The eyes are different.
In a photo of Relisha Rudd at 8 years old, her eyes are wide and piercing. Other children that age usually mug for the camera. She seems to look past it and directly at us.
In a photo of her that police released last week, one that shows what she might look like now at the age of 12, the slope of her lids is the same, but her stare is static, lacking that same pull.
Maybe that’s why when people first saw the age-progression image of the missing D.C. girl at a community event for her on Wednesday, they shook their heads and declared it looked nothing like her. In that preteen face, they did not see the second-grader who was called “li’l mama” and slept with a teddy bear she named “Baby.”
Then again, maybe their reaction had nothing to do with the expression in her eyes or the sweep of her lips or the angle of her cheekbones. Maybe no photo would have felt accurate.
Maybe we have all just stared for so long at what she was — a sweet-faced girl failed by so many — it is too hard to imagine what she would have become.
It has been four years since Relisha Rudd was taken by a janitor at the D.C. homeless shelter where her family lived.
Four years since that janitor killed his wife and then himself, leaving no word about what he did to Relisha or where he left her.
Four years since the police, after an extensive effort, declared the search a “recovery mission,” indicating they no longer believed she was alive.
And yet, even discussing how she is unrecognizable shows that she is unforgotten.
But for others in the District, it is a step toward finding a girl who might be alive. When they speak about her, they slip “maybe” into their sentences, using that door-stopper of a word to leave an opening for her to return. Maybe she was given to another family. Maybe she was sold to someone who is holding her against her will. Maybe she is safe. Maybe she is waiting to be found.
Community members asked the police department to create the updated image, with the hope that someone might recognize her, realize she is missing and call the police.
“I believe she is still alive,” said Henderson Long, who was among the chief advocates for the updated image. “We’re always going to hope until we see otherwise. Until they bring us the remains, we’re going to conduct ourselves as if she’s still alive.”
Long, the head of D.C.’s Missing Voice, a social-media-based effort aimed at helping families with missing relatives, said he asked Relisha’s mother to send him a picture of herself at about age 12. He then sent it to the police department to be used for the age-progression image. Police released the new photo in the form of a flier that describes Relisha as 4 feet tall and between 70 and 80 pounds when she disappeared.
When he first saw the new image, Long, like others, didn’t recognize the girl in it. Then he studied it further.
“The more and more I look at it, I can see Relisha in the picture,” he said.
Long was among the dozens of community members who gathered at a 7-Eleven on July 11, a date informally recognized as Relisha Rudd Awareness Day, to pass out the new flier. They handed out 1,000, some to parents with children too young to remember the initial search.
Members of the police department were also at the event. A tweet from the department that day read, “We will never stop looking for #RelishaRudd.”
On Friday, the department tweeted again about her, posting the new photo with the message: “It’s been four years since Relisha Rudd was reported missing — and throughout those four years, we’ve never given up our attempt to locate her! . . . Have info? Call 202-727-9099/text 50411.”
The police last searched for her in January. Acting on a tip, they looked along the Anacostia River, not far from the shelter where she lived with her mother, stepfather and three brothers. They found no new evidence.
“This is heartbreaking when you look at the pictures of this little girl,” D.C. Police Chief Peter Newsham told my colleague Peter Hermann last week. “We’re hopeful that at some point someone will tell us information to help us.”
In 2014, when Relisha was last seen, 2,726 people were reported missing in the District. Of them, 2,725 were found. Only one — Relisha — was not.
In the years that have followed, the city has moved closer to tearing down the grim family shelter run out of an old public hospital that Relisha called “the trap house.” Demolition work has started at a nearby building, and last week the D.C. Council approved a bill in response to concerns from homeless advocates that families were being exposed to lead and asbestos. The bill calls for weekly testing and relocating residents to “safe, appropriate housing.” The advocates wanted to see it go further. A council member said there was no time.
That issue is important and deserves more scrutiny, but that these conversations are even happening is part of Relisha’s legacy.
So is the playground that was installed at the shelter after her disappearance. And the 300 sets of fingerprints that Long’s group took of children in the city last year. And the relationship police have built with community advocates who don’t want to see another girl so easily vanish.
Maybe we will one day know what happened to Relisha. Maybe the optimists among us are right and she will tell us herself. Maybe the police recovery effort will prove successful and that task will fall to forensic scientists.
In the meantime, maybe what matters most is that four years later, we’re still looking into her eyes.