NASHVILLE, TN — For the Tuders family in Nashville, the morning of April 29, 2003, started out like any other. It ended in the tragedy that has come to define their lives — a mystery made infinitely more painful by 15 years of false leads and dashed hopes.
As her parents left for work that morning, 13-year-old Tabitha Tuders got ready for school, ate breakfast, and then walked, as she always did, to her regular bus stop just two blocks away. No one has seen or heard from Tabitha since then.
Multiple witnesses did catch a glimpse of Tabitha walking away from her usual 13th Street bus stop toward the next one on 15th Street, which was busier and usually more populated.
Considering “safety in numbers,” Debra Tuders, Tabitha’s mom, had instructed her daughter to take that easy, daylight stroll in the event of no other kids being around back on 13th Street. Apparently, that day, Tabitha did find herself alone.
As usual that afternoon, Debra Miller got home from her job at another school before Tabitha. An admittedly nervous mom, Debra said she’d worry if Tabitha missed her usual 4 P.M. arrival by as little as 10 minutes.
After an hour of waiting, then, Debra drove to Tabitha’s school and was horrified to hear her daughter had never gotten on the bus that day, let alone made it to campus. Bo Tuders, Tabitha’s dad, immediately left work and met Debra at the local police station.
Unfortunately, given Tabitha’s being a teenager and a rash of runaways in the area at the time, authorities failed to immediately issue an Amber Alert. That decision may have made a crucial difference, but, as with so much in the case, there’s simply no way to know now.
Detectives searched Tabitha’s room and turned up a handwritten note that seemed typical of the type scrawled by kids when they have a crush on someone, as it started with her own initials and seemed to link with someone else’s. It read: “T.D.T.-n-M.T.N.”
Friends of the Tuders had an 18-year-old son with the initials M.T.N. who knew Tabitha, but he had been in class that morning and was quickly cleared of any suspicion.
The next day, a boy from Tabitha’s class said Tabitha walking toward 15th Street, when a dark-skinned man in a baseball cap pulled up next to her in a red car. The boy said Tabitha got inside and drove off.
At the time, Jamie Tuders Pulley, Tabitha’s older sister who was then 25, had been dating an African-American man who did regularly wear a ball cap. The Tuders liked this young man, though, and said he had a fine, friendly relationship with Tabitha.
On top of that, Jamie’s boyfriend had an alibi for that morning and didn’t own a car. After routine questioning, police quickly eliminated him.
The only real person of interest to emerge in the first years of the investigation, in fact, was a local resident named Paul Davis.
In 1996, a mom at Tabitha’s school saw 28-year-old Davis taking what she said was “an inappropriate interest” in her 10-year-old daughter. The following year, when that daughter’s 13-year-old sister ran away, the mom was (and remains) convinced Davis was involved.
Compounding those suspicions in general is the fact that, in 1997, police arrested Paul Davis for statutory rape and he got five years probation. He did live near the Tuders when Tabitha vanished but, for that particular day, he provided a solid alibi.
The trail went cold, then, until 2003, when cops picked up Millard Earl Smith, a 52-year-old biker and reportedly self-described “predator,” for the rape of 17-year-old girl.
In addition to that rape, Smith was also charged in 2003 with attempted sexual battery and solicitation of a 13-year-old boy who attended Tabitha’s school. Prior to that he had been charged with rape in the 1970s and convicted of rape in the 1980s.
Even with that concerning background, though, detectives and prosecutors have not been able to legally connect Millard Earl Smith to Tabitha Tuders. Nonetheless, he remains a person of interest in the ongoing investigation.
Five years of silence followed, broken by a local media blitz in 2008 to mark the case’s fifth anniversary. A new tip came in from a witness who suddenly recalled seeing a girl like Tabitha get into a mid-sized green car that morning. Once again, though, that lead led nowhere.
Similarly frustrating was a tip from a local woman who said her Hispanic son-in-law named Juan drove a green vehicle that fit the most recent description. Hopes rose as Tabitha’s friends mentioned that she might have sneaked off sometimes to smoke cigarettes with someone named Juan.
Working with this info, police brought the Juan in question downtown for an interview. He passed a polygraph and quickly convinced officers he was in no way involved with Tabitha. His mother-in-law, the cops ultimately said, had “greatly embellished” her claims.
Regardless of all the dead ends, the Tuders family holds out hope that, some day, they’ll know the truth about what happened to Tabitha.
Anyone with any information is asked to call the Nashville Metro Police Department at (615) 862-8600.
If you are in search of a missing person, make sure to enter their information into the database of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
For more on Tabitha Tuders, watch the “Last Stop” episode of Investigation Discovery’s Disappeared on ID GO now!
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Main image: Tabitha Tuders age-progressed Missing Poster [Nashville Metro Police Department]