JOSHUA TREE — The skullcap and other bone fragments of a young child have been discovered at a remote site in the Joshua Tree National Monument less than three miles from where 3-year-old Laura Bradbury disappeared in 1984, the San Bernardino County sheriff said Monday.
Although deputies have not connected the evidence to the Bradbury case, which has attracted attention nationwide, they immediately contacted the family because of "the coincidence" of the age of the child whose bones were found and where they were found, according to a family member.
In addition, San Bernardino County Coroner Irving Root said, the bones appeared to have been in the area for about two years and had been exposed to sunlight for about the last six months. He said the bone fragments were those of a child between 2 and 5 and that the child could not have been dead for more than two years.
Laura Bradbury disappeared from her family's Indian Cove campsite on Oct. 18, 1984.
The bones will be taken today to the office of Cal State Fullerton anthropologist Judy Suchey, who will perform further forensic tests to determine the age and sex of the victim, Sheriff Floyd Tidwell said.
Laura's parents, Mike and Patty Bradbury of Huntington Beach, were out of town and could not be reached for comment. Eileen Winters, who is married to Patty's brother, said the couple had left Sunday with their two other children on what was to be the family's first vacation since Laura disappeared.
Deputies reached family members by phone, Winters said, to let them know there was a "coincidence between the size of the skull, the age and the location where the bones were found. They wanted us to know before we heard it on the news so we weren't caught off guard. They just wanted us to know."
The bones were discovered about 6 p.m. Saturday by a husband and wife from the Twentynine Palms Marine Base who were hiking on the western boundary of the Indian Cove campground, where Laura was last seen, Tidwell said. The couple found the skullcap and other fragments and turned them over to deputies at 11 a.m. the next day, he said.
San Bernardino County Sheriff's Sgt. William Holloway said the bones were discovered about two miles northwest of the main campground at Indian Cove. He said the bones were found in rugged terrain by a dry streambed between 1 1/2 to 2 miles from the nearest dirt road.
Holloway said the couple kept the skullcap over night because "I don't think they were sure about what they had. They just thought it was a human bone."
Meanwhile, deputies and more than 100 searchers launched an extensive search of the campground for additional bone fragments and also for articles of clothing, Tidwell said. No other fragments were discovered, and no further searches have been scheduled, he said.
Police in San Bernardino and Orange counties have questioned scores of suspects since Laura's disappearance, but there have been no arrests. However, several sex offenders were arrested on other charges as a result of the investigation, law enforcement officials said.
On several occasions, the Bradburys and sheriff's investigators believed they were close to finding the girl. At one point, police took into custody a Pasadena woman with a young daughter who looked so much like pictures of Laura that Laura's father had to drive to the police station to determine that she was not Laura. The San Bernardino sheriff's office has devoted considerable resources to the investigation, establishing a seven-member task force under the command of Capt. Gene Bowlin at the Morongo Basin station, not far from where Laura vanished. Estimates of the cost of the investigation exceeded $1 million.
The family has offered a $25,000 no-questions-asked reward for Laura's safe return. Her picture appeared several times on nationally televised programs--one of which re-created her disappearance--dealing with missing children. Actor Ricky Schroder, star of the television show "Silver Spoons" and a distant relative of Patty Bradbury, appeared in public service announcements asking for help in finding Laura and other missing children.
After his daughter disappeared, Mike Bradbury remained at the campsite for more than three weeks, at first aiding in the investigation, then maintaining a lonely, determined vigil. Later, he and Patty devoted all of their waking hours to trying to find their daughter.
Over the next few months, the case attracted attention nationwide. An extensive volunteer network was organized, extending throughout Southern California, and many businesses contributed cash and services to the effort to find the girl.
Laura's disappearance coincided with rising recognition of the problem of missing children. By the first anniversary of her disappearance, her face appeared on millions of flyers and on thousands of bumper stickers, milk cartons and supermarket shopping bags.
A storefront center was established in Huntington Beach and a hot line was set up. The effort eventually expanded to concern all missing children. Mike Bradbury became increasingly involved in his daughter's case, hiring a private investigator, and he became increasingly critical of the way the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department handled the case. He set up computers in his home and office, entering information about the many reported sightings and correlating data about various suspects.
Winters said the discovery of the bones underscores the anxiety felt by the Bradbury family in the months since Laura disappeared.
"It's one of those things you want to end one way or another," she said. "Of course, you want it to end with her home. Even if it's bad news, it's better than the wondering and the fear you have of what's been happening to her."
Contributing to this story were Times staff writers Mark I. Pinsky in Costa Mesa and Heidi Evans in Huntington Beach.