Two missing sisters. One bizarre note. For 20 years, a family has asked: Where are our girls?
Eric Ferkenhoff and Grace Hauck
July 2, 2021
CHICAGO – The note sat on the back of Tracey Bradley’s couch when she returned home from work late that morning.
Written by her 10-year-old daughter, Tionda, the note said she and Diamond, her 3-year-old sister, had run by the store and to a park on Chicago’s South Side.
Something was off about the note: Everything – the spelling, the grammar – was too perfect for a girl attending summer school to improve her reading and writing.
It was also unlike Tionda to leave a note. Even if the girls had left the apartment, Tionda would have called her mom’s cellphone.
The Bradley sisters were gone.
Twenty years ago this summer, Chicago launched what investigators say may be the city’s largest missing persons investigation.
The police superintendent ordered the city turned upside-down to find them. Over the course of months, nearly every abandoned building in Chicago – about 5,300 of them – was mapped and searched. Sewers, dumpsters, forests, lakes and rivers were dredged and scoured. More than 100 sex offenders were interviewed. About 42 tons of garbage was picked over by law enforcement, including new police recruits.
Everyone was on duty.
In the hunt for the girls, leads took investigators and journalists across the country, even to Morocco, chasing possible sightings, psychics’ visions and fraud – enough tips to fill 25 filing cabinets. But as the time stretched to weeks, months and years, no sign of the girls ever turned up.
It was an odd case to catch the city’s attention. Two young Black girls had gone missing from a high crime and impoverished area of Chicago.
Often when young Black children are missing, authorities write them off as runaways, and their cases are unlikely to grab high-profile investigator and media attention, according to investigators and missing persons experts and organizations. So when Chicago police initially labeled the Bradley girls’ case as “missing” – not abducted – the family was irate. The case was reclassified as “missing/endangered,” as it remains.
“I didn’t want the community to overlook it like, ‘Oh, it’s two kids who ran away,’” Shelia Bradley-Smith, the girls’ great-aunt, told USA TODAY. “No, these kids were taken.”
Black children, then as now, are reported missing more often than children of other races. More than 300,000 juveniles are reported missing in the USA every year. Though Census Bureau data shows Black kids make up just 16% of the population under 18, more than 36% of missing juveniles in 2020 were Black, the latest FBI data shows.
For the Bradley sisters, pressure from family members, along with the girls’ ages, changed the narrative. What could have been a short mention on the evening news soon led the front pages of city papers and made national news and crime shows.
After each airing of the story, more tips would come in. Some leads seemed promising. Some still do. But no arrests have been made and no charges have been brought in the case.
The investigation into the girls’ vanishing moved quickly at the start, zeroing in on a man close to the family who gave detectives reasons to suspect him. But the case against him is too circumstantial and the probe remains with the cold case and homicide unit in the same headquarters where it began.
Two decades later, a family and a city ask: Where are they?
USA TODAY interviewed a dozen people familiar with details of the case, including detectives, officers and other law enforcement officials who worked – or are working – the investigation. Many sources, fearing for their safety or their careers, asked not to be named in the story.
When the girls went missing July 6, 2001, Tionda and Diamond were living with their mother and two sisters – Victoria, then 9, and Rita, 12 – in the multi-building Lake Grove Village Apartments complex in the Oakland neighborhood on the South Side. The girls’ school, a handful of parks and Lake Michigan were all within a few blocks.
Tracey Bradley, their mother, is the eldest of nine siblings, and dozens of family members lived in the area, near what was once the largest stretch of public housing in the USA: the Robert Taylor Homes. The project was demolished, and residential and commercial structures took its place.
Because of their proximity to one another, family members took turns caring for one another’s kids. Tionda and Diamond primarily split their time between their mom’s place and their grandmother’s apartment in the Robert Taylor Homes.
One of their aunts, April Jackson, brought them to work with her at Robert Taylor Park, where they took dance and gymnastics classes with their cousins and other kids from the community.
Tionda wanted nothing more than to become a dancer. Helpful, smart, responsible and a little sassy, she was “like little mama caretaker” to Diamond, Bradley-Smith said.
