The Mystery of Laura Bradbury
A father asks: "When will this ever end?"


Patty and Mike Bradbury, Laura's parents, stand beside their van at the ranger station in
Joshua Tree National Park in November 1984, a month after their daughter's disappearance.
  The Mystery of Laura Bradbury

A father asks: 'When will this ever end?'

Mike Bradbury is still haunted by the disappearance of his young daughter from a campsite in 1984.

by Kurt Streeter, Los Angeles Times

September 18, 2010

First of two parts (part 2 below)

Mike Bradbury felt the air cooling and saw the sun sliding into the horizon, so he hurried to put up the tent where he and his family would sleep.

He heard his son's small voice. "I have to go to the bathroom," Travis was telling his mother, who directed him to a portable toilet nearby. Travis was 8. Padding after him, as always, was his sister Laura, 3½.

Laura was groggy after the long drive from the family's condominium in Huntington Beach to Indian Cove in Joshua Tree National Park. She wore lavender cotton pants and a green sweat top. Framing her round face were flat, blond locks cut to look like her first hero, gymnast Mary Lou Retton, an Olympic star that summer.

Mike listened for his children, but the wind, rising as night fell, hid the crunch of Travis' sneakers and the patter of Laura's rainbow-colored flip-flops.

Travis ambled back to the campsite looking bewildered. While he'd been inside the toilet, Laura had walked away. He figured she'd made her way back to camp, but now he didn't see her.

"Where's Laura?" he asked.

Mike's heart began to race. Laura was not a child who wandered off. He sprinted toward the toilet. His wife, Patty, followed, clutching their infant daughter, Emily. They scrambled through the cactus and the creosote. "Laura!" they yelled. "Laura, Laura! Where are you?"

Mike Bradbury is 67, and bags hang wearily beneath his eyes. For two decades, he has not spoken much about Laura or what has happened since she disappeared: How he refused to give up hope. How the tragedy has clung to his family, like a storm that can't be escaped.

But enough time has passed, and now he's ready to talk. It was the night of Oct. 18, 1984, that his little girl went missing.

"It felt like doom," he recalls. "Like somebody had ripped our hearts out. Just ripped them out."

Laura Bardbury was
3 years old when she
disappeared in 1984
  Park rangers arrived first. Then deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. Then men with the bloodhounds. One of the dogs picked up Laura's scent. Someone spotted sandal prints arcing away from the portable toilet and wrapping back toward the campsite.

But then the prints curved and headed for a road. They disappeared. No more steps. No scent. Nothing.

Word spread quickly through the forlorn towns that ringed the park. Newspapers and newscasts led with the story. Helicopters thumped through the sky. Hundreds of volunteers searched on foot.

It was that way for weeks. During the days, the commotion was strangely comforting to the Bradburys. But nights, when everyone else went home and they holed up in a donated RV, their minds filled "with this bizarre, unaltered, foreboding emptiness,"

Mike says. "We were surrounded by the feeling: When will this ever end?"

Mike Bradbury grew up in Newport Beach, the son of a Disney cartoonist. He possessed a rapier wit and an excellent memory, but he never made it past a few classes in community college. He was a maverick, a loner, a taker of risks.

"I was the scrapper who always stood up," he says. His left hand brushes across his mustache and his ruddy face. He speaks quickly, forcefully, as he tends to do when remembering the past. "If you were the little guy and there were four guys picking on you, I would go over and kick sand in their faces, even though I was little myself. It got me a lot of beatings, but I simply would not quit."

Patty Winters was quiet, stolid and deeply religious. She calmed him. In 1969 they married, and in the late '70s, flush with cash after running a gold jewelry business in Alaska, they moved to Orange County, where Mike repaired wicker furniture.

Travis was born. Then Laura. Mike had never been around a little girl. Her innocent sweetness captivated him. He'd lift her in his arms, twirling her, tickling her until she begged him to stop. "Daddy's little punkin!" he called her. Most nights, she wouldn't sleep until he'd read to her from Winnie-the-Pooh.

By 1984, they were a family of five, cramped in their two-bedroom condominium. Because Joshua Tree offered a break, they were regular visitors. Patty felt particularly at home there — the sunsets, the night stars far from city life.

