Deborah Bradley hasn’t seen her daughter, the tot she calls Baby Lisa, for nearly a year.
Still, she occasionally buys toddler clothes in increasingly larger sizes, keeps the baby’s room intact and tells neighbors and friends she fully expects the little girl to come home.
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Experts say it could happen. About 57 percent of children abducted by strangers each year are returned home alive. Infants usually have an even higher recovery rate, experts say. But most of those children are found quickly. National statistics from 2011 show 90 percent of children are recovered within 72 hours of an Amber Alert.
Thursday will mark the one-year anniversary of the disappearance of 10-month-old Lisa Irwin from her home in the 3600 block of North Lister Avenue. Her father, Jeremy Irwin, returned home from a late shift Oct. 4 and found his front door open, several lights on, and Bradley asleep. Lisa’s crib was empty.
Her parents have maintained that someone broke into their home and snatched Lisa while the toddler slept.
Since then, investigators have worked 1,667 tips, including 500 baby sightings around the world. Police checked about 100 leads twice — just to be sure — and they shared their case file with national experts for advice.
Yet, nearly 12 months later, police and federal agents seem no closer to finding Lisa or establishing how she disappeared.
They say they are facing the same giant hurdle: They haven’t been able to sit down one-on-one with Bradley — the only adult in the home at the time Lisa vanished — since the first days of the investigation. She admitted she had been drinking that night, but has repeatedly said she had nothing to do with the disappearance.
“Police continue to have questions to which only she can provide answers,” police wrote in a press release issued Friday.
The cooperation of parents is vital to an investigation, said Robert Lowery, a senior executive with the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.
“I would just urge the parents to reconsider,” he said. “The final concern is finding the child and returning her home.”
Leads provided so far by Lisa’s family and their attorneys haven’t helped, police said.
The parents’ lawyer took exception to the tone of the police statement, insisting “our doors are open, the phone is open, they have our numbers and they can call.”
In an email statement, the couple asked for tips and thanked people for support.
“Every day we wake up hoping it will be the day she comes home to us,” their statement said. “Until that day happens, our family will continue to be incomplete without her.”
The initial force of more than 100 investigators has now dwindled to one detective and one federal agent who work tips along with other cases.
Police know one tip could crack things open. The passage of time, they say, can both help and hurt a case. Memories and physical evidence may degrade, but relationships and alliances among people withholding key information can also shift.
A $100,000 reward remains available to anyone with information that brings Lisa home.
Even if the situation appears bleak, Lowery said, people should keep an open mind.
“Someone out there knows what happened,” he said. “That child did not get out of that crib and walk away.”
Sgt. Sondra Zink, who was the lead investigator on the Baby Lisa case for nearly six months, remembers the wakeup call about 4:30 a.m. last Oct. 4 that started it all.
The first she heard was that a baby was missing in a possible custody dispute involving grandparents. The baby wasn’t believed to be in danger.
“Keep me updated,” she told the officer on the phone before she hopped in the shower to head into work early.
Before she could even dry off, she learned the grandparents didn’t have the baby.
Zink’s heart sank. This case was no longer routine. It was an Amber Alert.
“The full scope of what it turned into didn’t hit me until two days into the investigation,” she said.
The weather on a recent afternoon was picture perfect on North Lister. The crisp air was punctuated with the sound of children playing, young boys riding their bicycles up and down the street and a man mowing his yard.
Life here seems little different from other neighborhoods throughout the Northland.
Still, the reminders of a tragedy linger.
Fliers soliciting information about the missing child plaster street light poles. Large posters and signs are taped to the windows and to the front door of Irwins’ one-story, beige ranch home.
One of the first things Zink did at the scene was call the FBI. Together, they assembled a task force of core investigators by 6 a.m.
By lunch, they had set up a command post in a field not far from the Irwin home complete with a bus for the task force to use as an office, portable restrooms, a Salvation Army tent, mounted patrol officers, police dogs and all-terrain vehicles.
Inside the bus, Zink coordinated officers who were arriving by the dozen from area law enforcement agencies. Investigators were told to exhaust every lead, “whether it takes 10 minutes or 10 hours.”
Two civilians started a database to track leads. They also checked license plates associated with baby sightings and reports of sex offenders who lived in the area.
It was like a scene out of a movie, Zink said — assignments barked out and officers springing into action.
Did a police dog search here? Did someone talk to this neighbor?
“It was overwhelming but reassuring at the same time,” Zink said.
As hours ticked by with no sign of Lisa, Zink recalled statistics that show that in fatal child abductions, the child is usually killed within three hours. If Lisa was not found alive, her case would be handed over to homicide detectives. Zink asked for a homicide detective to be put on the task force, just in case. She knew it would be detrimental to try to hand over a complicated case that didn’t have a homicide detective involved from the start.
