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Crimes of the Cape Fear: Serial killer James Bradley kills two Wilmington women

Bradley had just been released after serving prison term for murdering 8-year-old step-daughter
Published: Oct. 14, 2021 at 11:29 AM EDT
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WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - You hear about serial killers in the movies. But most of us are fortunate enough never to have come face-to-face with one in real life. Sadly, Shannon Rippy Van Newkirk and Elisha Tucker suffered that very misfortune. Their lives were cut short by James Bradley, who in 2013 was released from prison in Wilmington after serving time for the murder of his own 8-year-old step daughter.

“I called it the Bermuda triangle of death where women go missing and he is the common theme in all of those cases,” District Attorney Ben David said of prosecuting Bradley. “He is someone who methodically hunts people and kills them in a ritualistic and serial way.”

A history of violence

In 1988, Bradley reported that his step-daughter, Ivy Gibbs, had been kidnapped from her bus stop in Fayetteville. Detectives would eventually determine Bradley staged the bus stop to make it look Ivy had struggled before being abducted. But two days after she disappeared, Bradley confessed to killing her. He told investigators he was home sick, and Ivy woke him up by turning the volume on the television too loud. He said he snapped and choked her. After realizing she was dead, Bradley tried to cover up what he had done by putting her body in a trash bag and taking it to the county dump.

During his 25 years behind bars for that crime, Bradley wrote two short stories. One is called “The Beast Within,” and the other is called “Serial Killer.” They are disturbing but gripping stories in which Bradley uses advanced vocabulary to describe his characters brutally killing women in sexually-charged situations.

“He sought copyright protection. He wanted to get them published and they’re actually riveting stories and unfortunately we think that... he was writing about things that...kind of foreshadowing what he was going to do when he got out in our view,” David explained.

While those stories are believed to be fictional, they would play an important role in Bradley’s future murder trials as prosecutors tried to give jurors an inside look at Bradley’s mind. Bradley knew the stories could be damning, and warned his attorneys to remove them from his apartment after he was arrested, but by then, it was too late. They were in the hands of prosecutors.

Another disappearance

In April 2014, Shannon Rippy Van Newkirk was a no-show for her own birthday celebration. Her mother and aunt came to her Wilmington apartment to pick her up for lunch, but she didn’t answer. Van Newkirk, who was set to turn 54 that day, didn’t answer her phone when her family tried to reach her. After 24 hours passed with no word from her, Van Newkirk’s family contacted the Wilmington Police Department to file a missing persons report.

Investigators tried to ping Van Newkirk’s phone, but it had either been turned off or destroyed. So, they started looking through her phone records instead.

“When we read those phone records, there were some alarming things. One thing was that there were many calls from loved ones before and after her disappearance. For instance, her mother, her brother, her aunt were continuing to call throughout the morning and days following to see if she would pick up. There was one phone [number] that we were particularly interested in: a number that we hadn’t recognized before that called her 17 times in the three days leading up to her disappearance, and stopped immediately at the time she went missing,” David said of the first break in the investigation.

That phone number belonged to James Bradley, Van Newkirk’s friend and co-worker at Mott’s Landscaping. Investigators would later learn that Bradley had expressed a romantic interest in Van Newkirk, but she wasn’t interested.

Detectives immediately started questioning Bradley, who said he had seen Van Newkirk a couple of days before she went missing, but didn’t know anything about her disappearance. As they continued to try to find her, they spotted Van Newkirk and Bradley together on a store’s surveillance camera video taken just before she disappeared. So they knew Bradley was lying. That, combined with Bradley’s concerning criminal record and his suspicious cell phone record, made him their prime suspect.

Crews began to search areas that they knew Bradley had recently visited for his Landscaping job. After 3 weeks of intense search efforts, they made a grim discovery in a field in Hampstead.

“In a shallow grave, double wrapped in trash bags just like Ivy Gibson had been, there was a decomposing body of a woman who authorities of course believed was Shannon Rippy Van Newkirk,” David recalled.

