The Disappearance of Tabitha Tuders

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EARLY LIFE:

Tabitha Tuders was born on February 15, 1990 to parents Bo and Debra Tuders. The youngest of three siblings, she grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, on the east side of the city.

Growing up, Tabitha was spoiled by her parents. A straight-A student and enthusiastic member of her church choir, she was constantly in the company of her family, who spent a lot of time together. They often went to the racetrack on Saturdays, one of Tabitha’s favourite activities, and it was rare the family would miss a race.

Tabitha was the entertainer of the family, constantly cracking jokes and making her parents laugh. She was also extremely close to her mother, who she went everywhere with. She would often sleep on the floor at the foot of her parents’ bed because she wanted to be close to them.

LEAD UP TO DISAPPEARANCE:

The morning of April 29, 2003 started out as normal in the Tuders household. At 5:00am, Debra got up for work, noting she had to step over Tabitha on her way out of the room, as her youngest daughter was asleep at the foot of the bed.

Around 7:00am, Bo woke Tabitha and had her get ready for school. Not long after, he too left for work. As with most mornings, Tabitha had breakfast at the house and completed any outstanding homework she had to finish before school.

At 7:50am, Tabitha left her house to catch the school bus, which picked her up at Boscobel Street and Fourteenth Street, about one block away. However, when she arrived at the stop there were no other kids waiting, so she made her way to the next one, at Boscobel Street and Fifteenth Street. This was something her mother had advised Tabitha to do, as a safety measure.

However, Tabitha would never make it to the bus stop.

DISAPPEARANCE:

The first sign that something was up was when Tabitha’s mother returned home from work that afternoon. She waited for Tabitha to come running in the house at 4:00pm, as she did after every school day. However, 4:10pm came around and Tabitha still hadn’t arrived home, and Debra Tuders set to work searching for her daughter.

Debra first visited Tabitha’s school, where she spoke to a teacher and learned that not only had Tabitha not been on the school bus that morning, but she hadn’t attended class either. Alarmed, Debra made contact with Tabitha’s friends, but she wasn’t with them and none of them had seen her.

By 4:50pm, Bo Tuders had returned home from work, panicked over his missing daughter. At 5:00pm, Debra called her eldest daughter, Jamie, to ask what her younger sister had been wearing that morning. However, as Jamie hadn’t seen Tabitha before she left for school, she was unable to say.

It was 6:00pm when the Tuders reported Tabitha as missing to police.

SEARCH:

Not long after Tabitha was reported missing, Jamie was able to surmise by looking at the laundry she had folded the previous night that Tabitha had most likely left the house that morning wearing a blue top, jeans and white sneakers.

Police conducted an initial search of the house, where they found Tabitha had left behind $20 and her house key. Aside from taking a hairbrush and toothbrush for DNA, they were unable to find any physical evidence. This led to the initial belief that Tabitha was a runaway, a claim her family vehemently denies, and no AMBER Alert was issued.

Along with the initial house search, police spent the night of Tabitha’s disappearance searching a five mile radius around the house, with the aid of concerned neighbours. Debra Tuders didn’t participate, as she wanted to be home in case Tabitha returned.

On April 30, 2003, police returned to the Tuders residence for a more in-depth search of Tabitha’s bedroom. They discovered a note with “T.D.T – N – M.T.L” written on it. As the 13 year old didn’t have a known boyfriend at the time, her family was unable to identify who “M.T.L” was.

Later that day, a possible witness sighting was reported. An 11-year-old schoolmate of Tabitha’s who had been waiting at the bus stop at Boscobel Street and Fifteenth Street claimed to have seen Tabitha get into a red car between Fourteenth Street and Fifteenth Street. Once Tabitha was in the car, the boy said it reversed and left the street the way it had entered. He was unable to provide the car model or license plate, but did say the driver appeared to be African American and was wearing a baseball cap.

While this was the first big break in the case, it’s unclear whether Tabitha got into the vehicle of her own accord, if she was threatened or if she had been pulled in, as there were no screams or signs of a struggle. However, her family claims she would have never entered the car of a stranger, and later tracker dogs would confirm the sighting using the scent off of Tabitha’s stuffed animals, leading investigators to the midpoint between the two streets.

Upon receiving this lead, police began looking for the red car and the man seen driving it. At the time, Jamie Tuders had been dating someone who matched the description, but, upon further examination, it was determined he was not involved.

More eyewitness accounts began to trickle in. Three different people reported seeing Tabitha at the intersection of Fourteenth Street and Boscobel Street, while two schoolmates saw her crossing over from Fourteenth Street to Boscobel Street. She had been holding something in her hand, which is assumed to have been her report card, as it had been given to her the previous day.

As the investigation drew on, police believed they’d found a match to the M.T.L initials on the note – the 18-year-old son of a family known to the Tuders. However, he was in the class at the time of Tabitha’s disappearance and was cleared of any involvement.

