When a toddler vanishes from a campground in Joshua Tree National Park, her name becomes a national headline overnight. The decades-long investigation to determine what happened to her leads authorities in many directions and a father to the brink of his sanity.
- Patricia Lee “Patty” Winters Bradbury Find a Grave. (n.d.)
- U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Indian Cove. National Parks Service
- U.S. Department of the Interior. (n.d.). Animals. National Parks Service
- “Laura Ann Bradbury A Father’s Search” by Michael W. Bradbury and Dana Scott Winters
- Los Angeles Times: Joshua Tree Area Combed for Missing Girl. By Staff
- Los Angeles Times: Desert Combed for Missing Huntington Beach Girl, 3. By Mark Landsbaum
- The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California
- Los Angeles Times: Girl, 3, Missing in Joshua Tree Area May Be Kidnapping Victim. By Mark Pinsky and Gary Jarlson
- Los Angeles Times: Girl, Missing in Desert Now Feared Kidnapped. By Mark Pinsky and Gary Jarlson
- The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California
- Los Angeles Times: Search Stopped; Girl Believed Kidnapped. By Mark Pinsky
- Los Angeles Times: Patience Was Key In Desert Search By Mark Pinsky
- Los Angeles Times: Task Force Will Try to Locate Girl. By Mark Pinsky
- Los Angeles Times: Fund Drive Started to Aid Family of Missing Girl, 3. By Mark Pinsky
- Los Angeles Times: Reward Offered in Case of Missing 3-Year-Old. By staff
- UPI. (1984, October 26). The parents of missing 3-year-old Laura Bradbury camped Friday… UPI
- Los Angeles Times: In The High Desert, The Vigil Continues. By Mark Pinsky
- Los Angeles Times: Many Sighting of Missing Girl Reported. By David Reyes
- Los Angeles Times: Search Detectives Check Leads. By Mark Pinsky
- Los Angeles Times: New Lead Appears in Kidnapping. By Jean Conley
- The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California
- Los Angeles Times: Man Sought in Missing Girl Case. By Jean Conle
- Los Angeles Times: Deputies Clear Man in Case of Missing Girl, 3. By Bill Billiter
- Los Angeles Times: Searching for Laura. By Staff
- Los Angeles Times: Renewed Volunteer Effort. By Staff
- Los Angeles Times: Sketch Released of Man Suspected of Kidnapping Girl, 3. By Susan McCallum
- Los Angeles Times: Detective No Longer Has Major Role in Hunt for Girl. By Kenneth Bunting
- Los Angeles Times: Family of Missing Girl Prays She Will Be Home for Holiday. By G.M. Bush
- Los Angeles Times: Tips Sought in Bradbury Case. By Staff
- Los Angeles Times: Volunteers to Comb Wide Area for Laura. By Heidi Evans
- Los Angeles Times: Gut Feelings Fuel New Hunt For Girl. By David Reyes
- Los Angeles Times: Office Is Established In Costa Mesa to Centralize Search Efforts for Laura. By staff
- Wride, N. (1985, January 12). Anaheim : Probation officer jailed on molestation charges. Los Angeles Times
- UPI. (1985, January 15). Search campaign begun for missing 3-year-old. UPI
- UPI. (1985, January 15). Teen television star Ricky Schroder accepted a silver bracelet… UPI
- Los Angles Times: Mother Jailed For Look-Alike Child. By Deborah Hastings
- Pinsky, M. I. (1985, January 19). Case becomes a national cause : Hunt for Laura Bradbury involves a growing army. Los Angeles Times
- Los Angeles Times: The Laura Nightmare. By Deborah Hastings
- Los Angeles Times: Search Continues for Missing Girl One Year Later. By Staff
- The Desert Sun: Laura Bradbury Year After Kidnap, The Trail Grows Cold. By Stephan Stern
- Pinsky, M. I. (1985, October 18). Missing Laura : For parents, there is no quitting. Los Angeles Times
- Sahagun, L., & Getlin, J. (1986, March 25). Bones of child found near site of Bradbury Camp. Los Angeles Times
- Los Angeles Times: Bradbury Center’s Volunteers Keep On. By Mark Pinsky
- Los Angeles Times: Investigators Study Bone Fragments for Bradbury Case Link. By Maria La Ganga and Louis Sahagun
- Los Angeles Times: Cal State Professor Cast as Anthropological Detective. By Steve Emmons
- Los Angeles Times : Investigators Study Bone Fragments for Bradbury Case Link. By Maria La Ganga and Louis Sahagun
- The Los Angeles Times from Los Angeles, California
- Los Angeles Times : Bradbury Criticizes Official’s Comments on Bone Discovery. By Marcida Dodson and Steve Emmons
- UPI. (1986, March 29). About 300 sheriff’s deputies and volunteers began searching a… UPI
- UPI. (1986, April 11). Missing girl may have been seen last month, father says. UPI
- Los Angeles Times. (1986, April 30). FBI lab can’t say if remains are those of Bradbury Girl. Los Angeles Times
- Ciotti, P. (1986, July 20). Mike Bradbury’s obsession : On the afternoon of Oct. 18, 1984, his daughter, Laura, disappeared. Los Angeles Times
- The Desert Sun : Coroner Identifies Skull as Missing Man. By Staff
- San Bernardino County Sun : Search Widens for 8-year-old girl. By John Whitehair
- Pinsky, M. I. (1988, March 29). Search for 8 year old girl continues pt.2. Newspapers.com
- San Bernardino County Sun: Family Awaits Word On Fate of Missing Daughter. By John Whitehair
- Los Angeles Times: Sex Offender Named Suspect in Girl’s Death. By Louis Sahagun
- San Bernardino County Sun: Reward Fund Set Up in Missing Girl Case. By John Whitehair
- Los Angeles Times : Body Found in Desert Area Identified As Missing Girl. By Louis Sahagun
- Pinsky, M. I. (1988, October 17). Answer to 3-year-old’s disappearance elusive but the pain remains. Los Angeles Times
- Serrano, R. A. (1988, December 21). Serial-Killer Task Force makes arrest in one case. Los Angeles Times
- Los Angles Times : S. D. Murder Suspect Questioned in Laura Bradbury Case. By Bill Billiter
- Los Angeles Times : Sheriff’s Dept. Links Girl, Bone Pieces. By Mark Pinsky and Marcida Dodson
- UPI. (1989, January 26). Bones may unravel Bradbury Mystery. UPI
- The Los Angeles Times: Laura Bradbury Hunt Ends Tests Indicate Child is Dead. By Nieson Himmel
- Los Angeles Times: Laura Bradbury Death Shown by DNA Evidence. By Carla Rivera
- Los Angeles Times: Laura’s Legacy. By Patrick Mott
- Los Angeles Times: The Mystery of Laura. By Kurt Streeter
Hi park enthusiasts,
I’m your host Delia D’Ambra and the story I’m going to talk about today is one you might recognize.
