Debra & Bo Tuders on the porch on their Lillian Street home, March 2013. Photo by Chuck Allen

On April 29, 2003, 13-year-old Tabitha Tuders left for school and never came home.

This story was first published in the March|April 2013 edition of The East Nashvillian and has been updated.

Bo Tuders sits on his front porch, finishing up a cigarette, winding down at the end of the workweek. Three of his seven grandchildren scamper in and out of the house. His wife, Debra, is inside watching television, recovering from surgery she had earlier that day. The house is small, bustling with happy activity. But this close-knit family is not complete. This family is missing their daughter, their sister, their aunt: Tabitha.

It’s been 18 years since 13-year-old Tabitha Tuders left her Lillian Street home to walk to the school bus stop. It’s been exactly that long since her family has heard from her.

“How can a child just disappear without any kind of evidence?” wonders Tabitha’s father, Bo, still disbelieving, all these years later, that his daughter never made it to school that day, never made it back home, and has remained missing for an entire decade. “She was a real sweetheart,” Tuders says, quickly correcting himself. “She’s still a sweetheart. She’s out there somewhere. We just have to get her back here.”

Today, Bo talks easily and openly about his daughter, eager to share memories.

In the days just before “she come up missing,” as her family says, she brought home a straight-A report card, won a prize at her church for memorizing the Ten Commandments, and read to her elderly neighbor. “She wasn’t like your regular teenager,” Tuders says. She wasn’t boy crazy or mischievous; she enjoyed being home with her family.

The case of Tabitha Tuders has baffled not only her family, but also their East Nashville neighborhood, the city, local law enforcement, and the FBI. “A case of this nature is not very common at all,” according to Detective Lee Freeman with the Metro Nashville Police Department Cold Case unit, now handling the Tuders case. “We don’t have anything close to this we’re working on.”

“The lack of physical evidence makes it very difficult,” says current West Precinct Commander Marlene Pardue. Several months after Tabitha’s disappearance, Pardue was named head of Youth Services and oversaw the early investigation of her case.

Even with tips on the case continuing to pop up every month, “all we know for sure is that she walked toward the bus stop and hasn’t been heard from since,” says Freeman.

The morning of April 29, 2003, was a typical one for the Tuders family. Debra Tuders awoke early to get ready for her job in the Tom Joy Elementary School cafeteria, where she still works today. Her husband, Bo, was sleeping when she left, and her daughter Tabitha remained curled up at the foot of her parent’s bed, where she sometimes slept on a pallet of blankets.

A short time after that, Bo got ready to hit the road as a short-haul truck driver, a job he also still has today. Tabitha’s older sister Jamie and her two young children were asleep down the hall. It was Tabitha’s job to get herself ready for school and out the door to the bus stop before 8 a.m.

Even though Tabitha’s walk to the bus stop was short, she would have to pass a sketchy section of the neighborhood that was home to sex offenders and ex-cons. “The neighborhood was a little rougher then than it is now. It was pretty rough,” Tabitha’s older brother Kevin says, glancing up the street at a row of newly built homes with hefty price tags — a stark contrast to the very modest Tuders home, where the family has lived since 1988.

“There are a lot of people around here who still haven’t been questioned that should be,” Bo adds. A few eyewitnesses saw Tabitha that morning, including one boy who described Tabitha getting into a red car at the corner of Boscobel and 15th streets, but police have raised issues about his credibility from the beginning.

The police have little else to go on. “Somebody knows something in this case and we would like to know it too,” Pardue says.

That Tuesday in 2003, the Tuderses assumed that Tabitha had been in class all day at Bailey Middle School and first became concerned when she did not return home around 4 p.m. as she did every day. Maybe the bus was late, maybe she missed the bus home, maybe she was with a friend. As another hour went by, Debra and Bo became increasingly anxious and decided to go up to Bailey. A janitor let them into the nearly empty school and they found a teacher who confirmed that Tabitha was not in school that day.

By the time the parents called 911 to report their daughter missing, 10 crucial hours had passed, giving any potential perpetrator that much more lead-time.

