Police desperately searching for 8-year-old Relisha Rudd in a Northeast Washington park on Monday instead found a body they believe is that of the man suspected of abducting the girl weeks ago.
The discovery came as a shock to searchers who had spent days combing the 700-acre expanse and deepened the mystery of the girl's disappearance. Kahlil Malik Tatum, the 51-year-old janitor who worked at the homeless shelter where Relisha lived, died from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, three police officials said.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier on Monday evening stressed that a definitive identification of Tatum had not yet been made, but she said that "everything we have is consistent with his appearance."
The quick identification came through a distinctive tattoo of an Ankh - a cross topped with a loop that is the Egyptian symbol for life - that Tatum had on his left bicep, according to two law enforcement officials. The body was found in a shed near a football field about 400 yards from an entrance to Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens, officials said.
Lanier has said detectives believe Relisha may have been killed, even as they said hope remained she would be found alive. But with the apparent suicide of her suspected abductor, detectives may have lost the one person who could lead them to Relisha.
"If it is him, where is Relisha?" said the girl's aunt, Ashley Young. "Where is she at?"
The aunt said she's been experiencing mixed emotions as news of the body in the park unfolded. She has been grateful for volunteers who joined police in the dawn to dusk searches, and has tried to remain hopeful.
"My faith is still alive and I know we're going to find her," Ashley Young said.
Lanier said Monday evening that the search for the missing girl will continue. "We are very focused on finding Relisha," she said. "That's what we came here for." The chief would not release other details about the man's body, including what evidence was found. She said detectives do not know how long the body had been there.
Police have been searching the 700-acre park since Thursday with more than 100 officers, firefighters and cadets, as well as dogs sniffing through woods, divers plunging into ponds and the Anacostia River, and cameras lowered into wells. Volunteers from the homeless shelter where Relisha lived, her elementary school and the Kenilworth neighborhood joined police on Monday.
"The search is still underway and there is a lot of work to be done," the chief said, noting it could go for several more days. Lanier said detectives got a tip that Tatum was seen lingering in the park on March 2, the same day that he bought 42-gallon trash bags. Relisha was spotted with Tatum the previous day, and that was the last time she has been seen alive.
Tatum had worked at the homeless shelter being run out of the old D.C. General Hospital in Southeast, where Relisha lived with her 27-year-old mother and three younger brothers. The mother, Shamika Young, had allowed Relisha to go home with Tatum last month, and said she frequently allowed her daughter to spent time with Tatum.
Tatum, who was known to sometimes dress in stylish clothes and drive an SUV, offered gifts - including $20 bills - to girls at the shelter, residents said. The nonprofit that employed him did a background check in 2012, but nothing unusual emerged; convictions in the late 1990s and early 2000s for larceny and breaking and entering in Virginia were too old and not the type
of crimes to keep from getting his job.
On Monday evening, Relisha's relatives and neighborhood residents marched in Southeast to call attention to the case. The group headed along Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue chanting "bring her home," and they stopped in a parking lot singing, "He's Got the Whole World in His Hands."
"I'm kind of mad he's dead because I want to know where my granddaughter is," said Relisha's grandfather, George Turner.
In addition to being a suspect in Relisha's disappearance, Tatum is charged with killing his wife in an Oxon Hill motel room before disappearing.
Relisha's mother, Young, last saw Relisha on Feb. 26 when she allowed Tatum to take the girl home, police say. The FBI has released video showing Tatum and Relisha walking down a hall of a Holiday Inn Express in Northeast Washington on that day.
Young never reported Relisha missing, but she has given varying explanations, including that she felt her daughter was safe with Tatum and that she feared authorities would take away her other three children if she went to police. School officials were not immediately concerned over Relisha's many absences because they had been excused by notes from a "Dr. Tatum."
D.C. police did not get involved until March 19, after a social worker from Relisha's school went to the shelter to meet "Dr. Tatum" and get an explanation for the girl's mounting absences. Police said that Tatum "abruptly left before his shift," and the social worker quickly discovered there was no "Dr. Tatum." The worker contacted police.
Later that night, police said, Tatum and others, including his wife of 24 years, Andrea Tatum, checked in to a Red Roof Inn in Oxon Hill. Police said Tatum shot his wife in the head that night or early March 20, and left both their vehicles in the parking lot.
Other documents reveal that Tatum and his wife had filed for legal separation in early February, Court documents also say that police talked to a friend who said that Tatum asked him to search the Internet for a handgun and downloaded images of weapons on an iPad.
Hamil R. Harris, Keith L. Alexander, Jennifer Jenkins and Justin Jouvenal contributed to this report.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun