into Relisha's whereabouts began March 19 when a social worker from the D.C. Public Schools system reported to police that the 8-year-old had missed more than 30 days of school, detectives wrote in a search warrant affidavit for Mr. Tatum's home and work locker.
Relisha and her family lived in the D.C. General Family Emergency Shelter for the homeless in the months leading up to her disappearance. The girl's mother reportedly gave Relisha to Mr. Tatum on Feb. 26. Police noted in court records that the mother said she made the arrangement so Mr. Tatum could care for the child.
Relisha's exact whereabouts were unknown during that time. Police released surveillance video showing Mr. Tatum and the girl walking down a hallway together inside a Holiday Inn Express hotel in Northeast D.C. on Feb. 26. Other reported accounts put Relisha at her elementary school on March 5 and 7.
Chief Lanier said that upon further investigation, police could confirm only that Relisha had been seen as late as March 1.
"Some of the stuff relies on the memory of an individual," said Pedro Ribeiro, a spokesman for the D.C. mayor's office. "There might not be any corroboration."
The social worker inquiring about the school absences was told by Relisha's family that the girl missed class because she was being treated by a "Dr. Tatum" and was given contact information for him. The social worker called the contact number and spoke with a man who represented himself as Dr. Tatum. They exchanged more phone calls and arranged a meeting at the homeless shelter, but the man did not show up.
After the social worker asked a shelter supervisor about any Dr. Tatum working there, the supervisor summoned the janitor. But Mr. Tatum left work abruptly without meeting with anyone and has not returned to the shelter, police said.
Officials tried to call Mr. Tatum's phone, but the phone was turned off later that night and was never turned on again, police said.
Amid questions about why police did not issue an Amber Alert until March 20, Chief Lanier said Thursday that when officers took a missing persons report the child's parent told detectives that Relisha was in the company of a godfather with whom she had previously spent time.
"We really did not have the authority or meet the criteria to issue an Amber Alert, but we did so anyway because of the circumstances," she said.
Police found Mr. Tatum's 2007 Chevrolet Blazer parked at a Red Roof Inn in Oxon Hill. Mr. Tatum checked into the hotel the night before. When investigators went to search his room, they made a gruesome discovery: Mr. Tatum's wife, Andrea Tatum, was inside dead from what appeared to be a gunshot wound to the head.
A person who knew the couple later told police that Mrs. Tatum wanted to leave her husband. The same person said Mr. Tatum expressed interest in buying a handgun.
After discovering Mrs. Tatum's body, police obtained a warrant for the couple's Southeast D.C. home. Inside the home, officers found $87, cellphones, children's clothing and shoes, as well as a photo of Relisha, according to a copy of a search warrant for the home.
D.C. Council member Jim Graham, the Ward 1 Democrat who oversees the Committee on Human Services, plans to hold a hearing Friday to discuss safety procedures at the homeless shelter.
In the meantime, police said, the search for Relisha will continue.
"We have not given up hope that we may still find Relisha alive," Chief Lanier said.
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