A suspicious line of events led up to the day 33-year-old Sheila Bradford disappeared almost three decades ago.
Tennessee’s 24th Judicial District Attorney Matthew Stowe said in 1992, Bradford met up with local law enforcement asking for protection in exchange for information she had on a crime. While meeting at a restaurant, an explosion occurred next door. Stowe said Bradford left that restaurant and was never seen again.
“When she went missing, her clothes were found in the dryer; her money was found alongside of it. She went missing essentially, we believe, in her t-shirt and underwear,” Stowe said. “So obviously we suspect that there’s foul play involved.”
Bradford’s daughter, Kristie, remembers going with her mom to meet with TBI agents and the local Sheriff in Benton County. Kristie Bradford was a 15-year-old at the time.
“I remember her asking for help from law enforcement to protect her. And when they didn’t, she asked what did he have to do, kill her first?” Kristie Bradford said.
Kristie said that cry for help from her mother was to keep her safe from her ex-boyfriend J.C. Bruce.
“It was, according to what I’ve been told, mentioned at that meeting at the restaurant between Sheila Bradford and the TBI and the other law enforcement, there was discussion of the acts of domestic abuse,” Stowe said.
Domestic problems Kristie Bradford said she remembers clearly. “If you’re a part of a domestic violence relationship, then seek help,” Kristie Bradford said. “Get family members and friends to be with you at all times until the situation is resolved. Do whatever’s necessary to protect yourself and your children. Because the end result is death. A lot of the cases, it’s death.”
State records show Bruce is a convicted felon with a lengthy criminal history. According to Stowe, before Sheila Bradford’s disappearance, Bruce was convicted of attempted murder and rape. He was sentenced to five years behind bars, and he was released in 1979.
“Sheila Bradford, when she went to that meeting, she was scared to death for her safety, and she wanted protection from the TBI. And after there was an explosion outside the restaurant, she lost confidence in the ability of law enforcement to protect her,” Stowe said.
Law enforcement believes the explosion was no accident. “They later determined that an outbuilding had been set on fire,” Stowe said. “It was basically arson, and it was no doubt done it to send a message to Sheila not to cooperate with law enforcement in this case. And it certainly had the effect of scaring her and having her, unfortunately, lose confidence in the ability of law enforcement to protect her. ”
That confidence in law enforcement is something her daughter has devoted her career to changing. Kristie is a 911 dispatcher in Carroll County.
“I never thought I’d work for law enforcement because I felt like they let her down back in 1992. But becoming part of law enforcement, I feel like I’m there, and that I make a big difference, and I can help the officers to understand the victims’ family’s side,” Kristie Bradford said. “And that helps me to move on. It helps me to go forward. But, I’ll never stop fighting.”
Bradford’s body has never been found and no one has been arrested or charged in this case. Stowe said Bruce remains a person of interest in the case.
To help solve the case, Stowe has secured a $10,000 reward from Governor Bill Lee for information leading to an arrest in Bradford’s murder. Something the community has matched, bringing the reward up to $20,000.
“We are not going to stop the investigation until we have closed this case. We are going to bring closure to Kristie Bradford and the other folks who have been affected by this crime,” Stowe said.
Tips can be made by calling 1800-TBI-FIND. Law enforcement wants to assure the public their safety is top priority, and any callers can remain anonymous.