A classmate came forward to police and informed them that she and Tabitha has been visiting online chat rooms on a computer at the local library. Said computer was taken away for forensic examination. Unfortunately, given how many people had used it since the pair last logged on, nothing of Tabitha’s chat history could be found.

A troubling story was brought to the attention of police by a woman who thought she might know a potential suspect in the case. She came forward saying a man known to the area had been inappropriate with her 13-year-old daughter in 1997 and that she had discovered love letters between the two. He had also taken an inappropriate interest in her 10-year-old daughter. The woman never went to police.

Upon learning this information, police brought in the man, who lived three and a half hours away in Kentucky, for questioning, where they learnt he’d been in Nashville around the time of Tabitha’s disappearance. Looking into his background, it was learnt he had a history of spending time with underage girls and had been charged with statutory rape. However, his alibi checked out and he was released.

While the police were conducting their investigation, the Tuders were doing all they could to keep the media and the public informed of the case, through the making and distribution of buttons, bracelets and t-shirts. During this time, tips flooded in, claiming Tabitha had been spotted in different Nashville neighbourhoods. Unfortunately, none of these sightings could be confirmed.

In September 2003, a new lead came into police, in the way of a man with connections to the area who’d been arrested and charged with raping a 17-year-old girl. He lived only four miles from Tabitha and had been previously convicted of kidnapping and solicitation of a minor. While he didn’t own a car at the time Tabitha went missing, he had access to one via his brother.

Police questioned the man about his possible involvement and he denied he was involved, citing a family camping trip as an alibi. As he passed a polygraph test, he was no longer questioned. He still, however, remains a person of interest.

Toward the end of 2003, in October of that year, two unconfirmed sightings of Tabitha were reported in Linton, Indiana. The first was from a truck driver who claims to have seen a girl matching Tabitha’s description with a man and a teenage girl. He noted that the girl looked anxious and afraid. This report was backed up by a hotel clerk, who reported seeing the same group of three.

Leads dried up in the years to follow, and on the fifth anniversary of Tabitha’s disappearance police asked local media to run a story on the case to help bring it back into the public eye. The plan worked, as that June a tip came in that contradicted information previously given to police.

A man visited the tattoo shop of Debra Tuders’ niece and told her Tabitha had actually gotten into a green – not red – car. While it is unknown why the man took so long to share this information, police jumped on it and spread it around social media. However, they were unable to locate the vehicle.

Another eight years went by without any new leads. Then, on February 10, 2016, police got a lead on the green car from a woman who claimed to know a man who had driven one and lived in the area at the time. His name was “Juan” and his name had previously popped up in the investigation – he had been known to Tabitha and the two had possibly smoked cigarettes together. He now lived three and a half hours away in Louisville, Kentucky.

Police brought Juan in for interrogation, where he passed a polygraph and was released. It was later determined that the woman had heavily embellished her story.

THEORIES:

1) Police initially believed Tabitha to be a runaway, given the lack of evidence in the case. However, after witnesses came forward, this theory was thrown out. The family also disputes this, given the fact she wasn’t rebellious, and still strongly believe she didn’t leave of her own accord.

2) The current theory held by both Tabitha’s family and police is that she was abducted. Whether this is by someone she knew or didn’t is currently unknown, but eyewitness accounts and the evidence available point in this direction.

3) There is a possibility Tabitha’s disappearance is connected to the unsolved murder of 11-year-old Heaven Ross in Northport, Alabama. Heaven disappeared on her way to school on August 19, 2003 and her remains were found three years later in Holt, Alabama.

Given how similar the girls looked and the similarities in their disappearance, police investigated a possible link between the two cases. However, given the distance between Nashville and Alabama and a lack of evidence linking the two, this is unlikely.

AFTERMATH:

In 2014, Tabitha’s case, as well as those of 12 other missing persons, was spotlighted at a local concert, the Squeaky Wheel Tour.

As of 2018, the case is still being looked into, with investigators going over old evidence in case of any previous oversight. Tips are still coming in, but they have yet to lead investigators toward Tabitha.

The Tuders continue to do whatever they can to keep Tabitha’s case in the public eye. They’ve hung a poster on their front porch with all of their daughter’s details, and haven’t moved house, in case Tabitha returns home. Her room is as it was on the day of her disappearance.

The FBI and local Crime Stoppers have teamed up to offer a $51,000 reward for information leading to a resolution to the case.

CASE CONTACT INFORMATION:

Tabitha Tuders went missing in Nashville, Tennessee, on Boscobel Street between Fourteenth Street and Fifteenth Street, on April 23, 2003. She was 13 years old and was seen wearing a blue top, jeans and white sneakers. At the time of her disappearance, she was 5’1″ and weighed approximately 100 pounds. She has sandy blonde hair and blue eyes, with pierced ears. She has a birthmark on her stomach and a scar on her finger.

Currently, her case is classified as endangered missing. If alive, she would be 28 years old.

If you have any information regarding the case, you can contact the Nashville Metro Police Department at 615-862-8600.

Image Credit: News Channel 5

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