Tabitha Tuders 

Five years ago, 13-year-old Tabitha Tuders walked to the bus stop. Her family hasn’t heard from her since.

It’s been five years since their little girl vanished without a trace, and Bo and Debra Tuders still talk about her every day.

The tiny clapboard house on Lillian Street is bustling with visitors on a balmy winter afternoon.

Nearly a dozen rowdy children are playing tag in the backyard, their carefree laughter in stark contrast to the forlorn faces of older guests quietly conversing on the porch. Ominous clouds loom in a dark gray sky, creating a bleak backdrop for the occasion.

Bo Tuders sips coffee from a plastic travel mug as he tends to hamburgers and bratwursts sizzling on the grill. In a daze, he watches the giggling children duck behind several rickety vehicles parked in the grass. A cherry-red Bonneville convertible in need of attention, a rusty Ford pickup truck and an old pontoon boat line the perimeter of the property, along with a brown conversion van with a sticker spanning the top of the windshield that reads “Team Tabitha.” The latter is a reminder that today is not a celebration, a point reiterated by the buttons some of the guests are wearing. The laminated circular pins show a smiling young girl with freckles, deep-blue eyes and sandy-blond hair. Below the photograph is a plea: “Help Find Tabitha Tuders.”Pulling a pack of Winstons from the front pocket of his denim shirt, Bo explains that if his daughter were here, family and friends would be celebrating her 18th birthday with a backyard barbecue just as they are doing today. But even in her absence, they are compelled to observe this milestone. “We get a little relief out of it,” he says, releasing a steady stream of smoke as he speaks.Trying to forget that she’s gone is not an option.

Tabitha was 13 years old when she vanished on her way to catch the school bus just three blocks from her East Nashville home on April 29, 2003. Since then, five years of birthdays, Christmases, school dances and summer vacations have come and gone without any answers, and to this day Tabitha’s fate remains a mystery.

“It’s certainly one of those cases that haunts the community and haunts this police department,” says East Precinct Commander Robert Nash, one of a handful of Metro officers at Tabitha’s birthday gathering. Sounding genuinely troubled, Nash adds, “I think we all very much would like to see this case solved and see Tabitha come home.”

But as more time elapses without an arrest, the chances of cracking the case diminishes. Even so, Nash is quick to say that sometimes all it takes is one break—like a single phone call—to solve a cold case such as this.

The police presence on this emotional day represents the department’s ongoing commitment to the investigation, but it doesn’t erase critical missteps in the beginning. By failing to issue an Amber Alert, and inexplicably clinging to the notion that Tabitha might have run away, the department lost precious time in the early stages of the case. Investigators have since tried to play catch up.

Meanwhile, Tabitha’s loved ones have continued their own desperate search for answers. In the wake of her disappearance, a circuit of volunteers dubbed “Team Tabitha” combed the alleyways, abandoned homes and parks of East Nashville looking for any sign of the missing girl. They knocked on door after door asking if anyone had seen her, praying the next neighbor might hold the type of incidental clue that could unlock the mystery. They hung posters with Tabitha’s picture in corner groceries, at gas stations and on telephone poles, covering a few miles in each direction. But the dozens of volunteers eventually dwindled to just a handful of relatives and close friends who refuse to abandon hope.

“It’s hard not to think about,” family friend Johnny White says at the event honoring Tabitha’s Feb. 15 birthday. “You just think about it all the time.” Just an hour earlier, White drove the route Tabitha is believed to have walked the day she disappeared on her way to Bailey Middle School. It’s a path he’s traveled countless times hoping to gain clues in his role as the unofficial leader of the civilian search effort. Standing outside the Tuders’ home, White points up the hill toward nearby 14th Street, explaining, “That’s the direction the dogs followed.”

Without chiming in, the burly but mild-mannered Bo Tuders simply nods in agreement, pulling another cigarette from his pack.

