NBC Universal Anchors and Correspondents
By Keith Morrison Correspondent
NBC News
updated 6/17/2008 12:01:47 PM ET 2008-06-17T16:01:47
TRANSCRIPT

This story originally aired Dateline NBC on June 16, 2008.

They stare at you from another time, from long forgotten rolls of film. What are those looks?

Provocative?

Or haunted? Worried? Vacant?

Detective Bobby Taylor: They don't all look like they were willing participants and being photographed. Some were actually crying at the time and have the look of fear on their faces.

Who are these ghosts? Are they alive -- or dead? And how did they come to be here?

Deep in the center of the vast, unpretty belly of L.A. County is the L.A. County Sheriff's Homicide Division and a huge room chock full of brown paper cases.

In each one is an unsolved mystery. Each one is the story of a life taken, and a case unresolved.

Detective on phone: ... how about rape or strangled, suffocated?...

Each of these desks is occupied by a sheriff's detective who works for the dead.

One Detective talking to another: It doesn't look good... (hands photo to other cop)

And in the case of Sgt. Bobby Taylor, the long-forgotten.

Bobby Taylor: That's my job. That's what I'm assigned here to do. To look into old cases that come out of dusty old folders and see if they can be resurrected. 

This story is about one of those brown paper cases, the dreadful history inside, and the images that spilled out. Those dozens of women, and nobody knew who they were.

Bobby Taylor: We'd like to, if possible, be able to say that they were all alive and well. That's probably not gonna be a reality, but that's what we'd like. 

Probably not a reality?  Well, there's a reason for that.

The pictures were found among the seized possessions of the man who took them: a drifter named Bill Bradford.

In 1987, Bradford was convicted of murdering these two girls, Shari Miller and Tracey Campbell.

Bobby Taylor: The murders were very brutal. They involved sexual assault. They involved-- dismemberment. They-- they--

Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: Dismemberment?

Bobby Taylor: Yes, and mutilation.

In fact, Bill Bradford had a rap sheet full of brutal sexual assault charges. He spent years roaming the country, altering his looks to blend in to time and place. Mutating from '50s greaser, to '60s stoner, to '70s barfly, and finally, in the '80s, settling on hip urban photographer.

It was a role that worked disturbingly well in Los Angeles' celebrity-obsessed sub-culture: posing as a fashion photographer, Bradford lured young women with the promise that he could launch them on high-paying careers in the modeling business.

Bobby Taylor: It would start off as an above-table photo shoot but then later escalate into a situation where he would try and get them to take nude shots.

Little 15-year-old Tracey Campbell agreed to pose for Bradford in the summer of '84 -- and vanished.

Police searched Bradford's apartment but found no evidence to connect him to Tracey Campbell's disappearance.

They did, however uncover a very significant clue: photos of 21-year-old Shari Miller, a model with big dreams, and not much else.

Detectives had seen that face before.

A week earlier, her blanket-wrapped body was found dumped in a parking lot in West L.A.

And when investigators found where Bradford took this picture -- at the base of this outcropping in the Mojave Desert -- they also discovered, just a few hundred yards away, the body of Tracy Campbell. 

When Bradford went on trial, in 1987, the evidence against him was largely circumstantial. It took the jury 12 days to find him guilty, but the chilling moment of the trial came as Bradford was being sentenced to death and he turned to the jury box and blurted out: "Think how many you don't know about."

Bizarre, is what it was. Hard to forget. And yet, for whatever reason, detectives did nothing. They never responded to his taunt, never looked to see if Bradford had, in fact, killed other women.

Until now.

Keith Morrison: Why weren't those photographs investigated 20 years ago?

Bobby Taylor: That I can't answer. I can't speak for what happened back then. I can only say what we're responsible for now. And when it came to our attention, we picked it up and started running with it.

Have you seen these women?And when detectives started digging into the Bradford file, they found a picture of this woman: Donnalee Duhamel. In 1978, her body was found in a canyon outside Los Angeles.

