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The Mystery of Laura

After years of anguish, Mike Bradbury heads north. But he couldn't let go.

September 19, 2010|By Kurt Streeter, Los Angeles Times
  • Mike Bradbury goes for a walk with his two surviving children, Travis and Emily, on a trail near Upper Newport Bay. Emily was too young to remember the disappearance of and subsequent search for her sister Laura, but Travis is still haunted by the memory.
Mike Bradbury goes for a walk with his two surviving children, Travis and… (Mark Boster / Los Angeles…)

Second of two parts

Mike Bradbury did what he could to flee the past.

As 1990 began, he and his wife, Patty, sold their condo in Huntington Beach and moved with their two children to a small rental home in the Northern California town of Grass Valley.

They allowed few reminders of their first-born daughter. One was a bumper sticker, affixed to the back of their aged VW. It featured a photograph of her, underscored by the words Help Find Laura. They didn't have the heart to peel the sticker off.

The Bradburys told nobody in Grass Valley what had happened to them or why they were there. But some in town recognized them anyway.

Five years earlier, during a family camping trip to what was then Joshua Tree National Monument, 3 1/2-year-old Laura Bradbury had followed her brother Travis, then 8, to a portable toilet and vanished. The search for her became a national story and Laura was one of the first missing children to be featured on milk cartons.

Within weeks of the disappearance, Mike and Patty created the Laura Center in Orange County, a nonprofit organization that mailed fliers and held regular news conferences.

With no real answers, the years since had been filled with anguish that seemed without end.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department had investigated Laura's disappearance — efforts that were ongoing. But Mike had lost faith in the deputies and he'd mounted his own angry search. 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, and the toll on his family and marriage was staggering. Moving to Grass Valley was both an avenue to a new life for the family and a painful admission that he had done all he could.

Yet he couldn't give up hope. Neither could Patty. She told no one — not Mike, Travis or her little girl, Emily — that she had been writing to Laura ever since she vanished.

*

Today you are nine years old.… I can hardly believe it. How time is swallowed up as if it never was.… I still want to search kids out to see what a nine year old looks like and try to imagine my three years (sic) old who is frozen in time.… Not having you has left holes in many places. I don't remember Emily's babyhood — when did she walk, talk? — God, how unfair. My marriage is numb.… Travis is deeply wounded.… We have no home now. On that last night [in Huntington Beach] I stayed late and the memories flooded the place. I remember you with floppy and you and Travis in the sand box and you in the crib and the new big girl baby bed. Christmas, Easters — so little time and how little did I appreciate it.

— Letter from Patty to Laura, May 29, 1990

*

One afternoon during their first winter in Grass Valley, the phone rang. "Mr. Bradbury," said a Department of Justice official, "we have some news.…"

For years, he and Patty had waited for this call. They'd prayed it would solve the mystery. In 1986, four years earlier, a hiker had stumbled upon remnants of a small skull, two miles from the campsite. A San Bernardino County sheriff's captain publicly speculated that it was Laura's but several tests were inconclusive.

This call was about a DNA test more accurate than any done before. Mike held his breath.

"Mr. Bradbury," the official said, "the test shows with a 99.9% certainty that the skull is your daughter's."

Mike looked over his shoulder and saw Patty, frozen, covering her mouth. When he hung up, she bolted to the bedroom and he followed her. That night, they held each other for hours.

Over the years, there had been credible tips from people claiming they'd seen Laura. None panned out. Each added to the emotional shield around the family, protection that allowed them to accept this latest news with grim resignation.

They wrote to the San Bernardino County coroner's office, asking for the skull. They wanted to hold a memorial service and burial.

"We waited, we waited, we waited," Mike says, his words and eyes sharp, as they often are when he speaks of Laura. "And when we did not get any reply … we started wondering if maybe there was something wrong with the test…. We didn't ever pursue getting the bones back any further. From then on there would always be a question: Was it really her?

"By then, and I hated this, but Patty wanted to have us move on. She simply forbade me from dealing with this any longer."

*

In Grass Valley, the family never found solid footing. They'd spent so much on the search for Laura that paying the bills was a struggle. Mike put together enough money to buy several vending machines, hoping to live off the profit. It wasn't enough. Patty got a job as a veterinarian's assistant, but that didn't help much. At one point they moved in with new friends because they couldn't afford a decent place to rent.

Maybe we should go back to Huntington Beach, Mike told his wife.

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