Dana Bradley’s body was arranged in burial fashion by her killer in an area of alder bushes and trees off an old dirt road, away from the eyes of the city on a cold and quiet December evening many years ago.
One of the killer’s last acts at the scene was to tuck her school books carefully under her arm, as in some bizarre act of kindness when, sometime earlier, the monster in him had raged and he had brutally beat her about the head and robbed her of her life.
She was not to arrive home to a birthday celebration for her mother that night. Her homework would never get done.
Dana Nicole Bradley had only been on this Earth for 14 years. A friendly, pretty girl full of joy and energy, she had merely tried to hitch a lift home — not an uncommon thing to do in 1981 in St. John’s.
The total of her years alive are less than half the time her killer has been free from punishment for his crime.
The air was cold and crisp that night, the season’s snow had not yet set in. The brush in the hidden area off the rugged dirt road near Maddox Cove crunched and rustled under his feet as he walked away, he and his devil ugliness, free now for more than 32 years.
“He had no remorse,” Robert (a pseudonym being used to protect the man’s identity) told The Telegram.
“The reason she was left that way was somebody was there who cared about her. Another human being. An innocent child who didn’t understand this stuff.”
Robert says he was that child.
He said he saw the savageness in the killer that evening, claims he witnessed the horrific murder and the events following it that night.
As a child, he had known the man well. Suffering from his own type of hell with him, Robert says his memories from that day and night were long repressed, along with many other terrible memories from those years.
More than two-and-a-half years ago, after he decided to part ways with booze and take his chances without it, he says his mind healed and the memories surfaced — first of being sexually abused at the hands of the man, then of the murder.
“I started drinking at a young age, but I managed to get to my 30s before it caught up to me,” said Robert, who now has a successful business career.
“The alcohol was helping me cope, but it turned on me. When I took it out of the equation, I found myself … but I had no idea what was coming to the surface.
“And believe me, I’ve laid in bed and (asked myself), did that really happen? I tried to think it away, that maybe it didn’t. But I can’t. It’s in me.”
Robert says he and another child were in the backseat of the car that late afternoon when the man stopped to pick up Dana, who was hitchhiking east on Topsail Road in
St. John’s. It led to a frightening and horrifying night, he said.
He took his story to the RCMP in December 2011, since the site of the murder was in their jurisdiction at the time. An investigation ensued around the anniversary of the murder, a time when the RCMP commonly receives new tips.
Robert says the RCMP first met with him on Dec. 14, 2011 — the 30th anniversary of Dana’s murder.
According to an RCMP document, the investigation into Robert’s tip continued for 16 months.
The RCMP subsequently informed Robert that none of the avenues related to his tip provided any new evidence to support criminal charges.
In March 2013, the RCMP asked Robert to meet with Dr. Peter Collins, an expert in the field of forensic psychiatry.
“Subsequent to that meeting, you were advised by Dr. Collins that you were not suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and recovered memories, but rather that you were experiencing false memory syndrome,” the document notes.
Robert complained to the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP about the way investigators handled his information. He alleged the RCMP relied on false memory syndrome to make the decision to dismiss his complaint. He also pointed out that false memory syndrome is not recognized in the medical community.
On Monday, The Telegram talks to a neuropsychiatrist who offers his observations on the notion that Robert has false memory syndrome.
At the same time, the RCMP informed Robert the investigation into his complaint about being sexually abused by the man in the early 1980s had concluded without corroborating evidence to support charges.
Many tips received
Sgt. Kent Osmond of the RCMP’s major crime unit is the lead investigator on the Dana Bradley murder file.
While he could not discuss any specific tip, he said his team receives information from the public regularly, almost on a biweekly basis. The number of tips pick up each year around the anniversary of the murder.
“Any tip that we investigate on the file is thoroughly investigated based on every resource we have, every methodology we have,” Osmond said.
“And should information come to light after the fact, we are not closed-minded enough to say we would never reopen a tip. We approach this file with an open mind, with every intention of solving it, and we would never allow tunnel vision or closed-mindedness to get in the way of that.”
He said a lot of the information police receive through tips is information they’ve seen or heard before. Tips with a lot of information, he admitted, are rare.
“We get new things, but the problem is sometimes trying to separate what might be out in the media versus what’s coming pure from someone’s mouth or memory. That’s very difficult because there’s a lot out there,” Osmond said.
He also noted that any psychiatric or other evidence gathered while investigating a tip is used in its totality to determine where the investigation into that tip goes.
“I would never take a diagnosis and hang my jacket on that diagnosis,” he said.
“I would have to be very, very comfortable with my own knowledge of the file and the specific knowledge of the facts before me being brought forward by any kind of witness.”
Robert says the man was driving his father’s car that day — a 1972 Dodge Dart.
Robert’s parents were out for the evening and the man offered to take the kids to McDonald’s on Topsail Road. As they were leaving the McDonald’s parking lot, Robert said, the man noticed Dana trying to thumb a ride.
