Today, I want to talk about a missing persons’ case that, as of this past summer, over two decades old. This case has not exactly been ignored. In fact, it sparked one of the most extensive searches in Chicago’s history. Even now, two decades later, it hasn’t been entirely shifted to the back burner of unsolved crimes. So, I’m not claiming to have dug this one out of obscurity by any means, but I don’t think that some attention will exactly hurt either. July of 2021 marked twenty years since a pair of sisters, aged ten and three, vanished from their Chicago apartment under baffling circumstances. I have my own suspicions as to what happened, although I can’t begin to guess as to how and why. My own thoughts on the case will likely be evident, but I still encourage the reader to form their own opinion.
The sisters in question were Tionda and Diamond Bradley. Tionda, aged ten, was described by her aunt as “as a girly girl, but also very active. She liked to dance, she liked gymnastics, she did talent shows at school.” Tionda has also been described as cautious and rule-abiding, a factor which may be important in determining what happened to her. Her sister Diamond was three years old and the baby of the family. The girls were not the only children in the family, having two other sisters by the names Rita and Victoria, but they were very close. Tionda often took Diamond with her places, and the family remembers her carrying the younger girl around on her hip in their apartment. Diamond, relatives say, was shy around strangers, but could also be a “Tasmanian Devil.” Victoria Bradley (who earned recognition as a high school basketball star as a teenager) recalls Diamond being very active, leaping between pieces of furniture in the family living room. She also remembers what is most evident about Diamond from her pictures–her large, dark eyes, so striking that they would “scare people.”
We’ll start this story on the 4th of July, 2001. There exists a video of the Bradley family from that day. I haven’t seen it, and I don’t believe it’s publicly available. According to descriptions, there isn’t much unusual to see on the video. Tionda Bradley is visible, along with Diamond, celebrating the holiday with their mother, aunts, grandmother, and sisters. The following day, July 5th, was equally unremarkable as far as anyone can recall. Mary Bradley, the girls’ grandmother, was with them and their mother, Tracy, at the family’s apartment, located in the Lake Village Grove complex on the south side of Chicago. She stayed there from 11:30 am until around 3:30 pm, at which point she left for her own home. Joining her were Rita and Victoria, who would be staying with her that night. Tionda and Diamond would be staying with their mother, sleeping on the living room couch to avoid the mid-summer heat. Tracey Bradley had a job making meals for a children’s summer camp, and she had to work in the morning. Her boyfriend (and the reported father of Diamond) would be taking her to work and then dropping her off after she finished at noon.
According to Tracey Bradley, Diamond’s father, George Washington (actual name, yes, try not to get hung up on it and I’ll try to do the same) arrived by 4:30 am, although some sources also say he was there the entire night. He took Tracey to work at 6:30 am, at which point Tionda and Diamond were still on the couch. Tracey reminded them not to open the door to anyone, and then left with George.
At some point between 7:00 and 8:00 am, Tracey tried to call home but got no answer. She decided the girls were most likely still sleeping, and returned to work. George picked her up and brought her back home, and various sources have listed her time as return as either 11:00 am or closer to 12:30. As the 12:30 time is the more frequently reported and at least one source stated that her shift lasted until 12:00 pm, the later time seems more likely to be accurate. She found the apartment empty, with a note left on the back of the living room couch (although one source said it was on the back porch). It was written in what was later confirmed to be Tionda’s handwriting, although whether she wrote it entirely of her own volition is a point we will come to later. It stated that she and Diamond were going to a nearby store and playground for a while, and would be back soon.
Here is where we need to take a break and talk about George. You see, after he dropped Tracey off at work, there’s not a lot to confirm where George was and what he was doing. There are reports that he went to visit another girlfriend (he and Tracey evidently not being exclusive) and that he stopped by to visit his mother. It’s uncertain how long he was at either place, or if anyone but the two women in question can confirm his whereabouts. It’s also been reported that he left soon after bringing Tracey back home, even though by that point she was searching for her daughters with increasing concern. If you’re unfamiliar with the case, I am probably coming across as really suspicious of George, really fast, but there are reasons for this that I will come to shortly. A further point about George: while he has been reported as being Diamond’s biological father, I have also read in multiple sources that Tracey had a paternity suit pending against him, which was ultimately dropped. I’ve never seen it specified when it was dropped, whether before or after the girls disappeared.
