CHICAGO — As they have for the past two decades, Tionda and Diamond Bradley’s relatives gathered on Chicago’s South Side on Tuesday to set off balloons and pray for answers in the sisters’ 2001 disappearance that spurred one of the largest manhunts in the city’s history.
More than a dozen family members and media showed up for the annual event at East 35th Street and South Lake Park Avenue, near the third-floor apartment where Tracey Bradley lived with her daughters – who were 10 and 3 at the time – and two other sisters before moving away after it became too difficult to stay there.
“I believe in my heart they’re still alive somewhere,” Tracey Bradley, the girls’ mother, told USA TODAY on Monday. “I still have hope that Diamond and Tionda will return back home.”
The relatives Tuesday – including the girls’ sister, aunt, great-aunt and cousins – gathered Tuesday wearing T-shirts and buttons with the girls’ faces on them, printed by their aunt, April Jackson.
“Diamond and Tionda Bradley 20th year anniversary,” the shirts said.
Two missing sisters. One bizarre note: For 20 years, a family has asked: Where are our girls?
The family, with many young children in tow, walked onto the 35th Street Pedestrian Bridge and turned to look at the girls’ old apartment before releasing the balloons.
Before the balloons were released about 3:40 p.m. CDT, with the family saying “we love you” to the missing girls, relatives told the crowd they too were holding out hope.
“Someone took Tionda and Diamond Bradley,” Shelia Bradley-Smith, the girls’ great-aunt, said. The balloons represent the girls – pink and white – and emerald for the 20th anniversary. “Everybody knows Tionda and Diamond didn’t just vanish. It’s time to break the silence.”
The family, including Tracey Bradley, gathered later for a 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.
More relatives were in town for this year’s vigil in part because of the 20th anniversary and also because the sisters’ grandmother, Mary Bradley, was in the hospital after falling ill. The mood was distinctly different than the solemn balloon release. At the park, the family set up folding chairs, purchased ice cream from a nearby truck provided by activist Bamai Obadele and ate while laughing in the 90-degree heat.
Several of the children clambered around on the playground, each in their little T-shirt bearing Tionda and Diamond’s faces. Other children were playing catch and other games in a mood resembling a large family picnic.
As more than 50 family members clasped hands in a large circle, Rev. Paul Jakes led the group in a prayer for the girls, Mary Bradley, CPD and other investigators and all family effected.
“We need a resolution to this case, oh God,” Jakes said. The group clapped, chanting “Hallelujah.”
For her part, Tracey Bradley said: “It’s been a long long road and a long long time,” adding the vigils would continue on while the case remains open.
“We have to keep hope alive,” she said. “We have to keep them in the news until some little thing breaks through.” She added that she hoped to to speak with Cook County State’s Attorney Kim Foxx about reviewing the case that investigators have so far put together — chiefly against her former boyfriend. “Somebody missed something.”
Zakiayyah Muhammad, who lived across the street from the girls at the time, recalled coming home from D.C. and getting a phone call about the girls missing. She said she helped search for the girls that night and has attended every vigil for the last two decades. On Tuesday, she was wearing an old Tionda and Diamond T-shirt.
Tracey Bradley said she left the two girls alone in apartment 301 on July 6, 2001, around 6:30 a.m. so she could go to work making meals for kids attending a nearby summer camp. The other two sisters, 12-year-old Rita and 9-year-old Victoria, were staying at their grandmother’s apartment at Robert Taylor Homes – once the largest stretch of public housing in the U.S.
Tracey Bradley told USA TODAY that she called home repeatedly that day to reach the girls.
“There was no answer,” she 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 that day and took her to a nearby Jewel grocery to get a cake for her daughter 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 an 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, particularly after their mother’s warning to them that they were not and never were to let anyone in the apartment.
“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 her and her boyfriend, whom USA TODAY is not naming because he has not been charged. Tracey said she has heard the talk that she was a poor mother for leaving them alone or was somehow involved. 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.”
Additionally, police say that microcondial DNA tests were run on hairs found in the trunk of the boyfriend’s vehicle – hairs that matched Tionda and Tracey.
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. He has alternated, saying he tried to help investigators find them at the beginning in one interview, then saying “hell no, I wanted nothing to do with that, those are Tracey’s girls,” in another interview this month.
“I don’t know who did anything; I just know that I had nothing to do with it,” he said of the girls’ disappearance.
Asked about her missing girls, Tracey Bradley said she remembers their characters well.
About Tionda, who would be 30 now, she said, “She always did the talent show. And she was smart just at 10 years old,” she said. “Diamond (who would be 23), that little girl, she just jumped off the couch a lot.”
P Foster, the private investigator working the case for the past 20 years pro bono, arrived on a motorcycle, grabbed a snack and threw on a T-shirt of the girls. said the annual event often generates leads: “We’re just looking for one bite. Sometimes, one bite can fill you up.”
Black children, then as now, are reported missing more often than children of other races. More than 300,000 juveniles are reported missing in the USA every year. Though Census Bureau data shows Black kids make up just 16% of the population under 18, more than 36% of missing juveniles in 2020 were Black, the latest FBI data shows.
The FBI asks anyone with information about the disappearance of Tionda and Diamond Bradley to contact Chicago Police Department detectives at 312-747-8380, your local FBI office or the nearest American embassy or consulate. You can submit an anonymous tip online here. The family’s private detective can be reached at 847-579-9771.
Follow Breaking News reporter Grace Hauck on Twitter at @grace_hauck or email her at email@example.com. Eric Ferkenhoff is the Midwest Criminal Justice Reporter for the USA TODAY Network. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.