As the afternoon progresses, the gray sky surrenders to a light mist, just in time for the nearly 40 guests to cram inside the living room for a brief prayer service before it’s time to eat. The mood of the day straddles the line between a special occasion and a somber memorial, and talk of Tabitha alternates between past and present tense.

Among the many family photographs lining a large built-in bookshelf are pictures of Tabitha, including a striking close-up in which straight blond hair frames her tan face, and a wide smile reveals her slightly crooked front teeth. But mixed in with playful photos of the lighthearted child is yet another reminder of the family’s ongoing nightmare. Displayed in a brass frame fit for a graduation photo is an 8-by-10 age-enhanced picture of Tabitha, created by experts at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. With a thinner face, and shorter hair, the likeness is a stretch, but it’s the closest thing the Tuders have to knowing how their youngest child might look as a young woman.

The Rev. Sam Jones, a family acquaintance and minister, steps into the center of the room overflowing with relatives, friends, neighbors and police officers. He begins by explaining that Tabitha means “gazelle,” an appropriate name given her limitless energy. After reading a few verses from the Bible, the white-haired minister ends with the statement: “If she’s not alive on Earth, she’s alive in the arms of the Lord.”

Nothing was out of the ordinary at 1312 Lillian St. on the morning of April 29, 2003.

Debra Tuders awoke at 6 a.m. to find Tabitha sleeping soundly at the foot of their bed, as she often did. Although Tabitha had her own bedroom, she sometimes crept into her parents’ room in the middle of the night, curling up on a pallet of pillows and blankets on the floor. Unable to explain exactly why she came into their room at night, the couple simply say it made their little girl feel secure, and that’s all that mattered.

As her husband still lay sleeping, Debra got dressed and ready for her job as a cafeteria cook at nearby Tom Joy Elementary. “I stepped over Tabitha, I got ready for work and I left,” Debra explains during a recent interview. “I didn’t know that was going to be my last time looking at her.”

A short time later, Bo awoke and embarked on a similarly unremarkable morning ritual before heading to his job as a short-haul truck driver. Just before he was about to leave at 7 a.m., Bo gently shook Tabitha, who lay in her nightgown on the floor. In detail, he recounts their last, brief conversation, during which he told his groggy daughter to get up and get ready for school, that he loved her, and that he would see her later that evening. “She just said, ‘Alright daddy, I’m getting up. I love you, too.’ And that was it.”

Once Bo departed, Tabitha was left to get ready for school as usual, but she wasn’t home alone. Also at the house that morning was Tabitha’s older sister, Jamie, and her two young children, who at the time were temporarily residing in the small two-bedroom house. Still asleep with her kids when Tabitha left for school, Jamie said she never spoke to her sister that morning.

At or about 7:50 a.m., the young teen walked out the front door of her weathered white house wearing Mudd jeans, a light-blue shirt and Reebok sneakers, and set out on her quick journey to the bus stop. Despite the short distance, Tabitha’s path passed through a poor swath of East Nashville filled with sex offenders, ex-cons and odd, troubled souls, whose names would later end up in a police file downtown.

One man told detectives he saw Tabitha turning the corner from Lillian onto 14th Street, still within sight of her home. Other witnesses spotted her walking uphill along 14th toward Boscobel Street, where she caught the bus each morning at the foot of a steep slope.

A television repairman living near the top of Boscobel glanced out the open front door of his dark wood-sided house and noticed Tabitha casually strolling down the hill while reading a half-sheet of paper, which some think was the glowing, straight-A report card she received the day before. “She was walking real slow, reading some papers. It didn’t look like she was in a hurry,” says the neighbor, adding that it didn’t appear she was looking for anyone either. “Then I just closed the door, and that’s it.”

Possibly the last person to see Tabitha on her normal route was a young boy waiting for the school bus at the bottom of the hill at Boscobel and 15th Street. And although his account seemed to reveal the most specific and potentially crucial detail about her disappearance, police have questioned his credibility from the beginning.