This week, Bradley pulled the family’s sport utility vehicle into the driveway. A screen decal of a poster featuring her missing daughter dominates the vehicle’s back window.
Bradley stepped out of the vehicle along with Lisa’s half brothers and the family dog. They retreated inside the home but quickly returned outside to sit on the front porch.
Moments later, the dog broke free from its handler and raced down the street. Children who had been gathered in a nearby yard quickly chased down the pet as Bradley walked up to them.
She thanked the children for their help and instructed her older son how to keep a tight grip on the leash to ensure the dog doesn’t run away again.
The case hit international status within 72 hours. Zink said that added layers of frustration and complexity.
The nonstop attention by local and national media provided no escape for investigators.
Although the coverage put Lisa’s picture in front of millions, it also proved to be a “huge hindrance” that muddied the waters, Zink said.
“We wasted a lot of time on tips,” she said, “that turned out to stem from something somebody heard on the news.”
Neighbors and those close to the family paint Bradley as prayerful and confident that Lisa will one day come home.
They say Lisa’s parents believe whoever took the girl either sold her or is raising her as their own.
“When I used to see her for the first few times, Debbie would cry every time she talked about Lisa,” said Dee Garrett, who lives across the street from Baby Lisa’s parents. “But now, she seems to be better. She seems to be excited when she says they are going to get Lisa back soon.”
Emotions remained high at the command post for weeks, Zink said.
“I can’t describe the intensity,” she said. “We all knew, ‘We gotta keep going.’ ”
Two detectives spent a week doing nothing but watching surveillance videos from city buses, red light cameras, businesses near the Irwin home and local big-box stores
“Do you know how many babies go through the checkout at Walmart in an hour?” Zink said.
The case was Zink’s last thought each night and first thought each morning.
Even in the first few days, Zink said there was a time where she believed they were “mere moments” away from recovering Lisa.
“Then, no. She’s not here,” Zink recalled with tears in her eyes.
A small group of neighbors have banded around Bradley. They hold a brief prayer vigil inside the Irwin home each month and counsel Bradley when worry overcomes her.
“It’s hard. She is grieving for her baby. She wants her back,” a neighbor said. “What keeps her going is the hope that her baby will be back at anytime.”
Meanwhile, neighbors have become more vigilant and cautious of strange vehicles that cruise through the neighborhood. They keep a watchful eye on their children, who know that a baby from their block went missing without a trace on a cool October night.
Bradley initially gave police an extended interview, but when she felt investigators continued to be accusatory, she told police she no longer wanted to talk to them.
Her attorneys criticized police on national television, alleging that detectives were abusive and focused too much on Bradley’s actions and behaviors. The accusations stung investigators.
“We wanted to say, ‘No! That’s not right,’ ” Zink said. “ ‘That’s not how it went down.’ But we knew it wasn’t in the best interest of the investigation or child.”
Allegations that police had tunnel-vision on Bradley also weren’t true, Zink said. She said investigators regularly brainstormed during their investigation, pretending the mother had a rock-solid alibi.
“If mom had an alibi, where would we go? What would we look at?” she said.
Bradley’s level of cooperation remains in dispute.
Her attorney, John Picerno, maintains that Bradley has been accessible to police and answered their questions.
“The last time we sat down, I didn’t say a word and they got to videotape it,” he said Friday. “They got to ask everything they wanted, so we are a little suspicious, as we have been all along, about why they want to isolate her.”
Bradley and Irwin have appeared on a variety of national television news and daytime talk shows. Yet they’ve declined interview requests from local reporters.
Picerno said Bradley and Irwin feel those interviews would be counterproductive.
A core group of investigators remained totally focused on Lisa’s case until about mid-March, when they started taking on other cases.
About that same time, Zink took a transfer to the department’s robbery unit. She didn’t want to leave Lisa’s case unresolved, but the daily deluge of child abuse, neglect and porn she encountered from work in the juvenile section had taken its toll over five years.
“For my own sanity, I had to step away,” she said, admitting that she felt guilty. “I felt like I was abandoning the ones (on the Baby Lisa case) who were still left dealing with it.”
Zink is proud of the way police and federal agents worked seamlessly together. But she has one regret.
“The bottom line is, no matter how good the investigation is, there’s still a baby missing and we don’t know how,” she said. “There’s no way to walk away and feel good about that.”
Zink said she hoped police will be able to find Lisa alive and well even if the odds don’t favor a cheery conclusion.
“But the happy ending where we found out what happened to her and the person is punished?” she said. “I won’t give up on that.”