The phone rang once.
Since her daughter Amy's disappearance nine days earlier, Iva Bradley hadn't been in the habit of letting it ring any longer than that. She had transformed the family dining room where her husband, Ron, kept a desk for his insurance business into a "command center" with a new white Trimline phone hooked up to a recently installed hotline number. World maps and photos of Amy were tacked on the walls.RELATED LINKS
-- Updates and info on the search.
On the other end was a middle-age sounding man with a deep voice. He was speaking Spanish.
"Un momento. Un momento, por favor," Iva said quickly, frantically waving to her younger brother Paul Noblin, who was also in the room. "OK, OK," the man on the other end said in a thick Spanish accent.
It was to be the first promising lead in the puzzling disappearance of Amy Bradley, a vivacious, attractive 23-year-old from Chesterfield County, a 1996 graduate of Longwood College, who was a star basketball player there and the only student in the school's history to receive a full athletic scholarship. The strange nature of the case has attracted national attention, from a front page story in the New York Times to the "Leeza" show, "America's Most Wanted" and "Unsolved Mysteries," which is slated to air a segment about Amy on May 28. Cosmopolitan magazine is also planning a piece on Amy.
On March 24, 1998, while on vacation with her mother, father and brother Brad, Amy Bradley vanished from the Royal Caribbean cruise ship Rhapsody of the Seas, which was preparing to dock in Curacao. Her father, Ron Bradley, was the last to see her as she sat on a deck chair on the balcony of cabin No. 8564, the family's stateroom, at about 5:30 that morning.
A massive three-day search at sea turned up nothing. The Bradley family left the ship and flew home without Amy and with virtually no clues until the morning of April 2, when the Spanish-speaking man called Iva Bradley.
Iva's brother Paul hustled across the street of the Bradleys' suburban Chesterfield neighborhood to summon a close friend and neighbor of Iva's who speaks Spanish. Within minutes, the woman was sitting at Iva's desk, talking to the Spanish-speaking man and hurriedly taking notes. Though her friend was speaking and writing in Spanish, Iva could tell from the excited sound of the woman's voice that the man must be saying something important.
If true, what the man said was not only important but explosive. According to a lawsuit the Bradleys filed against Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. last month alleging negligent security and other charges, the Spanish-speaking man told Iva's friend that he saw Amy four days
after her disappearance being forced into a taxicab at the terminal at San Juan, Puerto Rico shortly after Rhapsody of the Seas docked there on March 28, 1998, the day that should have been the last day of the family's aborted week-long cruise.
Providing previously unpublished details not mentioned in the lawsuit, Bradley's lawyers say the witness was a Puerto Rican local who was studying to be a police officer. He called Iva Bradley after seeing a story about Amy on Puerto Rican television and recognizing her photo as the woman he had seen just days before.
Andrew Hall, one of the Miami-based attorneys representing the family in the lawsuit, says the witness claims that Amy was under the control of a man wearing a baseball cap.
"It was a clear day and she passed right by [the witness]," Hall says of the Puerto Rican man's account. "She was firmly held. Her appearance was not that of a happy person, to say the least. The [witness] thought they were fighting. They didn't look like they were getting along, like they were disagreeing."
The witness said the man in the ballcap then guided a disoriented-looking Amy into a taxi, leading her much like a policeman would direct a suspect into the back seat of a squad car, according to Hall.
Hall won't say more about the alleged abductor or the eyewitness for fear of harming the investigation, he says, though he adds there is a suspect in Amy's disappearance.
So what happened, and if Amy was abducted and there's a suspect and a witness, why hasn't there been an arrest?
For starters, the Bradleys called the FBI agents in St. Thomas investigating Amy's disappearance and faxed them the Puerto Rican witness's name and number.
More than eight months later, the Bradleys learned FBI agents never interviewed the man. Despite records the Bradleys have proving they sent the information, the FBI denied ever receiving the lead, Iva Bradley says.
U.S. Department of Justice agents working with Interpol finally interviewed the witness early this year. In a photo lineup, he positively identified Amy as the woman he saw last April. Hall will not say if the man identified a suspect.
"We had lost time because leads were not followed up. We were told the FBI would leave no stone unturned," Iva Bradley says angrily. "We were confident that they were contacting [the witness], following the lead and tending to everything." (A spokesperson with the FBI office in San Juan says they cannot comment on pending investigations but says they are following "all pertinent leads" and are doing "everything we can do to solve the case." )
Instead, possibly because whatever happened to Amy began in international waters, the Bradleys have found themselves negotiating a bureaucratic labyrinth as they search for an answer to Amy's disappearance. They get no help from the FBI, they say. They have written congressmen, foreign officials and even the president. The only promising response they've received was a personal letter from Newt Gingrich who promised to ask FBI Director Louis Freeh to intervene and assist the family personally. Freeh never called.
Since then, the family has taken matters into its own hands, hiring private detectives and manning Web sites and a 24-hour phone hotline. They've secured commitments for a $260,000 reward for information leading to her safe return. To date, they've spent more than $85,000 of their own money, selling their Honda Accord, for example, to fund one of six searches in the Caribbean since Amy's disappearance. They've even funded a trip for investigators to go back aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas. They're raising more money for the search through contributions to a trust fund.
Despite the long months that have passed, Amy's family holds firm to their belief that she is still alive and being held against her will. They will find her, they say, and when she returns, March 24, 1998 will be only a bad memory and not the haunting mystery that fuels every waking minute of their lives.Continue to Part II