It’s the harrowing tale of a missing girl who was snatched from a busy California campground in the middle of the day…never to be seen alive again.
When 3-year-old Laura Bradbury vanished from Indian Cove Campground inside of Joshua Tree National Park in October 1984, her case was widely publicized throughout the 1980’s and 90’s.
There are tons of news reports and articles about her and law enforcement’s decades-long search to find her. Unfortunately, Laura’s name became as nationally recognized as that of Adam Walsh, Jacob Wetterling and Amber Hagerman, just to name a few.
The only difference between Laura’s case and those others I mentioned, is that her disappearance and the investigation that ensued took place almost entirely within the rugged, rocky and sweltering environment of a desert landscape.
Joshua Tree gets its name from the iconic trees that grows there. According to the National Park Service, settlers with Mormon and religious beliefs who first saw the tree while traveling on foot into the American West looked at the way its branches stretch out, almost pointing like a guide into the desert …and they believed, like God had been for the Biblical hero Joshua, that the trees were divine compasses for their journey.
No one knows for sure if that’s how the tree REALLY got its name, but it makes for kind of a cool story.
Researchers believe the average life span of one Joshua Tree is 150 years…but there are some that tress in the park that have been noted as being EVEN older than that. Its biology allows it to survive in such an unforgiving environment.
And just like the Joshua Tree, more time…and more resilience were all authorities back in 1984 needed to find Laura Bradbury…but they didn’t have the luxury of either of those things.
Similar to the murky truth behind how the tree got its name…so too is the shroud of mystery surrounding the identity of the person responsible for what happened to Laura.
This is Park Predators.
Around 4:30pm on Thursday October 18th, 1984, eight-year-old Travis Bradbury kicked around some dirt at his family’s campsite inside of Joshua Tree National Park. Less than a half hour earlier his father and mother, Mike and Patty…his younger sister Laura and his baby sister Emily– had all arrived in their V.W. van and started setting up their tent, sleeping bags and camping gear.
The drive from where they lived in Huntington Beach, California to their favorite campsite at Indian Cove Campground–site number 17 –had taken about three hours. Not long after pulling into the dusty resort, Travis had to use the restroom.
Thankfully, Indian Cove was a designated campground with some paved roads, a park ranger station as well as several portable toilets. Around 4:30pm, Travis asked his dad Mike if he could walk to the toilet depot, which was only about 100 feet away from the family’s campsite. Literally within walking distance.
When Travis asked to go, the sun was already starting to set, and Mike didn’t want to lose any precious daylight having to walk his son to and from the toilets, so he told Travis that he could go on his own and within a minute or two Travis had taken off toward the restrooms with his 3-year-old sister Laura toddling along behind him. Patty, their mother was pre-occupied nursing 5-month-old baby Emily inside the family’s tent while Mike had been busy unloading the van and setting up.
No one was concerned in the slightest that Laura had followed her brother to the toilets. The siblings always stuck together and the area where they were walking to was smack dab in the middle of dozens of other campers setting up for the weekend. There were people everywhere.
According to the book A Father’s Search, when Travis got to the door of one of the restroom stalls, he turned around and instructed his sister to stay put. While he was using the bathroom he saw Laura’s small shadow lingering and skipping around in the dirt outside of the port-o-john. Once again, he told her to stand still and wait for him to finish up so they could walk back together.
Before he could get out of the stall though, he noticed Laura’s shadow fade away in the direction of the family’s campsite. Travis gave up and figured he’d catch up to his sister in a minute on the way to where the rest of their family was.
But about five minutes later, Travis walked up to his family’s camping spot and realized Laura wasn’t there. He alerted his parents and within a few minutes the family started calling out Laura’s name and walking around looking for her.
As five minutes turned into ten and then fifteen…the mild concern that Laura had just returned to the wrong campsite or was wandering around somewhere aimlessly, grew more and more into a gripping fear that she was lost…or worse, had been taken.
Patty stayed put at the campsite hollering Laura’s name hoping that her daughter would come walking up any minute.
Mike and Travis hopped into the family’s van and started driving around the campground calling out Laura’s name too. Other people setting up their tents near the Bradburys stopped what they were doing and joined in the search. Mike went up to the ranger station on site but according to his book A Father’s Search, he found it empty with the lights off.
Another big problem was that by 5:15pm, the sunlight had almost completed faded and the Bradbury’s were working in darker conditions with each passing minute. Eventually more time went by with no sign of Laura and Patty had to go into their tent and take care of Emily and Travis. The loss of sunlight caused the temperature in the park to dip into the low 40’s and the kids were getting cold.
While Patty tended to them, Mike armed himself with a flashlight and circled up with a few other campers who’d joined him to search scrubby areas of brush and rock outcroppings that surrounded the campground.
