While Metro Police have yet to reveal a suspect in Tabitha Tuders’ disappearance, detectives are said to be interested in a few individuals who frequented or lived on or around Lillian Street, the beleaguered East Nashville block where the 13-year-old girl lived.
All neighborhoods have their skeletons and questionable characters, but on Lillian Street, shady figures and sad, shocking stories seem to define the block, which in the span of 18 months has endured a murder, an alleged rape and now a missing child. In the shadow of East Nashville’s epic revitalization, Tabitha’s corner of the world remains a poor outpost, with no shortage of dirt yards and old, one-level homes with pit bulls chained to fences and barefoot kids wandering unattended in the middle of the road. Good, hardworking parents like Bo and Debra Tuders, Tabitha’s dad and mom, live on Lillian, and they watch out for each other and their children when they can. But on that same street are a number of people who would be any parents’ worst nightmare.
All of this could help explain why the Metro Police Department didn’t pull out all the stops in this case soonerbefore criticism from family, friends and child advocates mounted. Basically, police expect dysfunction from Lillian Street.
Take, for instance, Tim and Kimberly Oldham, who lived on 1232 Lillian St., just five houses from where the Tuders live. On May 16, more than two weeks after Tabitha disappeared, the police arrested the Oldhams on a rape charge. According to the arrest warrants, on Dec. 21, 2002, the wife pressured a young girl into removing her clothing, telling the victim that her husband “did not take 'no’ for an answer.” Timothy Oldham began to rape the victim, until his son walked in and caught him in the act. Oldham got off the victim, the wife pretended that she was startled by what had just occurred and the victim fled the residence. It’s not clear where the Oldhams were living at the time of the alleged rape, but at the time Tabitha went missing, the couple lived in a tiny rental home just a few doors from the Tuders.
This is not the Oldhams’ first brush with the law. Tim Oldham has been arrested at least 20 times, with offenses ranging from aggravated assault and drunkenness to vehicle theft. Meanwhile, his wife was arrested five years ago for child abuse. According to his former neighbors, Tim, 37, stayed at home most days, receiving disability payments for an accident. He apparently used a walker to get around. Scene interviews with Tabitha’s friends and neighbors didn’t turn up any evidence that the Oldhams ever spent time with Tabitha. One mother on Lillian Street, however, says that she forbade her 17-year-old daughter from ever talking to Tim Oldham after he made an inappropriate comment to her. The mother declined to specify what he said.
Neither Kimberly nor Tim Oldham’s lawyers knew if police had questioned the pair in connection with the Tuders case. In fact, somewhat shockingly, Tim Oldham’s lawyer, an assistant public defender, said he’d never even heard about the Tabitha Tuders case. Meanwhile, people close to the police investigation say that detectives are looking into the husband-and-wife pair. Still, emblematic of the police department’s flat-footedness in the Tuders case, no one has confiscated the couple’s abandoned minivan, which remains open and parked across the street, just a stone’s throw from the Tuders’ home. It’s not even clear that the police have checked it for clues. Currently, both Tim and Kimberly Oldham remain in jail, where they have been since they were arrested, as a grand jury considers their case. Authorities set bail at $200,000 for the husband and $100,000 for the wife.
Before Tabitha’s disappearance and the Oldhams’ arrest, there was a murder on the street. In December 2001, Stacy Lynn Gann, 17, was found dead at 1517 Lillian. Tim Pirtle, Gann’s 26-year-old guardian and family friend, admitted to killing her after an argument. He hid her body in a detached garage and fled. That Pirtle, a 26-year-old factory worker, had been entrusted with raising a teenage girl provoked outrage in the community.
“Right now, we’re just following up continuous leads,” says Sgt. Robert Moore of the police intelligence division. “Everyone’s a suspect but me.”
Another person of interest whom police have interviewed lives nearly a mile away from the Tuders family. Because he has no criminal charges pending and might actually be able to help police crack the case, the Scene is not identifying him by name. But even he acknowledges that he’s a natural suspect for two reasons: One, he claims to have seen Tabitha on April 29, the Tuesday morning she disappeared, on the corner of Lillian and 14th. Second, he has befriended several young boys and girls on both his street and Tabitha’s. One of the girls, whose mother is his friend, lives just two houses away from Tabitha and used to be one of her closest friends. Finally, at press time, the Scene learned that the man and his wife are under investigation by the state Department of Children Services for child abuse. According to spokeswoman Carla Aaron, the agency currently has custody of one of the couple’s children and is working with law enforcement to complete the investigation.
In an interview with the Scene, this person says that he had been around Tabitha and “might wave” to her when he saw her. Still, he says, he had never spoken with her and didn’t take her fishing, fix her bike or do any of the things he has done for other children in the neighborhood. Throughout the course of the interview, he seemed helpful and friendly. He may well have nothing to hide. But a part of his story seems relevant to the investigation. He says that before he saw Tabitha at around 7:45 on the morning she disappeared, he picked up a boy at 19th and Shelby who had missed his bus to Stratford High School. He didn’t know the name of the boy, only that he was black and that he was in ninth grade at the time. He says, though, that the boy knew who he was and called him by name. The problem with his story is that if he took the student to Stratford from 19th and Shelby, he was far afield from Tabitha’s route to the bus that morning. How, then, could he have seen her?