Bradley was arrested for Van Newkirk’s murder. And a Wilmington Police detective traveled to Raleigh for the autopsy. That’s where they made another shocking discovery: the body they’d found wasn’t Van Newkirk. It was Elisha Tucker, another Wilmington woman who’d disappeared seven months earlier.

A challenging case

“So now I want you to consider what we had,” David said of the bizarre scenario. “We had a body without a murder charge and a murder charge without a body.”

Detectives would eventually link Bradley to Tucker’s murder as well. He’d meticulously cleaned his truck a number of times since her death, but what he didn’t account for was her blood seeping through the vehicle’s carpet and pooling on the floorboard underneath. When investigators pulled back the carpet, they found enough of Tucker’s blood to get a DNA hit, and charged Bradley with killing her, too.

Even without a body, David was able to secure a second-degree murder conviction against Bradley for Van Newkirk’s death, thanks to the overwhelming circumstantial evidence. Later, he took Bradley to trial for first-degree murder in Tucker’s death. The case was heinous enough to qualify for the death penalty, but David said he was willing to negotiate the sentence, because authorities still needed something from Bradley.

“I offered James Bradley to plead guilty and take life without parole for both murders if he would do one thing for us. And that is take us to the body of Shannon Rippy Van Newkirk. And he refused. And that’s because that was the one thing he still had power over people on the outside, to cause the misery and grief. And that’s evil,” David said.

Modus Operandi

Authorities believe that Bradley would have continued to kill women had he not been arrested following Van Newkirk’s disappearance. While Van Newkirk’s situation was different in that Bradley wanted a romantic relationship with her and she rebuffed him, he had a pattern of behavior with women he was sexually involved with.

“James Bradley’s modus operandi, MO, was to find women who generally speaking were drug-addicted. He would claim to be their knight in shining armor,” David explained. “There are... three women we know who were prostituting themselves who James Bradley was with. One who’s in the ground, two others who would’ve been if not for the fact that he was arrested.”

“Other women testified under what’s called ‘other crimes evidence’ that he would take them to remote areas for the purposes of engaging in sexual activity, and actually one of the young women who was prostituting herself was taken to that very field up in Hampstead a couple of months before Elisha went missing, and said she got a bad feeling and asked to leave,” David added.

After Bradley turned down the plea offer, David pursued the death penalty against him in Tucker’s murder trial. However, to secure that sentence, the jury must vote unanimously for the death penalty. The jury in this sentencing hearing voted 11-1 in favor of the death penalty, so Bradley is serving the rest of his life behind bars. His convictions were recently upheld by the North Carolina Court of Appeals.

The search continues for Shannon Rippy Van Newkirk

To this day, Van Newkirk’s body has never been found.

“It’s something you think about most every day,” Van Newkirk’s brother, Shawn Dayton, told WECT. “My mother, almost every time I see her asks me, ‘Do we know what happened to Shannon? Do we know where Shannon is?’ And it’s the hardest thing saying, ‘No. we don’t.’ I think it would just give us some closure if we could find her. You know, just know finally what happened. Just to have some understanding.”

Dayton describes his older sister as full of life. She was an independent thinker who had her own opinions she was happy to share with others. He lives just across the state line in South Carolina, and said he had no idea how many friends his sister had until he came up to search for her and saw people come out of the woodwork to help.

“Every day you wonder: Is someone going to find her today? Is somebody going to be out hunting and trip over her? You just don’t know,” he said of the continued pain his family faces more than seven years after Shannon disappeared.

“I don’t see her at Christmas. Or Easter. Whenever I go to Wilmington I would pop in and have lunch with her. And I just don’t see her. And to know this man took that away.... this guy doesn’t care about anybody but himself.... I would hope that he would come forward [and tell us where she is], but he’s a monster, and you can’t get into his mind.”

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