Before we jump into today’s case, in May, the FBI compiled a list of missing persons cases that have not been solved and that need more attention and fresh leads. Earlier this year, so many people showed up when Gabby Petito went missing and while that case didn’t exactly have a happy ending, it shows what is possible if people get involved. A lot of the tips were possible because the right people heard the information and this was only possible because this case went viral. If other cases can get the same level of attention, families that have been waiting for years could get closure. So I am going to start adding these missing episodes into the rotation of cases we talk about. If you’re interested in learning more, whether it be about this case or the other missing persons cases, you can see the list from the FBI that was released by USAtoday and I’ll link that on our Instagram and in the show notes.
All right, now that that’s out of the way, let’s jump in.
On July 6, 2001, Tracey Bradley went to work at 6 am while leaving 2 of her 4 daughters at home, Tionda who was 10 and Diamond who was 3. Tionda has been described as sassy and quick-witted. She memorized phone numbers and would call her aunt just to say hi. She was also a “little mama” to Diamond and loved to dance. Diamond was described as a “quiet, shy, laid-back little girl with a sweet smile.”
Tracey’s other 2 daughters, Victoria and Rita, were at their grandmother’s house as they had spent the night there. We’ll talk about why they were at different houses later. Tracey got home at approximately 11 am after finishing her shift and stopping by the store with her boyfriend to pick up a cake for Victoria whose birthday was the next day. She was expecting to be greeted by Tionda and Diamond when she returned, however, the house was quiet and they were nowhere to be seen. This was strange because they knew they weren’t supposed to let anyone in the house or go anywhere while their mom was gone. She found a note on the back of the couch that appeared to be written by Tionda. The note itself hasn’t been released, but from what we know, it said that they were walking to the store and then the playground nearby. Tracey called neighbors and family members and had her sister pick Victoria and Rita up from their grandmother’s house. Before long, they had all the extended family out looking for the girls. Unfortunately, they had no luck and no one had seen them. There also wasn’t any indication they had been to any of their favorite places. At this point, it was almost 7 pm, and Tracey decided to call 911.
The police responded quickly and conducted a search for the girls, but didn’t turn anything up either. Now this is where it gets tricky. Because of the note, this was originally treated as a runaway case. Remember how in the Molly Bish episode I said we were going to run into this a lot? Well, here it is again, even though these girls were only 10 and 3.
Obviously, the case was reclassified since they’re on the list from the FBI that I referenced, but unfortunately this initial assumption meant that 7-10 days went by before police closed off the apartment they were last seen in. Who knows what kind of evidence was missed because of this or what we could have learned in that time? Since then, it has become one of Chicago’s biggest missing persons investigations, but there still haven’t been any solid leads or suspects named. So what do we know?
Let’s start with the note. There have been a lot of questions around it. It seems like those who have seen the note agree that it was written by Tionda. However, her family says it would be very unlike her to leave a note like that. Not only would it be weird, but they said it was too perfect grammatically for her age and the way she spoke. One of the girls’ aunts speculated that perhaps she wrote it with help from an adult she trusted. She said that she believes the person who took them stood by Tionda and told her what to write, coaching her. Their mom, Tracey said “I taught my kids damn well. . . and my kids wouldn’t up and just leave, and then leave a note.”
So if we take what they are saying, it would mean someone that the girls knew and trusted are responsible for their disappearance. Which isn’t too surprising since we know that stranger danger is responsible for a lot less than those we know and trust, as sad as that is. If it is someone the girls knew and trusted, you would think that they would have a pretty short list of suspects, but as Ed Carroll, a Chicago police veteran who was a private investigator for the family said, this unfortunately isn’t the case. He said that part of the problem is they don’t have anything to help them narrow down or develop the suspect list. In fact, he said it was the only case in his career where he couldn’t exclude or include anyone, which just goes to show why this case hasn’t had any progress in all this time.
