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An Alternate History of the Dana Bradley Murder Investigation

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Dana Bradley’s body was discovered in a wooded area just outside of St. John’s four days after she disappeared on December 14, 1981. During the intense and very public investigation, only one suspect was ever charged, David Somerton. He later recanted his confession. With no physical evidence tying him to the crime, the charges were stayed and later dropped. Over the last decade, the case has remained relatively quiet. But recently The Telegram ran a series of articles on “Robert,” whose allegations have sent shockwaves through the community. He claimed that, as a child, he had witnessed Dana’s abduction and murder and can pinpoint the location of the killer’s car, either a Dodge Dart or a Plymouth Valiant. However, after a 16-month investigation, the RCMP have dismissed Robert’s story.

Former case investigators are now making a very public plea to have the car excavated and examined for possible evidence, going so far as to hire a lawyer and lobby the Department of Justice and Public Safety. There are some striking similarities between the pressure to have Somerton brought to trial in 1986 and current developments. More importantly, though, they provide a new opportunity to re-examine an old case.

The push to have the car dug up hinges on the reliability of Robert’s memories. Were they buried deep is his subconscious after years of substance abuse? Or were they created to cope with an even more frightening reality?

False memory syndrome, or confabulation, has been an acknowledged phenomenon for decades. Basically, memories are altered by outside influences like the media. In this instance, the known facts of the case were made very pubic. NTV News reported that Robert “paints a picture so vivid that it’s convincingly real.” This is typical. While such memories are detailed, they lack complexity and don’t hold up to serious scrutiny. Often times, even when faced with contradictory and irrefutable evidence, the person is undeterred. Despite an array of published peer-reviewed studies, scepticism about the syndrome persists.

According to The Telegram, Robert was examined by a neuro-psychiatrist who rejected the false memory syndrome diagnosis provided by the RCMP. According to him, Robert was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and repressed memories. However, Richard McNally, Professor of Psychology at Harvard University, an authority on repressed memories, writes, “Traumatic events rarely slip from awareness for very long. The evidence for repressed memories of trauma—or even for repression at all—is surprisingly weak.”

What have we learned from this most recent series of articles by The Telegram? Not much. Media reports and radio shows about the subject only graze the surface. What we get are platitudes from former police who are quoted about their deep emotional connection to the case and the lasting impact Dana Bradley’s murder has had on the community. The script goes something like this: “Dana could have been anyone’s daughter. We did everything we could. No stone was left unturned.” We have never heard any real critical analysis—ever. For starters, was the investigation as thorough and scrupulous as police claim?

Here’s the official version of events: RCMP, with the close cooperation and assistance of the RNC, conducted what was, at the time, the most expensive and exhaustive murder investigation in Canadian history. Hundreds of people were interviewed; thousands of tips were received and followed-up on. Here’s another version of the same story. Facing an already badly contaminated crime scene, an inexperienced and overworked task force trudged through a particularly bad winter hunting down cars and interviewing countless potential suspects. In the pre-Internet, pre-cell phone era, the logistics alone must’ve been nightmarish.

Maddox Cove Road. Photo by Mike Heffernan.
Maddox Cove Road. Photo by Mike Heffernan.

The resources thrown at the Bradley murder case were unprecedented. No one disputes that. During the initial six months, at its height, the joint taskforce encompassed 35 full-time investigators from both the RCMP and RNC. In the first few weeks alone, over 800 cars were examined. With those kinds of numbers, it was impossible to securitize every vehicle carefully. The 2004 Lamer Inquiry, which looked into the wrongful conviction of Ronald Dalton, Gregory Parsons and Randy Drunken, offers a revealing window into that era of policing. Numerous RNC officers from a variety of departments testified to having no experience with murder investigations and to being increasingly overwhelmed and overworked while seconded to the Major Crimes Division. It’s not hard to imagine the officers assigned to the Bradley case missing something crucial, at some point, somewhere. Like a dried bloodstain in a trunk. Like a broken passenger-side door.

In an interview, RCMP Superintendent Lavers, who headed up the investigation, said, “We probably touched the person who did it.” I don’t doubt they did, not for one second.

By May 1982, with no new developments, the task force had been significantly reduced. Public anxiety that a killer walked the streets remained high. Then, in early 1986, ex-con David Somerton confessed to the murder. A general sense of relief pervaded over St. John’s that the case would finally be put to rest. It was in this atmosphere that almost a million dollars was spent digging up the city landfill and Maddox Cove Road in a desperate search for the physical evidence that would link Somerton to the crime. Nothing was ever found — no murder weapon, no car.

Somerton has since gone public with allegations of police pressure that the RCMP flatly denies. We do know, however, that he was interrogated for 18 consecutive hours and had a history of mental illness and substance abuse. In an interview with CTV’s W5, he stated, “I was on the verge of flipping out on them, and I was in a suicidal state in the room. I said, ‘Have me charged, or get me out of this room.’ And then I started telling them where the car was. Then I told them where the murder weapon was. I was doing anything to get them to back off and get me out of that room, including confessing.”

 It’s not hard to imagine the officers assigned to the Bradley case missing something crucial, at some point, somewhere. Like a dried bloodstain in a trunk. Like a broken passenger-side door.

The transcripts from those interviews have never been made public. Lavers’ version of the interview is remarkably different: “There are certain descriptive things Somerton talked about that caused me to wonder how he could describe things that only police knew.”

Everyone believed they had their man. Somerton described the murder weapon, how he killed the victim, where the body had been dumped. It all fit. But, unlike other investigations where police hold their best evidence close to their chest, part of their deliberate strategy was to make the facts known in the hopes someone would come forward with information. Practically every news item on the case included an eyewitness description of the car which picked up Dana Bradley on Topsail Road. All Somerton had to do was read a paper or watch the evening news. Did public pressure blind Lavers and his detectives to irregularities in Somerton’s statement?

When no obvious suspect emerges, when investigations grind to a halt, tunnel vision often sets in. In the minds of police, there becomes only one suspect, and all the circumstantial evidence seems to point to them and render all irregularities coincidence. Were other leads ignored or overlooked because of their conviction of Somerton’s guilt? These are fair and reasonable questions to ask.

Has anyone seriously dug into how the case was managed? Has anyone looked beyond the known facts? Has anyone ever made an Access to Information request for police files — any files? Not to my knowledge.

There are details that need to be uncovered which could provide a far more accurate picture of what went on, particularly during the initial phase of the investigation. It’s within this short window when cases are almost always made. Enough time has now passed that airing dirty laundry won’t damage much but egos. There have been allegations of cover-up levelled at the RCMP in regards to Robert’s story. But what could they possibly be hiding? None of the original investigators are still with the force.

And why deny Robert’s claims? The RCMP has everything to gain from solving their most notorious cold case. They’ve already invested considerable resources looking into Robert’s allegations. They’re not about to rush off on a wild goose chase based on a statement which they know not to be true, which didn’t pass the litmus test. The RCMP has already fallen victim to that once before. In a recent interview with VOCM Nightline, Michael Crystal, the lawyer representing the group of former RCMP officers, stated, “It’s not about casting a critical eye on the investigation. It’s about people coming together to uncover fresh evidence.”

Lavers will be the person the public will most closely associate with the case. It’s not a stretch to imagine him, having spent so many years of his professional life slogging away at this thing, desperately hoping for a miracle that could finally break it. In past interviews, he said that the weight of public pressure alone could have gotten a conviction against Somerton, even without any physical evidence tying him to the crime. Public pressure is once again playing a role.

Thankfully, in 1986, there was no rush to judgement. The Department of Justice and Public Safety should show restraint here, too. Investigations based on conjecture and rumour often lead to the same kind of modern day witch hunt that almost put Somerton behind bars for a crime he never committed. The Lamer Inquiry was adamant on this particular point. Credible and reliable evidence should dictate the course of the investigation and not the blind desperation to find Dana Bradley’s killer.

The lane Lane off Maddox Cove Road where Dana Bradley's body was found on Dec. 18, 1981. Photo by Mike Heffernan.
The lane off Maddox Cove Road where Dana Bradley’s body was found on Dec. 18, 1981. Photo by Mike Heffernan.

Mike Heffernan was born and raised in St. John’s. He is the author of two works of non-fiction, including the national bestseller “Rig: An Oral History of the Ocean Ranger Disaster”.


Editor’s note: If you would like to respond to this or any article on TheIndependent.ca, or if you would like to address an issue we haven’t yet covered, we welcome letters to the editor and consider each of them for publication in our Letters section. You can email yours to: justin at theindependent dot ca. Not all letters will be printed, but all will be read.

 

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