The thought was that maybe Laura had just wandered off from the main road and ended up trapped or turned around in the tall rock formations that hemmed in Indian Cove campground on three sides. The only places she could have gone were the roughly 18 campsites on the premises, down into crevices in the rock formations or towards the highway where visitors turned off to get into the campground. There was literally NO WHERE else she could have gone if she’d wandered away on her own.
Mike and other campers searched as long as they could into the night, but eventually they had to give up.
Within a matter hours, law enforcement officials from San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office and rangers with the National Park Service arrived and started working with the Bradburys to coordinate a more formal search effort for Laura.
Early the next morning – Friday October 19th– sheriff’s deputies and park rangers organized a grid search and Indian Cove campground had transformed the resort from a quiet serene recreation spot to a full-blown missing person command post.
The Bradburys provided several search and rescue bloodhound handlers one of Laura’s shoes. For a few hours, the group scoured the dusty trail that led between the Bradburys campsite and the portable toilet depot. In several places the dogs hit on large scent pools and followed what was believed to be Laura’s scent further away from the populated areas of the campground.
It didn’t take long for the dogs to track Laura’s scent in a straight line towards an amphitheater area on the far side of the campground. There, in some sand, searchers found several shoeprints that appeared to be made from a small child’s sandal.
The sandal tracks were a promising sign, because according to Mike and Patty, the outfit Laura had last been wearing was described as a green sweater with a hood, lavender pants, and sandals with a rainbow design on them. Authorities brought Mike over to try and help identify the sandal tracks as those of his daughter and he confirmed he believed they belonged to Laura.
The shoe imprints continued in a line along the right-hand side of a sandy berm behind the amphitheater…but then they suddenly trailed down the side of the berm a few inches and disappeared near the edge of a paved roadway. Not far from where the shoeprint trail stopped, authorities also found fresh tire tracks.
That evidence was NOT a good sign. To investigators and the family, the sandal prints vanishing by the road right next to where tire marks were… indicated that little Laura had likely gotten into or been put into a vehicle.
But according to reporting by The Los Angeles Times, law enforcement didn’t immediately jump to an abduction theory. They considered it a possibility in light of the evidence they were looking at…but in reality, they were still very much of the mindset that Laura had just wandered off on her own and gotten lost in the nearby desert landscape. Technically, they couldn’t definitively tie the mysterious sandal tracks to her, so it was just a hunch.
By nightfall on Friday temperatures in the park had dropped into the 40’s. That caused the family a lot of concern because IF Laura was still out there alive somewhere walking around alone…she had nothing but her sweater and pants to keep her warm. There was a real fear that she could succumb to the elements if she wasn’t found soon.
A spokesman for the San Bernardino sheriff’s office told the LA Times quote—“we believe two nights would be the maximum the child could survive the exposure”—end quote.
That night droves of rescue searchers and deputies continued to work around the clock to search new grids in and around the campground. Groups had brought in horses and more tracking dogs to help in the effort. Also, by that time, Laura’s grandparents and Patty’s sister had arrived at Indian Cove and were brought up to speed by San Bernardino detectives on what was going on.
The LA Times reported that overnight on Friday into Saturday morning more than 200 deputies and 15 park rangers combed a radius of eight to ten square miles of Joshua Tree National Park looking for Laura.
Several rescue squads flew over the campground in a helicopter and rescue workers with NPS suited up with ropes and climbing gear to climb the rock formations surrounding Indian Cove.
The purpose of that effort was for searchers to get a better vantage point of the inside of the canyons. I guess their thought was that if Laura had slipped or become wedged somewhere in the rock formations, then climbing up higher and looking back down might reveal that.
The trouble with all the different aerial approaches law enforcement took though was that Laura only stood a few feet tall and weighed roughly 30 pounds. Her blond hair and green sweater were probably going to blend right in with the scrubby desert landscape and rock. Finding her bobbing around or stuck somewhere was going to be like trying to find a needle in a haystack.
Another concern in the back of everyone’s minds was that maybe wildlife in the park had considered the toddler as prey. According to the National Park Service some of the more aggressive predators that were known to roam in the remote landscape near Indian Cove campground were coyotes, mountain lions, rattlesnakes, and bobcats. But a kind of glaring issue with an animal attack theory was that wildlife experts felt strongly there would have been evidence of that somewhere near the campground.
For example, if a venomous snake had bitten Laura, her body should have still been around somewhere. If a larger predator like a mountain lion or coyotes had snatched her, then a trail of blood, bloody clothing or some kind of disturbed ground should be around pointing to that.
While putting this episode together, one or our researchers interviewed a wildlife expert named Denise Peterson with the Mountain Lion Foundation in California. Denise said that in general mountain lions and coyotes don’t typically view humans as prey and usually stay away from areas with a lot of human activity unless they’re desperate for food. A more natural means of attack for an animal like that would be to take its prey by surprise then drag it to a more secluded area to feed.
So, if Laura had been taken in that manner, there should have been signs pointing to that kind of activity going on…but there was zero evidence found in the campground or the surrounding desert that pointed to an animal attacking her and dragging her away.
As the afternoon of Saturday October 20th stretched into evening, Laura had been missing for a full 48 hours. Law enforcement officials were exhausted and so were members of the Bradbury family.
Detectives had asked Mike and Patty to take polygraphs and both agreed. The Los Angeles Times reported that both passed with flying colors.
According to the book A Father’s Search, 8-year-old Travis had a particularly hard time dealing with his sister’s disappearance. His parents told news outlets that he blamed himself for what had happened and during the first two days of searching he’d retreated into himself and could barely utter words.
He found a stray cat in the campground and started spending all of his time hanging out with it, not saying word and not participating in the searches for his sister. His family told reporters that the impact of Laura going missing while in the company of her brother had deeply affected Travis and he was too young to be able to process his overwhelming feelings of internal guilt.