Bobby Taylor: The murder case involving Donna Lee had never been pursued past the initial stages. And we wanted to see if there was anything there that we could work on now.

Keith Morrison: What made her murder connected with Bill Bradford, as far as you could tell?

Bobby Taylor: That they had been at a bar in the Culver City/Venice area drinking. And from that point in time, she was never seen again.

New interest in this old murder case will have these detectives chasing hundreds of leads from Oregon to Florida. What happened to Donnalee Duhamel was suddenly crucial in the not-so-cold case of Bill Bradford.

L.A. sheriff's detectives burrowed into Bill Bradford’s thick file of run-ins with the law. They were looking for more evidence that might connect him to the murder of Donnalee Duhamel.

And that's how they unearthed an amazing cache of aging, and perhaps damning, evidence: hundreds of pictures of women along with rolls and rolls of film, some of it not even developed. 

"... Until we can get some identification on any of them, we really can't go any further...”

And so the L.A. sheriff's department, with as much fanfare as it could muster, released a poster full of generation-old photos.

Did anyone know who they were? And?

Alina Thompson: I was 14-years old.

For some people, like model Alina Thompson, seeing those photos was quite a shock.

Alina Thompson: I was at a photo shoot at Huntington Beach. He came up to me and said, "You know, I'm a professional photographer, and if I could take your picture by yourself, you know, you could probably get a really good photo out of it." When he took me off, I was kinda thinking, "Where are we going?" And he finally took me to an alley, and my father went looking around for me and found where he had me. 

Detectives have heard similar stories from other women pictured here, who have, fortunately, turned out to be very much alive.

But 19 still remain unidentified. Unclaimed.

Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: Why is it important to do this now?

Det. Bobby Taylor: Number One, we're eager to find out if, in fact, we're going to be able to make a case for prosecution, an additional case against Bill Bradford.

But why would overworked detectives labor away at a massive investigation in order to hang another murder charge on Bradford, who was, after all, sitting on death row, awaiting execution.

Case closed right?

Well, not exactly.

Darlene Ricker: The best result would be a full exoneration.

Attorney Darlene Ricker spent years pushing Bradford's appeals through one court after another.

Darlene Ricker: And as we all know, a lot of death verdicts and death sentences have been overturned in recent years by the appellate courts. 

That, thinks Ricker, is why police suddenly released these pictures -- they wanted to be ready to pin another murder charge on Bradford, just in case.

Darlene Ricker: We have to think why now, why are they doing this now?  When the only reason I can think that may be is that Mr. Bradford is in the last stages of his federal appeal. I've seen the evidence or rather, the lack thereof. It was purely a circumstantial case. There was nothing directly tying him to either of those homicides.

Keith Morrison: Could he actually walk?

Darlene Ricker: Sure. Most certainly he could walk.

And this is where the story takes another, decidedly weird, only-in-L.A. turn. The lead investigator in the case was a local legend, a now-deceased fellow by the name of John St. John. "Jigsaw John" as he was known because he was so masterful at piecing together clues.

In the mid-'70s there was even briefly a television crime drama -- on this very network -- based on St. John's career.

That's significant because attorney Ricker claimed Bradford was railroaded by a publicity-savvy St. John who, she says, was writing a book about the case.

In her appeal, she says St. John had "a personal and financial stake in seeing (Bradford) convicted of murder."

A federal court judge agreed that if a detective were writing a book about the case as he worked on it, then Bill Bradford might not have received a fair trail.

And thus there was the possibility that the conviction would be overturned, a new trial ordered, and that Bill Bradford would walk free. An appeals court would decide.

Darlene Ricker: Good luck retrying someone after two decades. Memories have faded. Witnesses presumably have died by now, moved away. Good luck!

Bobby Taylor: Wow, that's pretty bold of her to feel that way. But if that does occur, perhaps we'll have information developed and ready to go to keep him in jail.

Or would they?

Remember Donnalee Duhamel?

