Thirty years ago yesterday, 14 year-old Dana Bradley disappeared. A few days later, a family looking for a Christmas Tree found her body off Maddox Cove Road, near St. John’s.
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.”
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.