Around this time, the Bradbury family had moved from Indian Cove campground to a nearby motel to set up a semi-permanent residence while they continued to look for Laura. An actual search and rescue command post had been set up not far from their hotel at the National Park Service headquarters in Joshua Tree.
Around six o’clock on Saturday searchers called off their efforts for the day due to lack of light.
Mark Pinsky and Gary Jarlson reported for the Los Angeles Times that on Sunday morning October 21st a detective named Gene Bowlin who worked for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office held a press conference and announced that the investigation into what happened to Laura had changed from being a missing persons case to a kidnapping. He said the FBI had joined the investigation and the physical searches for Laura in and around the campground were being called off.
I guess by that point, with no trace of her having shown up, authorities had finally come around to the idea that the only logical explanation as to where Laura went HAD to do with someone taking her against her will. Bowlin told The Times quote—“At this point our emphasis has swung from a search and rescue operation to a criminal investigation.”—end quote.
The announcement didn’t necessarily shock the Bradbury family because pretty much from the moment Mike and Patty had learned about a small child’s shoeprints being found near the amphitheater and then they stopped next to fresh tire tracks, they’d believed Laura had been kidnapped. They’d just been unable up until that point to convince law enforcement that was the avenue of investigation police needed to be pursuing.
Mike told reporter Mark Pinsky quote—“I cannot believe she’s in this area. No way. I was thoroughly convinced there was foul play two nights ago.”—end quote.
The LA Times reported that following the sheriff’s office’s announcement, Patty took Travis and Emily back home to Huntington Beach and Mike stayed put in Joshua Tree to work alongside investigators.
Some source material reported this part of the story a little differently though. Several articles, including one from UPI News said that Patty and the kids stayed in the park and lived in a camper loaned to them by a park ranger. So, I’m not sure which version is true or if it’s a combination of both, like maybe Patty took Travis and Emily back home for a day or two but then returned to be with Mike in Joshua or what, but regardless…the family in some form or another had a presence in park near Indian Cove Campground despite the search for Laura being called off.
Detective Bowlin’s announcement that Laura’s disappearance was now a criminal matter had a profound effect on everyone who’d been following the case. The idea that a kidnapper had taken an innocent little girl from a busy campground right beneath her family and dozens of other witnesses’ noses just seemed unthinkable.
In an interview the family did with The Los Angeles Times, Patty and Mike told the newspaper that they’d been coming to Joshua Tree for 20 years—the last eight of which were spent camping at Indian Cove. They said they’d never felt unsafe there.
Back in the Bradbury’s hometown, teachers and staff at Hilltop Nursery School where Laura was a student gathered for a vigil to pray for her safe return. The group planted what they referred to as a “wishing tree” in Laura’s honor. Parents whose children attended the school told LA Times reporter Bill Billiter they were plagued with worry and concern for the Bradbury family. Several of the parents made pleas through the media outlets who covered the vigil, saying quote – “Please, if you have Laura, please let her go home. Please let her be with the people who love her.” –end quote.
At the same time Detective Bowlin announced the case was a kidnapping, he also said that four other investigators who specialized in child abuse cases had been assigned to the case… AND his department was looking into a tip that had come in about a potential suspect.
He said that someone had reported seeing a mysterious 50 to 60-year-old man with a stocky build and gray hair wearing glasses near the Bradbury’s campsite and behind the campground amphitheater right around the time Laura disappeared. This man was said to be driving a blue van that had beige curtains in the windows.
Two days later, Bowlin updated the press again and told reporters that a newly formed task force made up of 17 officers from San Bernardino’s kidnapping unit, homicide unit and crimes against children unit was going to be solely dedicated to Laura’s case.
During that presser Bowlin also clarified that investigators believed the blue van that had been seen parked near the portable toilets and the Bradbury’s campsite was a Ford Econoline model.
The next day—which marked one week since Laura had vanished– the Orange County Search and Rescue fund offered up a $15,000 reward for information leading to an arrest or the identity of Laura’s abductor. Flyers with her name, age and description went out all over and were published in newspapers across the country.
Immediately following that, tips poured into the task force’s hotline and people were reporting tons of sightings of suspicious Ford vans and middle-aged men who were driving them. According to news reports, authorities tracked down and stopped several men with blue vans who matched the description of the potential suspect, but ultimately those efforts led nowhere.
Along with potential suspect sightings, hundreds of reports of Laura being spotted across California and beyond came in. A week and a half after Laura vanished, San Bernardino Sheriff’s Office expanded its investigation into Riverside, San Diego and Kern counties in California. Tipsters who called in said they’d seen little girls matching Laura’s description in those counties…while other reports said she was seen with someone as far away as Ontario, Canada.
Basically, the information coming into the task force’s hotline was all over the place.
The most common suggestion callers made was for police to investigate registered sex offenders who lived in Laura’s neighborhood in Huntington Beach as well as any sex offenders who lived close to Indian Cove campground.
Authorities were already on that line of thinking though. According to an article by the LA Times, 11 days after the abduction, members of the task force had already been sifting through addresses of known sex offenders’ and figuring out which ones lived closest to the park or were known to be in the park around the time Laura disappeared.
Mark Pinsky reported that by November 1st, investigators had rounded up known offenders in the California sex offender database…and discovered there were 3,000 in Southern California alone. After two weeks of attempting to track all of those offenders down though, it was determined some of them had failed to register their new addresses and eventually only 50 had been successfully located and interviewed. All of those 50 were cleared and authorities had to move on.
Just as hope was dwindling and lead detective Bowlin was telling the press the situation bordered on hopeless…a lead came in that ignited investigators’ spirits.
Someone had called in a blue van owner who fit the potential suspect’s description to a T…and confirmed that he was at Indian Cove campground in late October…with weapons in his vehicle.