Diamond was “a quiet, humble little girl who always had a sweet little smile,” said Faith Bradley-Cathery, the girls’ aunt. Victoria, their sister, recalled how Diamond used to curl up under their mother at home or jump from couch to couch.
The day the girls disappeared, they had planned to go on a camping trip to Lake Shafer in Indiana with their mother and her boyfriend, according to family and investigators. Victoria and Rita weren’t going on the trip and had been dropped off at their grandmother’s place the evening before.
Tracey said she left early that morning for work and returned around 11:30 a.m. to find Tionda and Diamond gone. Before calling police around 6 p.m., Tracey borrowed $20 from a neighbor, so she could buy food at the nearby Jewel store. A receipt from the store is stamped 12:21 p.m. She searched the neighborhood and called family, friends, the school and other places where the kids could have been.
Security cameras at the entrance of the apartment complex didn’t catch anything: The cameras had been pushed upward, according to the family’s private investigator, who goes by the name P Foster and has worked the case pro bono for 20 years. He said some residents may have wanted to hide criminal activity.
Foster does not provide his full name for fear of his family’s safety.
Many people saw the girls the night before they went missing. The sisters were at the apartment when Tracey had two friends over to drink and watch the Cubs baseball game. The friends were questioned twice, and they both said the girls were at the home when they left around 10 p.m.
There are reports that a neighbor in their building came by after the friends left but that he never went past the front of the apartment and never saw the girls, according to police.
Tracey’s boyfriend came to the apartment around 3 a.m., stayed for a bit, then took Tracey to work around 6:30 a.m., according to investigators. Tionda and Diamond were left alone, under strict orders from their mother not to let anyone – no matter who they were – into the apartment.
Classmates said they saw Tionda and Diamond at the nearby Doolittle Elementary School playground that morning, according to family, who believe the girls slipped out that morning but returned home once the other children headed in for the start of summer school.
According to family, Tionda left a voicemail on her mother’s cellphone around 8:17 a.m., asking if she had permission to let a man in. Tionda used a first name in the message that both Tracey’s boyfriend and the neighbor shared. The girls, however, regularly called the neighbor by a nickname.
The boyfriend confirmed to USA TODAY he took Tracey to work that morning but denied showing up at the apartment later when the girls allegedly called their mom to say someone was at the door.
Family alleged Chicago police accidentally deleted the voicemail off the cellphone when they brought it down to the station. Law enforcement sources said they’ve never heard it and could not confirm that an officer deleted the message.
Relatives said family, friends and law enforcement came in and out of the apartment before investigators cleared the space to take fingerprints and gather other evidence several days after the girls were gone.
“It wasn’t taped off at all,” the girl’s great aunt Bradley-Smith said. “That, to me, was a valuable mistake.”
Police investigators familiar with the case could not confirm that the scene was not cleared and searched earlier.
Initially, investigators homed in on Tracey Bradley’s boyfriend, who was close to the girls.
That day, July 6, police took Tracey and her boyfriend in for about 22 hours of separate questioning. They both took lie-detector tests and passed, police sources said. Foster, the family’s detective, said the boyfriend’s test was inconclusive.
Tracey and her boyfriend quickly got lawyers, closing opportunities for investigators to talk openly with them. Police and the FBI still remain in periodic touch with both.
USA TODAY is not naming the man because he has not been charged in the case. Tracey Bradley has not returned calls from USA TODAY.
Several pieces of evidence pointed investigators in the boyfriend’s direction. For one, investigators found hair matching Tionda and Tracey’s DNA in his vehicle’s trunk. He told police he would sneak the girls into drive-ins in the city, although investigators said the closest drive-ins at the time were in the suburbs.
The boyfriend offered law enforcement conflicting stories about his actions on the day the girls went missing. Four teenagers and three neighbors said they saw him setting fire to something in a 55-gallon drum in his backyard garage, about 10 miles south of the girls’ home, then putting the barrel into his trunk and driving away, according to sources.
The man, who worked as a machinist and welder, claimed he never burned anything in the drum – or even had a drum, according to police. He did say he was doing refurbishments on his home and dumped debris in garbage containers in Chicago’s Washington Park. Police searched the South Side park but found nothing.