She's the would-be model whose mutilated body turned up after she left a Culver City nightclub in the company of Bill Bradford. 

All the clues seemed to point directly at Bradford.

Detectives were hoping her thumbworn old file would produce a genuine breakthrough to keep their killer on death row.

And then... disaster.

Keith Morrison: What's happened to the evidence in the Donnalee case?

Bobby Taylor: It seems to have either been destroyed, lost, misplaced. 

Gone! And with it, the main chance of pinning another murder on Bill Bradford.

So now there was, simply, this: the curious poster of all those missing women. Once these pictures were made public, tips started pouring in from across the country.

"Texas and Louisiana."

Could detectives, by following their trails, be hoping to pin at least one other murder on Bradford?

Female Detective on phone: Yeah, he was out in Oregon in '79...

Taylor and the two dozen detectives on his team criss-crossed the country sniffing out Bradford's old haunts of decades ago.

Bobby Taylor (on phone):...And then in September of '80, Florida...

Bradford was arrested there on sexual assault charges.

And Daytona Beach just happens to be the place where, in the early '80s, two young women suddenly went missing.

Michele Sprauge disappeared from this Daytona Beach street corner.

Denise Duarte: No one's ever heard from her again. Gone. Just "sshwew."

Denise Duarte was Michelle’s best friend.

Denise Duarte: One of the photos captured my attention, almost immediately.

Keith Morrison: Which photograph? Number what?

Denise Duarte: Number 31. Looks remarkably like my friend Michelle.

And just up the coast from Daytona Beach, in a small, sad house, Fran Webb saw the photos too.

Fran Webb: Twenty-three years, and I keep checking. I keep checking everything.

And now, suddenly, a picture. Missing girl #33. Could this be her daughter, Darlene, who went out one Friday night in 1983, and never returned?

Keith Morrison: You know -- and I want you to look at this and tell me -- this is a picture of the missing girl number 33.

Fran Webb: Yes.

Keith Morrison: Tell me what you think of the similarity.

Fran Webb: There is such a close resemblance that it could be a twin sister, almost.

Investigators in L.A. agreed. And a detective was sent to Florida with a packet of additional photos.

Could Fran Webb's vigil finally be over?

Sergeant Rick Longshore: It's become imperative that we locate, identify women in a number of photographs.     

The similarities were so uncanny that Sgt. Rick Longshore, armed with more of Bradford’s photos of the two young women, flew across the country for a dramatic meeting.

Sgt. Rick Longshore: Now the photographs that I'm going to show you is a selection taken from a wider variety of those.

Fran struggles. 

Fran Webb: I’m looking real closely at the background here and it could be Florida.

Both women were counting on this. On some kind of answer.

Denise Duarte: It's hard to say. It’s really hard to say. (Hands photo back to Sgt.)

Fran is confused. She had expected to see her own daughter, and the similarity is uncanny. And yet?

Sgt. Rick Longshore: How about this photo, Fran?

Fran Webb: That face is so close. Only it does look like a younger one. That’s what's throwing me. Now this one especially looks like Darlene.

And we, watching this, felt the oxygen leave the room.

Sgt. Rick Longshore: On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being a positive and 1 being no way, how would you, looking at those photographs, how would you grade that?

Denise Duarte: I would say a 5. I can't say with certainty whether it is or whether it isn't.

Sgt. Rick Longshore: Fran, the same question to you.

Fran Webb: I'd have to say a five. I can't say yes, it is, or no, it's not.

And back in L.A., the detectives at sheriff's homicide continued with their sad business, possibly the last people on earth -- besides family -- who cared about these lost lives.

"I'll go ahead and take some information from you."

Then a year into the investigation, as leads and tips dried up, Det. Bobby Taylor got an unexpected phone call from the one person who had the means to solve everyone of these interwoven mysteries: Bill Bradford.

Bobby Taylor: He said, "Yeah, when you're ready, come up.” He would be willing to go over and discuss the case with me.

