25 years later: the Tracey Schoettlin case

Published: Nov. 15, 2011 at 1:15 PM CST|Updated: Nov. 17, 2011 at 2:48 PM CST
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Beth Shelburne examines the 1986 murder of Tracey Schoettlin and how the search for her killer...
Beth Shelburne examines the 1986 murder of Tracey Schoettlin and how the search for her killer became one of the biggest criminal investigations in Jefferson County history.

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - In July 1986, the body of a young woman was found on the banks of the Cahaba River in Jefferson County.  She had been beaten, stabbed and sexually mutilated.  Her battered body, naked except for knee-high stockings, was found under a bridge near the River Run shopping center, stabbed 19 times and her genitals were mutilated.

Her name was Tracey Schoettlin and she wanted to be a lawyer.  She worked as a waitress on Southside and was set to begin law school at Samford.  She would never get that chance.

"You know, she was fun," her brother, Carl Schoettlin said.  "She was fun.  I mean, I know my kids would like her.  She had a great sense of humor... extremely smart, definitely would have been a lawyer."

That began one of the biggest criminal investigations in Jefferson County history and a story that grew more shocking and disturbing with each new development.  Who would kill this beautiful young woman who didn't have an enemy in the world?  

Brian Pia was a reporter for WBRC at the time.

"There were questions of, 'do we have a serial killer?  When is the next murder going to happen?'" Pia said. "It really created an image problem for Birmingham.  People were very worried about going to Birmingham's Southside."

Tracey had worked as a waitress in a Southside restaurant and had left work that hot, summer night, but never came home. Carl Schoettlin, her brother, was 19 years old at the time.

"That was just real uncommon of Tracy," Carl said. "My mother was real worried about it."

He remembers deputies coming to the door and his father leaving to identify the body.

"I think my mother just dropped to the floor," Carl said.  "It just devastated her, and, it did until the day she died."

Initially, investigators had very little evidence to go on. They found Tracey's black Monte Carlo abandoned near UAB, two oil cans nearby, and then a few days later, a witness told investigators he saw Tracey around 11:40 the night she disappeared at a convenience store on Highland Avenue as an unidentified man sat in a car outside.

The rest was a frightening mystery until four months later when a young man named Tommy Bradley of Center Point brought himself to investigators with what he said were "visions from God" about the killer.  That led to a series of conversations between Bradley and investigators, who said Bradley knew things only the killer could know.  

Many of those conversations were recorded on audio tape, where Bradley describes his visions of the killer.

"He's seen girls that he thought were attractive enough to go out with even if he had to kill 'em before. He's had that thought but he hasn't been willing to admit he thought that thought and actually had the willingness to kill himself inside him before.  He's never been a killer to himself before.  He is now and he would kill simply for the fact that he's done it before and he realizes that he can do it and that he can get away with that thought inside of himself that he has killed someone."

Investigators talked with Bradley for months. During one conversation, he prays, speaking in tongues.

"I'm just gonna pray in the spirit right now..... (speaks in tongues...)'

He also gave graphic details about the murder and Tracey Schoettlin's final terrifying moments.

"She knew she was being killed when that, you know, when that knife started in her the third time and she... she uttered her last conscious, willful, you know, volitional, thoughts to God and towards herself and towards her friends and mother at that time.  And that was that I don't know what's happening to me, but I want y'all, I want y'all to find this guy."

Bradley also talked about Tracey's scorched driver's license. Someone had found it and turned it in, but that information was never released publicly, yet Bradley talked about it with investigator, Sgt. Eddie White:

EW: "there's something else about her license...
TB: "oh, OK.  He might have burned it, he might have melted it with a cigarette lighter."
EW: "melted her license?"
TB: "He didn't want anybody to find that."  
EW: "Why not?"  
TB: "Because he thought that it was a clue to who she was.  He thought it would be a clue to who she was and it would enable them quicker to find him."

Bradley was eventually arrested and charged with capital murder.  He was also diagnosed as a schizophrenic, but the state found him competent to stand trial.

Circuit Judge Theresa Pulliam was a young prosecutor in the District Attorney's office at the time and helped prosecute the case.

"I remember having a tremendous burden on my shoulder," Pulliam said.

Prosecutors believed Bradley helped Schoettlin when her car broke down in Southside and, at some point, offered to give her a ride home. That never happened. Instead, they believe Bradley, a man they say was fascinated with witchcraft and the devil, killed her out of lust and revenge against his ex-wife. They even connected a single piece of glitter found on Tracey's leg to Bradley's practice of witchcraft and put his ex-wife on the stand, who testified Bradley liked blond-haired blue-eyed girls and liked a lot of sex.

Defense attorneys tried to make the case Bradley was insane and that investigators had used religion to manipulate Bradley.

In the end, the jury deliberated four hours before returning a guilty verdict, sentencing him to life in prison.

Nearly 23 years later, the victim's brother says the conviction brought his parents little relief.

"The damage was done to my parents," Carl said. "It wouldn't have mattered if they found him and he was dead. It wouldn't have mattered if they electrocuted him or anything, the damage was already done to my parents."

Carl says he's been able to move on, but it has not been easy. His parents were so devastated, he had to arrange Tracey's funeral.

"I was playing baseball at Samford, you know, they didn't come to games.  I still lived at home but it was a ghost town when I came home."

Carl's and Tracey's parents have both since died. Carl's wife, Karen, remembers the pain.

"There was just always that constant tension that... The sorrow, even when we got married, the happy occasion that it was, there was that sadness you know, hanging around in the background, Tracy should be here.  And I felt it in his parents on a daily basis."

Tommy Bradley lost all of his court appeals and, to this day, is still serving his life sentence at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility in Bessemer. He declined our request for an interview for this story.

His family also refused our request for an interview, though they did release a statement:

"We never believed Tommy was responsible for Ms. Schoettlin's murder and despite the judge's denial of their first request, they're continuing to pursue legal options since DNA testing has not been performed on any evidence in the case."

In October 2011, the family filed a motion asking for DNA testing on what they say was evidence from the crime scene. The motion did not cite any direct evidence, no forensic evidence, and no eyewitness testimony connected Bradley to the crime.

Circuit Judge Alfred Bahakal denied the motion.

In the statement to FOX6, Bradley's family also expressed concern for Tommy.

"We remain concerned about Tommy's mental and physical condition. We had hoped that he could have been treated in a psychiatric facility during these last 25 years, but that has not been the case."

In 1992, Bradley's father filed a complaint about Bradley's treatment in prison. He described his son in an "agitated state, undressed and without medication." On another visit, he said his son was "bleeding from being shaved, pale, and trembling uncontrollably."

Bradley was also the lead plaintiff in a class-action lawsuit by the Southern Poverty Law Center on behalf of severely mentally ill inmates in Alabama. That case was settled and led to major changes, including a 300 percent increase mental health staffing at state prisons, increased out-of-cell time for inmates, and more services for inmates, such as psychiatric treatment and work opportunities.

The Bradley family ended their statement to FOX6 saying this:

"Certainly, an irrepreable tragedy has occurred in both the Schoettlin and Bradley families."

Tracey's brother agrees.

"I feel bad for them," Carl said. "I'd hate to be in their shoes.  I'd hate to be in my shoes."

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