Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Homeless and missing children in D.C.

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WASHINGTON -- Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens is the kind of park in the kind of neighbourhood where you lock your wallet in the glove compartment before you venture through the gate and into the wild. It is just before eight o'clock on a Sunday morning when I take a deep breath and enter, the only walker on a dead-end boardwalk that juts out into a tidal flat of reed grass, cattails, tadpoles, mud and trash.

The Capitol and White House are sleeping off the annual Correspondents' Dinner and Hollywood Ass-Kissing, a couple of miles away. At Kenilworth Gardens, there is no sound except for the Canada geese in the lily ponds and the grackles in the sycamore trees and some fat carp thrashing in the shallows. Then I come across a National Park Service maintenance man clearing the trail of brush after a gusty spring storm.

"Did they find her?" I ask him.

"I don't think they have," the man replies. "The FBI was in here yesterday, and the D.C. police, but I think they're still looking."

Not only in northeastern Nigeria are little girls stolen away. Since the first of March, northeastern Washington has searched in hopefulness, then anguish and rage, for an eight-year-old named Relisha Rudd, who was taken from a homeless shelter, according to the often erratic testimony of her own mother, by a "trusted friend" and janitor who then murdered his own wife, fled to the bayou and shot himself dead in an outbuilding of the Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens.

Officials here now label the search for Relisha a "recovery mission," thus divulging their belief that said custodian killed her and buried or burned or cached her remains somewhere in this muddle of sludge. But few are the ordinary citizens of this quadrant of the American capital who are ready to accept that the girl is not alive and sobbing.

Compassing the boardwalk, I think of my own eight-year-old daughter and whisper a prayer into the morning wind.

A few hours later, I come across the home page of an Internet radio program that features a photo of a pigtailed second-grader with the caption DC'S SWEETHEART.

TELL THE WORLD I'M COMING HOME, the site proclaims. That Relisha Rudd has no home to return to is the core of her awful story. Nearly 600 other homeless children also live in the decrepit old hospital from which she was taken by the man she had taken to calling her "God-daddy."

Most evenings, a 32-year-old man named Keith Warren, who lives in a Washington nursing home, invites browsers and callers to share their sadness and their resolve to solve the case themselves. Occasionally, Relisha's mother, Shamika Young, dials in to provide a new account.

"There are facts in this case, but some may be true and some false," Keith Warren says to a caller who angrily rejects Young's latest rendition. "The Bible says we should not judge, but we judge every day."

He tells us that he has consulted a Tarot card reader who showed him "directly on a map with a bird's-eye view of where Relisha could be.

"We need a bigger search team than what we have now," Warren declares. The police have been back to the Aquatic Gardens, he reports, and they have discovered a trove of smallish bones, but these have proved to be of animal and not human provenance.

"One reason I am doing this is I have a missing cousin going on three-and-a-half years myself," Warren says. This is -- or was -- a mother of two named Unique Harris, who disappeared from her own apartment in 2010 after putting her own kids -- and one of Warren's -- to bed. "But the difference between that case and Relisha's case is there are LEADS to Relisha's case. Unique vanished out of thin air like it was some Harry Potter s--t."

Warren is attempting to raise money for Relisha's schooling and support -- or, God forbid, for her funeral -- on a site called gofundme with a stated goal of US$25,000.

So far, the total in the till is 60 bucks.

"Some people out there know how it feels to be homeless, how it feels to be missing," he says. "I can't imagine how it feels to be in foster care. I can't imagine being split up from my brothers and sisters."

Our webcaster pauses for a break and leaves us with Michael Jackson's They Don't Care About Us.

"This ain't no Easter-egg hunt or nothing like this," Keith Warren says when he comes back on air. "This is a precious little girl."


Allen Abel is a Brooklyn-born Canadian journalist based in Washington, D.C.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 12, 2014 0

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