When Ron and Iva Bradley got an e-mail from self-described soldier of fortune Frank Jones in the fall of 1999, it seemed like the answer to their prayers.
The Bradleys' daughter Amy had disappeared from a Caribbean cruise the previous March, when she was 23, and the family had recently heard from a witness that she was being held by armed Colombians on the Dutch island of Curacao.
Jones told the family he was a former U.S. Army Special Forces officer with a team of ex-Army Rangers and ex-Navy Seals who might be able to rescue Amy. "He told me that he'd put Amy on his own back and swim her out of there," said Iva Bradley.
Officials on the Dutch island of Curacao, where Amy disappeared, had told the family they could do nothing because there was no evidence of a crime, and an investigation by the FBI had made little progress. Jones seemed to offer the best hope of getting Amy out.
In the year since their daughter's disappearance, the Bradleys' high-profile campaign to find her — along with their offer of a $250,000 reward — had attracted scores of reports that led only to dead ends. But Jones seemed legitimate to them, and agreed to hire him to help recover Amy.
The Bradleys last saw their daughter in March 1998, when they took a cruise with her aboard the Royal Caribbean line's Rhapsody of the Seas. She vanished as the ship approached Curacao, and searches of the ship and the surrounding waters turned up no trace of her. The family is sure she did not commit suicide.
Daughter Said to be Held by Armed Colombians
Jones sent two of his men down to Curacao to check out the account given to the family by the witness, who was a cook named Judith Margaritha. Margaritha had told the family that Amy was being held by heavily armed Colombian guards in a housing complex protected with barbed wire. She also said that she regularly saw Amy shopping at a grocery store and working out at a gym, and that she was often with a man with long blond hair and tattoos all they way down one arm.
Margaritha also gave the family an accurate description of tattoos that Amy had, and hummed a lullaby that Iva Bradley used to sing to her daughter when she was a baby. The family was convinced she was telling the truth.
Jones sent the family a report saying that his men — whom he described as former Navy Seals — set up surveillance points at the locations Margaritha indicated and observed Amy in a "dark green SUV" driven by a captor with "long blond hair." The report said Amy was in a dangerous situation and under guard, and that Jones's men were forced to leave after a week on the island when they were "fired upon by an estimated 10 men."
Over the next few months, Jones told the family he sent more operatives to the island, and provided a series of reports on the latest sightings of their daughter. The family was terrified that Amy was in imminent danger of being executed by her captors.
Waiting for a Rescue
Then Jones finally told them it was time to attempt a rescue — and that he needed more money. When the family demanded proof that the woman Jones's men were tracking was their daughter, he sent them some photographs of her sitting on the beach with the blond-haired man. "When I got the pictures, I knew Amy was OK, and it was just a matter of time," remembers Iva Bradley, who recognized the tattoo on her daughter's ankle.
The Bradleys sent Jones more money, bringing the total amount he had been paid to $210,000 — some $24,000 from their own pocket, plus $186,000 from a fund set up for Amy's search by the Nation's Missing Children Organization.
The family flew down to Florida and waited in a hotel, with a private jet provided by Ron's employer, an insurance company, standing by. "We sat in that hotel for a week, thinking any minute we were going to get a phone call," Iva Bradley told Primetime.
House of Cards
Days went by, and the call never came. Down in Curacao, one of Jones's men, former Army Special Forces sniper Tim Buckholtz, began to wonder whether Jones was telling the family the truth. Buckholtz was assigned to watch the house where Amy was supposedly being held, but never saw any sign of her. Instead, he discovered that the residents of the house were ordinary people, above suspicion. When Buckholtz later overheard Jones tell the Bradleys from a bar that his "people" were watching the house at that very moment, he realized, "This is a lie, and I know it's a lie," he told Primetime.
Another member of Jones's team, Jono Senk, told Primetime that the photographs supposedly showing Amy on the beach with her blond-haired captor were in fact taken by Jones on a beach in Pensacola, Fla. Senk said he posed as the "captor," wearing a blond wig, while the woman in the picture was an acquaintance of Jones.
Buckholtz contacted the Bradleys, and the game was up.
It turned out that Jones had never served in the Special Forces, and had made up the whole story about his men sighting Amy on the island. In February 2002, federal prosecutors in Richmond charged him with defrauding the Bradleys of $24,444 and the Nation's Missing Children Organization of $186,416. Jones pleaded guilty to mail fraud in April, and was sentenced to five years in prison and ordered to repay the money.
Margaritha, the cook who claimed to have seen Amy numerous times, was also a fraud, according to her son, Giovanni Margaritha, who works at a security firm in Curacao. "It's a lie. It's just using Amy's mother as a way of stealing," he told Primetime. Judith Margaritha denied lying to the Bradleys, but said, "Maybe I'm a bad person, but with all my badness, I want Mrs. Bradley really to find her girl." The Bradleys say they paid the cook a total of about $8,000 for her information.
'What Else Do You Do?'
Jones and Margaritha were not the first people the Bradleys thought took advantage of them by claiming to have information about their daughter. But the Bradleys say they had no choice but to trust anyone who seemed to have credible information.
"If there's a chance — I mean, what else do you do?," Ron Bradley says. "If it was your child, what would you do? So I guess we took a chance. And I guess we lost."
If anyone has information about Amy Bradley, they can contact their nearest FBI office or her family's Web site.
This report originally aired on Primetime on Dec. 19, 2002.