Jean Conley reported for the Los Angeles Times that the San Bernardino Sheriff’s office asked for the public’s assistance so they could investigate a white man who they only knew went by the first name Al.
Authorities had gotten Al’s name from an anonymous caller who’d stated Al was between 58 and 65 years old, had gray hair, wore glasses and was last seen driving a 1963 blue van into Indian Cove Campground the same week the Bradbury family arrived.
The tipster said they knew Al had left the recreation area shortly after Laura disappeared. Unfortunately, park service records couldn’t prove that though because in the off-season rangers did not keep a log of campsite customers.
But what made Al super suspicious to investigators, was the fact that he was said to have a sawed-off shotgun and other firearms inside of his van. The anonymous caller told police that Al was a known garage sale trader who drove around Southern California and the Mojave Desert living out of his van.
Investigators felt so strongly that they needed to talk with Al that they put a BOLO out on him stretching from California to Nevada to Oregon. A spokesman for the sheriff’s office told reporters quote – “We are as strong as we can be that the man being sought either knows where Laura is or can give information to lead officers to her.” – end quote.
Within a day of requesting information on Al, Bill Billiter reported for the LA Times that investigators hit a BIG snag.
As it turned out, Al had heard his description go out over a radio broadcast and stopped to talk with police the first chance he got to inform detectives that he was NOT the guy responsible for what happened to Laura. Billiter reported that Al had voluntarily spoke with police in early November and provided an alibi for his whereabouts the evening of October 18th, which was when Laura had been taken.
Whatever his alibi was, was never reported by any news publication that I could find…but I guess it was solid enough for the sheriff’s office to clear him entirely. During the same press announcement when San Bernardino detectives told everyone Al wasn’t their guy…they dropped another BIG update.
A spokesman for the agency told reporters that investigators had developed ANOTHER prime suspect who closely resembled Al and who also drove a blue van in the Indian Cove campground on October 18th.
According to the LA Times article on this, the sheriff’s office said their latest suspect was a white man in his 40s or 50’s who had a heavy build like Al but had more of a pot belly instead of just being stocky.
This new suspect also had gray hair and drove a metallic blue van that detectives said witnesses had reported seeing parked in at least two different spots in the campground on the afternoon of October 18th.
One of the locations it had reportedly been seen idling in was right next to where investigators had found a child’s sandal shoeprint near the campground’s amphitheater.
A few days after making that announcement, police released a composite sketch of their new suspect. Authorities said they’d been able to get a drawing done thanks to two witnesses who’d come forward to report his physical appearance after they’d remembered giving him directions near Indian Cove campground on the day Laura vanished.
In mid-November, around the same time the composite sketch went out to media outlets, the Bradbury family officially left Indian Cove campground and moved back to their home in Huntington Beach.
Patty and Mike told reporters that the decision to return home without Laura was a difficult one and heartbreaking in many ways, but after three weeks of living in the campground and Mike missing work, the reality of their situation had taken a toll both physically and financially.
According to the book, A Father’s Search, Mike worked as an antique furniture restorer and Patty was a full-time stay at home mom. The couple owned a small store in their hometown that specialized in repairing and making wicker furniture. In the weeks they’d been away, the business had suffered.
Thanksgiving Day of 1984 was a lonely holiday for the family. No updates came in the case…and to everyone’s dismay, a bit of a blunder had occurred.
According to Kenneth Bunting’s reporting for the Los Angeles Times, around the second week of November, a private investigator from Orange County named Walter Goode had offered up his services to the Bradbury family. Patty’s sister told The Times that the family never really formally accepted or supported Walter’s involvement, but they also never told him to go away either.
By the end of the month, Walter had conducted his own search of Indian Cove campground and spent a lot of time talking to the media about his work on the case. What resulted was a big PR mess.
Park service rangers and San Bernardino sheriff’s investigators said that the ground search Walter had done had interfered with their investigation. Not only that, the agencies also said he’d made false claims that he’d found evidence in the wilderness surrounding the campsite that was directly related to Laura’s disappearance.
In light of the sheriff’s office’s accusations, Walter had to address the controversy. He called a press conference at his office…BUT instead of going through with it…he bailed at the last minute and completely fell off the radar.
The Bradbury’s response to Walter messing around on their daughter’s case was aggravation and frustration.
Throughout December of 1984 and into 1985 very little happened with the case. Authorities had been unable to identify the mystery man in the blue van and calls that had steadily been streaming into the task force’s hotline had dried up.
During this time, the Bradbury’s transformed their wicker furniture shop in Huntington Beach into a headquarters for volunteers that they called “The Laura Center”. For the first few months of 1985, the family and people who wanted to help them worked out of the store to coordinate vigils and distribute bumper stickers, buttons and flyers with Laura’s name and information on them.
At one point the family was able to get her picture put on milk cartons that were distributed nation-wide…but even with THAT MUCH widespread attention, no new information materialized.
The Los Angeles Times reported that in February, a couple contacted San Bernardino investigators to report they knew a man that sort of matched the composite sketch of Laura’s alleged kidnapper.
According to the tipsters, the guy the couple said they were friends with had shaved his facial hair, purposefully lost a ton of weight and had started wearing contact lenses instead of wire-framed glasses shortly after the composite sketch went out and Laura case entered the national spotlight.
Unfortunately, law enforcement never followed up with this couple until months after they’d reported the information and by the time detectives did get around to interviewing them, they no longer lived at their previous address.
In a strange twist of fate, the couple was reported missing by their friends in April of 1985…and in July of that year their remains were found in Joshua Tree National Park. News reports state that someone had shot them to death and buried their bodies in shallow graves.
The source material is slim about this crime, but apparently San Bernardino sheriff’s office chalked the couple’s murders up to just coincidence and said that upon further investigation the pair was known to have drug connections in Southern California. Detectives dismissed any possibility that they had credible information related to Laura’s case.