Joshua Tree, Mike says, "had always been a place that brought us solace and peace."

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 hallow (sic) … 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. I wonder if you'll have a stocking when you wake. Another Christmas gone — cheated from sharing it with you. God please protect her — give her Christmas … God return our Laura. Make our family complete again … Laura I love you. Please don't forget me … Mommy.

— Letter from Patty to Laura, Christmas morning, 1985

Months passed. The media were still covering the search.

"People still cared," Mike says. "It was hard to keep things together emotionally, but at the time there was a sense of optimism that we'd find her."

In a donated space at a Huntington Beach strip mall, the Bradburys had opened the Laura Center, a nonprofit office where tips were gathered and millions of fliers mailed. Laura was one of the first missing children to be featured on the back of milk cartons.

Then, in the spring of 1986, a hiker stumbled upon a small skull two miles from the campground. A sheriff's captain publicly speculated it was Laura's and proffered a theory. Maybe, he said, she meandered away from the toilet, stumbled and was somehow buried by collapsing sand. Only recently, he continued, coyotes or a mountain lion had dug up all that was left.

Early forensics were inconclusive: The skull was a child's, but little else could be determined — not the blood type or the gender. More tests were ordered. The results would not be known for years.

Mike, meanwhile, railed at the Sheriff's Department, accusing it of making a premature announcement. He feared people would assume the case had been solved and would stop looking.

"To help find my daughter — or just find out what happened if in fact she was no longer alive — I needed people to care," he says. "And here was someone telling people it was over, she'd been found, end of story, no need to think about Laura Bradbury anymore. My God, it was just another blow … another way me and my family did not see eye-to-eye with the so-called authorities."

For the Bradburys, the mystery remained.

Laura, my baby…You are 5 today and we are broken hearted not to spend your birthday with you. Do you know it is your birthday? Are you being loved? Do you remember us? … God can work miracles — I just fear that He won't … I want you to be a girl scout, I want to buy you dresses and take you to school and the beach and the cabin and sing happy birthday to you. How can you be 5? You are still my sweet 3 year old. You can't have changed … Please hear me, baby. Please know we still love you and will always look for you … Please come home. Mommy.

— Letter from Patty to Laura, May 29, 1986

Mike grew increasingly contemptuous of sheriff's deputies for not doing enough about the many tips that flowed into the Laura Center. They were incompetent or lazy or both, he told reporters. He even speculated that someone inside the department knew that a kidnapper was involved and was covering it up.

The department said it was doing everything it could. "We met with him many times," recalls Dean Knadler, a captain who took over the investigation in 1986.

Now a retiree living in Arkansas, Knadler says he empathized with Bradbury but regarded him as a nuisance — even a hindrance. "We were putting everything we had into this, and he was out there starting to put together all sorts of different scenarios based on bits of information that were not true. To our minds, he was getting in the way of the investigation."

It didn't help when Mike heard the story of Clifford Leville and Toby Santangelo. The Morongo Basin couple were said to have told deputies they had solid information about a man they believed kidnapped Laura. Knadler says his investigators checked it out and found it not credible. Not long afterward, Leville and Santangelo were found shot to death.

Laura's disappearance, Knadler says, had nothing to do with their slayings. Mike would not believe it.

By 1987, he had lost 40 pounds. He had ulcers. He would slam doors and punch walls. He felt as if he were splitting in two. His daughter was gone forever. His daughter was going to be found any day.

His wicker repair shop foundered. He was nearly broke.

Yet he bought an expensive computer and ran streams of costly background checks on his own list of suspects: a cascade of ex-convicts and ne'er-do-wells living deep in the desert. He'd also hired a $30-a-day private investigator named Jim Schalow, a chain-smoking ex-Army Ranger with a Texas drawl.

They conjured their own theories: Laura had been sold to a child trafficking ring. Devil worshipers took her. She'd been whisked off to a foreign country.

Four days a week, Mike climbed into his beaten-up 1972 Volkswagen and drove 120 miles to Joshua Tree. Sometimes, he and Schalow donned Army fatigues and ammunition belts and crawled across the desert spying with high-powered binoculars on anyone they found.

