Black and Missing is a 2021 documentary in part about Black and Missing Foundation, Inc (BAMFI) a Maryland-based non-profit founded and managed by Derrica and Natalie Wilson. But it’s also about the sobering fact that every year in America, hundreds of thousands of people go missing. Of the missing, a disproportionate number are people of color and in particular, Black. Yet, while this should be regarded as a major issue, a lot of people are largely unaware. This is due in part to several factors, some of which are related to racism and/or income levels.
The documentary shares the mission and work of The Black and Missing Foundation by showing how they provide support and guidance for the families and loved ones of a missing person. Through a combination of the examination of specific cases and general trends related to missing persons, you gain insight into the various ways in which a person might go missing. And there are examples of how the media, law enforcement, local communities, and the family of the missing working or not working together can make all the difference in whether or not a missing person is eventually found.
I listen to and watch a lot of true crime content and it’s very sobering and eye-opening to realize the staggering amount of people that have gone missing, in some cases due to falling prey to foul play. Some people are especially vulnerable if they don’t have friends or family to notice that they are missing and to report their absence. Even in situations where a missing person has connections who notice they are gone, it can be difficult to get resources dedicated to searching for them.
Granted, adults can decide that for whatever reason they want to temporarily or permanently disconnect from their lives and the people to whom they’re connected. But how can you tell the difference between someone just deciding to do something different versus meeting with foul play?
My mom and I get into it all the time about the news. She’s always on me because she watches the news religiously several times a day, plus updates on her phone. Meanwhile, I see headlines here and there but make it a point not to immerse myself in the news. Look at things like this, where there’s a major ongoing issue that should be regarded as a large-scale problem. But you don’t hear much about it in the mainstream news.
There’s a lot more attention and focus placed on the hottest news stories, typically what will grab people’s attention. Once attention dies down around a topic or there’s some new occurrence, then there’s little to no continued coverage. If someone is murdered in your local community, you might see a story about it on the news that night. The story might be discussed a few more nights if there’s some complicating factor such as the suspect is now on the run or the person that they killed has some degree of notoriety. But if the victim is a regular person, especially a member of a group otherwise ignored by society, there’s far less ongoing attention. And once the news cycle moves on, you often have to go digging for updates.
Here discussing people who have gone missing, really caused me to think about the many different aspects of this issue. Consider not just people who have disappeared but those where foul play is suspected, kidnapping, human trafficking, etc. where a person or persons causes an individual to go missing. The scale of that problem is huge but receives relatively little attention. And that’s even more problematic when you consider that the race, gender, and socioeconomic standing of the missing person can have a tremendous effect on the attention their disappearance receives.
There’s a discussion of missing person cases like Natalee Holloway. Here you have this young, attractive, White girl from a middle-income family who goes missing outside of America. In response, various law enforcement agencies and individuals traveled to Aruba to try to find her and figure out what happened. As they should have. But contrast that to the media attention or lack thereof, missing person cases involving a Black young woman or man might receive. There’s a notable difference in the way that these situations are handled. Often in such cases, fewer resources are expended less media coverage is received.
Further complicating things is the reality that when crimes or injustices are committed against some people, there are attempts to blame their victimization on them or their actions. If Black people and their perceived actions or lifestyles are blamed when it comes to economic, housing, and health issues is it surprising that the same occurs when we are victims of crime? Whereas, often when a White person is facing social or economic issues, it’s viewed as external forces acting against them. They’re rightfully viewed as being a victim when a crime is committed against them but that grace and compassion are less frequently extended to Black victims of crime.
Unless the person’s home is ransacked, there’s blood everywhere, and the person’s car and personal belongings are at the scene, police officers across the board don’t seem to automatically leap into action. Excluding cases involving very young children, there’s often a delay in being able to get law enforcement involved in a search. From true crime stories, family members and friends often explain that they went to police departments early on to report the person missing. And fairly reliably, they’d be told that 48-72 hours would need to pass before a missing person’s report could be filed. The assumption being that anyone but a very young child had simply decided to run away.
Adults can go and come as they please. But examples are given of minors disappearing and law enforcement attempting to write them off because it’s assumed that they’ve run away. If a parent can be held responsible for their child’s truancy because legally children have to attend school, how is it then allowed for a child to just up and leave? Let’s say something was going on in the home that caused the child to run away, shouldn’t there be at least an attempt to make contact with the child and investigate what was taking place?
This line of logic is incredibly troubling because it gives police officers carte blanche to not do anything to solve these cases. It’s often to the detriment of the person that’s gone missing as it makes them especially vulnerable to being taken advantage of or harmed in some way. Based on what I was learning from the documentary, I immediately recognized it as something that people, in general, should watch but especially parents. This is whether you have teenage children, particularly girls that are around this age that seem to be especially targeted or even younger. It explains how these young girls are groomed.