While that part of law enforcement’s investigation was unfolding, UPI News reported that teen television star Ricky Schroder who coincidentally was one of Laura’s distant relatives went on a TV program pleading for anyone with information to come forward. He wore a silver bracelet with Laura’s named etched on it and announced that he was launching a campaign to raise funds and sell similar metal bracelets to support Mike and Patty.
Ricky’s campaign caught some steam and got lots of media attention in the spring of 1985, but unfortunately it didn’t do much to help investigators identify who had taken her.
Laura’s 4th birthday passed on May 29th of 1985 and by June authorities had to publicly admit that they’d hit a wall in the investigation. They were desperate to catch a break. The sheriff’s office announced that police officers in Southern California should consider any and all-potential sightings of Laura as full-fledged leads, no matter what.
But that call out kind of backfired…in a BIG way.
According to reporting by Deborah Hastings, in May of 1985, a 36-year-old woman named Cheryl Mixsell had driven her husband’s blue van to pick up her two young daughters at a church in Pasadena, California. Her youngest happen to look nearly identical to Laura Bradbury.
A witness driving by the girl’s daycare spotted Cheryl loading her daughters into her van and called police thinking Cheryl was Laura’s kidnapper. When officers from Pasadena PD arrived, they questioned Cheryl relentlessly and ultimately arrested her for having two outstanding traffic tickets.
For 24 hours they interrogated her about Laura, refused to let her see her own daughters who’d been left in police custody, and officers would not let her speak with her husband. After making Cheryl spend a night in jail, Pasadena police released her after contacting San Bernardino detectives and realizing that Cheryl’s youngest daughter was NOT Laura.
It was a terrible case of mistaken identity and a clear example of law enforcement jumping the gun. Cheryl was cleared of all suspicion and San Bernardino had to issue a formal apology recognizing that a gross error had been made.
By the time the one-year anniversary of Laura’s disappearance rolled around in October of 1985, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children announced that she was one the best-known missing children in the entire United States. There was nowhere you could go where you DIDN’T hear or see something related to her case.
The San Bernardino County Sun reported that during the first year Laura had been missing investigators with the sheriff’s office and the FBI had pursued roughly 40,000 leads and investigated 2,000 potential suspects.
However, despite those efforts, no credible lead had emerged that helped detectives. The once robust task force of 17 to 32 investigators had dwindled to just six by the end of year one and tips from the public that had been coming in by the hundreds were down to just a handful a day.
Essentially, law enforcement was forced to go back to square one and re-evaluate the case from top to bottom. One of the first things they did was look at WHO –other than her family members—Laura had been around in the campground on the evening she vanished.
That led detectives to re-interview several men…one of whom was a guy named Eric Hulst. Eric was a family friend that had joined the Bradburys shortly after they’d arrived at Indian Cove campground, BUT before Laura disappeared.
The other guy authorities spoke with was a man named David Allen Harris.
According to Stephan Stern’s reporting, David was a 49-year-old man who’d been living in San Bernardino County in the fall of 1984 and had actually been someone police interviewed early on in the investigation. Why?— Because David sort of matched the description of the man authorities had put a composite sketch out for AND he just so happened to be near the Indian Cove campground on October 18th, 1984. To make matter worse, he’d been seen driving—you guessed it— a blue van. It also didn’t help that in between the time Laura had disappeared and when David was questioned a second time in the fall of 1985, he’d racked up warrants for child molestation.
As far as I can tell though from the source material that is out there on this case, David was eyed pretty hard for the crime…but never actually charged with anything. I don’t know if he provided an alibi or what, but he ultimately ended up being cleared.
Eric, on the other hand was a young man who attended the same church as the Bradburys and had decided to follow the family out to the campground on October 18th, ahead of the rest of the other families from their church that were supposed to be meeting up with Mike and Patty.
According to the book A Father’s Search, the Bradbury family had left their house in Huntington Beach around mid-morning on the 18th and planned to use Thursday as a day to setup their camp and spend some extra time together as a family.
At the last minute, Eric had decided to go out to Joshua Tree a day early too and followed Mike and Patty’s V.W. van in his car. He’d been at the campsite helping Mike set up tents when Travis went to the portable toilets and Laura disappeared.
It’s unclear from the source material out there, whether Eric was every considered a REAL suspect, but from what I read, he was questioned by the authorities. Ultimately, his story of what he did the afternoon Laura vanished cleared him of any suspicion.
And just an observation here— I have to believe that if at ANY point Eric was unaccounted for when Laura went missing, Mike and Patty would have noticed that and told police. But according to Mike, at no point did Eric leave the campsite or begin acting suspicious. In fact, in the hours immediately following Laura’s disappearance, Mike said Eric was extremely distraught and his way of coping was to insist on finishing setting up the campsite for the family.
The rest of 1985 passed with no progress in the case and no arrests…but then on March 22nd, 1986—almost a year and a half after Laura disappeared—hikers in Joshua Tree National Park walking about a mile Northwest of where the Bradbury family had camped, stumbled upon the skull of a child…
According to Louis Sahagun and Josh Getlin’s reporting for the Los Angeles Times, around six o’clock at night on Saturday March 22nd, a husband-and-wife hiking in Joshua tree along a dry creek bed close to Indian Cove campground found what they believed were human bones sticking out of the ground.
The location was about one and a half to two miles away from the closest road.
One of the fragments was fairly distinct and appeared to be the upper portion of a skull cap that belonged to a small child. Shortly after finding the remains, the couple collected the bones and called the police to report what they’d found.
Within a few hours, law enforcement arrived on scene and took the bones from the hikers. Authorities launched a massive ground search to try and find more bones in the creek bed, but no other remains turned up. The only other pieces of evidence were tiny strips of fabric that authorities assumed were remnants of shredded or deteriorated clothing.
