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Part III

Amy Interrupted

The Bradleys checked into The Otra Banda, a rundown casino hotel on Curacao, late Tuesday afternoon. From the room, they contacted the U.S. Embassy and family members, whom they had been in touch with throughout the day, asking them to call authorities for help. (Mary Kristensen, Iva's younger sister, recalls that Iva could only muster a pained squeak on the phone. Ron had to take over.)

At 6:30 p.m., Ron, Iva and Brad stood at the window of their hotel room, overlooking the canal, watching Rhapsody of the Seas leave. They were close enough to throw a stone and hit it. Their stateroom was the only one that was dark.

"It was extremely difficult for us," Iva says, her voice breaking. "That ship left as scheduled, on time, and there we stood watching."

The family remembers it as the worst night of their lives. All three huddled together on the room's sole king-size bed, crying. Ron vomited blood he was so upset.

At 6 a.m. on Wednesday, 24 hours after Amy disappeared, authorities on Curacao began the first full day of sea-and-air searches for Amy. Three helicopters, a British warship, a low-flying radar plane and numerous cargo ships, tugboats and fishing boats scoured the sea and coast for the next two days, finding no sign of her.

With the help of Iva's brother John, who had contacted the FBI, and McCord, who chartered a plane, the Bradleys flew to St. Martin to intercept the Rhapsody of the Seas at its next port of call. At 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, before the first passengers left the Rhapsody, the Bradleys boarded a ferry and demanded a meeting with the captain.

Upon their return to the Rhapsody, the Bradleys and McCord met in a conference room with the captain, the chief security officer, and other Royal Caribbean officials. As it turns out, the ship was in foreign waters and chartered in another nation, so the family had to ask permission for the FBI to be allowed to investigate.

"My personal feeling is they felt they'd never see us again and we were the last people they wanted to see," Iva says.

The cruise ship officers agreed to let two FBI agents, casually dressed in jeans and golf shirts, onboard to investigate. The agents first interviewed each of the Bradleys separately and asked what happened. (The Bradleys were all also polygraphed by the FBI upon returning home and were quickly eliminated as suspects, their lawyer says.)

More than 24 hours later, Royal Caribbean employees began distributing Amy's photo, while still allowing passengers on and off the boat. The Bradleys asked that guards be posted on the pool deck to look for her but they allege it wasn't done. (Without getting into specifics, Royal Caribbean says they acted "appropriately." They also say they conducted another search with dogs a day later, a fact the Bradleys dispute, saying it was the FBI who brought in dogs. Either way, it also came up blank.)

Feeling helpless, the Bradleys exited the ship again Friday, March 27, in St. Thomas while the FBI investigated. McCord, the Illinois Mutual CEO, chartered a private Lear jet for the family to fly from St. Thomas back to Richmond. They left on March 28, the same day that Rhapsody of the Seas returned to the docks at San Juan, and the same day, unbeknownst to the Bradleys, that the witness claimed to see Amy there. It had been four days since her father saw her sitting in the lounge chair on the cabin balcony.

"None of us wanted to leave," Iva Bradley recalls, crying. "That's one of the most single difficult things ... I don't really have words to describe what it was like to leave, as I flew over the island and I didn't have Amy beside me."

On the buffet in Mary Kristensen's living room, beside a photo of Mary and Iva and their brothers and parents beaming happily while on a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth II in 1969, is a snapshot of Amy Bradley sitting on the sofa in her grandmother's house.

On the end table in the photo is a community newspaper. Eerily, the headline on the paper reads, "Solve It."

"Every day we rack our brains. Where was she, who did she talk to? I started asking questions from the minute she was missing," Kristensen says. "I pray for her. I pray for her every day."

While she's talking in her Chesterfield County home, the phone rings. Kristensen answers but no one is on the line. She keeps the phone close by for the rest of the interview. "When something like that happens, I still believe at any minute I can get a call from her," Kristensen says in a far-off voice.

Back at the house where the Bradley family has lived for the last 18 years, in a room decorated with sports trophies and family photos, is an enterprise that occupies the Bradleys 24 hours a day: the search for Amy.

The first thing you learn when you spend any time with Iva Bradley is to use the present tense when talking about Amy. She is almost 25. She is coming home.

Though the Bradleys chose to close up Amy's apartment, they have kept her bedroom at home waiting for her. An electric candle has burned in a window of the house since they got back to Richmond. Amy's red Miata is parked in the driveway with a new license plate — "WEM1SSU."

On May 12, 1998, Amy's 24th birthday, her family and friends gathered at the Bradley house for a party. The gifts are waiting in her room for her return; the cake is frozen. Amy's grandmother, Ruth Noblin, still brings her only granddaughter gifts when she goes on trips.

On any given day, you can find a frisky white bull dog romping around their immaculately tended back yard, chomping on a deflated basketball. That's Bailey, Amy's dog.

Reminders are everywhere. Over the fireplace is a pencil sketch of Amy and her dad. She had it done by a local artist as a surprise for her dad just months before the cruise.

On the pillars of the Bradleys' front porch are tied five fresh and vibrant yellow ribbons. More are wrapped around the trees in the front yard. In the beginning, yellow ribbons were tied on trees around the neighborhood in solidarity. Over the last 13 months, many have quietly disappeared.

On the wall in the Bradleys' command center is a framed poster that hung in the den of Amy's apartment before the family moved Amy's things back to the house a few months after her disappearance. A scene of a stream rushing through jagged rocks, it reads, "Perseverance — In the confrontation between the stream and the rock, the stream always wins ... not through strength, but through persistence."