Tracey began searching for her daughters everywhere she thought they could be, and contacting other family members. It was during this time period that another relative apparently told Tracey to avoid alerting law enforcement. Since Tracey had left her children home alone, there was real concern that social services could get involved and that she could lose custody of all of her children. Ultimately, police were called around 6:00 or 6:30 pm. Initially, Tracey still did not tell them that she had been absent from the apartment; instead, she said that she had slept until 11:00 am and woke to find her children missing. She later admitted that she had been at work the entire morning, which was confirmed.
Thus began one of the longest, most extensive, and most involved searches in the city’s history. I don’t want to get bogged down in the details, but this search was intense, to say the least. Abandoned buildings were searched. Train cars were searched. Dumpsters were searched. The lake was searched (the apartment complex was within walking distance of the Lake Michigan shoreline). Sex offenders were rounded up and questioned, and in all, over 1,000 people were interviewed. I think you get the idea. The search for Tionda and Diamond didn’t have any glaring holes. This certainly doesn’t mean that something wasn’t missed, somewhere–in all likelihood there was something in the area that was missed–but there really isn’t an obvious place or type of search that should have been done but wasn’t.
Unsurprisingly, Tracey and George were heavily questioned. Tracey admitted to having gone to work and her story changed to the form that I have related above. There are some things with the timeline and the planned events for that afternoon that are still unclear to this day. For one thing, there were some child witnesses who claimed to have seen Tionda and Diamond playing outside the apartment around 12:00 pm, and others said they saw them at the nearby playground that morning. While I don’t find these sightings particularly compelling–they’re somewhat vague and contradictory, and could easily be the result of the kids seeing a different pair of girls or getting mixed up with a different day–I can’t entirely dismiss the idea that Tionda and Diamond did leave the apartment on their own and vanished from some point outside the home.
Then there is the ambiguity over where the girls were supposed to be going that day. In researching this case, there are several vague mentions of a camping trip to Shafer Lake that George, Tracey, and the girls were supposed to go on. It’s unclear if they were supposed to be leaving later that day or the following day. Tracey’s aunt, Shelia, has stated that she did not hear anything about them going camping and that she did not think they had ever gone camping before. Shafer Lake, across the Indiana border, is slightly over a two-hour drive from Chicago, according to Google Maps. It wouldn’t be an unfeasible trip if the family left in the early afternoon, provided they had their supplies ready. Yet, if they were planning on going that day, why would George leave shortly after bringing Tracey home, while she was looking for her daughters? If the whole camping trip is some kind of fabrication on the part of Tracey and George, what kind of purpose could it possibly serve?
Then there is the matter of Tionda’s summer school. Tionda was enrolled in summer classes at Doolittle Elementary School, just a few blocks west of the apartment, but she was marked absent that day. While most sources state that Tionda’s note said the girls were going to the store and to the playground, there are a few that say she was in fact going to class, and taking Diamond with her. I’m largely ignoring this latter statement, since it hasn’t appeared in nearly as many articles about the case as the “store and playground” version, but it’s still unclear if Tionda was ever supposed to go to summer school that day. There are three possibilities. One is that Tionda was supposed to attend in the afternoon but had gone missing by that time. In that case, the camping trip was either never planned or was not supposed to happen until later. The second is that she would have normally attended in the afternoon, but was not set to that day due to the camping trip. The third is that she was supposed to attend in the morning, but was unable to because she had to stay home with her sister while Tracey was at work.
It may be that none of these inconsistencies matter that much, and I hope I’m not dwelling on them too much. Summer school or no summer school, camping trip or no camping trip, investigators soon found some other items of interest. Naturally, there was a lot of attention on Tionda’s note. Comparisons to the handwriting in her school notebooks indicated that she most likely did write it. However, family members have expressed skepticism that she wrote it on her own initiative. Tracey’s sister, Faith, recalls that Tionda liked writing but still wrote very much as most children her age did, and made more spelling mistakes then were evident in the note. Her great-aunt, Shelia Bradley-Smith, takes a similar view. The handwriting may have been hers, but the structure and grammar did not sound like her. Furthermore, it would have been out of character for her to leave a note for her mother this way. In the past, if she needed to get a hold of Tracey when she was at work, she had called her. Which brings me to the most interesting piece of evidence: the voicemail.
