CHICAGO — As they have for the past two decades, Tionda and Diamond Bradley’s relatives gathered on Chicago’s South Side on Tuesday to release balloons and pray for answers in the sisters’ 2001 disappearance.
Tionda and Diamond Bradley, 3 and 10 at the time, went missing from their third-floor apartment July 6, 2001, leaving behind just one clue – a strange hand-written note family says was uncharacteristic of Tionda. The girls’ disappearance spurred one of the largest manhunts in the Chicago’s history, and investigators have gone as far as Morocco to look for them.
Twenty years later, the family still has hope someone will come forward with information. Some 50 relatives – including the girls’ mother, sisters, aunts, great-aunt and cousins – gathered at two balloon releases and vigils Tuesday wearing T-shirts and buttons with the girls’ faces on them.
More than a dozen family members gathered at a first, more somber event on a pedestrian bridgenear the apartment where the girls lived at the time with their mother, Tracey Bradley, and two sisters, Rita and Victoria.
“Someone took Tionda and Diamond Bradley,” Shelia Bradley-Smith, the girls’ great-aunt, told reporters. “Everybody knows Tionda and Diamond didn’t just vanish. It’s time to break the silence.”
The family, with many young children and toddlers in tow, walked onto the pedestrian overpass to Lake Michigan and turned back to look at the girls’ old apartment.
“We love you Diamond and Tionda,” the group chanted in unison as they released 20 colorful ballons – pink for the girls, white for “God’s divine love” and emerald for the 20th anniversary, Bradley-Smith said.
The family, including Tracey Bradley, later gathered for a second vigil at Robert Taylor Park, where Tionda and Diamond used to take dance and gymnastics classes with their relatives and other neighborhood kids. The family used to attend an annual picnic at the park, too, since the girls’ grandmother used to live in the nearby Robert Taylor Homes –once the largest stretch of public housing in the U.S.
At the park, family set up folding charis and purchased ice cream from a nearby truck provided by community activist Bamani Obadele. Several of the children clambered around on the playground and played catch in the 90-degree heat, each in a shirt bearing Tionda and Diamond’s faces.
Dozens of family members walked out into the baseball diamond outfieldand clasped hands in a large circle as local Rev. Paul Jakes led the group in a prayer for the girls, investigators and all family effected.
“We need a resolution to this case, oh God,” Jakes said as the group clapped, chanted and sang
Zakiayyah Muhammad, who lived across the street from the girls at the time they went missing,joined in the circle, chanting “hallelujah” and wearing an old Tionda and Diamond shirt from vigils past.
“We have to keep hope alive,” Tracey Bradley told reporters. “We have to keep them in the news until some little thing breaks through.”
Bradley said she hoped to speak with the Cook County State’s Attorney about reviewing the case investigators have put together.
Bradley said she left the two girls alone in apartment 301 that day around 6:30 a.m. so she could go to work. The two other sisters, 12-year-old Rita and 9-year-old Victoria, were staying at their grandmother’s apartment at Robert Taylor Homes.
Tracey Bradley told USA TODAY that she called home repeatedly that day to reach the girls.
“There was no answer,” Bradley said. “So I waited for an hour, kept calling, kept calling. There was no answer – on my lunch break, too.”
When her shift ended late that morning, Bradley said her boyfriend picked her up at work and took her to a nearby Jewel grocery store to get a cake for Victoria’s birthday. But when they got home, the apartment was empty.
“I called their name, and there was no response,” she said Monday.
Tionda and Diamond had vanished; the only evidence of them was the odd note from Tionda, which claimed the two sisters had headed to a nearby park and store.
But the girls would never leave the house or write a note, particularly after their mother’s warning to them that they were not and never were to let anyone in the apartment, family said.
“I taught my kids damn well,” Tracey said, “and my kids wouldn’t up and just leave, and then leave a note.”
Suspicion quickly fell on Tracey and her boyfriend, whom USA TODAY is not naming because he has not been charged. Tracey said she’s aware of the allegations that she was a poor mother for leaving them alone or was somehow involved in their disappearance. Still, she has tried to keep a strong mind and hopeful heart.
“I got stronger and stronger from what they said about me,” she said. “Most people, they just don’t know what they talking about. They’re not in my shoes.”
Soon after being questioned by police 20 years ago, the boyfriend said he got a lawyer – “I still have many lawyers on standby, just in case,” he said. That has precluded investigators from talking openly with the man, who says the police, the FBI and the media all ganged up on him.
In an interview with USA TODAY in June, the boyfriend denied that he was involved with the girls being missing.
“I don’t know who did anything; I just know that I had nothing to do with it,” he said of the girls’ disappearance.