Even if he could answer that question, this man has elicited the attention of Team Tabitha, the citizen-led volunteer group that’s working with the family and police on the case. Johnny White, the family friend who has interviewed dozens of neighbors as a part of the group’s search efforts, says that this mysterious eyewitness might hold some important clues. If his story of spotting Tabitha at 7:45 that morning on her normal route to the bus is correct, then it dispels once and for all the theory that Tabitha ran away. But White has concerns about him, because White has picked up reports that the man has disparaged the 13-year-old girl in conversations with others. In fact, talking with Scene reporters, the man noted crudelycomplete with hand gesturesthat Tabitha was beginning to develop physically, and he speculated that she may not have been as innocent as everyone assumes.
“There are variances in his story in how he approached the family and how he approached the police department,” White says. “Plus, he has spoken ill of Tabitha, and no one else has. And when he talks about Tabitha, it’s as if he knows her very well, but when you talk to Tabitha’s family, they don’t believe she knew him.”
Roni Villescazone of Tabitha’s two best friendssays one thing’s for sure: Tabitha didn’t run away. Roni and her mother, Denise, say the missing 13-year-old could at times smart off to adults or express resentment at having to baby-sit her older sister’s children. Typical behavior, says Denise, for an adolescent girl. Nonetheless, Roni and her mom describe Tabitha as a homebody who loved spending time with her family, reading to her elderly neighbor and watching scary movies with friends.
Tabitha never mentioned to her that she wanted to run away, Roni says. In fact, she asked Roni the Monday before her Tuesday disappearance if she would come over and help her baby-sit the following afternoon. A sure sign, the Villescazes say, that Tabitha intended to go to school that day like any other weekday.
By all accounts, she wasn’t leading a secret double life. Chelsea Crague, Tabitha’s other best friend, has known her for 11 years. She says Tabitha was proud of her newly released report card and was looking forward to an upcoming school trip to Kentucky Kingdom. Tabitha spent the evening before her disappearance with the Cragues at Chelsea’s softball game and gave no sign that she was unhappy or planning anything out of the ordinary.
Nor do close friends suspect Tabitha had a troubled home life. Chelsea’s parents, Tim and Tammy, have known the Tuders family since before both their daughters’ births. They describe Bo and Debra as good parents who rarely let Tabitha out of their sight: She wasn’t allowed to stray far from the family home or even to walk outside after dark. “Bo and Debra don’t have a lot of money, and they don’t live in a fine home, but they are fine people,” Tim Crague says. “Really, really great people. I would trust my children with them like my brother. I don’t feel that she ran away. Not for one minute.”
If Tabitha didn’t leave her home voluntarily, was she forced or coerced into getting in a car with a stranger? Both the Villescazes and the Cragues say it’s highly unlikely that Tabitha would get into a stranger’s car, but they acknowledge that she might have gotten into a car with someone she knew if the abductor told her the right story. Perhaps this person would play upon a recent argument that took place between Tabitha and her mother over spending money. Or perhaps Tabitha would be told that someone in her family had been hurt, and this person would give her a ride to the hospital.
Speculative scenarios aside, those who know Tabitha best don’t think she ran away. They also don’t think the police took her disappearance seriously enough at first. “It was a month before police contacted me [for a formal interview],” Tim Crague says. “And she was with me the night before she disappeared.”
Denise Villescaz is more blunt. She says the police knew that they were supposed to ask her permission before interviewing her daughter. Once, she says, a male detective wanted to interview Roni about papers found in the girls’ shared locker at Bailey Middle School. Denise gave her permission, only to find out from her daughter that the detective veered from the topic and said things like, “I know you know something; you’re just not going to tell.” In an interview with the Scene, Denise’s daughter, Roni, confirms the detective said this to her.
Denise says the youth services officers who were first assigned to the case are trained to deal with troubled teens, not abduction cases. “You’re not talking to a child who’s running nickel bags down the street; you’re dealing with a child whose best friend is missing,” Denise Villescaz says. “I think the police blew itbig time.”
She says Metro assumed Tabitha was a runaway both because officers have preconceptions about East Nashville residents and because their statistics say 13-year-old girls who disappear tend to be runaways. “If she were so-and-so, daughter of so-and-so from Green Hills, would those statistics be as concrete?” Denise says.
Volunteers who are investigating Tabitha’s disappearance praise the police department’s recent efforts, which were stepped up and retooled as a possible abduction investigation in the face of renewed public scrutiny. But they say that information has a tendency to flow one direction in this investigation: Volunteers give the police leads and investigative reports and rarely hear anything back.
For her part, Debra Tuders is grateful that the police have refocused and beefed up their investigative efforts. She just hopes it’s not too late. “What they’re doing now, I feel that they should have done it from the beginning,” she says.
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