First of two parts — Mike Bradbury felt the air cooling and saw the sun sliding into the horizon, so he hurried to put up the tent where he and his family would sleep.
He heard his son's small voice. "I have to go to the bathroom," Travis was telling his mother, who directed him to a portable toilet nearby. Travis was 8. Padding after him, as always, was his sister Laura, 3½.
Laura was groggy after the long drive from the family's condominium in Huntington Beach to Indian Cove in Joshua Tree National Park. She wore lavender cotton pants and a green sweat top. Framing her round face were flat, blond locks cut to look like her first hero, gymnast Mary Lou Retton, an Olympic star that summer.
Mike listened for his children, but the wind, rising as night fell, hid the crunch of Travis' sneakers and the patter of Laura's rainbow-colored flip-flops.
Travis ambled back to the campsite looking bewildered. While he'd been inside the toilet, Laura had walked away. He figured she'd made her way back to camp, but now he didn't see her.
"Where's Laura?" he asked.
Mike's heart began to race. Laura was not a child who wandered off. He sprinted toward the toilet. His wife, Patty, followed, clutching their infant daughter, Emily. They scrambled through the cactus and the creosote. "Laura!" they yelled. "Laura, Laura! Where are you?"
Mike Bradbury is 67, and bags hang wearily beneath his eyes. For two decades, he has not spoken much about Laura or what has happened since she disappeared: How he refused to give up hope. How the tragedy has clung to his family, like a storm that can't be escaped.
But enough time has passed, and now he's ready to talk. It was the night of Oct. 18, 1984, that his little girl went missing.
"It felt like doom," he recalls. "Like somebody had ripped our hearts out. Just ripped them out."
Park rangers arrived first. Then deputies from the San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department. Then men with the bloodhounds. One of the dogs picked up Laura's scent. Someone spotted sandal prints arcing away from the portable toilet and wrapping back toward the campsite.
But then the prints curved and headed for a road. They disappeared. No more steps. No scent. Nothing.
Word spread quickly through the forlorn towns that ringed the park. Newspapers and newscasts led with the story. Helicopters thumped through the sky. Hundreds of volunteers searched on foot.
It was that way for weeks. During the days, the commotion was strangely comforting to the Bradburys. But nights, when everyone else went home and they holed up in a donated RV, their minds filled "with this bizarre, unaltered, foreboding emptiness," Mike says. "We were surrounded by the feeling: When will this ever end?"
Mike Bradbury grew up in Newport Beach, the son of a Disney cartoonist. He possessed a rapier wit and an excellent memory, but he never made it past a few classes in community college. He was a maverick, a loner, a taker of risks.
"I was the scrapper who always stood up," he says. His left hand brushes across his mustache and his ruddy face. He speaks quickly, forcefully, as he tends to do when remembering the past. "If you were the little guy and there were four guys picking on you, I would go over and kick sand in their faces, even though I was little myself. It got me a lot of beatings, but I simply would not quit."
Patty Winters was quiet, stolid and deeply religious. She calmed him. In 1969 they married, and in the late '70s, flush with cash after running a gold jewelry business in Alaska, they moved to Orange County, where Mike repaired wicker furniture.
Travis was born. Then Laura. Mike had never been around a little girl. Her innocent sweetness captivated him. He'd lift her in his arms, twirling her, tickling her until she begged him to stop. "Daddy's little punkin!" he called her. Most nights, she wouldn't sleep until he'd read to her from Winnie-the-Pooh.
By 1984, they were a family of five, cramped in their two-bedroom condominium. Because Joshua Tree offered a break, they were regular visitors. Patty felt particularly at home there — the sunsets, the night stars far from city life.
Joshua Tree, Mike says, "had always been a place that brought us solace and peace."
I send this letter to you with love and prayer, my first baby girl. There is a hole in our life now. Life was perfect for us but now it seems hallow (sic) … I sometimes feel guilty in continuing at all … I get so angry that you're missing seeing Emily grow and missing your play with Travis. I wonder if you'll have a stocking when you wake. Another Christmas gone — cheated from sharing it with you. God please protect her — give her Christmas … God return our Laura. Make our family complete again … Laura I love you. Please don't forget me … Mommy.
— Letter from Patty to Laura, Christmas morning, 1985
Months passed. The media were still covering the search.