We see how these predators seek out girls and young women, identify them as being vulnerable and then lure them into running away for sex trafficking. It was eye-opening to me though some of the parents might have been a bit naive as they were unfamiliar with the internet. The kids were naive as well but in the sense that they were trusting these people who they thought were their friends and/or boyfriends.
On a basic level, this isn’t anything new. Prostitution and unfortunately, child prostitution have been around since eternity. But the methods used, in this case, the internet and particularly social media, are different. A lot of parents, especially those who don’t use social media, aren’t aware of what to look out for, and Black and Missing can be a great resource for them. It might enable them to recognize some of the signs and intervene before it’s too late.
There are multiple examples of young girls who have gone missing and are believed to be trafficked. The parents appeal to local police departments for assistance but end up doing the legwork. They get out there and try to track down these girls and in some instances can find where they’re being held. And this is despite the criminal element of trafficking that ensures the looming threat of violence. These parents experience so much difficulty just trying to get the police involved.
Some of the stories are heartbreaking but the relative bright moments give you hope. And while the police fall short at points with rendering assistance, there are also examples of them getting it right and various resources being pooled effectively.
In one instance, there is the story of a young lady from Baltimore with autism, Kennedi High, who goes missing. High’s mother picked up on what was going on with regards to her use of cell phones and different websites to have conversations with guys online. This is something that a lot of teens might do. But it’s one thing if you’re a teenager communicating with another teenager. It’s completely different when you’re a teenager and the person on the other end is some older guy pretending to also be a teen. It’s especially troubling when the teenager has some developmental issues and is not functioning at the same maturity or social level as a typical person of their age. They might not be as capable of picking up on cues that something is wrong.
Fortunately, High’s mother was savvy enough to have suspicions. She took the cell phone away and moved the computer to a more generalized area of the house where she could keep an eye on what was going on. Paying attention to these suspicions allowed her to try to keep up with what was taking place. Balancing her daughter’s growing need for independence with consideration for her safety. When High went missing, her mother was able to immediately take action and reached out to the Black and Missing organization. She was able to quickly mobilize the troops which helped locate and rescue High.
This shows that it’s not impossible to solve these missing person cases or to save females from sex trafficking. What’s required is taking the situation seriously and mobilizing for a speedy but thorough early response. And as prevention is often better than cure, it’s best to educate these young women and their parents about the red flags and dangers before they get lured into sex trafficking. Unfortunately, this isn’t what always happens and by the time there is media attention and/or the police get involved and the young woman is located, she’s deceased or has endured terrible trauma.
This is a community issue that requires parents/family members, organizations, police investigators, and media to all be involved to increase the likelihood of a positive outcome. The best-case scenario would be to prevent these abductions from taking place. But failing that, making the community aware and making a push to collect and follow up on leads can make a tremendous difference. In this case, the media brought attention to High being missing and a member of the community recognized her and phoned in the tip. Multiple people and organizations played a part in helping to save this woman from what could have been a really bad situation.
Most of the cases and examples from the first episode were related to human trafficking. But the second episode shifts focus to when a person has gone missing but is presumed to have been murdered. The story of Pamela Butler anchors this episode and enables us to see the complexity of these cases through the lens of this one person’s experience.
Her case was especially inspiring because the trauma of Butler’s disappearance motivated her brother, Derrick Butler, to become involved with the Black and Missing Foundation. When we first meet Derrick, he appears to be a sweet man who volunteers to offer support and guidance for family members of people that have gone missing. But then we learn that he’s able to connect with these people because he knows first-hand how they feel having experienced his sister’s disappearance and still not knowing what happened to her many years later.
Butler went missing back in 2009 and the belief was that she’d been murdered by her ex-boyfriend, Jose Rodriguez-Cruz, with whom she’d just recently ended things. There was some initial resistance and delay but the police did become involved and investigated. While there were suspicions about what most likely occurred, the lack of a body or physical evidence at the crime scene meant there wasn’t enough to charge the suspect. Given the circumstances of the case, it was difficult to prove that a crime had been committed, let alone that Jose was the guilty party.
When Black and Missing premiered in November 2021, it was after a summer where there was a “White woman missing” case. Gabby Petito was a young White woman who went missing under suspicious circumstances while on a cross-country road trip with her fiance, Brian Laundrie. Petito’s missing person case garnered national media attention. The documentary’s discussion of the discrepancy between media coverage and police investigation when a missing person is Black versus White felt especially relevant.
