Laura Bradbury, disappeared October 18, 1984, Indian Cove Campground, Joshua Tree National Park, California.
On October 18, 1984, three-and-a-half-year-old Laura Bradbury was on a camping trip with her family at the Indian Cove Campground in the Joshua Tree National Park, California. They were a family of five, cramped in a two-bedroom condominium, so Joshua Tree offered a break, they were regular visitors with parents Patty and Michael.
She went with her 8-year-old brother, Travis, to the portable restrooms near the campground and left Laura outside while he used the facilities. When he came out, Laura had vanished.
Over 250 people along with horses, dogs and helicopters searched for Laura in the Joshua Tree National Park. A dog followed her scent for about two miles before losing it. After only three days, the official search was called off.
The Bradbury family mobilised their own massive effort, distributing millions of flyers and T-shirts with Laura's likeness on them. They also appeared on radio and television talk shows and the disappearance was reenacted twice on national television. A hot line was established to gather tips and field inquiries.The search for her became a national story and Laura was one of the first missing children to be featured on milk cartons.
Witnesses claimed to have seen a man in his fifties with a metallic blue van at Indian Cove Campground just before Laura disappeared and a similar-looking man was seen near Burns Canyon a few hours later. The sheriff’s department even brought in a hypnotist to try to coax out more details from campers who had seen the bearded, pot-bellied man and his van.
The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department had investigated Laura's disappearance. But Mike had lost faith in the deputies and he'd mounted his own search. Mike grew increasingly contemptuous of sheriff's deputies for not doing enough about the many tips that flowed into the Laura Center. They were incompetent or lazy or both, he told reporters. He even speculated that someone inside the department knew that a kidnapper was involved and was covering it up.
Mike heard the story of Clifford Leville and Toby Santangelo who were said to have told deputies they had solid information about a man they believed kidnapped Laura. But investigators checked it out and found it not credible. Not long afterward, Leville and Santangelo were found shot to death.
Along with a private investigator, he combed the isolated communities near Joshua Tree, known for attracting drug dealers and oddballs. His hunt, too, came to nothing.
In 1986, a skull believed to be that of Laura Bradbury was found by hikers near the parks west entrance, only two miles from the family's campsite (some reports say 5 miles). However, DNA tests were unable to conclusively prove that the skull was Laura's, not even blood type or gender, and the only certainty was that it was a child.
A sheriff's captain publicly speculated it was Laura's and had a theory. Maybe, he said, she meandered away from the toilet, stumbled and was somehow buried by collapsing sand. Only recently, he continued, coyotes or a mountain lion had dug up all that was left.
In 1990, new DNA tests were said to prove the skull was Laura's with 99% likelihood of a match.
Laura's mother Patty died in 2001 and her father Michael wrote a book about his daughter's disappearance called "Laura Ann Bradbury: A Father's Search" in 2010.
Michael Bradbury has been trying to have the skull transferred from the coroner’s facility to a mortuary since October 2009, but because the San Bernardino County coroner’s office has not issued a death certificate, he has been unable to claim his daughter’s remains.
In a 2010 interview he said he was shown about 40 colour 35 mm slides of the skull, and was astonished to find out it is a full-sized skull, about seven inches by five inches, missing the teeth and lower jaw. He claimed that investigators showed him a much different skull shortly after hikers discovered the remains. “My wife and I were shown a smaller, three-inch skullcap in or around 1986-’87 that the sheriff’s claimed was Laura’s skull,” he said. “The two skulls are totally dissimilar; they looked nothing like each other. I wonder now, what or whose skull they showed me then. And why?”
He also had a report on tests that provided inconclusive results on whether the cranium was his daughter’s. According to the report, only one of four DNA tests performed on the skull matched DNA samples from Laura’s mother’s blood. Even hair taken from Laura’s hairbrush did not match DNA with the skull, he said. The two partial skull bones are the only remains Michael was aware of that are believed to be from his daughter. “I am very anxious to put closure to this terrible period of my life,” Bradbury said. “All I want is justice for my daughter. That’s all I care about.”
No arrests have ever been made and the case remains unsolved.