A lot of suspicion has been cast on Tionda and Diamond’s mom, Tracey. One reason they were suspicious of her was that she waited so long to call the police. (She left at 6, got home at 11, and called the police at 7). I can understand why people would question this, but it has also been pointed out that there could be other factors at play here. For example, when this was all happening, Tracey’s sister Faith, asked her if she had called the police yet much earlier in the day. She said that Tracey responded that she was worried that if she did and they were in fact just out playing, she could get reported to the Department of Children and Family Services for having left them alone at the house. It’s also important to keep in mind that we’re talking about the experience of a black family in Chicago in 2001. As Natalie Wilson, co-founder and chief operations officer of the Black and Missing Foundation, a nonprofit that works to raise awareness of missing people of color said, “there was a strong sense of distrust between the minority community and law enforcement.”
In addition to Tracey waiting to call the police, she was also criticized for not being involved in the media as much. In particular, there was a news conference and there was a big turnout of those who had tried to help in the search and with comforting the family, but Tracey didn’t show up. Some people were really upset about this and it really fueled the fire and sparked rumors that she wasn’t out there looking because she already knew where the girls were. But again, there’s always a flipside and we don’t know why she didn’t go to the press conference.
There was also a surveillance tape from a store several blocks from the Bradley’s home that showed two girls who looked to be about the same age and Tionda and Diamond. It was said that when the police approached Tracey about this, she wouldn’t even open the door. At first glance, this is yet another thing to add to the list of things that make her suspicious. But again it isn’t that simple. Tracey was acting under the advice of her lawyer, Andre Grant. She had been interviewed for a total of 27 hours over the course of 3 days and Grant said that she had been worn out from being treated like a suspect. She also went to the police precinct after this incident of not opening the door of her own accord. At this point, she found out that the tape was now with the FBI and she then communicated with them to arrange a meeting to look at the tape.
So, there are definitely valid concerns about the choices Tracey made, but there’s no actual evidence, it’s all just people making assumptions and is circumstantial at best.
What else do we know? There was a voicemail that the whole family as well as FBI agents allegedly heard. It was left on Tracey’s phone, but was actually discovered by her sister, Faith, who checked Tracey’s voicemail the morning after the girls disappeared. According to Faith, the message said “Mama, this is Tionda. Mom, pick up the phone. George is at the door. Can I open the door? He said that we are going to Jewel’s to pick up the cake there. We’re coming to pick you up from work.” The problem with this lead though is that it seems to have vanished. Faith thinks it was deleted, but Tracey said she never heard it. It’s been implied that the FBI has it, but the Chicago Police Department doesn’t and the private investigator that worked with the family could never gain access to it.
So who is George? This is yet another potential lead that is more complicated than it first appears. This is because there were 2 George’s in that were regularly involved in the family’s lives. The first, George Washington, was Tracey’s current boyfriend. The second, we don’t know his last name, was a neighbor who would babysit the girls from time to time. Tracey would have the girls go over to his apartment sometimes if she was going to be home late.
So we have neighbor George who the girls knew and were in regular contact with. What about boyfriend George? He and Tracey had a complicated relationship and Tracey said he was Diamond’s father, but he denied it. They had actually had a paternity test done and the results came in three weeks after the girls’ disappearance that he was in fact Diamond’s father. Something that fueled accusations against him was some strange behavior in the days leading up to their disappearance. He had never been close with the girls and hadn’t taken a fatherly role which isn’t surprising as he was still denying that he was Diamond’s father at the time. But for some reason he decided that he was going to take Tracey, Diamond, and Tionda on a camping trip for the fourth of July weekend right before they went missing. Not only is this strange because he insisted he wasn’t Diamond’s father and didn’t want any sort of parental role, but it was also strange because the other two girls weren’t invited. Now, maybe he felt like he didn’t know them as well or wasn’t as comfortable with them, but as has come up a few times, the next day was one of the other girls’ birthday and she wasn’t coming. If you remember, at the beginning of the episode I said I would explain why the other two girls were at their grandmother’s house rather than with their mom and this is why. I also think it’s important to note that this camping trip wasn’t exactly planned. It was the fourth of July weekend, but he hadn’t made any reservations or brought any food. He had also apparently borrowed “only minimal equipment.” What that means, I couldn’t say for sure, but it’s definitely strange.