Tamika Huston went missing from Spartanburg, South Carolina in 2004 under suspicious circumstances. Her aunt, who is a publicist, reached out to both local and national media hoping to get some coverage. She believed that bringing attention to her niece’s case might result in clues and leads. More information might lead to either finding her or finding out what happened to her. But journalists and media outlets were not interested in picking up the story.
Shortly thereafter, the story of Natalie Holloway broke and it turned into a national media story covered by all of the major news outlets. Because of the media attention that case generated, the public became vested in trying to find out what happened to this young woman. As they should have been. Holloway didn’t even go missing in America but rather Aruba. Yet volunteers were flying in to do wherever they could to help.
There’s a discussion of the term “missing White woman syndrome” where when White women go missing, especially if they’re at least reasonably attractive and/or from a middle to upper-middle income background, their cases generate a tremendous amount of attention. But for individuals who don’t fit that profile, their loved ones generally have to fight tooth and nail for just a fraction of that media coverage. This might even be White women who are let’s say less attractive or maybe come from lower-income backgrounds. Those who don’t fit the typical all-American image, and that’s certainly the case for Black women and other minorities.
It’s often a struggle for their family members and organizations to generate media attention or get the police involved. Fortunately, in the case of Huston, her family continued to push and with her aunt’s knowledge of public relations, they managed to eventually bring attention to the case. That media attention increased local awareness and a friend came forward with a lead. With that, they were able to figure out what happened and brought her killer to justice.
What I found troubling and this is something that you often see in these kinds of cases is that not only was there a disparity in media coverage. But so often to get justice in the case of Black people, it takes family and friends doing the legwork to push things forward. That’s not to say that the police didn’t do what they could to investigate, they certainly did here. But given the way that society is structured, when crimes are committed against Black people we have to do so much of the legwork in trying to achieve justice. Meanwhile, the justice system seems to just automatically kick into high gear for members of other groups.
Part of this has to do with the perception of Black people wherein the media you have these stereotypical images. Mainstream White society is very comfortable with these portrayals of Black people being criminals. But on the flip side, you have more holistic portrayals of White people. Sure they can be criminals, but due to diverse representation, being a criminal isn’t assumed to apply to every White person. Thus when things happen to White people you don’t have this fight for them to be portrayed as victims.
With Black people, it’s like the media is most often comfortable with portraying just the negative aspects. Or the aspects of humanity that are sometimes used as excuses for the injustices or hardships faced by Black people. The media is very comfortable covering stories and dedicating news coverage to Black people engaged in criminal behavior. Portraying Black people as being drug addicts, sex workers, poor, etc. but in a manner that attempts to void their humanity. Those difficulties are conveyed as situations in which Black people find themselves by choice. But when it’s a White person these are circumstances that have unfortunately happened to them. You see these disparities in not just the amount of media coverage received by Black versus White victims but also the type of coverage.
Akia Eggleston, a resident of Baltimore, Maryland was nearing the due date for the birth of her second child. She had been struggling with depression but was excited about the baby and was two weeks shy of her scheduled c-section. Her family and friends gathered for a planned baby shower and became concerned when Eggleston failed to show up. They visited her home and looked around, becoming increasingly worried as the environment looked suspicious.
She was reported missing to the police and her family along with members from the Black and Missing Foundation later went out into her community and spoke to residents. They had been under the impression that police had visited the area and spoken to neighbors as part of their investigation. Only to find out from neighbors that some knew nothing about her being missing as the police had never questioned anyone. A police officer responding to a call also stated that he hadn’t been briefed on someone having gone missing from the community. Those who knew anything learned what they knew from neighbors.
Most would expect the police to visit the home of and/or the area from which a person is believed to have gone missing. How else would you look for physical evidence or ask people if they saw anything? The lack of activity would lead one to believe that the police weren’t investigating her disappearance at all. The hoped-for outcome is that she’s alive somewhere but how would you figure that out if you’re not looking for her? If she’s being held somewhere against her will, what are the odds of her getting out of that situation safely if the police are not looking for her?
In just about each of these cases, family members have to push and prod to get any kind of assistance with figuring out what happened to their missing loved one. Not only with regards to the media but also with law enforcement. To be fair there are some examples where law enforcement and the media pitched in to help do things the right way. And all of those parts came together and functioned as they should have. Those cases typically had a positive outcome whether that was finding the missing person or finding out what happened to them. But then it’s hit or miss and seemingly a matter of luck if there is no media coverage and/or police involvement.