"It felt like we were so close," he says. "The people we were watching — these shady, extremely dangerous people who'd kill you and not think twice — some of them were involved in what happened, I was convinced. Either that or some of them knew what happened. And I was willing to do anything, put my life on the line, whatever, for my daughter. Someone had to be aggressive. "

Before Laura disappeared, he had never held a handgun. Now he possessed a 12-gauge shotgun, a .44-caliber Marlin lever-action rifle, a .30-caliber deer rifle, a .38-caliber pistol. He carried a long hunting knife.

Fear and paranoia became a part of daily life. Mike believed the people they were watching would kill anyone they caught snooping around. He believed his phone was tapped. He believed someone would bomb his VW.

He no longer slept between midnight and 4 a.m. Those were the hours, he figured, when someone, probably a "pissed-off, scumbag drug type," would try to kill him.


Mike began seeing a psychologist. Patty would accompany him, but then sit in the waiting room.

Patty kept her heartache to herself. She was writing to Laura regularly, but she hid the letters. She told no one about what she was doing.

Mike kept getting worse. He felt as if he were "fragmenting into 15 different compartments, each a different survival mode." He would not walk into a room without an exit plan. He would not sit in a restaurant with his back to the front door.

He started to weigh the unthinkable: Should he give up the search?

It was 1989 now, and his family was suffering.

Emily was 5 and living in the shadow of a lost sister she never knew. Her father was a stranger. Often, when he walked through the door, she hid behind her mother.

Travis was in his teens. He still slept in the bunk beds he once shared with Laura. For a long time, her pink blankets and dolls remained on her part of the bunk. At school, he was taunted — "I kidnapped your sister and raped her." He was isolated and depressed. He blamed himself for what had happened. When he was 12, he says, he considered suicide.

Mike decided they would move.

So they rented a tree-shrouded home on a Sierra hilltop in Grass Valley, a bucolic town in Northern California.

They knew no one. Nobody knew them.

"This was our new start," Mike says. "A blank slate. A new life for our children. We would put this tragedy behind us. We could get our lives back.

At least that's what we thought.",0,750646.story


Mike Bradbury

A new life for the Bradbury family

Trying hard to turn the page

After years of anguish, Mike Bradbury heads north. But he couldn't let go.

by Kurt Streeter, Los Angeles Times

September 19, 2010

Second of two parts (part 1 above)

Mike Bradbury did what he could to flee the past.

As 1990 began, he and his wife, Patty, sold their condo in Huntington Beach and moved with their two children to a small rental home in the Northern California town of Grass Valley.

They allowed few reminders of their first-born daughter.

One was a bumper sticker, affixed to the back of their aged VW. It featured a photograph of her, underscored by the words Help Find Laura. They didn't have the heart to peel the sticker off.

The Bradburys told nobody in Grass Valley what had happened to them or why they were there. But some in town recognized them anyway.

Five years earlier, during a family camping trip to what was then Joshua Tree National Monument, 3 1/2-year-old Laura Bradbury had followed her brother Travis, then 8, to a portable toilet and vanished. The search for her became a national story and Laura was one of the first missing children to be featured on milk cartons.

Within weeks of the disappearance, Mike and Patty created the Laura Center in Orange County, a nonprofit organization that mailed fliers and held regular news conferences.

With no real answers, the years since had been filled with anguish that seemed without end.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department had investigated Laura's disappearance — efforts that were ongoing. But Mike had lost faith in the deputies and he'd mounted his own angry search. Along with a private investigator, he combed the isolated communities near Joshua Tree, known for attracting drug dealers and oddballs.

His hunt, too, came to nothing, and the toll on his family and marriage was staggering. Moving to Grass Valley was both an avenue to a new life for the family and a painful admission that he had done all he could.

Yet he couldn't give up hope. Neither could Patty. She told no one — not Mike, Travis or her little girl, Emily — that she had been writing to Laura ever since she vanished.

Today you are nine years old.… I can hardly believe it. How time is swallowed up as if it never was.… I still want to search kids out to see what a nine year old looks like and try to imagine my three years (sic) old who is frozen in time.… Not having you has left holes in many places. I don't remember Emily's babyhood — when did she walk, talk? — God, how unfair. My marriage is numb.… Travis is deeply wounded.… We have no home now. On that last night [in Huntington Beach] I stayed late and the memories flooded the place. I remember you with floppy and you and Travis in the sand box and you in the crib and the new big girl baby bed. Christmas, Easters — so little time and how little did I appreciate it.