Now, the circumstances around the voicemail are shadowy, but most sources treat its existence as confirmed. Apparently, in the days immediately after the disappearance, while Tracey Bradley was being questioned by police, other family members were in possession of her cell phone. Her sister, Faith, was searching through the phone and found a voicemail left on the morning of July 6th, at some point between 8:00 and 9:00 am (one source says 8:30 am). The message said: “Mama, this is Tionda. Mom, pick up the phone. George is at the door. Can I open the door? He said that we are going to Jewel`s [local grocery store] to pick up the cake there. We`re coming to pick you up from work.”
A couple of things to note here. The following day, July 7th, was the Bradley girls’ other sister, Victoria’s, ninth birthday. This could explain the reference to picking up the cake, and it’s possible that the vaguely-referred to camping trip was related to the birthday party. Yet, these aren’t really the most interesting things about this message, as I’m sure you have all noticed. The first thing that probably jumped out at you, as it did me, was the name: George.
It would be easy to read this as casting suspicion on Tracey’s boyfriend George, and it still could be interpreted that way… except, he was not the only “George” that the girls knew. There was another George, a George who I have only ever seen referred to as “George Senior”, a neighbor who had watched the girls in his apartment in the past, when Tracey was gone. So, there’s that.
The voicemail also essentially discredits a few other ideas. One is the theory that something happened to the girls during the night or early morning hours, and that Tracey and George are acting together to cover it up. The call definitively places Tionda in the apartment at some point between 8:00 and 9:00 in the morning, after the mother was at work. The voicemail also comes close to ruling out any truth to Tionda’s note. There is no mention in the message of the girls going to the park or store, and no mention of anyone else being with them in the letter. The phone message and the note cannot both be truthful, so which, if either, was Tionda intending to do?
Relatives of the Bradley sisters have stated that calling her mother would have been far more in character for Tionda then leaving a note would have been. Her mother had instructed her not to open the door to anyone, hence why she called her mother when “George” showed up at the apartment. It seems likely that if she did not want her daughters opening the door, she also did not want them to leave the apartment, and Tionda would have known she was disobeying her mother by doing so. Even if she decided to sneak out to the store or park with Diamond while her mother was gone at work, it seems more likely she just would have tried to come back before Tracey returned rather than leave a note indicating they had gone anywhere.
While there are several reasons to doubt the truth of the note, I put more weight on the fact that there is no compelling reason to doubt the truth of the voicemail. Tionda appeared to call her mother in the hopes that she would answer the phone in person rather then it going to voicemail, and if she wanted to go somewhere without her mother’s permission while Tracey was at work, why bother calling her at all to concoct a story that could easily be disproven by whichever George she meant? Short of some elaborate scenario in which an unknown person entered the apartment and forced Tionda to call her mother in order to cast suspicion on George (and then, inexplicably, had her write a note contradicting the message in the voicemail), I think it most likely that Tionda left the genuine voicemail on her own and was then coached into leaving the note.
Now seems the best time to reckon with the reliability of Tracey’s account, or lack thereof. Both law enforcement and members of her own family have taken issue with her rendition of the events of July 6th. First, there was the fact that she changed her story early on during the investigation, initially saying she was sleeping when Tionda and Diamond went missing, then later saying she went to work and left the girls alone in the apartment She retained an attorney named Andre Grant, who some suspect was behind most of her decisions from that point forward. Tracey refused to provide a writing sample or let her other daughters speak with investigators. Most bizarrely, when a surveillance tape collected from a convenience store showed two girls matching Tionda and Diamond’s description, Tracey delayed viewing the tape. Ultimately, the girls turned out not to be Tionda and Diamond, but Tracey’s seeming disinterest in a possible sighting of her daughters was alarming to some. For her part, Tracey said that investigators were treating her as a suspect and wasting too much time questioning her. Currently, law enforcement does not consider Tracey a suspect.
There are things we need to consider when it comes to Tracey. Are there problems with her accounting of events? Certainly. Changing her initial story, for whatever reason, is never the best look in a missing persons investigation, nor is a delay in contacting law enforcement. However, Tracey’s fears of losing custody of her children were not unfounded, and many of her subsequent decisions can be attributed to her lawyer. Also, the girls had family members nearby, including the grandmother who was looking after two other daughters. She may have wanted to rule out the idea that the girls had left of their own accord and perhaps ended up with a family member before she alerted the authorities.