Family pressed prosecutors under then-Cook County State’s Attorneys Richard Devine and Anita Alvarez to charge the boyfriend, but the circumstantial evidence was simply not enough to go further, according to two sources involved in the investigation.
In an interview with USA TODAY in June, the boyfriend denied that he was involved with the girls being missing and that he ever took a DNA test to see whether he fathered one of Tracey’s children. He claimed he tried to help investigators find them at the beginning.
“I don’t know who did anything; I just know that I had nothing to do with it,” he said of the girls’ disappearance.
The man, 50, said he gave investigators his pictures and videotapes of the girls and surrendered the keys to his car and house. In the garage, he and sources said, investigators found recently purchased rubber gloves, contractor trash bags and bleach from Home Depot that investigators said could have been a way of cleaning up after the girls went missing. Police have the receipt for the purchase.
“That was 20 years ago, and everyone tried to blame me,” he said, adding that “all three of them” – the family, investigators and the media – ganged up on him because they couldn’t solve it.
The family and investigators had other suspects.
A man who is a registered sex offender and spent time around the girls dedicated a book to them, Bradley-Smith said. Some family members said Tracey gave $5 to a relative that day to go watch the girls at the apartment. Others alleged the neighbor whom the girls had a nickname for suggested something bad would happen to them if Tracey kept leaving them alone.
Then there’s the theory a Moroccan man, rumored to be Tionda’s father, had something to do with it. According to family, the children who reported seeing the girls on the playground that morning said they saw a fair-skinned man in a trench coat approach the girls and speak briefly with Tionda. The tip led a reporter to travel to Morocco to search for the girls, to no avail.
The family has suspicions about the note Tionda wrote.
According to forensic tests by the FBI in 2001, Tionda did indeed write the note found on the couch, and not under duress. That’s why the family suspects Tionda was coached by someone she trusted in writing the note.
“Her writing a full letter with correct grammar? It’s not appropriate for her,” said Jackson, the girls’ aunt. “I’m quite sure whoever took them, she was very comfortable with them.”
Bradley-Smith said she hopes the new state’s attorney, Kim Foxx, will revisit the case and bring charges.
A spokesperson for the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office sent an email to USA TODAY in late June saying it has not been asked to review criminal charges related to the girls’ disappearance but was “open to reviewing any information that is brought to us by law enforcement.”
Though police said they never asked the office to bring charges, it was kept regularly apprised of developments.
The Chicago Police Department, which remains the lead agency in the Bradley sisters’ missing persons case, declined official interviews through the head of the department’s News Affairs, saying the investigation remains open and there are no new leads.
Wednesday, a source told USA TODAY the FBI office in Chicago is coordinating with out-of-state authorities about a new tip.
July 6 marks 20 years since Tionda and Diamond disappeared. In those two decades, the number of detectives working the case dropped from more than 100 to one person working it part time as he handles other cases. Three of the five lead detectives on the case have died.
But many in this city never forgot. The family – who held vigils for the first 40 nights after the girls went missing – now holds an annual one.
A former police detective started writing a book about the case as a sort of therapy to deal with the lack of answers. “There’s very few cases in my career when I didn’t know who did it,” he said. “It was the most frustrating thing I worked on in my life.”
Foster, the private detective, said he’s spoken to a family member every day since soon after the girls went missing. He becomes emotional when talking about the case. “I am so dedicated to the cause, if it takes my grandchildren’s children to find out what happened to Diamond and Tionda, I’m willing to put that at stake,” Foster said.
The two decades of searching has worn on members of the large family and caused rifts.
Faith Bradley-Cathery, the girls’ aunt and the mother of four adult children, became so paranoid that she had her landlord put up a 7-foot fence around her property when her children were young.
April Jackson, another of the girls’ aunts, partners with schools to host safety assemblies and help kids craft personalized ID cards. She worked with Walmart to put up a missing children board in each of its stores nationwide. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, she printed face masks with the sisters’ faces on them.
Victoria Bradley, the sister whose birthday is the day after the girls disappeared, said she hasn’t celebrated in 20 years. Her mother, Tracey, suffers from panic attacks and often calls her daughter crying, Victoria Bradley said.