The boy claimed Tabitha was walking down the hill as a red car pulled up beside her about halfway down the hill. The young witness said Tabitha got into the car, at which point the driver—a black male wearing a ball cap—turned around and headed back up the hill.

It’s been five years since their little girl vanished without a trace, and Bo and Debra Tuders still talk about her every day. The sadness is constant, but talking about Tabitha eases the pain.

“Out of the whole five years that kid has been gone not a day has gone by that her name is not mentioned,” Debra says, sitting on a blue overstuffed couch in her dimly lit living room on a rainy April afternoon. Picking up a small, framed photo of a young, laughing Tabitha, Debra says, “I have her picture sitting here on this table, right next to where I sit, and I talk to that picture.”

Dressed comfortably in a dark-blue sweatsuit, Debra sits on the edge of the couch, admiring the slightly blurry snapshot in a black plastic frame. And for a moment, her downcast demeanor shifts to a slight smile, and then to a laugh. But the smile fades in an instant, and she sits the photograph back in its usual spot on the table draped with a white table cloth and cluttered with knickknacks.

Then Debra’s cell phone rings, and she steps out of the room to take the call.

Seated on a matching blue couch across the room, Bo stubs out a cigarette in a plastic pink ashtray and explains, “We used to have a house phone, but we had it took out because people would play prank calls on us. They’d call and say things like, ‘This is Tabitha, daddy, can you come get me?’ ”

These days the house is mostly quiet. Too quiet. And just when the silence becomes unbearable, the couple find themselves talking about Tabitha, whom they lovingly refer to by the nickname “Boo.” But for Tabitha’s siblings—Jamie, who is eight years older, and Kevin who is 12 years older—it was a while before they’d reminisce about their sister. “Each one of us deals with the situation different. They are more open with it than they were at first,” Debra says. “We talk about her a lot, though. We’ve got each other.”

Sometimes Bo and Debra visit the garden planted for their daughter outside Bailey Middle School, often speaking to Tabitha as though she were right beside them. On the lush green lawn of the school, a simple wooden bench overlooks a cherry tree, now in full bloom with light pink flowers, and a concrete angel sits in a small patch of garden. An engraved brass plaque on the bench reads, “Dedicated to the Memory of Tabitha Tuders.”

As a seventh-grader, Tabitha was just beginning to excel at school, and she was incredibly proud of her soaring grades. Tabitha’s homeroom teacher remembers her as a friendly and studious girl who performed especially well in language arts class.

In great detail, Diane Jarrell recalls exactly where Tabitha sat in her homeroom—first row of desks, third seat from the back—and that her straight hair was constantly falling in front of her face. She fondly remembers Tabitha and her best friend frequently volunteering to help in the library. “They would argue over who got to use the electric stapler. Tabitha won every time,” says Jarrell, who switched positions to school librarian midway through that year. “I don’t believe a day went by without seeing the duo in the library, and I would have to repeatedly remind them to quit giggling so loudly.”

To this day Jarrell keeps a small white “missing” postcard above her desk at home with Tabitha’s picture on it. “It’s hard to believe it’s been five years since that day.” As for whether Tabitha might have left home on her own, she rejects that as even a remote possibility, saying she saw no signs of a troubled home life: “I never believed she ran away.”

On most afternoons, Tabitha came bounding through the front door at 4 p.m., eager to tell her mother about her day. But on this Tuesday in the spring of 2003, the minutes ticked by without her arrival. Assuming the bus was late, or that perhaps Tabitha was dawdling on her way home, Debra walked the three blocks to the bus stop, which she found deserted.

Believing her daughter might have missed the bus, Debra then drove two miles to Bailey Middle School, only to find the building locked. Unable to find anyone to ask about Tabitha’s whereabouts, she went home and anxiously waited for her daughter to come barreling into the house with an explanation.

But by 5 p.m., Bo had returned from work and still there was no sign of Tabitha. The couple returned to the massive red brick school and banged on the metal doors until finally a janitor answered and let them inside.