— Letter from Patty to Laura, May 29, 1990

One afternoon during their first winter in Grass Valley, the phone rang. "Mr. Bradbury," said a Department of Justice official, "we have some news.…"

For years, he and Patty had waited for this call. They'd prayed it would solve the mystery. In 1986, four years earlier, a hiker had stumbled upon remnants of a small skull, two miles from the campsite. A San Bernardino County sheriff's captain publicly speculated that it was Laura's but several tests were inconclusive.

This call was about a DNA test more accurate than any done before. Mike held his breath.

"Mr. Bradbury," the official said, "the test shows with a 99.9% certainty that the skull is your daughter's."

Mike looked over his shoulder and saw Patty, frozen, covering her mouth. When he hung up, she bolted to the bedroom and he followed her. That night, they held each other for hours.

Over the years, there had been credible tips from people claiming they'd seen Laura. None panned out. Each added to the emotional shield around the family, protection that allowed them to accept this latest news with grim resignation.

They wrote to the San Bernardino County coroner's office, asking for the skull. They wanted to hold a memorial service and burial.

"We waited, we waited, we waited," Mike says, his words and eyes sharp, as they often are when he speaks of Laura. "And when we did not get any reply … we started wondering if maybe there was something wrong with the test…. We didn't ever pursue getting the bones back any further. From then on there would always be a question: Was it really her?

"By then, and I hated this, but Patty wanted to have us move on. She simply forbade me from dealing with this any longer."

Laura Bardbury was
3 years old when she
disappeared in 1984
  In Grass Valley, the family never found solid footing. They'd spent so much on the search for Laura that paying the bills was a struggle. Mike put together enough money to buy several vending machines, hoping to live off the profit. It wasn't enough. Patty got a job as a veterinarian's assistant, but that didn't help much. At one point they moved in with new friends because they couldn't afford a decent place to rent.

Maybe we should go back to Huntington Beach, Mike told his wife.

"You can leave," she said. "But I won't be going with you." She vowed never to return to the place of such heartache.

Then there was Travis. He was deeply troubled, overwhelmed by guilt over what had happened to his sister. He struggled in school. He refused to say Laura's name.

There was Emily, just an infant when her older sister disappeared. She had no memories from her first five years. "What I remember after that," she says, "was that it felt like there was always a cloud over us. That — and my mom clinging to me."

One day, when she was 6 and grocery shopping with her mother, Emily briefly became lost. By the time they were reunited, Patty was in a panic, shrieking frantically.

"For a long time, I even looked like Laura, and it was like my mom wanted me to be Laura," Emily recalls. "My life was about filling every moment with things I did just for my mom, things she wanted for my sister, especially Girl Scouts, which I wasn't into."

Yet they could never talk about Laura. "With Mom, Laura was something we learned not to bring up," Emily says.

Patty hid her feelings from everyone. She was always smiling, always on the go.

But by 2000, she had begun complaining of unceasing fatigue. Her wrists tingled. Her heart began beating so fast that she was hospitalized. Test showed she had bone cancer and amyloidosis, a rare disease that harms vital organs.

On Sept. 5, 2001, she lay in a room at Sierra Nevada Memorial Hospital. Mike read Bible verses to her.

"If you go to be with Jesus," he asked, "will you watch over us?"

"Yes," she promised. It had been a long time since she'd said anything to him about their missing girl. Now she added: "And I will be with Laura too."

Hours later, she died.


"It was as if we all became zombies," Mike Bradbury says of the years after Patty's death. "For a long time, with all we'd gone through, we were just going through the motions of life."

By 2009, as he turned 66, they were living in a small $600-a-month apartment in a ramshackle part of Portland. He had hoped another change of scenery would help.

Emily — who never graduated from high school and was in her mid-20s — slept in a bedroom down the hall. Travis — drinking heavily, jobless and in his early 30s— slept on the living room couch. Mike hadn't worked in years. The family survived largely on his Social Security checks.

