Fifteen years of extensive interviews, forensic lab work, and hunting down leads that went nowhere.
Fifteen years since a poster offering a $10,000 reward was posted at the Wentworth District police station, now faded from the sun.
Tionda would be 25 this year. Diamond would be 18.
It may have been 15 years since the sisters went missing, but their family has not gone a single day without thinking of them. A private investigator who has been working closely with the family and a retired police detective said they have no plans to give up trying to solve one of Chicago’s most enduring mysteries.
“The fact that it was two missing kids, it just sat in my craw,” said Ed Carroll, a 26-year Chicago police veteran who worked off and on for three years on the Bradley case until his retirement in 2013. “I had never worked a missing persons case before that. I didn’t work another one after that, but it just bothered me. It bothered me that these two kids went missing, vanished into thin air, and we were never able to find them.”
Tionda, 10, and Diamond, 3, disappeared from their apartment in the Oakland neighborhood the morning of July 6, 2001. Tracey Bradley, the girls’ mother, told authorities she last saw her daughters about 6:30 a.m. before leaving for work at Robert Taylor Park, where she prepared lunches for children in a summer camp program. She returned to the apartment in the early afternoon to find a note, apparently written by Tionda, placed on the back of the couch that said they had gone to a nearby school and store.
Tracey Bradley told the Tribune in 2001 that she searched for hours that day before calling the police at 6:30 p.m. that night, sparking a massive investigation.
“State police, FBI, Chicago, they threw everything they had at it,” Carroll said. “They set up a hotline, they set up a command post. As far as I know, there were entire (tactical) teams and detectives detailed to this investigation … at least for the first month, if not longer. When the tips started slowing down, it was full-court press.”
In the beginning, a rotating crew of 100 detectives worked around the clock, searching sewers, lagoons, abandoned buildings and factories, digging through garbage and interviewing more than 100 sex offenders in the area. More than 30 relatives were interviewed, then re-interviewed and interviewed yet again, the Tribune reported at the time.
Rumors spread in the neighborhood, and tips poured in, nearly a thousand in all. A few psychics claimed to have visions of the location of the girls’ bodies, while one tipster said the girls were being held as sex slaves in a small town in central Illinois. Another tip was that a man believed to be Tionda’s biological father from Morocco had kidnapped the girls, taking the investigation overseas. But none of the leads panned out.
By the time Carroll began investigating the case, paperwork in the Bradley sisters’ case filled more than five filing cabinets, he said.
It seemed everyone was a suspect, Carroll said.
“Almost every case I’ve ever worked, especially the violent crimes, you are always able to either include someone or exclude someone, and this was the only case I worked in my entire career where I couldn’t exclude anyone or include anyone,” said Carroll, a detective for about 13 years. “It was extremely frustrating because we just didn’t know who did what.”
Every year, the family holds a vigil on the anniversary of their disappearance to honor the girls and spark interest in the case.
Shelia Bradley-Smith, the girls’ great-aunt who now lives in Minneapolis, said to a degree, the family remains stuck in 2001.
“Whenever there is a possible lead, bones found, a tip that seems viable, we go through the emotions of excitement — ‘Yes, this is it,'” she said. “But of course, we go through the emotions of ‘what if they’re deceased?’ And there is a small part within you that says at least if you find them deceased, you can get closure.”
Carroll said the most important evidence gathered in the investigation were hairs found in the trunk of a van that Tracey Bradley said belonged to the man she identified as Diamond’s father. A month before the girls’ disappearance, Tracey Bradley had filed a paternity suit against the man, but the case was later dismissed. Tests showed the hairs could have belonged to either the girls, or their mother, but the evidence didn’t propel the case further.
“It just wasn’t enough to move forward,” Carroll said.
The girls’ disappearance has been featured on national TV shows such as “America’s Most Wanted,” and on social media, some people still campaign for the search for the girls.
“I think that whatever happened to them, a person that they trusted implicitly was involved,” Carroll said. “I don’t think it was a stranger danger thing. I think it was somebody that they knew and trusted that took them for whatever reason.”
Bradley-Smith said two men had been in that apartment after Tracey left for work.
“Whoever it was knew that those girls were alone,” she said.
Rita and Victoria Bradley, sisters of Diamond and Tionda, said the loss had a lasting impact on their lives.
Rita Bradley, now 26 and the mother of two young girls, said she is overprotective of her children given what happened to her sisters. She gave her younger daughter the middle name Tionda as a tribute to her sister.
“I cry. It’s hurtful,” she said Sunday as she stood next to Victoria outside their mother’s South Side apartment. The sisters said their mother declined to be interviewed. “Not a day goes by when I don’t think about my sisters.”
The girls disappeared just a day before Victoria Bradley’s ninth birthday. Until recent years, Bradley, who turns 24 on Thursday, said she was unable to celebrate her birthday because of her depression over the anniversary of their disappearance.
Growing up, she took solace in playing basketball, starring on the girls varsity team at Washington High School on the Far Southeast Side .
The Bradley sisters recall moments in their missing sisters’ lives, snippets of their personalities.
Diamond “would jump from couch to couch,” Victoria Bradley said. “And she had these dark eyes that used to scare everybody.”
Tionda “liked riding her bike, but dancing was her favorite hobby,” she said.
“She was just the outspoken one of us all, even me,” Rita Bradley said of Tionda. “She knew right from wrong. Like if I did something, she’d be like, ‘No, we weren’t supposed to do that. I’m going to tell mom.’ So she was very smart, real smart.”
The two became emotional as they discussed what life would have been like if their sisters were still in their lives.
“I think about how my kids could’ve grown with their aunties,” Rita said. “Or if Tionda would’ve had kids, our kids playing. … I think about how we could’ve been driving together, going out together, eating together.”
Their mother had two more children after the girls disappeared, siblings who know nothing about Diamond and Tionda, Victoria Bradley said.
“We have to explain to them that they have two other siblings out here,” she said.
Chicago police say they are still investigating the disappearance.
“Current CPD detectives are actively looking into the case,” said Frank Giancamilli, a police spokesman.
Fifteen years on the job, P. Foster, the private investigator who prefers to be identified by only the initial of his first name, still vows that every tip that still comes in will be checked out. Foster said he and Carroll sometimes work together but also go solo.
“It’s fallen on our backs, and we’re not going to give up on it,” he said. “And I even told Ed, if it takes my children’s children to find these girls, then that’s what it’s going to be.”