No justice for Dana

Thirty years later, her murder remains unsolved

Published on December 14, 2011

A man pulls over in his dilapidated Plymouth or Dodge car on a rough dirt lane off Maddox Cove Road. He leaves the body of a 14-year-old in the bushes nearby and drives away.

That was 30 years ago, after Dana Bradley went missing on Dec. 14, 1981, miles away on Topsail Road.

“It’s an eerie old spot isn’t it? Really eerie, you know,” said Dale Smith, standing in the place where he found Dana’s lifeless body on Dec. 18, 1981, during a family outing to find a Christmas tree. 

“Fourteen years old is not very old, is it?”

With no houses in sight, people dump junk on the craggy, rough-cut lane and they did back then, too.

On that fateful day, someone had discarded a bunch of old toys, spotted by Smith’s then four-year-old twins.

There was a fresh layer of snow down and Smith recalls seeing footprints made by people who had walked up the lane ahead of his family.

But it was Smith who veered into the woods looking for a tree and instead, found Bradley’s remains, which he at first thought was a mannequin because of the toys discarded nearby.

He looked long enough to see the cowboy boots, blue pants and other clothing, and went to his wife. He realized it was a person, but was unsure if it was just someone asleep.

His wife took a quick peek, and told Smith it might be the girl who had gone missing.

They hustled their children to their pickup so they wouldn’t see anything.

Smith flagged down a man who was cutting wood nearby and asked him to watch the area while they went home to Shea Heights to phone the police.

Officers found Dana’s body laid out in burial fashion, her schoolbooks neatly tucked under her arm.

An autopsy revealed she died of multiple blunt-force injuries to the head.

Smith has only returned to the site twice since that day — the last time about 15 years ago, with media, and this week with The Telegram.

But every Christmas season, he and his wife talk about Dana Bradley and how her murderer never paid for the horrific crime.

After Smith reported the discovery late that afternoon in 1981, the area was swarming with police who ran search lights into the night.

He still wonders if it should have been handled more quietly that day.

“I would say once we made that call, I think one person should have come up in plainclothes. I would show him where she was at,” he said.

“Put surveillance on that area for eight or 10 hours and whoever done it would come back and see what happened.”

Last glimpse

Dana was last seen getting into a 1973 to ’76 Dodge Dart or Plymouth Valiant four-door sedan, reads the handwritten RCMP news release from December 1981. The car was beige, tan or faded yellow with noticeable rust marks.

She climbed into the car at a bus stop opposite Tim Hortons on Topsail Road about 5:20 p.m. on Dec. 14.

Harry Smeaton of Gander and his brother, John, were selling Christmas trees on the empty lot behind the bus stop.

It hadn’t been a busy day and they were sitting in the truck watching people going back and forth.

“This little one looked like she was going for the bus,” he said of Dana, who then stuck out her thumb to hitchhike.

In no time, a car pulled up and the man had to reach across and open the passenger door from the inside because the handle didn’t work. In that moment in time, the brothers couldn’t know it was the last time anyone — aside from the killer — would see Dana alive.

“I wish we had the wherewithal to get the plate number,” Smeaton said in a phone interview last week.

“But at the time, it was a different place.”

Pretty, blue-eyed Dana lived on Patrick Street, but she had been at a friend’s house that day on Currie Place, off Topsail Road, and phoned to say she was on her way home to a family birthday celebration. When she didn’t turn up, her family reported her missing to the Royal Newfoundland Constabulary.

The newspaper headline: “This girl is missing and the police are concerned,” above Dana’s picture caught Smeaton’s attention when he dropped by his cousin’s house. Smeaton called his brother, who had already alerted the police to what they’d seen.

After Smith found the body, two witnesses came forward saying they saw the car and a man emerge from those woods off Maddox Cove Road the night Dana disappeared.

The descriptions of the two witnesses and the Smeatons led to a preliminary sketch and then a more detailed composite of the suspect, believed to be in his mid-20s.