Dana, an I.J. Samson Junior High School student, had been at a friend’s house that day on Currie Place, off Topsail Road. She had phoned home and told her grandmother she was on her way.
Harry Smeaton and his brother, John, witnessed Dana getting into a car about 5:20 p.m. that day, at the bus stop opposite Tim Hortons on Topsail Road.
The Smeatons, from Gander, were selling Christmas trees on the empty lot behind the bus stop. They were sitting in their truck waiting for potential customers.
“This little one looked like she was going for the bus,” Harry Smeaton told The Telegram in a 2011 story. He said Dana then stuck out her thumb to hitchhike.
The Smeatons said that, in no time, a car pulled up and the man driving had to reach across and open the passenger door from the inside to let her in.
They didn’t report seeing anyone in the backseat of what they described as possibly a 1973 to 1976 Dodge Dart or Plymouth Valiant four-door sedan.
“(He) pulled up on the side of the road and he leaned over to open up the door, or tried to unlock the door,” Robert said.
“Dad had trouble with that door handle … the problem wasn’t unlocking it, because it didn’t matter. What you had to do was open it from the inside. So, I told him he had to grab the handle.
“What the media reported is a four-door car, and what I believe, and what Dad believes he had, was a two-door Dodge Dart.”
Robert’s father has told The Telegram it was a two-door car he had at the time. In fact, after some searching, he was able to find photos of the car. Robert’s father also had a Plymouth Valiant at the time that he used for parts.
Both, he thinks, are buried on a former property he owned. He said he informed the RCMP of where he thought they were, but there was no attempt to retrieve the vehicle.
Robert’s father recalls that, sometime in the weeks or months after Dana’s murder, two RCMP officers visited his house to look at the cars. At that time, about 2,000 cars matching the description of the suspect vehicle were being examined by police as part of the massive investigation.
The manhunt also resulted in as many people as possible — who had access to the type of vehicle described — being contacted. In all, about 1,000 men were questioned.
Hypnosis had even been used to gain a better description of the suspect and the vehicle.
Over the years the RCMP has reported, on occasion, that they had strong suspects, and even travelled to other provinces to conduct interviews.
But no one has yet paid for Dana’s murder.
Robert said Dana seemed more at ease about getting in the car that day when she saw him and the other child.
“There were no car seats and we were short for our ages. Unless we were standing up, no one would see us in that car,” he said.
“But when she got in, she turned around. I remember her asking what our names were and what grade we were in, and (younger child) was being really quiet and I had to explain to her that he wasn’t yet going to school.”
Robert said there was nothing unusual about the drive from Topsail Road to what he now knows to be Patrick Street.
“She pointed out where the house was … but he kept going and that’s when the panic set in. It set in me. It set in her.”
Robert said since his memories came flooding back a couple of years ago, he can describe the night of the murder in precise detail. He recalls Dana wanting the man to stop as they headed towards Shea Heights.
“She tried to jump out of the car going up a couple of sections of those hills and he’d grab a hold of her and he’d speed up … and he kept telling her he was going to turn around,” Robert said.
“And eventually he pulled off up there, into some kind of pit.
“I feel like I’m walking on sacred territory here now because her mom doesn’t even know the details of the things I’m telling you,” Robert told The Telegram.
“He kept saying he just wanted a kiss. She was crying and fighting him and, eventually — and it wasn’t very long — she scratched him on the face, pinched him or something, because he jumped up … and she grabbed the door and got out and bolted. He got out … one of the things I remember is how quickly he got out of the car and bolted after her.”
Robert says Dana was crying out for help. He got out of the car, too, and told the younger boy to stay inside the car. By this time the man had caught Dana and they fought on the ground.
“She almost got away,” he said. “She was really close to getting into the woods.”
Robert said he stood near the car as the horrible murder and sexual assault took place — a six-year-old, not able to understand what was happening. He said the murder weapon was the tire iron from the car.
He said he screamed “no” and cried.
“I turned away and started shivering. On occasion, I still get that shivering.”
Maddox Cove Road
With the young boys in the backseat, and the young victim’s body in the trunk, they drove towards Maddox Cove Road, Robert said.
Along the way the man pulled over and got out of the vehicle to dispose of the tire iron and some other items Robert thinks may have included a handkerchief and a blanket.
When he got back in the car, the man threatened the boys, eventually grabbing a protesting Robert by the throat, saying, “What are you going to do?”
When they reached the Maddox Cove Road area, the man dumped Dana’s body over an embankment at the side of the road, Robert said.
“When he got back in the car I jumped up out of the seat and said, ‘No, you can’t leave her there,’” Robert recalled.
“I don’t know if I spooked him into thinking it wasn’t a great spot … he worked hard to get her up out of that. At one point he took off his jacket and he finally got her up. One of her boots had come off, but he put that back on when he got her back in the trunk.
“I thought then he was going to take her home … but instead he turned up that road.”
Robert says the man tied booster cables around Dana’s body to drag her in amongst the bushes. Robert said he got out of the car, too, and just stood there for awhile.