Frantically roaming the cavernous halls, the Tuders tracked down a teacher. When they asked if she had seen Tabitha after school, the teacher told them that their daughter never made it to school that day. Their hearts sank, panic set in and they raced home to call 911. “Right away we thought somebody snatched her up,” Debra says, adding that she knew her daughter would never cut school, and certainly would never run away.

Because school officials did not call to inform them of Tabitha’s absence, more than 10 hours had elapsed since they last saw her.

Almost 45 minutes after receiving the call, an officer responded to interview the Tuders and fill out a missing person report, and from the very beginning, the couple insisted their daughter was not a runaway.

Within two hours, officers were canvassing the neighborhood, fanning out as far as Shelby Park and LP Field nearly two miles away, searching local markets and empty buildings. More than 15 officers continued looking for Tabitha overnight, but because of inclement weather police were unable to use a helicopter in the search.

The department informed the media in time for the 10 p.m. news that Tabitha was missing, but police did not issue an Amber Alert, a broadcast system used to notify the public and other law enforcement agencies about missing children.

Police were harshly criticized for refusing to do so, but they still defend the decision, saying Tabitha’s disappearance did not meet the necessary criteria. “The police department was unable to determine that an abduction had occurred,” says Metro Police spokesman Don Aaron. “There was no physical evidence of that."

The same mantra that no scenario can be ruled out has been repeated again and again, starting on the day Tabitha disappeared. And while police came out in full force to search during the first 72 hours, some officers made it clear to reporters they believed Tabitha was a troubled teen who left home on her own accord. As the investigation dragged on for weeks and then months with no word from the missing girl, it became increasingly apparent that someone kidnapped her.

In mid-July, more than two long months after she disappeared, police embarked on their largest and most systematic hunt for Tabitha, setting up a command center at LP Field. With the help of search dogs, officers carefully looked up and down residential streets one by one. They conducted a subsequent and equally thorough search of Shelby Bottoms Greenway on July 29, but no new evidence was discovered.

Rather than acknowledge any missteps in the investigation, then-Metro Police Chief Deborah Faulkner instead shirked responsibility, going so far as to blame the Tuders for a lack of progress. Shortly after the focus of the investigation changed to one of potential foul play, Faulkner told the Associated Press that it took the family three days to nail down what Tabitha was wearing, further chastising them for supplying police with outdated photos.

Needless to say, Faulkner’s tenure as interim chief was short-lived, and a new chief was appointed in January 2004.

Within days of taking over the department, Ronal Serpas announced his belief that the teenager was indeed abducted and declared the case a top priority. Some critics question whether Serpas has lived up to the promise, particularly as public interest in the case faded. The chief continues to receive updates on the investigation, according to Aaron, who says the case remains a priority. And while the top cop’s interest in the case seems to have ebbed, it’s clear that a handful of detectives over the years have continued poring over leads, scrutinizing past statements and re-interviewing witnesses in an effort to crack the case. Three years into an investigation that had grown cold, a veteran detective was assigned to investigate Tabitha’s disappearance to see if he could uncover any new clues. For 15 months, the detective worked solely on solving Tabitha’s case, reviewing every shred of information with the assistance of fellow officers, but to no avail.

When asked if the department held on to the possibility that Tabitha was a runaway for too long, Aaron says that even now, detectives can’t rule out any scenarios, given that they don’t know anything about the circumstances of her disappearance. “The police department publicly stated that Tabitha’s parents reported that she had not run away before and knew of no reason why she would be inclined to run away,” he says. “Still, there was no evidence discovered or developed indicating that she had met with foul play.”

The Tuders have always rejected the notion that Tabitha might have run away, saying their daughter had absolutely no reason to leave and nowhere to go. “They all thought she was a runaway. We tried to convince them she wasn’t,” her father says of the police. “What did she have to run away from?” One by one, the Tuders list Tabitha’s attributes and everything that was going well in her young life.

