On July 6, 2001, Tracey Bradley reported that she did not see her two small daughters, Tionda and Diamond, when she arrived home from work. Rather, she claimed, there was quiet.
In the Chicago South Side apartment, there was a note written on the back of the couch.
It was purportedly written by Tracey’s ten-year-old daughter, Tionda. It stated that she had visited the store and a neighboring school playground with her 3-year-old sister, Diamond.
However, there was a problem with the note. Dateline was informed by family members that Tionda’s grammar and spelling were far superior for a young girl of her age. They added that Tionda would have called her mother rather than leaving a note.
They had vanished from view.
Twenty years have gone since Chicago police launched what they believe to be one of the longest running missing persons investigations in the nation, as well as possibly the largest missing persons investigation in the city.
The girls are still missing from sight.
The girls’ great-aunt Sheliah Bradley Smith told Dateline, “We’re still in limbo.” “No one has voiced any opinions. There have been no arrests. Not a thing. However, the girls have not returned.
For the previous 20 years, Sheliah has served as the family’s spokesperson. In an attempt to find answers, she set up and is the administrator of multiple Facebook pages, including MissingDiamondandTiondaBradley and Help Find Tionda and Diamond Bradley.
The National Center for Missing & Exploited Children released new age-progression images of the Bradley sisters this week to commemorate their disappearance 20 years ago. By this point, Diamond would be 23 years old and Tionda would be 30.
“Imagining those girls as adults is difficult,” Sheliah remarked. Now, though, that’s the person we’re searching for. We’re not trying to find kids. We are searching for adults, or their remnants.
In the hopes of one day finding the girls, Sheliah and other family members have been looking for clues, following leads, posting flyers, and holding vigils for the past 20 years.
Sometimes I feel like I’m back in 2001 because I’m so focused on finding the girls, Sheliah admitted. “We’re back there on that July day when they vanished, and it feels like no time has passed.”
Tionda and Diamond were living in the South Side of Chicago’s Lake Grove Village Apartments complex with their mother and two sisters, Victoria, who was nine years old, and Rita, who was twelve, when the girls vanished on July 6, 2001.
Because so many family members lived nearby, they alternated in looking after each other’s children. Tionda and Diamond frequently divided their time between their grandmother’s apartment and their mother’s apartment in the Bronzeville public housing complex, Robert Taylor Homes.
Following an investigation by the FBI and the Chicago Police Department, Tracey Bradley, the mother of the girls, left the apartment at around six in the morning to go to work. She gave Diamond and Tionda strict orders to keep no one inside. Victoria and Rita, her other children, had spent the previous evening at their grandmother’s house.
The girls were gone when Tracey got home at around eleven in the morning, and she claimed to have discovered a note saying they had strolled to the neighborhood store and playground.
Dateline was informed by the girls’ great-aunt Sheliah that she thought Tionda wrote the note, but with assistance from a reliable source.
“The person who took the girls was right there beside her – telling her exactly what to write,” Sheliah said. She was receiving coaching.
A thorough search was launched after they vanished.
For days and weeks, hundreds of Chicago police, federal law enforcement, and community volunteers combed the streets, sewers, abandoned factories, and buildings. Nearly 100 registered sex offenders were interviewed by them out of dozens of people.
However, their attempts proved fruitless.
The FBI is assisting the Chicago Police Department, which is the lead agency in this case. 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. There are no fresh leads, he continued.
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.”
Through the years, a number of people of interest have been questioned, but no particular suspect in the disappearance of the girls has been identified. At this point, the authorities would not say whether there are any suspects.
The girls’ family feels that someone they knew and had access to kidnapped them.
Sheliah told Dateline, “This is not a stranger danger situation.” Their instinct was to be wary of strangers. It was a person they trusted and knew well.
On July 6, relatives came together on Chicago’s South Side for two vigils last week to commemorate the 20 years since the girls vanished. During the vigils, they released balloons and prayed for answers.
Initially, the girls and their mother lived in an apartment complex close to a pedestrian bridge, where a small group of family members congregated.
“Diamond Bradley and Tionda were taken by someone,” Sheliah said to reporters during the event. “Tionda and Diamond didn’t just disappear, as everyone is aware. Let’s end the silence now.
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.
Later that day, at Robert Taylor Park, where Tionda and Diamond used to go visit their grandmother and attend dance and gymnastics classes, there was another vigil.
Over fifty family members, including the girls’ mother, sisters, aunts, great-aunt, and cousins, wore t-shirts and buttons with the girls’ faces on them and joined hands in prayer despite the intense 90-degree heat.
At the vigil, Tracey Bradley, the mother of the girls, told reporters, “We have to keep them in the public eye, in the news, and hope it breaks through.” “We must maintain hope.”
NBC Chicago was informed by Tracey that she thinks her daughters were the victims of a crime. To help with their search, the family has hired a private investigator, and they are pleading with anyone who knows anything 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.
“Knowing that I’m assisting someone brings me comfort, as I am fully aware of their struggles,” Sheliah remarked. “At times, I feel defeated and ask myself, ‘why can I find other missing children, but not my girls?’ But I believe that this is our moment. We’ll find them.”
Sheliah told Dateline she knows the search now is either for Tionda and Diamond as adults – or their remains. But in her mind, they will always be little girls, each with a distinct 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.