Confession later recanted

Some 2,000 cars matching the description of the suspect vehicle were examined by police, 1,000 men questioned and hypnosis used to gain a better description of the suspect.

More than $1 million was spent on an investigation, including laborious excavations in search of the mystery car at Robin Hood Bay, after Mount Pearl resident David Somerton confessed to the killing in 1986 and was charged with first-degree murder.

On Maddox Cove Road, police set up makeshift structures equipped with propane heaters to thaw the ground to search for clues.

Somerton later recanted, claiming he was hounded into the confession during questioning. He was convicted of public mischief 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.

Over the years, the case has been profiled on national investigative journalism shows, is the subject of a book — “Hitching a Ride” by Darrin McGrath — and a poignant song, “The Ghost of Dana Bradley,” by renowned Newfoundland songwriter Ron Hynes.

There has been speculation her murder was connected to three cases of missing Newfoundland and Labrador women between 1978-84.

The RCMP has given numerous interviews over the years, but in the 30th year, the force declined, citing the importance of “the integrity in the investigation.”

 In reply to The Telegram inquiry, the RCMP said tips still come in on a regular basis and all officers in the major crimes unit follow the leads, rather than one person being assigned the case as in the past. But they say it’s still an active investigation.

Initially, nearly 30 officers worked on the case which led to cross-country inquiries and eventual DNA testing.

Dawn Bradley, Dana’s mother, doesn’t want to talk about the tragedy publicly.

“I just can’t,” she said, her voice breaking when contacted by The Telegram.

Covering the story

Retired reporter Pat Doyle was on general assignment in the then Evening Telegram newsroom the Friday the call came in about police activity in Maddox Cove. He and photographer Dick Green headed out on the late-in-the day assignment, arriving to find the area cordoned off.

Green headed through the woods to try to get closer for a shot, but he never liked the aspect of his job that found him photographing tragedies.

“I didn’t feel right doing that,” said Green, who left the newspaper a few years later and is now an antiques and art dealer.

Doyle still remembers covering Dana’s funeral and the wrenching grief of her family and young classmates.

“They couldn’t pin it on anybody,” he said of the police efforts.

“I wouldn’t have thought it would have gone on this long.”

Still haunted

The years slid by with no resolution and when Smith’s twins, a boy and a girl, turned 13 or 14, he was scared for their safety when they went out, especially for his daughter.

“You had to let them grow up. You couldn’t just keep them in under your thumb all the time. You had to give them a bit of space,” he said.

With sadness in his voice, he remarked that Dana would be 44 now, “still a young woman.”

Smeaton is astounded no one has come forward with telltale evidence.

“The thing that haunts me about it is you’d think someone must know something,” he said.

Retired I.J. Sampson Junior High School principal Fred Tulk was getting ready to head out to chaperone a dance at Dana’s school the evening of Dec. 18, 1981, when news of a body being found came on TV.

“I was just going through the door when CBC blasted the news,” he said this week. “I said to myself, holy hell! and took off.”

Tulk thought it was too late to cancel the dance, and in those days — when teachers filled whatever role was needed — they all arrived at the school to handle the grief, speaking to the students in small groups.

“I think that was the start of the shock,” he said, adding the first few days after Dana didn’t return, everyone still held out hope it was a kidnapping that would end in a rescue.

He recalls the police searching the cabins young men had built on the Southside Hills.

Tulk said Dana was an ordinary Grade 9 student.

He still struggles to understand, “why her?”

The crime changed parents, teachers and students, he said, and many more parents began picking up and dropping off their kids.

Prior to the murder, hitchhiking had been fairly common.

“The whole community of St John’s was in awe of what happened,” he said, adding he fears the killer will never be identified.

“As the time has gone up to now — 30 years — I can’t believe it. We’re still basically no further ahead than we were then or 15 years ago. … We’re still in a mess of not knowing.”

Tulk imagines the hell the Bradley family must go through at this time of year.

He remembers that Dana had a great personality and an artistic flair.

“That kid could have been anything, whatever you wish,” he said.

“Dana was a good kid. She would have been a fantastic adult.”