About six months before she disappeared, Tabitha had started attending church with her best friend’s family, and soon she was singing in the Eastland Baptist Church choir and regularly volunteering at spaghetti dinners.

The Sunday before she vanished, Tabitha won $20 for memorizing her Ten Commandments at church, money that—along with all of her other possessions—was left behind on that last day she departed for school.

“The only time we were apart was at work and school. We were inseparable,” says Debra, who describes Tabitha as innocent for her age, lacking the typical attitude of many teenage girls. “She didn’t act like a normal 13-year-old. She was 13, but sometimes she acted like she was 8. She would just rather be here with us than doing anything else.”

Bo and Debra paint a picture of a much-loved daughter whose idea of mischief was “cutting up and making people laugh.” They recall the time when Tabitha was determined to bake her mother’s homemade biscuits without assistance, and how she spent all afternoon methodically following the recipe, proudly serving them at dinner that night. That same year, when a neighbor’s air conditioner broke in the sweltering summer, it was Tabitha who invited the woman and her dogs over to escape the heat. The young girl also befriended an elderly neighbor whom she affectionately called “grandma,” visiting her and often reading to her a few times a week.

“Tabitha, she had a good heart, a big ol’ heart,” Debra says in a low, sad tone, her husband agreeing from across the room.

As for boys, Tabitha’s parents say that unlike many girls her age, she was not yet interested. “She never had a boyfriend. Boys would call here, and she’d say, ‘Daddy, tell them I’m not here.’ She wasn’t boy crazy,” says Bo, shaking his head with the certainty of a father.

When her closest girlfriends spent the night, they would listen to music, play video games and stay up late talking in Tabitha’s room, which for the most part remains exactly as she left it.

Dozens of plush stuffed animals line a bookshelf, along with trinkets and other keepsakes the family has bought for Tabitha over the past five years. Above a girly white, four-poster bed hangs a poster of Tabitha’s name spelled out in flowers, a gift her parents bought for her when they traveled to New York to share her story on The John Walsh Show. Frilly purple and white curtains match the lavender walls, which were painted Tabitha’s favorite color after she was gone.

Pointing to a weathered picture of a chubby baby, Bo laughs and says, “If you can believe it, that’s Tabitha. That small, petite little thing was almost 10 pounds when she was born.”

Talking about their daughter, the Tuders are laughing and reminiscing one minute, and on the verge of tears the very next. The memories keep them going, while the thought of what might have been is excruciating.

Tabitha would be a senior at Stratford High School this year and on the verge of graduating. Bo and Debra plan to attend the graduation ceremony, during which there will be a moment of silence in Tabitha’s honor. “I know it’s going to be heartbreaking,” her mother says, “but I’m going to attend.”

The first night Tabitha was gone, Bo and Debra Tuders helplessly roamed the dark streets in search of their daughter, joined by officers and droves of community volunteers. When morning came, they continued searching despite their exhaustion. As the days progressed without solace, the Tuders were desperate, waiting for any glimmer of hope.

A steady stream of friends and relatives visited the house, bringing hot meals and a bit of comfort. A group of neighbors devised a plan to provide the family with dinner night after night, a gesture that continued for longer than anyone anticipated. Neighbors created a schedule, and for nearly an entire year, they delivered hot suppers to 1312 Lillian St.

“Thinking back, I wish we could have done more. I wish we could have done something to bring her home, but at least we were able to take care of them a little bit,” says Margaret Hart, a neighbor who helped organize the meals. Although she didn’t even know the Tuders at the time, she has since gotten to know the couple quite well, and feels as though she knows Tabitha, too. Like many residents of this close-knit, working-class neighborhood, Hart is haunted by the disappearance, saying she sometimes finds herself looking for Tabitha’s face in crowds. “It’s just a mystery to me what happened to that child. To think she wasn’t even safe to walk to the bus stop,” she says, pausing and taking a deep breath. “Poor little Tabitha. I don’t know. I just don’t know.”

