Hearing may shed light on murder charge; alleged victim hasn’t been found

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James Opelton Bradley
James Opelton Bradley

A hearing is scheduled this week in the case of a Wilmington man charged with first-degree murder in connection with a woman who has been missing since April 2014 and is presumed dead by local authorities.

James Opelton Bradley, 53, of Wilmington, is scheduled to appear in New Hanover County Superior Court Monday morning for an evidence hearing, according to Samantha Dooies, assistant to District Attorney Ben David. Bradley faces a single charge of first-degree murder in the presumed death of 52-year-old Shannon Rippy Vannewkirk. He was scheduled for trial in March, but the case has been continued.

Vannewkirk, who was reported missing on April 7, 2014, was last seen at the Husk restaurant in downtown Wilmington on April 5. Wilmington detectives have not been able to locate Vannewkirk’s body, but authorities presume her dead.

A New Hanover County grand jury indicted Bradley Sept. 2, 2014 on the first-degree murder charge.

In April 2014, Wilmington Police Chief Ralph Evangelous initially reported a body believed to be Vannewkirk was found in a shallow grave near Hoover Road in Hampstead. But following an autopsy report, the police department reported the body was that of 34-year-old Elisha Marie Tucker, who disappeared from the Wilmington area in October 2013.

Investigators have opened a second homicide investigation into Tucker’s death. Bradley has not been charged in Tucker’s death, but authorities say he remains a person of interest in the case.

Despite unknown whereabouts of the alleged victim Vannewkirk, District Judge Sandra Ray ruled in May 2014 the state had “more than enough probable cause” to proceed with its murder charge against Bradley, a paroled murderer.

Bradley was previously 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 and the girl’s stepfather, was convicted of first-degree murder on Jan. 22, 1990. He was sentenced to life.

But Bradley 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.

Bradley’s hearing is scheduled to begin late Monday morning and could last several days, Dooies said. District Attorney Ben David and Assistant District Attorney Barrett Temple are prosecuting for the state. Bradley is being represented by defense attorney Rick Miller, who was appointed to the case through the N.C. Capital Public Defender’s Office.

Bradley is being held at the New Hanover County Jail without bond.

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