Black and Missing is certainly about missing persons and the disparities and inadequacies surrounding the coverage and investigation of such cases. But in addition to touching on the issue of sex trafficking, it also discusses domestic violence. In the case of Pamela Butler, the police spoke with a potential person of interest, which would have been her boyfriend very recently, Jose. Digging through his background they found that he had a history of being violent with various partners which was witnessed by his son.
I don’t personally know anyone that went missing but the mother of my mother’s older acquaintance went missing decades ago and was never seen or heard from again. My mother hadn’t met the woman at the time her mom went missing and I might not have even been born as yet. All these years later, they still have no idea of what happened to this woman. Some people with Alzheimer’s, autism, or other medical issues sometimes wander off and become lost and confused.
Several years ago there was an autistic boy in New York City around maybe about 12-13 years old, who went missing. There was fear that someone might have abducted or otherwise done something to him. But in his case, there was also the possibility that he wandered off and got confused. His body was eventually found either in or near water and he died from drowning. For most people, even if you knew only one person that had gone missing, that would be a memorable event. Especially if that person was living an average life that theoretically wouldn’t put them at an increased risk for danger. But to have two people go missing, especially two people very close to you where you were probably the last person to see them? Most people would have some questions.
Digging into Jose’s background they found out that there were two women in his life with whom he was romantically involved that suddenly went missing. Time has gone by and no one has seen them. There’s mention of domestic violence with his previous wife as well as violence towards other women that he was dating. It’s unclear if he was also violent towards Butler or women he might have dated since. But given his past behavior, the assumption is made that he’s at the very least worthy of investigation.
When they began discussing the case of Relisha Rudd it sounded vaguely familiar but I couldn’t remember the details of the case. In 2014, Rudd went missing from a homeless shelter in Washington, D.C. where she had been living with her family. I recalled that there was a lot of news coverage at the time and the basic gist of the story was that a janitor working at the shelter had left the premises with the eight-year-old girl. After a while, the story seemed to die down and I just assumed that they’d found her.
I came to realize that I knew just the bare-bones basics, really nothing about the case. But my heart broke for this little girl as they explained the details of what had occurred. Rudd had been living at the shelter with her mother and siblings, that alone is sad because you have children growing up in a homeless shelter rather than a comfortable apartment or house. By the time Rudd’s disappearance was reported and an official investigation began, she’d already been absent from school and otherwise missing for quite some time.
It’s terrible when a crime is committed against anyone, whether it’s a male or female of any age. I readily admit my bias but it feels especially heinous when people are vulnerable (ex: babies, children, the elderly, etc.) and a crime is committed against them. That’s not to say that it’s any less sad when an able-bodied man or a woman is murdered or goes missing. But it’s especially devastating when a person is completely defenseless because there is no feasible situation in which the perpetrator might have been defending themselves.
Rudd’s story would have also been terrible if she and her family had been living a comfortable middle-income life because she would have still been a little kid that went missing. But hearing about her background and the hardships endured by her family which resulted in them living at a homeless shelter just felt like this kid couldn’t catch a break. There are pictures of this cute smiling little kid doing the regular things that a little kid would do. And that’s amid the different difficulties in her young life.
To then learn about Khalil Tatum (the janitor) being inappropriately involved with the residents at the shelter and paying the little girls too much attention made me uncomfortable. This might sound sexist but hear me out. If I had an eight-year-old daughter, excluding a few specific family members, I would not be ok with a 51-year-old man buying my child gifts, taking her on outings, or having sleepovers. There was no mention of Tatum having children or grandchildren around Rudd’s age so why would he be taking her out?
I try not to victim blame but I regard Rudd as being the victim here. There was wrongdoing on Tatum’s part. But Rudd’s mother, Shamika Young, also deserves some blame for allowing this man to be overly familiar with her daughter. Why was he interacting with her outside of the facility? Or even having extended contact with her at the facility?
The authorities stated that Young told them Rudd was with Tatum while Young says she’d left Rudd with her mother at her sister’s house. None of Rudd’s family members accept accountability for allowing the child to go with Tatum. And these discrepancies about who last had Rudd played a part in the delay of her being reported missing.
And at that, it seems Rudd was reported missing by a school official. Rudd had been absent from school which prompted a school official to make contact about her attendance. Allegedly Young made up an excuse about her being sick and under the care of a “Dr. Tatum”. Young denies that version of events but school officials ended up speaking with this so-called “Dr. Tatum” and it was only after visiting the shelter that they found out he was the janitor and reported Rudd missing.
All of these bits and pieces came together to help look for this missing child. Things didn’t work perfectly here but I do commend the school official. The school official noticed that this kid wasn’t showing up to school, called to get information about what was going on, and then showed up at the shelter to ask questions. He was on the verge of leaving but came back to ask more questions because something felt off. That decision to do just a little extra resulted in him speaking with a worker at the homeless shelter and getting some clarification about this “Dr. Tatum”. The stepdad who had been out of town for work was seemingly the first family member to realize that Rudd was missing and/or to do something about it.