Within a week of the disappearance, volunteers with the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation—a Missouri-based missing children organization—arrived in Nashville, bringing with them a team of scent-tracking dogs. The group canvassed the neighborhood, and the search dogs tracked Tabitha’s scent, following her typical route up 14th Street and onto Boscobel. Halfway down the hill, the dogs reversed course and headed back up the hill, corroborating the boy’s story about the red car.

Bo and Debra are inclined to believe the boy’s claim, but they say their daughter never would have willingly gotten into a car with anyone other than a family member, leading them to believe she was grabbed off the street. “I don’t think it was anybody that she knew,” Debra says. “Tabitha wouldn’t even get into the car with my neighbor without asking me first.”

But family friend Johnny White isn’t so sure, suggesting Tabitha might have been coerced into the red vehicle by an acquaintance, someone she trusted and who was capable of manipulating her. “I don’t think there could be a lot of suspects,” says White, adding that the boy said Tabitha got into the car without a struggle.

Detectives will not confirm or deny any theories, including whether they believe the account of Tabitha getting into a red car.

“We’re not saying the boy lied or that it’s a misstatement,” says Sgt. Mike Norton, who has actively investigated the case in recent months alongside lead Detective Tom Rollins. “We’ve just never been able to corroborate his story as fact.”

Making the mysterious disappearance all the more complicated to solve, detectives early on were faced with the near epic task of questioning the many unsavory characters living in Tabitha’s rough corner of the world. There was no shortage of sex offenders and criminals living in this gritty pocket of Nashville, some residing on the same block the Tuders have called home for 20 years.

There was a husband and wife—former residents of Lillian Street—arrested two weeks after Tabitha’s disappearance for allegedly raping a minor. The couple lived just a few houses down from the Tuders. Then there was Millard Earl Smith, a registered sex offender arrested in June 2003 after luring a young boy onto his motorcycle, then driving him to a secluded location and attempting to sexually assault him. The boy—who managed to escape unharmed—attended Bailey Middle School, where Tabitha also went to school. Smith now is serving time for this attempted assault, and for raping a woman he kidnapped from the Greyhound bus station. Police also questioned Leslie Paul Duke, yet another shady neighbor who spent more than a decade in prison for sexually abusing his four daughters. It was one of Duke’s own family members who warned the Tuders that their predatory relative might be involved in Tabitha’s disappearance. According to Tennessee’s sex offender registry, Duke still resides just a mile from the Tuders on Granada Avenue.

Of particular interest to police was a local maintenance worker who claimed to have seen Tabitha on the morning she vanished while he was driving a boy to Stratford High School. But the man’s story didn’t add up, and he was unable to give a legitimate reason for being in the area of Lillian Street that morning. This man drew even more suspicion by disparaging the missing girl on more than one occasion, including during a conversation with Scene reporters in 2003 when he described with his hands how Tabitha was beginning to develop physically. Police declared him an “active person of interest” in the summer of 2003, and aggressively searched his home, using a special chemical called Luminol to detect any blood. But after searching his apartment near Shelby Park, police found no incriminating evidence and interest in him lessened.

“A lot of people had an opportunity to take Tabitha Tuders that morning,” Norton says. “Tabitha was going to get on the school bus like she does every morning. After she left that house we don’t know what happened to her, to be quite frank. We just don’t know.”

As the years have progressed, leads have dwindled, but police still receive occasional tips. In fact, earlier this month detectives were looking into a new one, although if the past is any indication, it will result in another dead end. “There’s something we’re pursuing right now. It’s a new lead, and we take them all very seriously,” says Norton. “This one may not pan out, but we look at all of them.”

As for whether police believe Tabitha was abducted by a stranger, or by someone she knew, Norton says unfortunately he doesn’t have an answer. “What’s so baffling about this case is that a 13-year-old child disappeared with nobody seeing anything that we can absolutely say happened for sure.”