Investigators sent the remains to the San Bernardino County coroner’s office and shortly after that, the coroner announced that the bones were definitely human and most likely belonged to a child between the ages of two and five years old.
He went on to explain that that just based on the condition the bones were in, the skull cap and other fragments had to have been in Joshua Tree for roughly two years and were in direct sunlight for at least six months before being found.
Even though law enforcement couldn’t say for sure the bones were directly related to Laura’s case, they contacted the Bradbury family anyway just to let them know that a discovery had been made.
After that, the sheriff’s office asked a forensic anthropologist from Cal State to examine the bones more closely to try and figure out the specific age and gender.
The anthropologist determined that the skull cap had smooth edges like it might have possibly been cut or sawed. The other bones were reported to have jagged edges. The assumption at the time was that the smaller bones that had clear markings of animal activity had been picked at by coyotes. Near the creek bed, authorities had found several piles of coyote droppings when they’d gone back to search it.
Unfortunately, because the bottom half of the skull was missing and there were no teeth or long bones found with it, the anthropologist was unable to say for sure whether the bones belonged to a little girl or Laura specifically.
After that examination, the bones were sent off to the FBI’s forensic lab for further testing, but those results were expected to take a long time.
An investigator with the sheriff’s office told a reporter for The LA Times that the creek bed where the bones had been found was searched back in 1984 and 1985 but during those searches the area looked a lot different and had been covered in ant hills. Another ranger told the newspaper that there was no way those bones could have been there during the initial searches, or else someone would have seen them.
This comment made many people speculate whether the body of the child had in fact been dumped somewhere else and then animals had scattered it to the creek bed over a period of months.
Despite the bones feeling like a huge clue…law enforcement was more confused than ever. They had no way of determining if the creek bed was a murder scene or a dump site.
Right after the discovery, things between San Bernardino sheriff’s office and Mike Bradbury hit an all-time low. Basically, Mike accused Gene Bowlin– the lead detective on the case— of telling the media that the bones were Laura, even though investigators had no scientific way of proving that.
The department denied Bowlin or any other detective EVER said the bones were Laura’s…but Mike was convinced the sheriff’s office was making assumptions without evidence and trying to close the case.
So, he released a statement saying quote—”Because of the extreme implications that Laura is dead, the family has suffered severe mental anguish. Our big concern is that an individual with an apparent disregard for solid evidential material has taken it upon himself to be the judge and jury in a forensic matter with which he has not apparent knowledge or expertise and in the process has jeopardized the integrity of his own investigation”—end quote.
On April 30th, 1986, forensic results from the FBI lab had come in but techs there had been unable to determine if the skull cap belonged to Laura. They’d tried to narrow down the age, gender and blood type of the remains but unfortunately the bones had been exposed to the elements for too long.
It was around this time that Mike had pretty much given up on law enforcement’s efforts to find Laura. He’d hired a private investigator and spent hundreds of hours obsessing over the case…to the point where he traveled to every reported sighting of his daughter that the volunteer center received to vet the information for himself. He was wary of trusting the sheriff’s office.
By the end of summer 1986, Mike was fully convinced Laura was still alive and had been taken by a kidnapper and sold for $75,000. He declined to tell media outlets the specifics about his claims because he said he didn’t want to scare the kidnapper and any of his alleged customers off, but he assured reporters he was doing more for his daughter’s case than law enforcement ever had.
Mike went on to outright accuse the sheriff’s office of corruption and said it had become apparent to him that there was a conspiracy going on between the sheriff, judges, attorney, drug dealers and pedophiles in Southern California to deliberately protect Laura’s abductor.
San Bernardino sheriff’s office obviously strongly denied this accusation and said they’d done everything they could to try help the Bradbury’s find answers.
The Bradburys and authorities sayed at odds after that. Laura’s case faded from news headlines and a lot of Californians moved on.
Her story didn’t get renewed attention again until March of 1988 when ANOTHER young girl was abducted near Indian Cove campground.
The San Bernardino Sun reported that on March 27th of 1988, an 8-year-old girl named Sylvia Elaine Mangos vanished from a community yard sale at a drive-in theater…12 minutes down the road from where Laura had disappeared in 1984.
Sylvia was from the small town of Twenty-Nine Palms which is literally right next to Indian Cove campground. Almost immediately, rumors started swirling that Sylvia and Laura’s cases might be connected, but San Bernardino sheriff’s office came right now and said they didn’t think that was the case.
The circumstances of Sylvia vanishing though were eerily similar to Laura’s. John Whitehair reported that Sylvia and her mother Susan had been shopping together at the busy yard sale and for a few minutes they’d gotten separated. By the time Susan realized her daughter had wandered away from her…she was gone.
Eight days later, a man walking his dog in Johnson Valley—a remote area about an hour’s drive from Twenty-nine Palms, found Sylvia’s decomposing body off a dirt road Authorities did not release whether she’d been sexually assaulted.
The coroner who conducted her autopsy ruled that she’d died from blunt force trauma to her head. The only suspects investigators had in the case were two men in their 40’s or 50’s who been seen leaving the community yard sale in a white pickup truck shortly after Sylvia disappeared and a single white male in his 20’s with tattoos who witnesses said they’d seen talking to Sylvia at the market.
A week after her body was found though, San Bernardino officials named a local man, 33-year-old Clifton Mitchell as the prime suspect in the case.
The LA Times reported that Clifton was a truck driver and convicted child molester from a town not too far from Twentynine Palms. After his name was publicized, authorities announced that he was linked to Sylvia’s murder through physical evidence detectives had removed from his car.
News reports aren’t clear about what happened next in the case, but according to San Bernardino County records, no charges were ever filed again Clifton for Sylvia’s murder. I don’t know if the cops just dropped the ball or there was conflicting evidence uncovered that pointed to someone else or what…but to this day no one has been charged in Sylvia’s murder. Her case remains a cold in San Bernardino County.
