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Mike Bradbury's Obsession : On the Afternoon of Oct. 18, 1984, His Daughter, Laura, Disappeared

July 20, 1986|PAUL CIOTTI | Paul Ciotti is a Los Angeles Times Magazine staff writer.

It's a quiet afternoon at the Laura Center in Huntington Beach. Photographs of missing children dominate the walls. A wooden slide for toddlers sits in the middle of the floor. At a desk in back, private investigator Jim Schalow, acting on a tip that devil worshipers kidnaped Laura Bradbury, is playing an audio cassette of a satanic rite.

Although Schalow got it from a man who claims to have recorded it at a secret meeting, the tape is too absurd to take seriously. Mostly it's a parody of a Catholic service that ends in a series of rousing "Sieg Heils" and "Hail Satans."

The tape is still playing when Mike Bradbury walks into the headquarters of the Laura Bradbury Organization for Stranger-Abducted Children. He is carrying a foot-high stack of three-ring binders. "What's that?" he asks, setting the binders on the table. "It sounds like 'Mein Kampf.' "

"It's a Black Mass," explains Schalow, who sits at a desk, drinking coffee from a plastic-foam cup and smoking a cigarette.

"Oh, wonderful," Bradbury says.

Schalow turns off the tape. "You haven't seen this yet," he says, handing Bradbury a fat, photocopied manuscript.

"What is it?"

"An FBI interrogation."

Bradbury leafs through the manuscript, a meandering interview with a former satanist, but he seems bored and is more than happy to put it aside when Schalow shows him a small yellow catalogue of electronic devices for determining whether a telephone is bugged.

"Hey," says Bradbury. "Here's one for $4,500. It does it all in one unit."

Schalow goes him one better. "Here's a portable one. Or how about a bulletproof limousine?" He flips a few pages.

"Have you ever seen a flashlight so powerful it will knock you down?"

For a while they talk of bugs and CIA satellites, but Bradbury is becoming increasingly anxious to get to the real purpose of the meeting--discussing his latest suspect in his daughter's disappearance. "Well. . ." he says, opening one of his binders.

Schalow puts away the catalogue. "Moving right along," he says.

Mike Bradbury didn't start out doubting the ability of the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department to find his daughter. During the all-out search that followed her disappearance from a campground at Joshua Tree National Monument on Thursday, Oct. 18, 1984, he publicly praised the searchers' dedication and professionalism. In the next three weeks, when he was still living at the campground in the hope that she'd return, a sheriff's deputy loaned him a motor home so he and his wife, Patty, and their two other children (8 1/2-year-old Travis and 5-month-old Emily) wouldn't have to sleep in a tent. Gene Bowlin, then captain of the sheriff's Morongo Basin Station, invited them to his house for showers and a hot meal.

In the meantime, Bowlin mobilized as many as 50 detectives to find Laura, many of whom worked 10-, 12- and 14-hour days, ringing doorbells and checking out possible suspects and Laura look-alikes. "We were busting our asses to find his kid," sheriff's Capt. Dean Knadler later complained. And what was their reward when tips and leads had trickled off to nothing after six months of unrelenting effort? Reading newspaper interviews with Mike Bradbury in which he charged that the department had bungled the entire investigation, if not a good deal more.

When he is not accusing the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department of malfeasance, Mike Bradbury is warm, deferential and polite. At the small, crowded Costa Mesa shop where he repairs cane seats and wicker chairs, he is unfailingly gracious to his customers, many of whom are older matrons, commiserating with them about damaged wicker, broken antiques and the unavoidably high cost of hand-weaving a caned seat.

He is also uncommonly articulate, having by his own account a "near-photographic memory" for names, dates, figures and facts. Although he never finished college or even had much interest in it, he can rattle off a list of a dozen major philosophers without pausing for breath. And he can talk confidently on such disparate subjects as Oriental self-defense and the practical use of computer data bases.

Still, the stress and frustration of not being able to find his daughter are always just beneath the surface, ready to erupt with a small incident or inadvertent remark. Sometimes, he says, he feels so angry and frustrated that he starts punching holes in the walls and smashing doors at his condominium. It's not unusual, he says, to go day after day with only two or three hours' sleep a night. At other times, late at night, he gets so strong a feeling that something is about to happen that he puts on his bulletproof vest, loads his shotgun and sits in the middle of the living room, silently watching the door and waiting.

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