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“We call it a nightmare”; 26 years after Tennessee State University student Marcus Rutledge’s disappearance, family still hunts for answers

The 23-year-old was last seen on June 8, 1998, in Nashville, Tennessee

Memorial Day weekend 1998. It was a fun time for the Rutledge family -- full of laughter, memories, and catching up.

David Rutledge remembers that time well. “Great time, good fellowship, just good camaraderie,” he told Dateline. “We had a little family gathering.”

David’s son, 23-year-old Tennessee State University student Marcus Rutledge, had flown to his hometown of Ypsilanti, Michigan for the holiday weekend. “He had a break for the holiday,” David recalled. “That was the last time we were together as a family.”

With classes starting up again on Tuesday, Marcus hopped on a flight back to Nashville, Tennessee.

It was the last time Marcus would make that trip from Michigan to Nashville. It was the last time he would visit his childhood home and hug his parents goodbye.

Because just a few weeks later, on June 8, 1998, Marcus disappeared…

Marcus Rutledge
Marcus Rutledge

Marcus was raised in Ypsilanti. “I think you would describe it as a blue-collar town,” David said of Ypsilanti. “A really thriving community.”

Growing up, Marcus took part in his fair share of activities. “Marcus was in the band, so he loved playing instruments,” his older sister, Felicia Rutledge, told Dateline. “He played football, he played soccer, he really enjoyed reading.”

He had his fair share of friends, too. “He had his own neighborhood kids that he would hang out with,” David Rutledge said.

One of those kids was Eddie Beach. Eddie told Dateline that he went to middle and high school with Marcus. The two also played football together. “He was a very, very funny person, but he was serious about everything and anything in school,” he said. “Once he got to know you, and he trusted you, he would give you the shirt off his back. That was the type of person he was.”

Marcus’s father remembers his son’s loving personality all too well. “To know him was to like him,” David said. “He was a good kid. He was helpful. He always had a smile on his face.”

Eddie Beach told Dateline that he and Marcus grew apart after graduating high school. Edie pursued his own endeavors and Marcus went off to Tennessee State University — the school he always knew he would attend.

“It’s my Alma Mater and his mother’s and Felicia’s,” David said.

David told Dateline that he and his wife, Geraldine, met while attending Tennessee. After graduating, they decided to settle down in Geraldine’s hometown of Ypsilanti.

Felicia Rutledge recalled always wanting to follow in her parents’ footsteps. “We had always gone back and forth to Nashville to visit my dad and my mom’s friends,” she said. “So we would go there often before we went to school there.”

By 1998, Marcus was a senior at Tennessee State. He also had a 4-year-old son. “His name is Darius. His mother was a student there at Tennessee State, as well,” David said.

Marcus lived in Nashville and Darius lived in Knoxville with his mother. “Marcus used to travel from Nashville to Knoxville every chance he’d get to visit Darius,” David said.

At the time of his disappearance, Marcus was no longer in a relationship with Darius’s mother. David told Dateline his son had a girlfriend. “When we would travel to Nashville, we’d often have dinner with the two of them,” David said, adding that Marcus also had a 2-year-old daughter with his girlfriend.

On the morning of June 8, 1998, Marcus was with his girlfriend. Metro Nashville Police Department Detective Matthew Filter told Dateline “he had spent the night of June 7th with her and then he left the morning of June 8th,” and took his daughter to daycare.

“The girlfriend last spoke to him at about 1:30 p.m. on June 8th by phone, but she didn’t know exactly where he physically was at the time,” the detective said.

David Rutledge told Dateline that on the evening of June 8, he and his wife got a concerning phone call from Marcus’s girlfriend, who told them she couldn’t get in touch with Marcus. “We said, ‘Hey. No, we haven’t heard from him,’” David recalled. He said he then tried calling Marcus himself and also got no response. They reached back out to his girlfriend asking if she’d heard from Marcus yet. “She said, ‘No, I still haven’t, and I’m getting worried, I want to go over to his apartment,’” David remembered.