The one— I guess you could say kind of positive thing— that came out of Sylvia’s story getting so much attention was the fact that people started talking about Laura Bradbury again.
Like, really talking.
Throughout 1988 public speculation as to whether the girls were both killed by the same predator rose to an all-time high. At one point, investigators questioned a convicted serial killer from San Diego named Alan Michael Stevens who they claimed was linked to dozens of slayings in California and Washington state in the late 70’s and early 80’s.
But by the end of that year, officials announced that upon further investigation it didn’t appear Alan was their guy for either Laura or Sylvia. They said his motive and victim preference was not little girls because he mostly targeted sex workers.
In January 1989, San Bernardino sheriff’s office released that it had hired two private forensic labs in California to test the skull cap and bone fragments that had been found in the dry creek bed back in 1986.
Steven Churm reported for the LA Times that the first lab the department contracted determined the bones belonged to Laura. I guess the reason scientists had been unable to confirm that for sure back in 1986 was because DNA technology just wasn’t advanced enough yet.
Churm’s article states it wasn’t until lab equipment got more precise by the year 1989 that techs were able to do what’s called ‘genetic fingerprinting’ which in this case meant the lab had essentially looked at the genetic composition of the skull cap and compared it to Laura’s known genetic material and felt 99 percent sure it was a match. Investigators had kept strands of Laura’s hair from a hairbrush her parents gave them as well as blood samples from Mike and Patty.
After the results from the first lab came back, the sheriff’s office announced it was going to send the bones to a second private lab to hopefully confirm the first lab’s conclusion. If that happened, then investigators would officially say on-the-record that Laura Bradbury was dead and the nationwide search for her would be called off. A criminal abduction and homicide investigation would still stay active though.
For years up until this point, Mike Bradbury had been adamant that Laura was still alive—BUT—in the face of scientific proof, he admitted he couldn’t deny it was likely she was dead.
Despite the sheriff’s office taking the extra step and aiming to confirm the identification of the bones with a second private lab…Mike told reporters that because he didn’t trust the sheriff’s office anymore, he planned on hiring his own third-party lab to do an independent examination of his daughter’s remains once they were returned to the family— just to be EXTRA sure.
It wasn’t until December of 1990—six years after Laura vanished— that DNA results from the second lab the sheriff’s office had hired came in. Those tests results confirmed what everyone already kind of knew…the skull cap and the bones found near Indian Cove campground in 1986 were DEFINITELY Laura.
There’s no source material out there that states whether or not Mike every followed through with hiring a third lab to confirm the second set of lab results.
With her identity officially confirmed, Laura’s nationwide missing persons case was closed and the ‘Laura Center’ in Huntington Beach officially went offline.
The identity of her abductor and murderer remained unknown and has stayed that way for decades.
The next time Laura’s case was mentioned by a news publication was in 2010. The Los Angeles times caught up with Mike Bradbury who by that point was 67 years old. He had not spoken publicly about his daughter’s case in almost two decades.
Sadly, his wife, Patty had died in 2001 from bone cancer never knowing what REALLY happened to Laura.
Since the day she disappeared, Mike had spent every dime he had trying to solve his daughter’s case. He continued to accuse the San Bernardino sheriff’s office of not putting enough effort into investigating suspects after it was determined Laura was dead.
In 2009 he moved into a small apartment in Northern California with his other two children, Travis and Emily and each of them scraped by on unemployment.
Travis had grown up being taunted by other kids about his sister’s disappearance and Emily had lived in Laura’s shadow, never able to bond with her father or mother. Their lives were miserable.
Mike channeled his sorrow over Laura’s death and dismay with law enforcement into a self-published book titled A Father’s Search. He and his father-in-law co-authored the book and published a limited number of copies in 2010. I found it to be a tremendously helpful resource in putting this episode together.
Several lines he wrote that really stood out to me were his reflections of what he remembered from the road trip out to Joshua Tree National Park the afternoon of October 18th, 1984.
He said that before arriving to the campground, the family had stopped their van at a small convenience store on the way to Indian Cove.
He said while he’d been sitting outside in the parking lot with his kids and Eric Hulst, waiting for Patty to make some purchases, he’d experienced what he called a premonition. He said he distinctly remembered getting a strange feeling that something bad was going to happen.
He said the feeling hadn’t lasted long and ultimately ignored it, but while it had lingered, he’d also experienced a strong sense that he and his children were being watched.
Whether or not he and the kids actually WERE being watched, is something no one knows for sure. But I think it’s an important reminder to all of us that when we get those ‘spidey sense’ feelings…especially in remote wilderness areas…we should take note of them and pay attention.
Whoever abducted and killed Laura Bradbury in 1984 left a massive crater of grief and pain in her family’s life. The perpetrator has gone all these years unknown. The person or persons might be dead by now, or they might not. They might have more victims than just Laura. No one will ever know.
Patty Bradbury wrote her daughter several letters during the late 1980’s and early 90’s that she never told anyone about. Mike discovered them after her death and asked the Los Angeles Times to publish them.
One letter written on Christmas morning 1985 is what I want to leave you with as I wrap up this episode…it reads in part quote—
“I send this letter to you with love and prayer, my first baby girl. There is a hole in our life now. Life was perfect for us but now it seems hollow…I sometimes feel guilty in continuing at all…I get so angry that you’re missing seeing Emily grow and missing your play with Travis…God return our Laura. Make our family complete again and Laura, I love you. Please don’t forget me…Mommy.”
I have to think even in the last moments of her life, Laura never forgot her mom…and maybe now, she and Patty are both together…healed from their pain. Maybe they were guided into eternity— not by the Joshua Tree…but by their love for one another.
Park predators is an audiochuck original show.
So, what do you think chuck. Do you approve? *howl*