LOS ANGELES – When Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department deputies released photographs of some 50 women taken two decades ago by murderer Bill Bradford, they weren’t sure what they would find.
Then the tips started flooding in – more than 1,000 in the 24 hours after they sought the public’s help Tuesday in identifying the women.
One woman called to say she was the person in photos 16 and 17 – and is very much alive.
Then Bradford’s own daughter called in, saying that photo 48 was of his ex-wife and that she, too, is alive.
By Wednesday evening, detectives said they had tentatively confirmed that 24 of the women are alive and believe they had talked to about a dozen of them personally.
Most murder investigations begin with a victim and end with the arrest of a suspect. But sheriff’s officials said Wednesday that the Bradford case is an investigation like no other.
“This is a totally different case than what we are used to,” said Capt. Ray Peavy, head of homicide for the Sheriff’s Department. “Here, we think we know who the killer is, and we are trying to find the potential victim.”
The case has another twist: Peavy said the goal isn’t to bring more charges against Bradford, who is already on death row after being convicted of killing two aspiring models in 1984.
The 54 photographs were contained in Bradford’s original case file and sat untouched for years, until a cold-case detective decided to take a second look.
“Most of these women maybe are alive, but maybe we’ll find (other victims) and bring closure to one more family who lost a loved one,” he said.
Detectives so far have confirmed that only one of the women, Donalee Campbell Duhamel, was killed. Duhamel, an aspiring model who is photo No. 28, was found decapitated in 1978 after being seen at a bar with Bradford. Her case is now under investigation.
To deal with the flood of tips, investigators set up an elaborate information-gathering system.
One group of detectives sat at a phone bank, taking calls and typing the information into a database. In a nearby room, another group of detectives – some of whom are retired and volunteering their time – began running down clues. Photos of all 50 women are numbered and displayed on a giant board, with information posted alongside the images.
The first step in the process is to identify each one. Then detectives plan to interview the women about their dealings with Bradford.
“Maybe they had a friend that also knew Bradford and they never her saw again,” Peavy said. “A victim may not be among these photos.”
The telephone calls starting coming minutes after the Sheriff’s Department released the photos on Tuesday.
Some callers have been anonymous, and detectives said they believe they were talking to some of the women themselves.
Peavy said he could understand how some of the women would not want friends and loved ones to know more than 20 years after the fact that they had been photographed by Bradford. He said many photos were of scantily clad women.
Though the department released only head shots, Peavy said some of the full photos had “pornographic” content.
The photos were found at Bradford’s Mar Vista apartment when he was arrested. Authorities long suspected that Bradford killed some of the women, but the case was pushed aside after he was sentenced to death in 1984.
Peavy said detectives at the time thought it was more productive to investigate other suspected killers.
“The fact that he was off the street, he was in custody and he was convicted of two homicides – they knew he wasn’t going to be a threat any longer,” he said. “They may have felt there was no need to pursue these.”
He said attitudes at the Sheriff’s Department have since changed, and detectives are more willing to examine possible homicides if for no other reason than to give some type of resolution to families.
“Obviously we all agreed that it should have been looked at – probably looked at before now,” he said.
Bradford frequented popular west Los Angeles bars and offered to take photos of female models and actresses.
That is how he met Shari Miller, a 21-year-old barmaid. At his trial, prosecutors said Bradford took photos for her portfolio as a way of gaining her trust. Then he drove her to the Mojave Desert for a photo shoot. Sometime after the photos were taken, authorities said, Bradford strangled Miller. Six days later, on July 12, 1984, Tracey Campbell disappeared. Authorities claimed Bradford killed the 15-year-old after another “fashion shoot.”
During sentencing, Bradford told jurors: “Think of how many you don’t even know about.”
In addition to Miller, Campbell and Duhamel, Bradford is a suspect in the slayings of a man and another woman during that period.
Peavy said detectives had yet to speak to Bradford, but would welcome any information he can provide.