Every Picture Tells a Story

Date Published 09.01.07
Six years ago two young sisters vanished from the streets of Chicago’s South Side. Now a mysterious picture found on the Internet is raising hopes that it’s one of the girls, who, if alive, turned 16 just days ago.

The girls’ great-aunt has no doubts.

“That’s her,” Shelia Bradley Smith told True Crime Dairy.

Vanished

Tracey Bradley says her daughters Tionda, 10, and Diamond, 3, were sleeping in the family’s apartment when she left for work around 6 a.m. on July 6, 2001. She returned around 12:30 p.m. with Diamond’s father, George Washington; the couple says they planned on taking the two girls on a camping trip to Lake Shafer in Indiana. The apartment was empty, and a note from Tionda said the girls had gone to school and a nearby store. But they were nowhere to be found. Tracey reported her daughters missing around 6 p.m. that evening.


Tionda and Diamond Bradley

The case was complicated from the start. Tracey’s time line changed several times - she says she was concerned that the Department of Children and Family Services would punish her for leaving her children at home while she went to work. Eyewitness reports also proved tricky. Children from the neighborhood reported seeing Tionda and Diamond playing at the school playground that morning, but authorities couldn’t be sure the children had the right day.

Tionda’s note was the biggest red flag for her family. They say she never left notes, preferring to use the phone if she had to leave a message. And the grammar was nothing like Tionda’s - Bradley Smith says she recovered a letter from Tionda written five months before she disappeared, and it’s completely different in style, tone and grammar. “No way she improved that much in five months,” Bradley Smith told True Crime Diary.

Authorities have verified it’s Tionda’s handwriting; Bradley Smith thinks her niece was coached. “Someone coerced her to write that note.”

Who?

“Someone very familiar with Tracey and her children,” Bradley Smith said. She describes Tionda as street smart and wary of strangers, a fast runner who loved to dance and was protective of her younger sister, Diamond, the baby of the family who was affectionately known as "Honey Bun." The girls were close. “They wouldn’t have left each other,” said Bradley Smith. “Ever.” Police canvassed the high-crime neighborhood, chasing down neighborhood sex offenders, but Bradley Smith thinks the answer is closer to home. “It had to be someone they felt comfortable to go with,” she said.

One intriguing clue is a message from Tionda left on Tracey’s cell phone. While police were interviewing Tracey about her missing daughters, one of her family members went into Tracey's cell phone and retrieved an apparently unheard voice mail message. Bradley Smith says it was left between 8:30 a.m. or 9:30 a.m. the day the girls disappeared. In the message, Tionda says, “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 to pick up the cake there. We’re coming to pick you up from work.”

Diamond’s father is named George Washington. However, one of Tracey’s close friends, a man who was a neighbor at the time, is also named George. He occasionally babysat for the children, and they were very familiar with him.

No one knows which George was at the door.

As for the voice mail message, Bradley Smith says she, along with about 10 other family members, heard the message. Then it "mysteriously" disappeared. What happened to it?

“Me and God know that,” she said, declining to elaborate.

Suspicions

Law enforcement and the media are often criticized for ignoring cases involving minority children. Not so with the Bradley sisters. Their case has been described as one of the biggest manhunts in Chicago’s history. The FBI came on board just days after the disappearances. Investigators, including private ones, have traveled to Mexico, Belize and Morocco chasing down leads. The Bradley family has organized dozens of prayer vigils, marches and interviews.

Much of that public exposure can be attributed to the tenacity of their great-aunt, Shelia Bradley Smith. When commended for it, she seems surprised that anyone would think she’d behave differently.

“Just doing what you gotta do,” she said.

She was asked how she remains clear-eyed and focused when the possibility remains that someone close to her is responsible for her nieces’ disappearance.

“I love Tracey with all my heart, but I have to say what I believe, and she knows that.”

And what does she believe? She only knows that certain things trouble her. For instance, the camping trip Tracey and George said they were taking with the two girls.

“Never in my life have I heard anything about camping from them,” Bradley Smith said. “Very unusual.”

She’s asked about reports that George Washington was found with a receipt for gloves, bleach and garbage bags that he purchased at a Home Depot.

"Very suspicious," she said.

The last reported sighting of the girls by an adult other than Tracey and George was their grandmother, who says she saw them the day before, during the afternoon. Bradley Smith said she suspects something may have happened to the girls that night. She’s played every possible scenario in her head, always coming up empty, otherwise, if she knew, “we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” she said, allowing herself a small laugh.

When asked what she believes happened, Bradley Smith offered a piece of information that hasn’t been made public before.

“Our family, with our cell phones, we have a family plan. One of the family members, the records said their cell phone had no activity from 2 a.m. until 2 p.m. the day Tionda and Diamond went missing. Now I know the only way there would be no activity is you’re out of range during that time. Roaming.”

She didn’t name the family member, or say where she believes they went. The cell phone record, maddeningly blank, just gnaws at her.

The Mysterious Picture

Bradley Smith knows the statistics. She knows that most missing children are killed within hours of their disappearance. She knows the clues in this case hint at foul play. Still, she remains hopeful, which is why last January when she received a cryptic e-mail that said “This iz Tionda,” she was willing to dig through cyberspace to find answers. The e-mail led her to a MySpace photo of a teenage girl who looks remarkably like an age-progressed Tionda. Chicago police tracked the photo to a 12-year-old Illinois girl who said she found the picture on the Internet and was using it because she didn’t want to use her own.

Police and the Bradleys are currently trying to find the girl in the photo. Bradley Smith says forensic experts compared photos of the girl and Tionda and classified the match "undetermined" -- they can't say it's not the same person, but she says without seeing the girl in person they're wary of making a positive identification.

Below is a photo collage of the unknown teenage girl and Tionda:




Tracey Bradley now has another daughter with George Washington, and she's still close with the other George, a situation that appears to frustrate Bradley Smith. She says Tracey is "hopeful" about the new photo. Bradley Smith is not hopeful -- she's convinced. She says she knows that the girl in the photo is Tionda. Only one thing worries her.

"Where's Diamond?" she said.


The Feed

RT @emilynussbaum: The artful @hodgman's straightforward case for Hillary: https://t.co/ijA8xHJ8Tm
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Know what he does believe in? PAC $. Took 10K from HRC pac 2006. That means he's in her pocket.#BSLogic
@Twaikuer @pattonoswalt @daveanthony Good one. Unfortunately Bernie on record as not believing in charity.
@johnlevenstein Thanks for asking, btw. That's the kind of elevated discourse missing lately. A lot of mud slinging. #I'mNotAboveItEither
@johnlevenstein Can't convey it all thru Twitter but yes, she has flaws. Too poll-driven, burned needed bridges, trouble owning mistakes.