“It was dark, but I eventually made my way down to where he was. … I cried, sobbed, over having to leave her there. I sat down alongside of her and I didn’t want her left in the woods.
“And he was trying to get me to leave because he said her mom and dad would be looking for her, and he told me that she was going to go to school the next morning.
“And I said she needed her books, so he went up to the car and got her books. He put them under her arm.
“God love her … but I stayed by her and I started to cry and I told him I’d stay with her, and that Mom and Dad could pick me up in the morning.”
Robert says the man grabbed him and took him back to the car. As they drove back down the rugged dirt road there was a sudden scraping sound as the car got hung up on a rock.
“We got stuck on a rock and he made me get out, and me and him put rocks under the tires … driver’s side rear tire … trying to get the traction on.”
The car was eventually freed and they drove to Robert’s parents’ house, where the man’s wife was babysitting Robert’s siblings.
“He made up a story that we struck a moose,” he said.
Later that night, Robert says the man woke him up and told him to get out of bed. They drove back to the site where the body was.
Looking back, Robert said the man probably wanted him to go along as a cover, in case he was seen, so that he could say he was taking him to his mother and father.
This time, Robert noted, the man didn’t attempt to drive up the dirt road but stopped on the side of Maddox Cove Road and walked up to where the body was.
“He was looking for his jacket — he didn’t have his jacket on — and he had gotten the booster cables,” Robert said. “So while I was left in the car, there was a car that drove by. He told me that if anyone stops, (to say) he left his new chainsaw up in the woods.”
As outlined in previous media reports, a Shea Heights couple driving north on Maddox Cove Road that night — between midnight and 1 a.m. — noticed a car matching the suspect vehicle parked on the side of the road. They said a passenger side door of the car was open and the dome light was illuminated. They also saw a man standing near the woods. They reported he had no jacket, despite the cold.
The description from these witnesses, and from the Smeatons, led to a preliminary sketch and then a more detailed composite of the suspect that was distributed to local media.
Robert says he remembers a car coming by late that night. He said he was in the backseat and was frightened. He pushed the seat forward, grabbed the handle of the passenger-side door, opened it and got out.
“I just stayed on the side of the road. I left the door open with the dome light on. And the car came back and stopped in front of our car,” he said.
“I thought I heard them talking to him but, or maybe, I just heard them talking with the windows rolled down. But they saw him up in the woods. He was coming back down, but they drove off eventually … he didn’t have his jacket when he came back. He couldn’t remember where he left it.
“He had the booster cables, but he had also taken some of her hair. He showed it to me.”
They then drove back to the man’s house, where Robert held a work light while the man washed the trunk of the car using cleaning supplies.
“He cleaned out the trunk and then he got me in the backseat of the car and had another go (sexual assault) at me,” Robert said. “And then he brought me home.”
Four days later, Dale Smith and his family were out looking for a Christmas tree in the area where Dana’s body lay.
The clearing at the end of the old dirt road was a place where people often discarded things they no longer wanted, rather than make the effort to go all the way to the city dump.
Someone had thrown away a bunch of old toys which were spotted by Smith’s then four-year-old twins. That’s when Smith noticed Dana’s body, and the police were called.
An autopsy revealed she died of multiple blunt-force injuries to the head.
Robert says he can’t imagine what Dana’s family and friends have gone through all these years, but with his recovered memories, he feels he has an obligation to tell the story.
“She’s still gone, but what they don’t know is that she wasn’t alone,” he said. “They kind of know now, if they believe me, but (they’ve been) wondering all these years what she went through. Even if it was a six-year-old boy, there was somebody there.
“That doesn’t change the outcome. But for a parent, you would never want to picture a child alone with a monster. The other thing (that I want them to know is) that she fought to the bitter end.”
The man Robert describes had been a close friend of his parents in the early 1980s.
In the 1990s, he was convicted of sexually abusing children and served time in prison.
The time period of those offences is the same time frame Robert alleges he was abused by the man and Dana’s murder occurred.
Robert’s parents were shocked when he told them the story.
Robert’s father describes the moment as a “bombshell.” He said the man spent a lot of time at their home in those days, and he and his wife trusted him.
“We never had a reason to suspect that something untowards was going ahead,” Robert’s father said. “He was back and forth to our house more than family was.
“We can’t think about it now. He’s a convicted pedophile and he had the opportunity to abuse my children.”
Robert says he has to keep pressing ahead to try to get some movement on the case, not just because it is the right thing to do since his memories resurfaced, but also so he can move ahead with his own life for the benefit of himself and his family.
“I want to be free from this. I don’t want to live the rest of my life preoccupied with this, and the way I look at it is, if I don’t do something about this, I’m going to go backwards,” he said.
“Now that I’ve came so far, I’ve got to see it all the way through. So I can’t just bury it again.”
ONLINE SUNDAY: An active case
MONDAY: False memory syndrome
Police continue to receive tips on the Dana Bradley murder. If you have information that might help solve this or any crime, call 1-800-222-TIPS (8477)