A lot of people have speculated that maybe something happened on this camping trip. Nancy Grace did coverage on this a few years after the girls’ disappearance and was asking questions about when someone other than Tracey or boyfriend George had last seen the girls. These questions led to the realization that the last sighting of them was Thursday afternoon around 3:30 pm by their grandmother. Because of this, there are a lot of people that think Tracey is lying about the girls being home when she left for work in the morning. This would mean that the note was planted by Tracey or George, but it would have had to have been written ahead of time since it has been confirmed to be Tionda’s handwriting. That also then puts more confusion to the voicemail. If it was left the morning of July 6th from the house, then this theory is kaput.
According to an article on Oprah Daily, boyfriend George continued to do things that made him look suspicious after the girls disappeared. It says, “On July 7, the day after the disappearance, receipts indicate that Tom [on oprah daily they refer to him as tom] bought a package of 42-gallon contractor bags, gardening gloves, and a pair of neoprene protective gloves. When police searched his home several days later, there were five bags missing from the roll and the gardening gloves were not found. A neighbor said they had seen Tom burning something in a 55-gallon drum and several others noted they had seen him loading it into the trunk of his car, returning approximately 45 minutes later. Tom denied that these events took place, but FBI reports note evidence of charring on the rafters of his garage, as well as striations in the trunk that matched the size and shape of a trash barrel.”
The article then pointed out that if he was burning something, it likely would have only been clothes or smaller evidence. If it was the girls, it would have been a very strong and distinctive smell. It is also much easier and quicker to burn cloth than bodies. So this still wouldn’t answer what actually happened to the girls.
The article then continues, “Also found in Tom’s trunk was a blanket containing several hairs later determined to belong to Tionda. Tom claimed that he had taken Tracey and her daughters to a drive-in movie and made Tionda and Diamond hide in the trunk so that he would not have to pay for their tickets, something that Rita vehemently denies ever happened. The logistics are also questionable: Only one drive-in theater was operational in Chicagoland at the time, nearly an hour away.” Something I think we have to talk about with this defense too, is that like we’ve talked about, he didn’t have a fatherly relationship nor did he spend much time with them. So why would he be taking them to a drive-in movie?
The last theory I’m going to tell you about is that Tionda’s father took them and transported them out of the country. This theory has come up here and there and was also talked about on the Nancy Grace episode. This theory is pretty unlikely, since he didn’t have a relationship with the girls and the facts of it don’t really match up with what we know. It wouldn’t make sense with the note or the phone call, and it doesn’t make sense that they would willingly leave with him if they didn’t really know him. The one thing that gives legs to this theory is that it would explain why the girls have never been found. This happened before 9/11, so the requirements to get kids on a plane were much different than they are now. There also wasn’t the same level of record keeping, so it wouldn’t necessarily be as simple as just checking flight manifests.
So we have all these theories floating around, but no suspects have ever been officially named and there doesn’t seem to be any progress with finding the girls. There have been a few instances where people have come out claiming to be the girls, but each one has proven to not be them.
Since it has been so long, the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children has released age progression photos of what the girls would look like as adults. We’ll put these photos up on our Instagram post for this episode and of course since this case is still open, if you know anything you can 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.
Accessed January, 2022, Black and Missing, Inc (as featured on HBO): https://www.blackandmissinginc.com/
Accessed January, 2022, https://scholarlycommons.law.northwestern.edu/jclc/vol106/iss2/4/
Accessed January, 2022, https://ojjdp.ojp.gov/sites/g/files/xyckuh176/files/pubs/childismissing/ch3.html
Accessed January, 2022, https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/05/us/missing-teen-imposter/index.html
Accessed January, 2022, https://transcripts.cnn.com/show/ng/date/2007-03-12/segment/01
Accessed January, 2022, https://www.oprahdaily.com/life/a36903905/bradley-sisters-dissapearance/
Accessed January, 2022, https://abcnews.go.com/US/story?id=92892&page=1
Accessed January, 2022, https://abc7chicago.com/the-bradley-sisters-missing-chicago-tionda-and-diamond/10863336/
Accessed January, 2022, https://heavy.com/news/2019/05/diamond-tionda-bradley/