Wilmington man charged in missing woman’s murder scheduled for court

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James Opelton Bradley
James Opelton Bradley

A man charged with first-degree murder in connection with a missing Wilmington woman, whose body has not been found but authorities presume to be dead, is scheduled to appear in court on Monday.

James Opelton Bradley, 52, of Flint Drive in Wilmington, was arrested April 29, 2014, in the death of 53-year-old Shannon Rippy Vannewkirk. The case is scheduled for an administrative session in New Hanover Court Superior Court.

Vannewkirk, who was reported missing on April 7, 2014, was last seen at the Husk restaurant in downtown Wilmington on April 5, 2014.

In April 2014, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous initially reported finding a body believed to be Vannewkirk in a shallow grave near Hoover Road in Hampstead. But after receiving an autopsy report, the police department reported the body was 34-year-old Elisha Marie Tucker, a Leland woman reported missing in October 2013.

Investigators have opened a second homicide investigation into Tucker’s death. Bradley has not been charged in Tucker’s death, but remains a person of interest, according to Evangelous.

District Judge Sandra Ray determined there was “more than enough probable cause” for the State to proceed with its case against Bradley during a hearing in May 2014, just after the body found in Pender County was determined to be Tucker.

A New Hanover County grand jury returned a true bill of indictment against Bradley in the first-degree murder of Vannewkirk on September 2, 2014.

Bradley’s probable cause hearing

In the two-day probable cause hearing, the judge heard arguments from District Attorney Ben David and two capital defenders appointed to defend Bradley in the first-degree murder case.

“Vannewkirk is missing but she is, in fact, deceased,” David said as he explained to the judge that her disappearance was not voluntary.

Roberta Lewis, Vannewkirk’s mother, said in court she had planned to celebrate her daughter’s birthday April 6, but never heard from her. When Lewis could not find her daughter at her home on Fifth Avenue in downtown Wilmington, she filed a missing person report with the Wilmington Police Department.

“I would hope to God she would be alive somewhere,” Lewis said in the hearing. “She would have called. Something happened.”

Steve Mott, owner of Mott Landscaping and Construction, hired Vannewkirk about 10 years ago. She was working on the company’s taxes during the time of her disappearance. The two also had an on-and-off romantic relationship during that time period, though Mott said the relationship started before her employment.

“I spoke with her earlier in the day and she was excited about her birthday,” Mott said.

Mott later called Vannewkirk but there was no answer.

Mott said Bradley helped maintain a plot of land off Hoover Road in Hampstead–the same plot of land where Tucker’s body was found.

Murder conviction

Bradley was convicted of first-degree murder in Cumberland County on Jan. 22, 1990, for an offense that occurred on June 9, 1988.

According to a June 1988 Fayetteville Observer article, Cumberland County sheriff’s deputies reported that 8-year-old Alisa Ivy Gibson was beaten and strangled before her body was left in a dumpster and found days later in a landfill.

Bradley, who was 25 at the time of Gibson’s death, was convicted of first-degree murder on Jan. 22, 1990.

He was released from prison on Feb. 11, 2013, under the Fair Sentencing Law, which governed sentencing and parole in North Carolina from July 1, 1981, until Sept. 30, 1994, according to the N.C. Post-Release Supervision and Parole Commission. On Oct. 1, 1994, The Structured Sentencing Act took effect in North Carolina, eliminating parole as it previously existed under the Fair Sentencing Law guidelines.

Along with the first-degree murder charge, Bradley is also faces a parole violation and remains in custody at the New Hanover County jail without bond.

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Christina Haley is a crime and courts reporter for Port City Daily. Reach her at (910) 772-6337 or christina.h@portcitydaily.com.