Tameka, nicknamed “lost and found” as a child by her family, recognized the name “Trudy Gunn” on the appointment screen while being prepped for teeth cleaning.
Tameka, 36, told her story to the dental hygienist, asking if she could meet the woman she had been told rescued her from a swamp after she went missing from her home when she was 19 months old. Even though family members told her she had met Gunn in passing as a young child years later, Tameka said she had always wanted to talk to the woman — not only to thank her but to hear for herself what had happened.
Gunn, 61, was not expecting to see Tameka at the dentist’s office either but told CNN she never forgot about the toddler she found sitting alone on a tree stump in the swamp. Tameka’s request was granted and it was a joyous reunion as the two tearfully hugged, took photos and talked about that terrifying day.
“I was excited to meet her, but the emotions she had in the moment made me emotional,” Tameka said. “I was especially emotional when she said she thought about me all the time … I wasn’t just an afterthought, it’s the caring for me.”
Vowing to keep in touch, the women exchanged numbers. But the surprise meeting reignited Tameka’s curiosity about her disappearance.
‘Lord, let me find her and let her be OK’
On April 27, 1986, Shelia Lewis, Tameka’s aunt, and Julia Boone, Tameka’s mother, left the family house in Branchville, Virginia, early in the morning to go to the store while Tameka stayed behind with other family members, Lewis told CNN. When the sisters returned hours later, children were playing in the yard, but there was no sign of Tameka. Her mother called for her, the family looked around the house and the neighbor’s house for about 30 minutes before realizing that she was missing. The family was “afraid, frantic,” Lewis told CNN.
After calling the police, a communitywide search began, with a helicopter from a nearby hospital, search dogs, search and rescue organizations and local and state police officers assisting in the nearly eight-hour effort, according to a local news report.
Gunn was home nearly three miles away when a friend and then volunteer firefighter, Bob Beatty, told her a child was missing. Gunn and Beatty drove to the search area with her two horses and began looking for Boone in a wooded area. While on horseback, Gunn and Beatty waded through swamp water that she says was “up to the stomach of the horses” and searched for hours while calling Tameka’s name.
“I kept praying, ‘Lord, let me find her and let her be OK,'” Gunn told CNN.
At dusk, their prayers were answered, for when she called out Tameka’s name that time, she heard a cry.
Gunn said she and Beatty followed the sound to a large tree lying in water and behind it the toddler was sitting on a stump surrounded by two to three feet of swamp water. She was wearing one shoe, her sweater was missing and there was a bump and small scratches on her forehead, according to Gunn and a sheriff’s office records.
The pair were joyous with relief. Beatty rode ahead to let search crews know Tameka had been found while Gunn said she walked her horse out of the woods while holding the toddler in her arms, talking to her “to reassure her she would be OK.” Once out of the woods, Gunn recalled handing Boone to a paramedic to check her for injuries before the child was taken to a nearby hospital.
Lewis said the family was “excited, happy, joyful” when Tameka was found, but also “were even more careful to not let her out of our sights for even a minute.”
“Life was always good, but we were more protective of her and each other,” she said.
Shoe prints and tire tracks
Investigating officers declined to speak to CNN and one has since died, according to the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office, but the case file, obtained by CNN via a Freedom of Information Act request, sheds light on the investigation.
In a report dated May 10, 1986, the investigator wrote that a day after she was taken, he and a police unit “attempted to lift a cast of the suspected shoe print” and afterward they “walked door to door in Branchville and talked to numerous people, but none could provide any information.” The investigator also wrote they checked other paths in the area and that they provided “nothing of value.” A crime line bulletin for the week of May 12 was also put out requesting information. During the investigation, officers also spoke with family members, who said they had no information about Tameka’s disappearance.
Although the investigator at the time concluded that if Tameka had crawled onto the stump alone she would have drowned and that she was likely taken from the yard, no one was ever arrested or charged with her disappearance.
Asked by CNN what more could have been done at the time, the Southampton County Sheriff’s Office said it’s difficult to say since it occurred in 1986 and it is not known what resources were available at the time, but said it seems like “a lack of physical evidence” is a reason no one was charged.
An unnatural experience for a ‘supernatural purpose’
Tameka says the terrifying experience did not have a negative impact on her life because she does not remember it — but said it confirmed what she calls “a supernatural purpose” for her life.
“I feel like God spared my life for a reason, but for many years in my life I did not know what that reason was … I didn’t survive that for nothing,” she said.
She also said knowing the full scope of what happened to her is not about seeking justice, although it’s disturbing that someone committed a crime and was never held accountable. She also doesn’t believe her case was investigated as well as it could have been at the time.
“I’m not seeking out quote-unquote justice for myself because what would that look like 35 years later? I’m not saying to the person who did it ‘I forgive you’ … I have emotions that no one was held accountable because what else could that person have done to people, kids?” she said.
She will never forget the care shown by Gunn and Beatty, who has since died, and encouraged others to follow their compassion.
“I could be just a memory if she didn’t care enough to go out there and use her personal horses, her resources. If she didn’t care enough to look for me, I could have died,” Boone said. “Thank you for just being a good human being and if I had the chance to talk to Mr. Beatty I would say the same thing.
“With today’s climate and with what we see happening with division, it’s important to highlight the ability to be kind and good human beings … a lot of people in the world can follow Mr. Beatty’s lead and Ms. Trudy’s lead. Use what you have to make a difference.”