From there the police and media got involved and to a degree, the system functioned as it should have. But the problem was that too much time had elapsed by the time it was enacted. Tatum seems to have taken this child without her mother’s permission. It brings attention to the reality of people being in vulnerable social or economic situations.
As a little kid my mom told me that you don’t talk to, take anything from, or go anywhere with strangers. But it sounds like Young was allowing Tatum to give Rudd gifts and otherwise pay excessive attention to her. That’s not to say men or women can’t be nice to kids that aren’t their own. But I see no reason that you as a grown, middle-aged man, would be so interested in this little girl. Especially because this woman has four children, three of whom are little boys to whom you don’t seem to pay much attention while being seemingly fixated on the little girl.
A team was assembled to search an area in a park and a call went up for everyone to stop what they were doing and immediately leave the area because something was found. I hadn’t followed the story as it was taking place so my concern was that they’d found this little girl’s body and that felt terrible. When they showed clips from a press conference to explain that the body was not Relisha Rudd’s but rather an adult male, I initially felt a sense of relief. That is until they went on to state that it was the body of the man last seen in the company of this young girl.
My eyes filled with tears as I processed what they were saying. It somehow felt even worse when it was explained that the body found was not that of Relisha Rudd. The body was that of Khalil Tatum who had killed his wife and himself. It dawned on me that it was unlikely that they’d find Rudd alive. Whatever information he might have been able to give about locating her or her body was now gone.
Tatum had been grooming this girl and arguably her mother as well. For what exact purpose is unclear but it certainly wasn’t for anything positive. And then instead of dealing with the consequences of his actions, he took his own life to escape accountability. The best-case scenario would have been that Rudd was still alive somewhere though the circumstance would have likely been terrible. I pray that’s not the case and maybe somehow someone took her in and she’s living a decent life. But it’s tragically most likely that Tatum murdered this little girl and disposed of her body somewhere.
Investigators found video of Tatum at two hotels with Rudd. The day after Rudd is last seen on video he was purchasing what appears to be items to dispose of a body. His wife is found dead in a hotel room they’d shared, and then he’s found dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound? I would assume that Tatum definitely did something wrong but Young was involved as well. How and when she became involved might be unclear but she had something to do with whatever happened to Rudd, even if that was just trying to cover up that Rudd was missing.
I was over it when I realized that Relisha Rudd still hasn’t been found. In some of the other cases, years go by and it’s hard on the families but they’re able to eventually get some kind of an answer as to what happened to the missing person. Unfortunately, Tatum, the person that most likely had all the answers killed himself before the authorities could find and question him. And the mom seems less than forthcoming about what she knows.
I’ve got a soft spot for kids and the elderly so the Relisha Rudd case messed me up. The other cases that were discussed were sad but some had joyful endings as the missing person was found. The story of Symbolie “Monique” Smith gave me a bit of hope that Rudd might be found one day. Smith is a missing person advocate who herself was missing much of her life after finding out as an adult that she’d been kidnapped from her birth mother and raised by another woman. That is sad in and of itself but especially because she lacked a connection with this woman and endured quite a bit of physical abuse at her hands. Upon finding out the truth about her origins, Smith began working tirelessly to try to find her family.
A large part of us as human beings is knowing and understanding ourselves. And part of that is knowing and understanding where and who you come from. Smith didn’t even know that she was missing until she was in her 20s. The woman that kidnapped her refused to give her any information so she spent years exploring different avenues trying to get information about where she came from. I can only imagine how her mother felt giving birth to this child and then having someone kidnap her baby. Worrying about your kid being out there and not knowing if they’re still alive or how they’re being treated?
Throughout the documentary, most cases are viewed from the perspective of a family looking for a missing loved one. But in Smith’s case, it’s the reverse where she’s the missing person trying to reconnect with this family she never knew. It gives hope because although she was kidnapped the person that took her was abusive but didn’t kill her and she was able to grow up and go in search of her family.
Maybe in time, something like this might happen for Relisha Rudd. Maybe Khalil Tatum or if someone took Rudd from him that they had some degree of compassion and humanity. That they didn’t kill, traffic, or otherwise harm that child. That she’s out there somewhere alive and well. All of the cases were sad but the last two involving such children were heartbreaking and I found myself on the verge of crying.
- Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children [Movie Review]
- In the Heat of the Night [Movie Review]
- Tales of the Grim Sleeper [Movie Review]
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