Debra Tuders could not shake the dream.
In her dream her family surrounded her: her son, her oldest daughter, her husband, and all of her grandchildren. They were all laughing and playing in nearby Shelby Park in the east area of Nashville, near where they lived. Overhead a plane flew and Debra looked up. Big, puffy, cartoon clouds bounced by, and suddenly her youngest child Tabitha appeared from the clouds.
Tabitha Tuders had been missing from the family for some time. On April 29, 2003 she left the house one morning on her way to the school bus stop. She was never seen again. But here she was, appearing in a dream.
“I called out to her, ‘stay with me, don’t go!’ But she smiled and disappeared. That’s the last dream I had of her.” Debra recalls.
Debra tells this story from her perch on the family couch, where she and her husband “Bo” Tuders invite visitors in to sit. The home has a relaxed feeling, and they welcome guests in as if you are already old friends. Except, “We had to have our house phone removed,” Bo explains; after Tabitha went missing, the crank calls began with kids calling and claiming to be the missing 13-year-old girl. Eventually you will wander into Tabitha’s room to see the Teddy bear collection or photos, the array of stuffed animal key chains and knick-knacks still kept in place. Her favorite bear was from Build-a-bear, dapperly dressed in shorts and a shirt. Tabitha kept her things neat and clean. Debra still cleans the room, although she has removed her daughter’s clothes from the closet.
Tabitha’s bedroom now houses her “MIssing” posters
Bo and Debra have lived in this house for over 20 years, a short drive from Shelby Park and the Cumberland River. They have raised a son and two daughters here. Native Nashvillians, they both worked hard and taught their children the value of an education. Both were proud when Tabitha had made straight A’s on her last report card, sang in the church choir, and had joined the local church. The little house became a home for the three of them when their oldest daughter and son moved out to start families of their own. Debra and Bo met young. “We met at his brother’s funeral,” Debra chuckles, nodding at Bo. “It sounds crazy, but it’s the truth.” Bo smiles mischievously, “She couldn’t pass up my charm.” In a time of high divorce rate and broken homes, these are two people that love one another dearly and adore their family, and gaps are left in both of their hearts with Tabitha gone; it is clearly evident.
Some days, after Tabitha went missing, Debra would leave work and drive down to Shelby Park. Alone, she would then walk up and down for miles along the banks of the Cumberland, thrashing through the waist-high weeds and pushing back the grasses and tangles of vines, searching for any sign. “I was trying to find something, anything, any sign of her.” Bo and Debra made their rounds of national talk shows, to include Montel Williams, sharing the screen with a famous psychic who claimed she was “never wrong;” after filming the psychic sent a representative to offer an off-camera private reading – for $700. Several Metro Police Detectives have handled the case through the years. Volunteers have combed the local areas multiple times. Family members created their own search teams, and have paid out of pocket for posters, flyers, and handouts with Tabitha’s photo and information. Six years later, Tabitha’s photo still hangs on the Tuder’s front porch and underneath it the word MISSING.
The Tuders were not errant parents or bad neighbors. When two local toddlers were found wandering the street unattended, The Tuders notified the police, fearful for the children’s well being. Tabitha was well mannered and her best friends were adults who she cared for. Both the Tuders radiate warmth and kindness, but at times Tabitha would pout that Debra was ‘too strict” with safety rules, such as refusing to let her play with children who shouted foul words at adults or had no rules at home. Now Debra sees these same children “in and out” of known drug dealer’s homes. The story of Tabitha’s 20-year-old boyfriend was a rumor; Tabitha had no boyfriend. Her attendance record at school was good, despite other rumors.
This much we know: Tabitha was not a “wild child” or “bad girl.” She had no history of illegal activity or even unruly behavior at home, school, or in her social life. Tabitha did not run away from home. Someone she knew, as she willingly got into a vehicle, per the last known witness who saw her, picked up Tabitha on April 29, 2003. According to the witness, the driver made a U-turn on Boscobel, and then drove toward Shelby. And this is where the story ends.
“Someone knows what happened,” a friend says sadly. Someone knows the rest of the story, the end of the saga, how the tale will end. They are just not telling, for fear it will implicate them. Until then two good parents, two fine people sit and wonder and wish the people who do know would come forth and talk. Until then an innocent little girl is missing and nothing is left but a well dressed Teddy bear, dusted and waiting on the single bed. Tabitha’s picture hangs, timeless, on the Tuder’s wall. Debra’s voice is fraught with tears when she wonders why her daughter would meet such fate. “She never did anything to hurt anybody.”