Marcus lived alone at a duplex in Nashville.

According to David, Marcus’s girlfriend called his former roommate and friend, Athan Gibbs, to help her get into his home. “So, they essentially opened a window and climbed through to get into his house,” David said. “It was after they got into the house that they said, ‘Nothing’s here and the dog is in the bathroom with the door closed.’”

David’s heart dropped. “We said, ‘Call the police right away,’” he recalled. “That’s, to the best of my memory, how this whole thing unfolded. We call it a nightmare.”

The Metro Nashville Police Department started the search for Marcus. “It seemed like a lot of emphasis was placed on searching the house since it was the last place he was believed to be,” Det. Filter told Dateline. “And acquiring to his phone record to see who he was last in contact with. His car was also missing.”

Marcus’s car, a red four-door 1995 Plymouth Neon with Michigan plates, was also missing. “So, there were a lot of search efforts to find the car,” the detective said.

David Rutledge recalls the community support to find his son and the car. “The police involved the newspaper and the TV networks, and they were constantly broadcasting the license plate to Marcus’s car,” he said. “I have to give kudos to the press and the media there for keeping this incident in front of the community for what I thought, was an unusually long time.”

Their efforts paid off. On July 1, 1998, a month after Marcus vanished, his car was found at the Riverwood Apartments on Cabot Drive in Nashville. “That was actually on the opposite side of town from where Marcus lived at the time,” Det. Matthew Filter noted.

“There was nothing found inside that car that helped investigators get any closer as to what happened to him,” Det. Filter said. “There were some latent fingerprints developed but, to date, there have been no matches to those prints.”

Detective Filter told Dateline that be believes foul play is involved in Marcus’s disappearance. “Based on the character portrayed by his family and friends, he would not have abruptly broken off contact with everyone,” he said. “He would not have abandoned his property, including his dog, and I believe if he needed to lie low for some reason, he would’ve likely told his sister or his best friend at the time.”

Marcus’s family doesn’t believe he would just have up and disappeared, either. “We’d ask each other — we’d say, ‘You think Marcus got mixed up in something he didn’t know how to get out of?’” David told Dateline. “It haunts us, because we just don’t understand how a person could just, like — the earth swallows them up and there’s no trace.”

Less than a year after Marcus disappeared, his friend and former roommate Athan Gibbs was murdered. According to a 1999 article published in The Tennessean, Athan was gunned down on February 23, 1999, at his duplex in Nashville. At the time, a man who was described as Athan’s friend, was charged with the murder. “They made an arrest but the charges got dropped for some reason,” Det. Filter told Dateline. “So I don’t know if the case was reopened for further investigation or what -- what the deal was with it.”

For Marcus’s family, Athan’s murder raised even more questions. “I mean, I think there’s some connection, but the police don’t think so,” David said. Detective Filter told Dateline that a connection between the cases was investigated. “Earlier investigators did look for a connection between the two, but they did not find one and did not believe the two cases were related,” he said.

But that doesn’t mean the detective has given up looking for answers. “I like to hold out hope that all of these cold cases could be solved one day,” he said. “It’s just a matter of getting that right information and us getting pointed in the right direction.”

Marcus’s family is still holding on to hope, too. In 2015, Geraldine Rutledge died before she could see a resolution in her son’s case. “She said to me, ‘Only thing I want you to do is take care of the kids,’” David recalled. He intends to live up to that promise. “His mother passed away not losing hope and I haven’t lost hope,” he said.

As for Felicia, she’s remaining positive that, one day, she’ll find out what happened to her baby brother. “I hope so,” she said.

Marcus is 6” with brown eyes. At the time of his disappearance, he had black hair and weighed 190 lbs.

He would be 49 years old today.

Anyone with information about Marcus’s case is asked to call the Metro Nashville Police Department Cold Case Unit at 615-862-7329.