A person of interest from the early days of the Dana Bradley murder investigation — unrelated to claims made this week by a man who says he witnessed the murder — was recently cleared, the RCMP say.
That’s just one of the developments in a murder file that’s been active since the St. John’s teenager’s body was found Dec. 18, 1981 after she had gone missing four days earlier.
“We did a polygraph not long ago, in another province, where we’ve cleared someone who has been considered at least a peripheral suspect since the beginning of the investigation,” said Sgt. Kent Osmond, lead investigator on the file and head of the RCMP’s Major Crimes Unit in St. John’s.
“We cleared him within the last six months.”
The file has been open for more than 32 years, ever since a family looking for a Christmas tree discovered her body in a wooded area off Maddox Cove Road.
Investigators in charge of the case have come and gone, but working the file is a daily duty at the RCMP’s Major Crime Unit.
“People seem to think the file is a cold file,” Osmond said.
“That’s never been the case, ever, that I’m aware of. There’s not a day goes by in our office when the file is not worked on in some capacity.”
In fact, there are other persons of interest who were the subjects of the investigation in the early years who are still being looked at. At different times, and from the view of different investigators, some were seen as stronger suspects than others.
And as new information came in — and continues to come in — the level of resources put into investigating the case rose according to what was needed.
“We assign whatever resources we deem appropriate to bring it to a successful conclusion, be it identification of a new suspect or elimination of someone new or someone we’ve been looking at for, say, 15 or 20 years,” Osmond said.
“Off the top of my head I can’t tell you how many people have been polygraphed on this file, but it’s astounding.
“Polygraph is different than a lot of people think. It’s a very, very detailed, specific process that requires certain elements to be present before we can use it. And not everybody is going to fall into that category.”
Despite all the years that have passed since the murder, public interest remains strong in the Dana Bradley case — particularly around the anniversary of the crime.
In fact, last December, in the weeks around the 32nd anniversary of the Dec. 14, 1981 murder, visitors to The Telegram website linked back to a 2011 in-depth article that marked the 30th anniversary of the killing, headlined “No Justice for Dana.” The story attracted more than 21,230 hits.
Dana was last seen getting into what was described as an early to mid-’70s Dodge Dart or Plymouth Valiant four-door sedan. She had been hitching a ride home from Topsail Road to Patrick Street late in the afternoon after leaving a friend’s house.
Her death was caused by multiple blunt-force injuries to the head.
During the funeral service for Dana held on Dec. 21, 1981, at Wesley United Church in St. John’s, Rev. Robert Mills summed up community outrage over the murder.
It has “shocked, terrified and angered us all,” he told the packed church.
He said in the past, local people condemned such acts in other societies, suggesting “it doesn’t happen here, not in this community.”
“It only goes to show that, despite all the goodness, all the kindness, there is still too much evil, too many evil people in the world,” he said.
In 1986, the public’s focus in the case shifted to Mount Pearl resident David Somerton, who confessed to the killing and was charged with first-degree murder. Somerton told police the car was buried at Robin Hood Bay resulting in laborious excavations in search of it. No car was found.
Somerton later recanted, claiming he had been interrogated by the police for so long, he admitted to killing Dana just to get the hounding to stop.
RCMP later said evidence did not support a murder charge against Somerton and he was then charged with public mischief, convicted, and sent to jail for two years.
Another man was sentenced to nine months in prison in 1982 for making cruel, harassing phone calls to the Bradley family.
Osmond has been lead investigator on the file for nearly eight years over the past 10-year period.
He noted that most tips police receive are from people who believe that someone they’ve known at some point in their life should either be investigated or given a closer look. A lot of the information that comes in, investigators have seen before, he said.
“Thirty-two years later, if we can’t nail down where someone was on Dec. 14, 1981, that doesn’t make them a suspect, but some people would make that leap,” Osmond said.
“So, there are varying degrees of suspicion, or lack of ability to exclude.
“It has to be fact-based. If someone came to us and offered us a suspect, then we would investigate that suspect, and if the account we are given doesn’t match up, then it doesn’t match up. And there are ways to do that — traditional, there’s DNA, polygraphs, interview techniques, other police techniques we don’t discuss publicly. It primarily boils down to interviewing and as much science as we can put into it.”
One big project underway is the conversion of all the hard-copy files in the case to electronic form.
“We’ve converted the hard-copy file, the written, typed information from ’81 … all that documentation onto a database,” Kent said.
“We are probably three or four months away from completing that, and that’s been a major undertaking. The typewritten portion of the investigators’ notes — basically ‘I went here today, I did this today,’ just their notebook entries — is 10,000 pages. That’s just what we’ve written by hand in 32 years.
“There are over 10,000 documents on the file scanned, hundreds and hundreds of hours of audio and videotape.
“Our clerk has spent the last eight years transposing that information onto an electronic database. And that’s been her primary function for eight years.”