New Hanover County prosecutors this week are trying to persuade a Superior Court judge to consider accused murderer James Opelton Bradley’s past – both verified and suspected – in an evidence hearing ahead of Bradley’s trial.
Bradley, who is 53, has been charged with first-degree murder in the presumed death of 52-year-old Shannon Rippy Vannewkirk, who has been missing from Wilmington since April 2014.
District Attorney Ben David wants Superior Court Judge Paul Jones to allow prosecutors to bring up Bradley’s 1990 murder conviction for the 1988 strangulation death of his 8-year-old stepdaughter. Bradley was released from prison in February 2013.
David also wants the judge to allow as evidence the suspicious death of 34-year-old Elisha Marie Tucker. Investigators have called Bradley a “person of interest” in that case but have not charged him. A few weeks after Vannewkirk’s disappearance, Tucker’s body was found bound and wrapped in trash bags in a shallow grave near Hoover Road in Hampstead. Authorities believed they’d found Vannewkirk, but an autopsy revealed it to be Tucker, who’d been missing since October 2013.
Bradley’s attorney, capital public defender Rick Miller, objected to the evidence and questioned its relevance.
“There’s no foundation to this testimony. What we are dealing with here is a conviction of the defendant of…the murder of an 8-year-old child. And the case that he’s presently charged with is an adult female person,” Miller said. “I can’t understand how there can be any comparison, any similarity to the case at hand.”
David said the state will “link-up” the relevancy as all the evidence is revealed during the hearing.
The judge allowed the testimony, with the sheriff’s deputy who investigated Bradley’s stepdaughter’s disappearance nearly 30 years ago telling the court the girl had initially been reported as kidnapped. Bradley later confessed he had choked the girl with a sock, then wrapped her body in two trash bags before tossing her body into a Dumpster. Investigators later found the girl’s body in a landfill.
David argued the girl’s body was disposed of in the same way as Tucker’s, and added Bradley’s “general uncooperative nature with authorities” was “similar” to his past behavior.
Despite Miller’s repeated objections on grounds of relevance, the judge allowed the state to continue with its testimony from three other witnesses in the case: a prostitute who said Bradley had once hired her, and two of Vannewkirk’s family members, who testified they believe she is dead.
The state will continue to present testimony from other witnesses this week.