He thought often of his wife. After she died, he'd discovered her letters to Laura hidden in a sock drawer, inside a box that had contained blank checks. He could manage to read only a few of them. The letters stopped in 1991, but he believed Patty had kept writing to Laura in a small white diary that he'd also found. He couldn't bring himself to open it.

Imagining the comfort she must have felt from putting her feelings on paper, he began writing down his own memories: the tragic day, the search, his suspicions, his fights with the sheriff's deputies, his resentments and doubts.

The writing was a balm.

One morning last summer, he turned on the television. A girl named Jaycee Lee Dugard had been found 19 years after being snatched off the street. For all that time, she had been kept in the Bay Area backyard of the convicted rapist who'd kidnapped her. She'd endured unimaginable treatment. But my God, Mike thought, she was alive!

He recalled how Patty's parents had marched in a vigil for Jaycee soon after she disappeared. They'd been quoted in newspapers: the family of one missing girl supporting the family of another. Maybe, he let himself think, Laura was trapped inside a similar nightmare.

Maybe Laura was alive.

Energized by his writing — he had turned his memories into a book, "Laura Ann Bradbury: A Father's Search" — he piled his meager belongings into a U-Haul van. Along with Travis and Emily, he drove to Orange County. He wasn't going to run anymore. It was time to come home.

The move brought a sense of peace he hadn't felt in more than 20 years. He dreamed of Laura for the first time since shortly after her disappearance. In the dream, he chased a man he'd long suspected had kidnapped his daughter. He shot the man through the eyes.

He allowed himself to imagine what might have happened if the family had never gone to Joshua Tree. He would have become a successful real estate agent. Patty would be alive.

Instead of struggling for focus, Emily, 26 now, would be a college graduate, confident and sure. Instead of living a half-step from homelessness, Travis, 34, would be a happy husband, working for a computer firm. He would have never been saddled with such terrible guilt. "Dad, I should have watched over her," Travis had told his father one night in Portland.

And Laura? Laura would be beautiful as she approached her 30s. "She would be a wife now," Mike says, "and a wonderful mother."

Mike wrote to the San Bernardino County coroner's office, asking for Laura's death certificate, which he and Patty had never received.

But when it arrived, it lacked an official signature. "Could it be," he found himself asking once again, "that there really was a problem with that DNA test, and whoever was in charge was never really sure, and that's why nobody signed this?"

In February, he asked that the small skull found not far from the campsite be subjected to yet another DNA test. The county agreed.

As he waited, he thought back to the sheriff's investigation long ago. He spoke again of conspiracies. He pored over his old files. He sorted through detailed notes kept in storage by Jim Schalow, his private investigator, who died of heart failure in the mid-1990s.

Until his death, Schalow kept searching on his own. He never told Mike what he turned up: tips that Laura was taken, tips that she was raped, tips that she was dead. Scanning the notes, Mike sat in his bedroom alone, tears in his eyes.

Were any of these leads true? Even partly true? He didn't know. What he did know was that the Sheriff's Department still considered Laura's case an open investigation. He planned to give everything Schalow found to a San Bernardino County district attorney.

On an evening in late August, Mike opened his laptop and saw an e-mail from the coroner. He took a deep breath and began reading: "The [DNA] profile indicates 'strong evidence' that the remains are the child of [Mike and Patty Bradbury] … this confirms the identity of the skull as that of Laura Bradbury."

He remembers how he felt as he read it: like every ounce of oxygen, and much of his identity, was drifting from his body. "I knew it was a long shot that the skull was not hers, but I needed more certainty. I've always had that sliver of hope.…

"So this is the final word. I have to accept it. To say that, after 26 years, to reach that point of acceptance, well … it's very hard."

He says he plans to cremate the skull. He will carry Laura's ashes with Patty's and set sail with Travis and Emily from Newport Harbor. They will scatter the remains of mother and daughter at sea.

"Closure … finally, closure." A moment passes, and he is unusually silent. Then, in a flash, the redness returns to his cheeks and he jabs a finger in the air.

"How did that skull get to the desert? It sure wasn't there when there were hundreds of searchers out there looking for my daughter back in 1984. What I think is that somebody took Laura from Joshua Tree and did something terrible to her and brought her back.

"Now the question is this:

"What really happened to my daughter?",0,2187986,print.story