Keith Morrison, Dateline NBC: What'd you think?

Bobby Taylor: Well, I thought there was a good chance that he would be sincere and own up to some of the crimes that he was involved in.

A good chance because, it turned out, Bradford was dying of lung cancer. Maybe, finally, Taylor thought, the murderer was ready to, “confess.”

Arrangements were made.

Detective Taylor and his partner set up shop in a San Quentin holding cell, turned on the microphone and camera.

And a show and tell began: all those photos Bradford had taken over the years.

Like this one, for example. Donnalee Duhamel -- a woman police believe Bradford raped and murdered.

Would he finally tell what happened?

Bill Bradford: We already know who that is, so that doesn't matter (pointing to picture of Donnalee Duhamel)

Bobby Taylor: Hold on. Hold On.

Maybe not.

Bobby Taylor: Don't skip over it like that. I mean, at least explain to me...

Bill Bradford: There's nothing to talk about. Either charge me with her murder or what, you know.

Bradford was stonewalling.  Claimed he couldn't remember.

Bill Bradford: I have no knowledge of who that person is. I did not take it.

That's all Bradford had to say about #31 -- the woman who looks like Michelle Sprague.

Of #33 -- the spitting image of Darlene Webb? Bradford said he couldn't recall her name.  

Keith Morrison: What did it say to you that he denied knowing anything about 31 or 33 specifically?

Bobby Taylor: I think it directly related to him having something to do with their disappearances.

But whether or not they are Michelle Sprague and Darlene Webb, we will never know.

There were other photos Bradford wanted to stay away from, like this one, number 29.

Bill Bradford: When you find her dead body then charge me with it. Let's move on.

Bobby Taylor: Tell me where to look.

Bill Bradford: I would say, the United States.

Bobby Taylor: Her photo was actually taken outside at night. There was a chain-link fence surrounding the area. She's inside of a car. She's on all fours and she's crying.

Keith Morrison: What did you get out of him, really?

Bobby Taylor: Mr. Bradford would take us to a certain point and drop us off. For instance, we have two girls in photos number 45 and 46. So in talking to Bradford about those photographs, he admitted to taking them, which really surprised me, so, I go, okay, we're getting somewhere here. Until I hit him with, well, whatever happened to the girls?

Bobby Taylor: Tell me about 45 and 46 -- According to you, you picked them up hitchhiking, on the spur of the moment, to an isolated location, near Sand Canyon off the 14 and took these photos. Are they still in that area?

Bill Bradford: I guess there's only one way to do it, and you guys got the funnies, so go out and dig the goddamn joint up.

Again and again, Bradford denied killing anyone, even though, detective Taylor tells us, beyond his two convictions, police believe Bradford murdered at least eight others.

Bobby Taylor: Mr. Bradford was a sadistic serial killer, he's a cold-blooded monster with no regard for human life.

So, why did Bradford ask to talk to the very detectives who were trying to prove he'd committed those other murders?

That, said the detective, is when the whole business began to feel depraved.

Bobby Taylor: It appeared to me that he wanted the opportunity to take a first-hand look at what we had. You could actually see a heightened state of excitement as he flipped through the pages of the photo album.

Keith Morrison: Looking at the women he had taken advantage of.

Bobby Taylor: Exactly.

Keith Morrison: He seemed to want to relive those times.  Those moments.

Bobby Taylor: He sure did.  And it appeared that on one or more occasions, that took place. 

After two days of questioning, Taylor packed up his photos and headed back to L.A.

And in the next call he got from San Quentin, the man on the phone was a guard who told him Bill Bradford was dead.

Keith Morrison: So his secrets -- what become of them?

Bobby Taylor: Unfortunately, he held the key which would unlock the box containing all the information that we needed. He took it to the grave with him.

So who are these women?

Does anyone know?

They can't be so forgotten that they don't even warrant one of these dusty, old brown paper files. Can they?

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Watch this story

Discuss:

Discussion comments

,

Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments