On a spring Monday, some 100 people gather on the front lawn of East Nashville's Bailey Middle School. Family, friends, teachers, church members and police officers have come to honor a shy but big-hearted seventh-grader, who got straight A's there on the last report card she would ever receive.
That was 10 years ago.
Exactly a decade ago, on April 29, 13-year-old Tabitha Tuders stepped out of the only home she had ever known, at 1312 Lillian St. The youngest of Bo and Debra Tuders' three children began the walk three blocks to her schoolbus stop on Boscobel Street — a walk she had made countless times before.
This time, however, she never arrived. She has not been seen since.
There are signs of her still at Bailey Middle. In the large wooden T built under a tree, which forms a garden in her honor. In the easel that holds a large photograph of the blond-haired girl — framed in purple, her favorite color. On a wooden bench that bears a plaque with her name, where two elderly women sit listening to the group's fervently spoken prayers.
"Every year on her birthday we have a cookout and cake for her. And every year on the anniversary of her going missing, we have a candlelight vigil at the school," Bo Tuders says the day before, sitting at his kitchen table. Debra sits across from him; their son Kevin and his three kids come in and out of the house, refrigerator door opening and shutting as one after another reaches in for Nanny's pitcher of sweet tea. The bustle brings a smile to the Tuders' worry-lined faces.
"Our children and grandchildren kept us going," Debra says. "We have always been a close family. I know when things like this happen many marriages don't last. But it made us closer. It made our family closer."
When Tabitha "went missing," as the Tuders put it, Kevin was 25 and already had two children. Sister Jamie was 21, and she and her two babies were also living with her parents. Ten years later, there are seven grandchildren. Jamie's youngest is just 10 weeks old, born Feb. 15 — Tabitha's birthday.
"But this has changed how our children are with their kids," Debra says. "They don't let their kids out of their sight."
Other than weekday mornings — when Debra Tuders would leave the house at dawn for her cafeteria job at Tom Joy Elementary, and Bo an hour later for his job as a short-haul trucker — neither did they.
"I was always overly protective of my kids," Debra admits. "Boo [the family nickname for Tabitha since infancy] was always a homebody, but she had two friends on this street. When she would go to one, I'd eyeball her as she walked there, and her friend's dad would stand out front waiting on her. When it was time for her to come home, he'd call me, and I'd step out onto the porch and eyeball her back."
April 29, 2003, started like any other day. When Debra awoke, she found Tabitha on a pallet at the foot of their bed. "She just wanted to be near to us," her mother says. Debra stepped over her, got dressed and left the house. On his way out, Bo gently shook his sleeping daughter and told her to get up. He told her he loved her, and that he would see her that night.
About 10 minutes before 8, Tabitha left the house at 1312 Lillian, turned right and walked past two houses to 14th Street. She then went right again, to walk up the hill to the bus stop at Boscobel.
"I always told her that if no one was at that stop, to walk down Boscobel to the other bus stop at 15th," Debra remembers, "because there were always kids there."
To this day, no one knows how far Tabitha made it that morning. The one thing certain is she did not make it to school. The Tuders didn't learn that, however, until nearly 10 hours later. For 10 years, Debra Tuders has replayed that day in her mind.
"I remember everything that happened that day like it was yesterday," Debra says. "I get off at 1 and would be here by the time she got home at 4. Same time every day. That day she didn't come in. I always allowed 10 minutes for the bus to be late if something happened, but when she didn't come then I started panicking. Right away, that sick feeling you get.
"I went next door and asked the lady who lives there if she had seen her, and she said no. She walked up to the bus stop with me but no one was there. We came back, got in my car and drove to the school. I went in but couldn't find anyone, so we went back home. And by the time I got there, Bo was home from work.
"We went back to the school. It was locked, and we rang the bell until a custodian came and let us in. There was a teacher there helping some kids. I asked him if he knew her, and he did but he said she hadn't been there that day. The kids were in every class she had and they said she never got on the bus.
"We went home and called the police to tell them she was missing. It seemed like forever until they got there."
They also called a close family friend, Marlene Pardue, then a MNPD lieutenant. She and her husband, also a police officer, went immediately to the house.
