For two years, Los Angeles County sheriff's homicide investigators have worked to identify 47 women whose pictures were taken three decades ago by a Westside photographer later convicted of killing two models.
It has been a search that crossed the country and, at its height, consumed half the sheriff's Homicide Bureau. Officials eventually eliminated all but 14 women as potential victims. Of those there are half a dozen who they believe most strongly may have been murdered, including four whose bodies were found in remote canyon areas.
Detectives always believed that the man who held the key to the case was the photographer himself. William Bradford was convicted in 1987 of murdering two of his models and was suspected in other cases of women who vanished.
On San Quentin State Prison's death row, Bradford finally agreed to sit down with detectives over two days several months ago and conceded knowing some of the half-dozen women. But he refused to provide detailed answers to key questions. He also denied killing them.
Now the case has again gone cold, because Bradford died of cancer last week at age 61 at the state prison medical facility in Vacaville.
Sheriff's Lt. Pat Nelson said his detectives were hoping for another interview, convinced that Bradford was not telling all he knew and that he might want a final chance to clear his conscience.
The opportunity slipped away as his health deteriorated faster than anticipated.
"The reaction is one of frustration," Nelson said. "We really wanted to have a definite resolution to these six victims, and we may never reach that."
Retired Sheriff's Capt. Ray Peavy recalled that one of his detectives visited the parents of a potential victim in Florida. The mother had left the front porch light on every night for 20 years, hoping her daughter would return.
"Some of these families are never going to let go of their hope that their daughter is alive," he said.
Bradford was a photographer from the mid-1960s to the mid-'80s and frequented popular Westside bars, where he offered to take photos of female models and actresses.
Police found hundreds of those images when they arrested him in the early '80s in the deaths of two Westside-area models.
Shari Miller, a 21-year-old barmaid, had Bradford snap her photos for her portfolio. After gaining her trust, he drove her to the Mojave Desert for a photo shoot and strangled her.
Days later, on July 12, 1984, Tracey Campbell disappeared. Authorities alleged that Bradford killed the 15-year-old in the same vicinity after another fashion shoot.
He was convicted in the murders, and in the penalty phase of his trial, Bradford asked the jury to sentence him to death, saying, "Think of how many you don't even know about."
The case might have ended there had it not been for cold-case homicide detectives who were looking at Bradford in connection with another case and stumbled across his photos in the case file.
Bradford's comments at sentencing lent credence to the theory that the two slayings were "the tip of the iceberg," Peavy said. So investigators took the rare step of releasing the images of the 47 women publicly.
In two weeks, sheriff's officials fielded more than 2,000 calls from as far away as England. Most of the women, or their families, confirmed that they were alive. The women contacted were shaken by their encounters with a possible serial killer.
Investigators received 700 clues and eventually identified all but 14 of the missing women.
It was unclear, however, whether some of those who remained on the list were victims or just didn't want to come forward.
But detectives have linked at least four of the women to bodies found dumped in various parts of northern Los Angeles County. Authorities still have not identified them. But they said the manner in which the bodies were dumped is similar to the method used in the murders Bradford was convicted of.
In addition, he continues to be a suspect in the killings of other women in the Los Angeles area. Patricia Dulong, 34, was found dead in Santa Monica in September 1975; Donnalee Duhamel, 31, was killed in August 1978, her body found on Old Topanga Road in Malibu.
Peavy said that although it was disappointing that Bradford took many answers to the grave, sheriff's investigators achieved part of what they set out to do: help some of the families find out what happened to their daughters.
"In my heart, the guy was already dead," Peavy said of Bradford. "He wasn't going anywhere, and he wasn't going to hurt anyone."