It could be Iva's mantra. She wears a yellow ribbon and a tiny gold angel every day as a constant reminder of her mission. From sunup to late at night, she works the phones and replies to e-mails, following up leads and strategizing with the family's small inner circle of close friends and advisers.

The ordeal has changed the Bradley family. Iva and Ron always look tired. Brad transferred from GMU to Virginia Commonwealth University and moved back home. Though Ron won the Illinois Mutual trip again this year, they didn't go. (It's a trip to San Francisco. The company has sworn off cruises since Amy's disappearance.) It was too soon and they didn't want to see the same crowd they last saw during the most horrible week of their lives.

As the months go on, at the point when many parents might make the heart-breaking decision to grieve, the Bradleys won't give in. They note the whispers about a thriving white-slavery trade in the Caribbean. They were just 30 miles from Venezuela when Amy disappeared and South America has the highest rate of kidnappings and abductions in the world.

Some cruise-industry critics raise questions about company hiring practices and safety of passengers. According to an MSNBC news report last year, crimes on the high seas don't have to be reported or documented since ships are often registered with foreign nations such as Liberia. Yet crime does happen onboard. In an August 1998 federal criminal trial, for example, a woman claimed she had been raped by a crew member while on another Royal Caribbean cruise. The defendant in that case was found not guilty, however, after being deported from Italy.

The cruise industry maintains crime on their ships is far less than what it is on American soil.

Royal Caribbean spokesman Rich Steck says he finds it "rather hard to believe" that Amy could be held against her will on a cruise ship for four days and be spirited off the ship while everyone was looking for her. His company believes there is a more down-to-earth explanation for Amy's disappearance, he says, adding that the cruise line "regrets" that the Bradleys are directing their grief at Royal Caribbean.

Steck says his company can't comment on specifics of the lawsuit because it hasn't been served yet (a fact the Bradleys' lawyers dispute), but he offers the possibilities that Amy jumped or was pushed overboard.

He says the FBI told Royal Caribbean that a table with Amy's footprints on it was found pushed against the railings with Amy's shoes atop it. He also says that Amy was heard to say to someone onboard that a great way to get attention would be to jump overboard and swim to shore.

Iva Bradley says Steck's statement about the table is a lie. The FBI has told her that Amy's footprints were never found on it, she says. Furthermore, the Bradley family all say the table was actually three feet from the railing. An FBI spokesperson denied that any representative of the FBI would have told Royal Caribbean anything about evidence in the case, though they wouldn't confirm that Amy's footprints were not found on the table. (Questioned later, Steck says he "may have leapt to a conclusion." He maintains that the FBI told the cruise line a footprint was found on the table but says he's not sure if it was Amy's.)

The Bradleys are adamant that Amy didn't jump. She wasn't suicidal and she wasn't stupid, they say, and she was afraid of the ocean. As for any shoes being left in the room or on the balcony, Amy packed at least 10 pair, they say, and they're not sure which are missing.

Hall, one of the family's lawyers, characterizes some of the statements coming out of the Royal Caribbean camp as "nasty." The lawsuit alleges that Royal Caribbean employees and representatives defamed Ron and Brad Bradley by circulating rumors that they were involved in Amy's disappearance or murder, once during an interview on MSNBC.

The Bradleys and their lawyers angrily deny that Ron or Brad had anything to do with it, and steadfastly claim that Royal Caribbean acted negligently. In court, Hall says, they intend to produce evidence showing that a Royal Caribbean crew member was missing on another vessel months before Amy's disappearance and the response was entirely different. All the stops were pulled out to find the missing woman though she, too, hasn't been found, Hall says.

As their search to find Amy and disprove Royal Caribbean's "overboard" theory goes on, however, evidence remains elusive. Royal Caribbean says none of its 40 video monitors that night were linked to videotape and none of the guards recalls seeing Amy. There are electronic records of Amy using her key card to enter the room at 3:40 a.m. Tuesday but, her brother Brad says, "because the [ship's] lock-link [system] does not record when a passenger exits the room, there is no record of what time Amy left the room."

She had her driver's license in her pocket and it could have conceivably been used to clear her through U.S. Customs in San Juan, but the exit records at U.S. Customs for Rhapsody of the Seas passengers for March 28th are missing, according to the Bradley lawyers, who tried to get them through a federal Freedom of Information Act request.

None of it deters the Bradleys. They cling to their belief that somebody saw Amy, wanted her, took her and still has her.

"I feel Amy. I can't express it any other way. Sometimes I'm washed with her," Iva Bradley says. "She is a very strong person. Anybody who plays athletics at the college level has a certain amount of determination and stick-to-it-iveness. She would be capable of playing along until she could make a friend or make a break. She's not a little sissy or a wimp."

But as the months go on, it requires a faith that would daunt even the most devoted parent.

"Anybody who has a child will understand," Iva continues, her voice resolute, though tears streak her face. "We will look for her until we find her. The last thing on our minds before we go to bed is What are we going to do tomorrow? I know she's working to get home to us. We have a lot of faith in God and we know God wants it to be four of us, not three of us."

If you want to contribute money to the search for Amy Bradley, you can write to FIND AMY BRADLEY FUND c/o The Community Bank, P.O. Box 2166, Petersburg, VA 23804.

To e-mail Richard Foster click here