"The challenge was in her age," explains Pardue, who went on to work in Youth Services and is now commander of the West Patrol Precinct. "Age 12 and under is regarded as a probable abduction or lost child and a search commences. Age 13 and up, there is always the possibility the child has run off. That night, there was nothing at all to make anyone think this was an abduction."
Except that Bo and Debra knew in their hearts she was not a runaway. Tabitha's unknown whereabouts did not meet the criteria for an Amber Alert, so none was issued — a point of contention to this day. Nonetheless, within two hours of the Tuders making the call, police officers were canvassing the neighborhood. As word got out, friends, neighbors and complete strangers showed up to help in the search.
Today Lillian Street and its surrounding blocks are undergoing rapid gentrification. At the time, though, it was a blue-collar area of older, rundown homes, backyard storage shacks and abandoned buildings. That night, neighbors combed through them all, flashlights in hand, desperately calling Tabitha's name.
A command center was set up at Shelby Street Baptist Church. Volunteers searched every day, putting up fliers, taking calls. The police interviewed close to 300 people and received hundreds of tips. Nothing panned out.
"I wouldn't eat. I wouldn't sleep," Debra recalls, audibly anguished. All she could do was look. "I would walk the riverbanks of the Cumberland, and the kids would call me and tell me to go home," she remembers. "I couldn't. I wasn't giving up. I combed those riverbanks left to right."
But at a certain point, when the leads dry up, when the church needs its space back, when every building has been searched and searched again, some sense of "normal" must resume.
In 2006, a new detective spent a year solely focused on the Tabitha Tuders case, re-interviewing every witness, reorganizing the 15 4-inch binders of reports. Nothing. The Tuders traveled to New York to share their story on The John Walsh Show. Still nothing.
In 2008, the Tuders attended graduation at Stratford High. They sat in the audience until their daughter's name was called, what should have been the proud moment when 18-year-old Tabitha accepted her diploma and walked off toward her future. Nothing.
Overcome by emotion, the Tuders had to leave.
In 2010, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children invited the MNPD to Alexandria, Va., to present the case. They offered several suggestions, all of which were followed up on. Nothing.
"This is such an unusual case," Marlene Pardue says. "There was no crime scene, there was no evidence. Not an article of clothing. Nothing. It's as if she disappeared into thin air."
One witness says he saw it happen — a boy standing at the bus stop at the bottom of the hill at Boscobel and 15th that morning, where Debra Tuders always told Tabitha to go if no one was at her stop. The boy told police he saw Tabitha walking down the hill that morning when a red car pulled up beside her. He says she got into the car, and the driver — a dark-skinned male wearing a ball cap turned backwards — made a U-turn and went back up the hill.
The police interviewed the boy then, and in subsequent investigations, and still question his credibility. Debra isn't convinced.
"I talked to him years later, he was already in college," she says. "He told me he would never, ever get that out of his head. He said he saw what happened, he kept apologizing for no one believing him. He said other kids would pick on him but Tabitha never did. He said they were friends, and he would never make up something like that."
What Pardue says is this: "The detectives are constantly talking about it, thinking of the possibilities. They want to know, they want to be able to tell her parents something. This case is still open. It will be open until we find out what happened to Tabitha."
The Tuders still hold out hope. A "Missing" banner still hangs over their small front porch, just as it has for 10 years. Her pictures line the shelves of their home. Her things are there, waiting for her. The family will remain in their house until they find out what happened to their beloved daughter.
"It's the only place she knows," Debra says firmly. "I had a dream one time, a few years back, that she came around the corner and came up to the door and came in. I was so happy and so emotional. I ran to her and said, 'Boo! Where have you been?' And just as I reached out to hug her, I woke up, crying. Before she could tell me where."
Bo Tuders shakes his head. "All I know is it's 10 years and she's not home," he says. "I know she's 23 now, but I still see her as a 13-year-old girl. If she has passed and they find her remains, we could bring her home and have a place for her to rest, where we could visit. We keep hoping that one day she'll come home. She's out there somewhere. Someone knows something."
Someone does know something. And until that person speaks up, a mother and father will sit in a bereft house on Lillian Street, waiting for a little girl who's 10 years late for home.
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