But in a rare departure from the department’s long-standing refusal to rule out any scenarios, Norton says one thing is clear: This girl did not willingly leave home. “Tabitha Tuders is certainly not a runaway, and it’s not like her parents were not keeping up with her.”

In the weeks after Tabitha was reported missing, family members submitted to exhaustive questioning, as well as routine lie detector tests. Investigators would not discuss the results of the tests, but nearly two years after the disappearance, police sources told the Scene there were “unresolved issues” with Tabitha’s older sister.

In March 2005, Jamie Tuders (now Jamie Pulley) told a Scene reporter that she had failed three of four lie detector and stress tests, although she blamed her interrogators for exerting too much pressure, confusing and even threatening her. “The very first detective who ever talked to me told me that they were going to take my kids away if I failed those tests,” Jamie says. “He said that my family and everybody else was going to see me on the news.”

Pressure from police eventually subsided, according to Jamie, who says a high-ranking police official later told her that the results of those three lie-detector tests were in fact inconclusive. “For them to do that to me, it not only hurt me, but it hurt my family seeing them do that to me,” says Jamie, crying for just a moment. “I understand they’re detectives and they have to do their job. They were just fishing for something, I guess.”

Just last year, Jamie wrote on an Internet message board: “All we want is for my sister to come back home.… We miss her and love her very much!! If at all you see this Boo don’t be scared, be strong and know that we are still looking for you. I love you!!”

After scrutinizing every detail of Tabitha’s disappearance, Johnny White will not go so far as to say that he thinks Jamie was involved. But the longtime family friend has spent countless hours investigating the case, and as a result he strongly believes that one of Jamie’s former boyfriends should be at least a person of interest in the case.

But Jamie rejects that opinion, saying, “I never had that feeling.”

On the morning Tabitha vanished, Jamie’s boyfriend had gotten off work stocking shelves at a nearby retail store at 7 a.m., according to White. Having previously lived at the Tuders’ home for several months, the boyfriend—who was driving a red car that day and who matches the description of the driver—also knew when and where Tabitha caught the bus each morning. And in the wake of the disappearance, White says Jamie’s boyfriend did not assist in the search effort.

“He was never helpful, and Jamie protected him from being questioned,” says White. “If he’s not a person of interest, who is?”

Jamie eventually broke up with that boyfriend, and has since married someone else.

When asked whether Jamie’s former boyfriend or anyone close to Tabitha is being considered as a person on interest, Sgt. Norton says he can’t discuss anything that detailed, for fear of jeopardizing the case. “It’s really hard to say we’re looking for this guy or that guy. Technically, nobody has been eliminated,” says Norton, adding that he’s still optimistic, a necessity in his job. “As far as I’m concerned, there’s a 50 percent chance she’s still alive.”

And while the likelihood of finding Tabitha safe diminishes with each passing day, the department will not stop searching.

“In a couple of years, if we haven’t found her, we’ll start from the beginning and go through the case again. You have to keep going through it,” Norton explains, comparing this method of review to reading a book again and again. “You read a book once, then you read it a second time and you pick up on something you didn’t see the first time around.”

Meanwhile, the Tuders are left to wait for their little girl’s return, or at the very least the ability to move on and grieve.

Not long after Tabitha disappeared, the Tuders desperately shared their daughter’s story with a few daytime talk shows, hoping someone might catch the segment and know something. The couple poured their hearts out on The Montel Williams Show, only to be told by a questionable psychic that their little girl was no longer alive and that her remains were in a field (although her psychic powers could not determine where). That same psychic gave the family of Shawn Hornbeck the very same grave news, yet the Missouri boy was found alive in 2007 held captive by a man outside St. Louis more than four years after his disappearance.

“That gives you a lot of hope,” says Debra, who sits quietly for a moment with her husband.

Uncertain of their daughter’s fate, hope is all they have, and without answers, they cling to the thought that she’s still alive. If anyone is holding Tabitha against her will, or has any information, her mother pleads with them to come forward: “If she’s still out there, we just want her to come back home.”

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