Last Thursday, on a pleasant, late summer evening, Metro police vans and cars pulled up outside a tiny all-brick duplex overlooking East Nashville’s Shelby Bottoms Park, a few hundred yards up a hill from the Cumberland River. Police detectives had an appointment with a maintenance worker whom they had labeled an “active person of interest” in the disappearance of Tabitha Tuders. Because there are no criminal charges pending against him and because he might actually be able to help police crack the case, the Scene is not identifying him by name. But even he has admitted that he’s a natural suspect.
Nearly six months after the 13-year-old A student vanished on the way to her East Nashville bus stop, police investigators are no closer to figuring out what happened than they were the night they arrived at her family home. But police continue to track so-called “people of interest,” a category that, among others, includes the maintenance worker, a husband and wife accused of raping a minor, and a notorious gang of ringleaders in a Memphis-to-Nashville prostitution outfit. Even while the police department’s efforts have yet to yield a breakthrough in the caseand at times, have appeared impotentinvestigators still haven’t forgotten about the sweet blond teenager who loved scary movies, Vince Gill and, perhaps most of all, her parents Bo and Debra.
Criminal investigations are all about figuring out who the suspects are and who they aren’t. After last Thursday’s search, the police might be easing up on the maintenance worker, who, through his previous words and actions, had elicited the attention of investigators, his neighbors, even Tabitha’s family. Last Thursday, when the police arrived at the maintenance worker’s home, they told his neighbors to turn off their lights. According to a pair of sources, investigators needed a dark setting because they were using a substance called Luminol that can detect traces of blood not visible to the naked eye. It can also detect how the blood splattered, often providing clues as to the exact nature of the crime. According to two neighborhood sources, police used Luminol on the man’s car, his fishing boat and his shed. It’s not clear if they used it in his house.
Police spokesman Don Aaron wouldn’t comment on what the officers were doing at the man’s house, except to say that the man was “very cooperative.” In fact, Aaron says that the police didn’t even need to obtain a search warrant. The man allowed the police to conduct their search. According to a source, he also volunteered to take a lie detector test the following day and, while Aaron wouldn’t confirm that, the man told the Scene a month earlier that “he had nothing to hide.” Aaron does say, though, that “the level of interest in him has lessened to some extent.”
Why all the suspicion to start? Well, for one, the man, who lives only a mile or so away from Tabitha’s Lillian Street home, claims to have seen Tabitha on the corner of Lillian and 14th Street on the morning she disappeared. But by his own account, he was driving a teenage boy to Stratford High School that morning after picking him up at a bus stop at 19th and Shelby. The problem with that 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. How then did he see her?
Second, he has befriended several young girls and boys on both his street and Tabitha’s, buying them bicycles and taking them fishing. One of those girls, whose mother is the man’s friend, lives just two houses away from Tabitha and used to be one of her closest friends before the two had a falling out. Meanwhile, the man has disparaged the missing 13-year-old girl in conversations with others. In fact, talking with Scene reporters last month, he crudely noted, complete with hand gestures, that Tabitha was beginning to develop physically, and he speculated that she might not be as sweet and innocent as she’s been portrayed.
“He has spoken ill of Tabitha and no one else has,” Johnny White, a spokesman for the Tuders family, said in an interview with the Scene last month. “And when he talks about Tabitha, it’s as if he knows her very well, but when you talk with Tabitha’s family, they don’t believe she knew him.”
Finally, the man and his wife are currently under investigation by the state Department of Children’s Services for an incident involving one of the couple’s children. DCS is still working with law enforcement to complete the investigation. The man didn’t return phone calls for comment, and his wife told the Scene that he had no interest in talking any more about the case.
Amazingly, this man knew another person of interest in the Tabitha Tuders case, Timothy Oldham, who is now in jail on a rape charge. Oldham lived just five houses from Tabitha and was arrested on May 16 (after her disappearance) for raping a minor at his home. His own son walked in on him and caught him in the act, according to the arrest warrant. Police also arrested Oldham’s wife Kim for playing a role in the crime, allegedly pressuring the young girl to remove her clothing, telling her that the husband “did not take 'no’ for an answer.” The two remain in custody awaiting trial.
Both Timothy Oldham, who has been arrested at least 20 times, and his wife Kim are considered people of interest in the Tuders case, although none of the neighbors the Scene has interviewed ever remembers seeing Tabitha with them. Still, the very nature of the charges against the couple, their close proximity to Tabitha and the fact that they were not yet in jail the morning Tabitha disappeared make them a likely target of any police investigation.
The police also have their sights set on the “Memphis Boys,” a believed prostitution outfit with criminal activities in Nashville. People familiar with the investigation relay stories about the Memphis Boys that seem like the stuff of urban legend: One of the ring leaders supposedly drives a Gold Lexus, while another makes decisions from state prison. Meanwhile, the prostitutes are all branded with snake tattoos. But while the group’s existence seems wrapped in bad movie imagery, police detectives acknowledge that they’ve responded to dozens of leads about the group. “We’ve received tips that people who run prostitutes both here and in Memphis have had something to do with Tabitha’s disappearance,” says youth services Capt. Karl Roller. “We have followed up on those leads.” Detectives have interviewed several men believed to be associated with the group, while the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office tracked down another. But none of those leads turned up anything. Just last week, a crack addict approached a member of Tabitha’s family, talking again about the Memphis Boys and how they kidnapped the young girl. He has claimed to have seen her at a Dickerson Road hotel. The Scene also has received tips about the Memphis Boys.
“We actually were responding to a tip about Tabitha being at a hotel, and we ended up finding a missing 19-year-old-girl from Oklahoma,” says White, the Tuder family friend, who has looked for Tabitha in local housing projects and seedy hotels. “The girl was working as a prostitute, and there she was in a vehicle with one of the Memphis Boys.”
Police say there is no hard evidence linking the Memphis Boys to Tabitha’s disappearance or even to people in her neighborhood. But it appears that the sheer volume of leads about the group has made it impossible for investigators to dismiss their involvement altogether. They even briefed Tabitha’s family about the group. In fact, last July, Bo Tuders, Tabitha’s brother Kevin, along with two family friends, went to Memphis to look for the missing girl.
“We passed out flyers of Tabitha to prostitutes, but nobody had seen her,” Bo Tuders says.
His friend, Tim Crague, whose daughter Chelsea was one of Tabitha’s best friends, also went on that trip to Memphis. “We were going on information we received from the police department that there were tips that she was with these guys and she was being run back and forth to Memphis,” he says. “The police didn’t suggest we go or suggest we don’t go, so we went.”
Together, the group combed through the inner-city streets of Memphis, talking to prostitutes and other area inhabitants to see if there were any signs of Tabitha. “There were four of us, so we just watched each other’s back. We had a child missing. We didn’t worry about the rest,” Crague says. “We knew it was a long shot, but we figured we’d beat the bushes as best we could.”
Police detectives acknowledge that they’ve chased some futile leads, but that happens in any investigation. Sometimes, though, the most ordinary tip can yield the most dramatic breakthrough. Right now, they continue to pour over a list of questionable figureswith no end in sight.
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