Bradbury Case : Sheriff’s Dept. Links Bones, Missing Girl

Times Staff Writer

Bone fragments found near the desert campsite where Laura Bradbury was last seen more than 4 years ago are apparently from the body of the missing Huntington Beach child, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department said for the first time Wednesday.

Acknowledging that a sophisticated DNA analysis, known as “genetic fingerprinting,” had been performed on the skull fragments, the sheriff’s department said in a statement that the genetic composition of the fragments “were consistent with Laura Bradbury.”

Although the statement added that test results “are not conclusive,” a source familiar with the investigation said: “There’s little doubt it’s Laura.”

A second DNA analysis is being conducted, the department said. If those results uphold the first analysis, authorities seem prepared to declare the nationwide hunt for the missing child over.


And although Laura’s father, Mike Bradbury, has steadfastly maintained that his daughter is alive, he conceded Wednesday that reports of the DNA findings may indicate otherwise.

“I have a sinking feeling” that the tests may prove that her body was found in the desert, Bradbury said in an interview at his Costa Mesa furniture repair shop.

Laura Bradbury was 3 years old when she disappeared on a family camping trip to Joshua Tree National Monument in 1984 in an incident that developed into one of the most celebrated missing child cases in the country. In March, 1986, the skullcap and other bone fragments of a young child were found about a mile from the Bradbury family’s campsite.

An extensive search was conducted of the surrounding region, and it was unclear Wednesday how the search could have failed to turn up her body, if indeed it had been in the area since her disappearance.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Lt. Michael D. Stodelle said it is “extremely conceivable” that the small army of law enforcement personnel and volunteers that combed the desert in the days after Laura’s disappearance may have missed the little girl’s body because of the rugged desert terrain.

“That area is known as the ‘Wonderland of Rocks.’ And we’ve had climbers fall and it has taken weeks to find their bodies,” he said. “Considering (that) we were searching for a small child, it’s very possible we missed her.”

The DNA analysis was performed by a private East Coast laboratory last July. To verify the findings, the Sheriff’ Department commissioned a Northern California firm to conduct a second analysis. San Bernardino authorities would not confirm the identity of either lab, but Ed Blake, a renowned forensic expert and owner of Forensic Science Associates in Richmond, said his company is analyzing the fragments. He said the results won’t be known for “several weeks at the earliest.”

No matter the outcome of the Sheriff’s Department tests, Mike Bradbury said he will seek a third, independent DNA test on the fragments.

But Bradbury acknowledged Blake’s strong reputation in the forensic field and said: “I can’t deny the accuracy of the testing.”

Although the Bradburys have clung to the belief that Laura was kidnaped and still alive, the girl’s grandfather, Dana Winters, said Wednesday night that the family has always understood that there is a possibility she is dead.

“They always have that constantly in their minds,” Winters said.

“If such a thing comes out and is proven without conjecture--without ifs, ands or buts--you know, if a procedure was properly followed, sure, Mike and Patty are intelligent,” he said. “They won’t like it, but they can accept it. . . .”

“But whatever happens through the sheriff’s machinations, we would request an individual independent study to be made” to be certain of the sheriff’s findings, he said, adding that it would be “for peace of mind.”

“We’ve struggled with this for so long. We’ve been up and down so many times. We just want to be sure, once and for all,” Winters said.

Results from the DNA tests seemed to support the findings of Cal State Fullerton anthropologist Judy Suchey, who determined that the fragments found in 1986 belonged to a child between 2 and 5, and that the child could not have been dead for more than 2 years. But Suchey said it was impossible to determine the race or sex of the child.

The Bradbury case, Stodelle said, will not be closed even if the results of the second DNA test match the bone samples to the missing girl. At that point, Stodelle said, investigators “would have to determine how she died and how those bones got to that location.”

Stodelle dismissed news reports that investigators are “speculating” that Laura Bradbury was kidnaped and murdered elsewhere and that her remains were returned to the site where she disappeared.

“We have a missing person’s case, and at the moment we are trying to determine if those (bone) samples belong to Laura Bradbury,” Stodelle said. “This may evolve into a homicide investigation, but at this point it is not.”

But Stodelle added: “We are not ruling out any leads when it comes to the explanation of Laura’s disappearance.”

The decision to seek a DNA analysis was made last summer after San Bernardino authorities concluded that the “bugs and problems” with the new, highly technical procedure had been resolved to their satisfaction, Stodelle said Tuesday.

The process is based on the fact that each person’s DNA, or genetic makeup, is unique. During the test, forensic specialists are attempting to compare DNA extracted from the bone samples with that of Laura Bradbury’s parents.

Both Mike and Patty Bradbury submitted blood samples to the Sheriff’s Department 2 years ago. Samples of hair from Laura’s hairbrush, collected after she disappeared, also have been examined and compared to test results from the bone fragments.

Staff writers Mark I. Pinsky and Marcida Dodson contributed to this story.