Tracey Bradley has been described by multiple sources involved in the investigation as reserved and somewhat suspicious of police. She talked with some detectives working the case, but sources said her prolonged questioning immediately after the girls’ disappearance made her less willing to cooperate with law enforcement.
Bradley-Smith, the girls’ great-aunt and a missing persons advocate, has spearheaded most of the family’s efforts to raise awareness about the girls. She has lost several jobs and was temporarily homeless in part because of her quest to find the girls.
In 2015, she went looking for a missing Minnesota boy who disappeared three blocks from her home, 10-year-old Barway Collins, and helped find his body on the banks of the Mississippi River. “I did feel like, ‘God, why? Why you gonna let me find somebody else’s? What about ours?'” Bradley-Smith said.
Tens of thousands of dollars in reward money was offered at the time the girls went missing, and the FBI still offers $10,000. The family set up several online and social media pages dedicated to the girls. Tips – and false hopes – poured in.
Psychics based in New York led the family to the site of animal bones. A MySpace photo that a world-renowned facial recognition expert determined was Tionda turned out not to be. A Dallas woman who claimed to be, at times, both of the girls, was a fraud.
Eight months ago, Bradley-Smith got a tip about alleged bones buried in a backyard, and police and members of the nonprofit Community United Effort Center for Missing Persons went to the South Side to investigate.
“I’ve stressed and worried and searched and hoped and prayed and been disappointed,” Bradley-Smith said. “But all I can do is keep going.”
That Tionda and Diamond have remained an investigative – and media – focus over the past 20 years is due largely to the outspoken family members, who have kept pressure on law enforcement to find the girls, on prosecutors to consider or bring charges against suspects and on the media to draw the spotlight to the case.
They’re fighting a decades-long uphill battle against a system that tends not to give missing Black children much attention, according to investigators and missing persons organizations.
Social scientists have long noted missing white children – particularly white girls – receive a disproportionate amount of news coverage compared with missing children of color.
Multiple studies in the past two decades have documented the so-called Missing White Woman Syndrome in online, print and television news outlets reaching national and regional audiences. Less news coverage can lead to a greater chance that young Black children are never found or recovered much later.
When a child of color is reported missing by their family members, they’re more likely to be classified as a runaway by law enforcement and receive little media coverage, said Natalie Wilson, co-founder of Maryland-based Black & Missing.
Children classified as a runaway don’t receive Amber Alerts – messages with information about the missing child broadcast on radio, displayed on television, sent as text alerts and more.
” Our children are adultified, and they are not seen as children,” Wilson said. “We’re trying to change these narratives to say that these are valued individuals missing from our communities, our neighborhoods, and we need to find them.”
Frequently, Wilson said, Black families “feel as though law enforcement just believes that their child ran away, and we’re telling them, ‘You know what – you know your child better than anyone else. If this isn’t what they do, this isn’t characteristic of them, you need to speak up.’”
The Bradley family spoke up. They knew the girls wouldn’t leave their large family – let alone venture out of the apartment to the store.
In mid-June, Bradley-Smith walked into the third-floor, three-bedroom apartment where the sisters lived for the first time since July 2001. She traced her fingers along the walls as she walked from room to room, conjuring images of the old layout and pointing to where Tionda and Diamond used to sleep.
“It still feels like yesterday,” Bradley-Smith said after she got back into her car and looked up at the apartment through her window.
Twenty years later, she hopes time will be on her side.
“People talk. People get old. People go to jail. I’m just praying someone will come forward with the information,” Bradley-Smith said. “The world will know Tionda and Diamond Bradley by the time I’m done.”
The FBI asks anyone with information about the disappearance of Tionda and Diamond Bradley to contact Chicago Police Department detectives at 312-747-8380, your local FBI office or the nearest American embassy or consulate. You can submit an anonymous tip online here. The family’s private detective can be reached at 847-579-9771.
Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest Criminal Justice Reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at email@example.com. Follow Breaking News reporter Grace Hauck on Twitter at @grace_hauck or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo credit: Jennifer Borresen and George Petras