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Answer to 3-Year-Old’s Disappearance Elusive but the Pain Remains

Times Staff Writer

Hardly an hour passes, says Mike Bradbury, that he doesn’t think of his daughter Laura, a blonde 3-year-old from Huntington Beach who disappeared four years ago Tuesday from a family campsite at Joshua Tree National Monument.

“The pain doesn’t go away,” said Bradbury, 45. “You just get tougher.”

Nonetheless, the anniversary is “a difficult time emotionally” for all members of Laura’s family, said Bradbury, including the girl’s mother, brother and sister, grandparents and uncles and aunts. No formal observance is planned.

The worst part, Bradbury said, is “the anguish of not knowing” what happened to his daughter after she failed to return with her older brother from an outdoor toilet.

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“I have to tune it out,” he said, “because it hurts so much.”

Bradbury says he has no idea whether Laura is alive and, if so, where she is. He no longer spends most of his time tracking the man he is convinced kidnaped his daughter on the spur of the moment on Oct. 18, 1984.

In the hours and days that followed, thousands of law enforcement personnel and volunteers searched the rugged, high desert area of the monument for signs of the girl. On foot, on horseback, in four-wheel-drive vehicles and in helicopters they combed the area around the starkly beautiful Indian Cove campground.

Investigators for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department put together a 17-member task force that invested more than $1 million and 150,000 hours over the next year and a half, according to Capt. Gene Bowlin, then head of the Morongo Basin substation.

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Frustrated Bradbury family members, friends and neighbors in Huntington Beach--soon joined by scores of strangers--mobilized efforts of their own.

Two and a half million flyers were printed and distributed across the country, most with donated labor and materials. Laura’s picture peered out from milk cartons, shopping bags, T-shirts and newspaper coin boxes. Her parents appeared on radio and television talk shows. The disappearance itself was re-enacted twice on national television shows on unsolved crimes.

The little girl’s plight was caught up in the wave of national concern over missing children. This concern bordered on hysteria until a Pulitzer Prize-winning story in the Denver Post took a closer look at the statistics and found that most missing children were runaways or taken by divorced parents, rather than those abducted by strangers. Laura became one of the handful of best-known children of this latter group, which included Adam Walsh in Florida, Kevin Collins in San Francisco and Etan Patz in New York City.

On March 22, 1986, hikers found bone fragments about 2 miles from the Indian Cove campsite where Laura disappeared. Subsequent examinations by experts at Cal State Fullerton, the San Bernardino coroner’s office and the FBI determined that the fragments came from a child between the ages of 2 and 5, and that the bones had been in the desert about 18 months.

“The only thing we could tell was that it was a skull of a human child,” said Phil Alexander, chief deputy coroner of San Bernardino County.

While the Sheriff’s Department did not close the case officially, detectives noted the proximity of the find to the disappearance and the fact that no other children of that age had been reported missing in the area. The task force was eventually disbanded, and since then at least one member has been promoted and another has retired.

Nearly 30 months later, Mike Bradbury hasn’t stopped looking. He doesn’t believe the fragments are Laura’s, and he is angry that authorities appear to have given up.

Lt. Mike Stodelle of the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said the investigation is still officially open, although there have been no new developments in the case.

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Flyers, featuring photographs of Laura at the time of her disappearance as well as an artist’s conception of what the girl with the “Dutch Boy” haircut might look like today, are still distributed. Inquiries and information still trickle in to the “Laura Line” ((714) 960-3017) and the post office box (Box 2712, Huntington Beach, Calif. 92646) that the Bradburys maintain.

But the Laura Center, actually the fourth storefront volunteer office the Bradbury family and friends operated with the help of sympathetic shopping center landlords, closed two weeks ago for lack of funds. According to Dana Winters, Laura’s maternal grandfather, about $200,000 was spent over the past 4 years in the effort to find Laura. Both Winters, a retired school principal, and his wife, Virginia, were active in the search in the days and months that followed the disappearance.

“What happened is over and done with,” Winters said. His only hope, he said, was that the person responsible for Laura’s disappearance would inadvertently be discovered and eventually reveal “where she finally ended up.”

Five days a week, Bradbury goes in to his wicker repair shop in Costa Mesa, where the only visible indication of a connection between Mike and Laura Bradbury is a copy of a flyer taped to the front door.

Patty Bradbury, 40, spends most of her time “keeping the home together,” her husband said, and working at the preschool Laura once attended.

“We don’t talk a lot about Laura,” Mike Bradbury said. “It just tears us up. It hurts her too much. I’m very protective about what I talk to her about.”


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