Yet, the main reason I’m slightly dismissive of the idea that Tracey Bradley had a direct role in the disappearance of her daughters is the simple fact that she had an alibi during the time frame in which they most likely went missing. She was known to be at work between approximately 7:00 am until 12:00 pm, and the call from Tionda came in around 8:30 am. Now, it’s possible that the entire message about George and the cake is a huge red herring that had nothing to do with the disappearance, and that whatever happened to the girls actually happened after Tracey returned home. Yet I confess I’m a bit skeptical on this point, given that no other explanation for the “George at the door” call has ever surfaced, and the note was apparently left in Tionda’s own handwriting.
This voicemail’s existence has been confirmed, but essentially nothing else about it, including how or why it was deleted. If we take the voicemail’s existence as fact, and Tionda’s message as verbatim, then we are left with three possibilities.
- Someone came to the door, and Tionda thought it was George.
- It really was one of the two Georges, making it likely that one of them was involved in the disappearance.
- Someone was pretending to be George, or used the name George.
It seems very likely that someone, almost certainly an adult, dictated the letter to Tionda. Assuming this person and the mysterious “George” were one and the same person, his story must have changed by the time he entered the apartment. Most likely the “cake story” was to get Tionda to open the door, and he never intended for her to call her mother. After this, it became a matter of getting the girls out of the apartment as discreetly as possible, in such a way as to distance himself from the event. He did not want Tionda calling Tracey again, or identifying him, so maybe be concocted some story about picking up the cake as a “surprise” and said they should leave a note in case Tracey got back before they did. This all paints a scenario in which an abduction was planned in advance, and it likely involved someone the girls knew, and who knew the family and their routine well in turn.
As tempting as it is to point the finger at one of the two Georges in the girls’ lives, it is by no means a given that either of them approached the apartment while Tionda and Diamond were alone that day. “George” is not a terribly uncommon name, and there is the very real possibility that the person at the door impersonated George or that Tionda was mistaken as to the man’s identity. Yet, it would be even more foolish to dismiss the possibility that one of the Georges might have been involved. Tionda and Diamond would have been reasonably comfortable around both men, and would not have thought it terribly unusual for them to take them somewhere local. If we precede with the assumption that Tionda’s message did refer to one of them, is there anything that especially points to one of them over the other? I’ll call them George W. (Tracey’s boyfriend) and George Two (babysitter and neighbor).
Well, I’ll cut to the chase here and say there really isn’t much to distinguish them, in part because we don’t know all that much about George W. and we know less about George Two. It’s been stated that he was a neighbor, so even if he did not live in the same apartment complex, it’s likely he knew where Tionda and Diamond lived. If he lived close by, he could have kept an eye on the comings and goings of Tracey and George W. One question that bothers me though, is that if George Two was around and available when Tracey left for work that day, why not have him babysit the girls instead of leaving them alone in the apartment? After all, he had apparently done this before. It’s possible that Tracey considered Tionda old enough to babysit Diamond on her own and did not want to pay whatever fee George Two would have charged, but it’s still odd that there was no mention of this past babysitter when Tracey and George W. would have needed one.
There is something else, too, that makes me lean towards George W. as the George referred to in the message. This is the fact that Tionda stated that the George at the door had said they were going to come pick Tracey up from work. George W. was the one who had dropped Tracey off at work, so it seems more logical that he would be the one to pick her up as well. Also, Tracey’s boyfriend and Diamond’s assumed father seems a more likely person to buy a birthday cake for one of the daughters then an occasional babysitter.
Of course, George W. was still being heavily scrutinized, and the results of that scrutiny turned up a few things that could be considered sinister in context, or that might mean nothing all. A detective has said that the most important evidence gathered in the investigation were hairs found in the trunk of George W.’s van. These hairs could have belonged to Tionda, Diamond or their mother (and while not stated, it doesn’t seem a stretch to think they also could have come from Rita or Victoria?). Since he had given Tracey a ride that very day, it’s far from outside the realm of possibility that she and the girls could have been in his van on multiple past occasions. A receipt was found indicating that George W. had purchased gloves, bleach, and trash bags at some point. That this fact is recorded at all seems to indicate that the purchase occurred close the disappearance of Tionda and Diamond, but I’ve never seen a definitive account of exactly when the receipt was dated.
George W. is the only person of interest for whom we have anything resembling a timeline. We know he dropped Tracey off at work at approximately 7:00 am and then picked her up again at roughly 12:00 pm, and that he may have visited with two other people at some point that morning. Without confirming where he visited and for how long, or knowing the distance between the apartment and Tracey’s workplace, it’s impossible to know how much free time he would have had that day, or if him appearing at the apartment around 8:30 am is a possibility. Also of interest to me is what he did after taking Tracey home. Some reports state that he left as soon as he brought her back to the apartment and didn’t help her search for the missing girls. This in itself is a little eyebrow raising for some, but what might be more crucial is what he could have done in that unaccounted for time.