Within an hour of receiving the 911 call, an officer responded to interview the Tuderses and fill out a missing person report. The police informed the media about the local missing girl in time for the 10 p.m. broadcasts but did not issue an Amber Alert, the system used to notify the public and other law enforcement agencies about missing children. According to media reports at the time, police were harshly criticized for refusing to issue the alert, but defended the decision, saying Tabitha’s disappearance did not meet the necessary criteria to determine if she had been abducted. “It was treated like any other case where a 13-year-old didn’t come home,” Pardue says.

From the beginning, the Tuderses insisted their daughter was not a runaway. “It was hard for us to convince them,” Bo says, but “not all 13-year-olds run away.”

That night, officers canvassed the neighborhood, from Shelby Park to LP Field. Family friends and neighborhood volunteers joined the search. “We were knocking on doors, looking in abandoned houses, everything we could think of to do,” recalls Kevin, recounting those first desperate hours and sleepless nights.

While some officers hung onto the theory that Tabitha was a runaway, Bo Tuders credits some friends on the police force for pushing back against that notion. Pardue was one of those family friends who knew “she didn’t have a runaway history. There was no family history” of domestic violence or neglect, she said. In the weeks after Tabitha was reported missing, family members were questioned extensively and underwent lie-detector tests.

As the investigation continued for weeks, and then months, with no word from the missing girl, the runaway theory began to lose traction. It became increasingly clear that Tabitha had been kidnapped.

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 searched the streets of East Nashville for any sign of the missing girl, but no new evidence was discovered. After that, police worked the case behind the scenes. Many leads have come and gone over the years, but have always resulted in a dead-end.

Independent organizations dedicated to finding missing children, including the Shawn Hornbeck Foundation, have been involved with Tabitha’s case. Her story has been featured on the websites of America’s Most Wanted and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. The FBI is currently offering a $25,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest and conviction in the case.

Beyond the initial searches, the Tuders family has done a bit of their own legwork to keep Tabitha’s story in the public eye. They have appeared on national television talk shows, and they traveled to Las Vegas with hopes of meeting a girl who might be their daughter.

Since Tabitha’s case was transferred to the Cold Case division two years ago, the Tuderses haven’t heard many updates. Tips come into the police fairly often, but if detectives were to notify the family about everyone, “they would be on an emotional rollercoaster,” says Freeman.

“I understand that,” says Bo Tuders — although it’s sometimes difficult to convince himself. Every now and then, detectives may come by with a photo of a young woman that could be Tabitha, now 23*. “So far nothing has panned out,” Bo says. None of the photos have turned out to be her.

Freeman wants to be clear that just because Tabitha’s file has been shifted to the Cold Case unit “it’s not sitting on the shelf being ignored.” While it’s been said many times, he wants to say it again: “If somebody knows something, the police department asks that they come forward.” It may just take one tip or piece of evidence to make a big break in the case.

Ten years after Tabitha Tuders disappeared from her Lockeland Springs neighborhood, life goes on in the Tuders family. Bo and Debra still work, and their seven grandchildren keep them busy. When they spend the night, they sleep in Tabitha’s old room, which has been updated but still houses her old stuffed animal collection. The youngest Tuders grandchild was just born on Feb. 15, Tabitha’s 23rd birthday*. Tabitha’s older sister Jamie named her new daughter Olivia Danielle, giving her the same middle name as her little sister.

“You still have to go on with your life, what’s left of it,” Bo says. His grandchildren who were born after she went missing “can tell you about her just like they’ve met her. We talk about her all the time.”

From his post on the porch, Bo looks over at the banner that has hung off the front eaves for nearly 10 years. It’s a faded picture of Tabitha with her vital stats and a phone number to call with any information about the case. “It was up at the command center and it’s been here ever since,” Bo says.

He explains that around the time Tabitha went missing, the family was considering moving, but then decided to stay put. “This is the only home she knew.” He runs through a scenario where Tabitha could escape from her captors and make her way back to East Nashville. The hope is, “if she gets away, she’ll come here,” he says.

He pauses for a moment, reflecting on the weight of the situation. “This is something that I don’t wish on any parent, not knowing where your child is,” he says. “It’s like part of you that’s out there missing somewhere.”

No matter what, the Tuderses have their memories of Tabitha, and they have hope that they will see her again. “All we’ve got left now is hope,” Bo says, “and we’re not giving up.”

*When this story was first published in March 2013, Tabitha would’ve been aged 23.