When Tracey Bradley returned home from work on the morning of July 6, 2001, instead of being greeted by her two young daughters, Tionda and Diamond, she said she was met with silence.
On the back of the couch inside the apartment on Chicago’s South Side, there was a note.
Allegedly written by Tracey’s 10-year-old daughter, Tionda, the note claimed she and Diamond, her 3-year-old sister, had gone to the store and to a school playground nearby.
But there was something off about the note. Family members told Dateline the spelling and grammar seemed too perfect and advanced for a girl Tionda’s age. They added it was also not like Tionda to leave a note - instead she would have just called her mother.
The sisters were gone.
It’s been 20 years since Chicago launched what investigators say may be the city’s largest missing persons investigation and longest continuous searches conducted nationwide.
And there is still no sign of the girls.
“We’re still in limbo,” the girls’ great-aunt Sheliah Bradley Smith told Dateline. “Nobody has said anything. Nobody has been arrested. Nothing. But the girls are still gone.”
Sheliah has been the family spokesperson for the past 20 years. She created and manages several Facebook accounts, including MissingDiamondandTiondaBradley and Help Find Tionda and Diamond Bradley, in an effort to find answers.
This week, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Bradley sisters’ disappearance, the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children released new age-progression photos of what they might look like today. Tionda would now be 30 years old and Diamond would be 23.
“It’s hard to think of those girls as adults,” Sheliah said. “But that’s who we’re looking for now. We’re not looking for children. We’re looking for adults - or remains.”
Sheliah and other family members have spent the past two decades searching for clues, following leads, posting fliers, holding vigils - all with the hope of one day finding the girls.
“I get so consumed in trying to find the girls that it sometimes still feels like it’s 2001 again,” Sheliah said. “It’s like no time has passed and we’re right back there on that July day when they disappeared.”
When the girls went missing on July 6, 2001, Tionda and Diamond were living with their mother and two sisters — Victoria, then 9, and Rita, then 12 — in the Lake Grove Village Apartments complex on the South Side of Chicago.
Several family members lived in the area so they took turns caring for one another’s kids. Tionda and Diamond often split their time between their mother’s apartment and their grandmother’s apartment in the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project in the Bronzeville neighborhood.
According to an investigation conducted by the FBI and the Chicago Police Department, the girls’ mother, Tracey Bradley, left the apartment for work around 6 a.m. She gave Tionda and Diamond strict instructions to not let anyone inside. Her other children, Victoria and Rita, had gone to their grandmother’s house the night before.
When Tracey returned home around 11 a.m., the girls were gone and she said she found a note stating they had walked to the store and school playground nearby.
The girls’ great-aunt Sheliah told Dateline she believes Tionda wrote the note, but with help from someone she trusted.
“The person who took the girls was right there beside her - telling her exactly what to write,” Sheliah said. “She was being coached.”
Their disappearance sparked a massive search.
Hundreds of Chicago police, federal law enforcement officers and civilian volunteers spent days and weeks searching the streets, sewers, abandoned factories and buildings. They interviewed dozens of people and nearly 100 registered sex offenders.
But their efforts were unsuccessful.
The Chicago Police Department is the lead agency in the case and is being assisted by the FBI. Deputy Director Tom Ahern of Chicago PD’s News Affairs department released a statement to Dateline saying the investigation remains open and that investigators continue to follow up on tips when they’re received. He added there are no new leads.
The FBI also continues to investigate the girls’ disappearance in coordination with the Chicago Police Department.
“We have been working to bring the Bradley sisters home for 20 years, making it one of the longest continuous searches conducted nationwide,” Special Agent Siobhan Johnson told Dateline. “The FBI never stops working with local law enforcement to bring missing children home, whether it has been days or years.”
Several persons of interest have been questioned over the years, but a specific suspect has not been named in the girls’ disappearance. Authorities would not say if there are any suspects at this time.
The girls’ family believes they were taken by somebody they knew and who had access to them.
“This is not a case of stranger danger,” Sheliah told Dateline. “They knew to be suspicious of strangers. It was somebody they knew, somebody they trusted.”
Last week, to mark the 20 years since the girls’ disappearance, relatives gathered on July 6 on Chicago's South Side for two vigils where they released balloons and prayed for answers.
A small group of family members initially gathered at a pedestrian bridge, near the apartment where the girls lived at the time with their mother.
“Someone took Tionda and Diamond Bradley,” Sheliah told reporters at the event. “Everybody knows Tionda and Diamond didn't just vanish. It's time to break the silence.”
The group walked the pedestrian overpass to Lake Michigan, chanting “We love you Diamond and Tionda” as they released 20 balloons – pink for the girls, white for "God's divine love" and emerald for the 20th anniversary, Sheliah told Dateline.
A second vigil was held later that day at Robert Taylor Park, where Tionda and Diamond used to visit their grandmother and take dance and gymnastics classes.
Despite the 90-degree heat, more than 50 relatives, including the girls’ mother, sisters, aunts, great-aunt and cousins, donned t-shirts and buttons with the girls’ faces on them, and clasped hands as they prayed.
“We have to keep them in the public eye, in the news, and hope it breaks through,” the girls’ mother Tracey Bradley told reporters at the vigil. “We have to keep hope alive.”
Tracey told NBC Chicago that she believes her daughters were victims of a crime. The family has hired a private investigator to aid in their search and is urging anyone with information to come forward.
While dedicating her time and resources to finding her nieces for the past 20 years, the girls’ great-aunt has become an advocate for other missing children - and has even helped locate some of them, bringing some amount of closure to their families.
“It gives me peace to know I’m helping somebody because I know exactly what they’re going through,” Sheliah said. “At times, I feel defeated and ask myself, ‘why can I find other missing children, but not my girls?’ But I think our time is coming soon. We’ll find them.”
Sheliah told Dateline she knows the search now is either for Tionda and Diamond as adults - or their remains. But they’ll always be little girls in her mind, each with her own unique personality.
Tionda was a sassy and quick-witted 10-year-old who knew phone numbers by heart and would call her great-aunt just to say “hey.” She was a “little mama” to her sister Diamond and was always entertaining others with her dancing.
“She was always dancing - no matter where we’d be,” Sheliah told Dateline. “I’d tell her, ‘dance for me baby,’ and she’d dance and dance.”
Diamond, meanwhile, was “a quiet, shy, laid-back little girl with a sweet smile,” Sheliah said. She recalls being at her brother’s funeral just months before the girls’ disappearance. As she watched Tionda dance, Diamond would peek around the corner at her with a shy smile.
It would be the last time Sheliah saw her great-nieces.
“I’m not sure that they’re out there alive,” Sheliah told Dateline. “But we still hold on to hope. You have to have hope.”
Sheliah said the important thing is that the girls are not forgotten. She remembers looking at missing children on milk cartons when she was young and thinking how awful for their families. But then she forgot about the face on the carton and went about her life. Until she received the newspaper not long after her nieces’ disappearance. And there, in black and white, just like the child on the milk carton, were the faces of her own loved ones.
“You never think it could happen to you - but it can,” Sheliah said, adding one last plea. “Please, just give us our babies. Whether they’re grown or they’re remains, we just want our babies back.”
Anyone with information about Tionda and Diamond’s case is asked to contact the Chicago Police Department at 312-747-5789, the FBI Illinois at (312) 421-6700 or the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children at 1 (800) THE-LOST.