The question of motive is puzzling to me, so much so that I can only speculate. There are a lot of circumstantial items of concern surrounding George W., but why he would have taken the girls from the apartment that day is a mystery. It’s possible that his intentions were innocent until some point after leaving with Tionda and Diamond, but then something happened that he did not plan for and has not come clean about to this day. In this scenario, he really did intend to take the girls to get Victoria’s birthday cake and, for whatever, reason, wanted it to be surprise. Maybe he was under the impression that Victoria herself would be returning from her grandmother’s that day, maybe he just wanted to impress Tracey with his thoughtfulness. We simply don’t know. In case she somehow returned early, he coached Tionda to leave a misleading note for her mother before leaving, at which point they all left together and something unexpected happened. Either he harmed one or both of the girls on accident, or they wandered away and vanished while he took them someplace, and he could not admit to this happening while they were in his care. All possible, yes, but–and call me suspicious if you want–there are so many little signs pointing to some kind of planning on the part of whoever took the girls away that I cannot let myself ignore them.
Could it be that the person at the door–whether it was George W., George Two, or someone else entirely–have been a garden variety child molester or predator, who knew the girls were alone and wanted to take them someplace where he could control them without fear of interruption? Certainly, but we should note that none of the persons of interest have ever been known to commit a similar crime before or after July of 2001. This doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened, but it is rare for an individual to commit crime in this vein and then never do so again. Or could there be a more specific motive, and if so, what was it? If we are talking about George W., did he want to get the kids out of the way to pursue a relationship with Tracey and/or to avoid paying child support for Diamond? The second of these might hold some water, but the first holds almost none, as he would have known that Tracey had two other children. Furthermore, I have read in some sources that Tracey and George W. moved away from the area went on to have two more children together after the disappearance. If George W. was intending to duck child support and child-caring responsibilities, he didn’t plan very well. Could he have gone to the apartment with the intent to sell one or both of the girls to a third party?
The speculation is as endless as it is unsavory. In my opinion, there isn’t even enough evidence here to take someone to trial, much less convict someone. There’s a receipt for some common household items from an unknown date, some hairs that might have belonged to Tionda, Diamond or their sisters or their mother in a vehicle they might well have traveled in at some point in the recent past and could easily have been transferred through innocent means. There’s a deleted voicemail that only a few people have heard and a note in Tionda’s handwriting that doesn’t mention anyone but herself and Diamond. There’s no sign of forced entry or a struggle at the apartment, and most damning to a criminal case, no bodies.
Yet, just because there isn’t enough evidence yet to definitively solve the case doesn’t mean I don’t find some directions more promising than others. I’ll include some of the leads that have emerged briefly and dwindled without providing anything of substance. One was a man from Morocco who had purportedly been paying child support on Tionda until the summer of her disappearance, when he learned he was not her biological father. The FBI even traveled to Morocco to pursue this lead, but did not turn up anything of note. The girls’ great-aunt Sheliah says that at one point a woman from Gary, Indiana contacted her and claimed that her boyfriend had come to her on the same day that Tionda and Diamond went missing and told her that he had done something ”messed up……she saw it, so I had to kill her.” Nothing emerged from this tip either. One source mentions a man named Daniel Torres, a man who has claimed to Tionda’s biological father and says that he resumed contact with Tracey after the disappearance, despite being out of touch with the family for several years. I have only seen him mentioned once, however, and nothing connecting Torres to the disappearances has ever been put forth.
The detective who worked the Bradley case until his 2013 retirement, has stated that he thinks the girls were taken by someone they trusted. He also has what might be the best summary of the case I have read–in fact, I think I’ll let him have the last word since conclusions are kind of my weak point anyway. “Almost every case I’ve ever worked, especially the violent crimes, you are always able to either include someone or exclude someone, and this was the only case I worked in my entire career where I couldn’t exclude anyone or include anyone.” Emphasis mine.
FBI-Tionda Bradley (Tionda Z. Bradley)
FBI-Diamond Bradley (Diamond Yvette Bradley)
A Map of the Apartment Complex (even though it doesn’t really serve much purpose in this narrative)