Volume 7, Number 3, 1998

Homicide revisited

"I miss her terribly. She took my heart with her. I really, really loved her, but I know I can't have her back. Thank God, this case has finally been solved, so that we were all able to come to a sense of closure."

-Georgia Houle, a college professor, describing the closing of the 1968 case involving the murder of her 19-year-old sister, Anne LeSourd Bradley.

For Maryland prosecutorial investigator David Cordle, AS '79, solving this nearly 30-year-old murder was just part of a day's work.

It happened on a park bench-an ordinary, wooden bench that still stands at the edge of State Circle, only a block from the Maryland Governor's Mansion in downtown Annapolis.

Flanked by several elegant-looking white oak trees, State Circle is a tiny, downtown park that adjoins the Maryland Capitol. The grass is neatly clipped; flowers bloom in nearby beds.

It was 2 a.m. when Annie Bradley-a 19-year-old college student from Brookline, Mass., an upperclass Boston suburb-sat down on the bench to eat a pizza she'd just bought at the Colonial Kitchen restaurant, located about a block away.

The pizza was topped with slices of pepperoni, and Bradley shouldn't have been eating it-at least not there. Once again, the motorcycle-riding and poetry-reading college sophomore had sneaked out of her dorm room at St. John's College to enjoy a late-night adventure.

Miss Bradley was ignoring the 1:30 a.m. curfew at the tiny liberal arts college, where she was studying the Great Books and participating enthusiastically in the endless round of teach-ins, protests and demonstrations spawned by the Vietnam War.

Now, the wind rose for a moment, rattling the oak branches above State Circle, and a few drops of rain splattered against the pizza box. Miss Bradley looked up to discover that a stranger was standing beside her bench. He held a dark, metal object in his hand.

It was a .38 caliber pistol, and the stranger's finger was on the trigger.

Do you remember 1968?

Remember Spiro T. Agnew?

On this wet, foggy night, Nov. 10, 1968, Agnew had just been elected Richard Nixon's first vice president.

When Miss Bradley sat down on the bench at 2 a.m., Agnew was sleeping in the Maryland Governor's Mansion, less than a hundred yards from where she began eating her pizza.

Only a few blocks to the north, at that same moment, a 10-year-old boy named David Cordle also was asleep.

The son of a local bank officer, Cordle would grow up in Annapolis, study criminal justice at the University of Delaware, then return to his beloved small town on the Chesapeake to become chief investigator in the State's Attorney's Office of Anne Arundel County.

Cordle was a "townie" in 1968-just another tow-headed kid running back and forth along Main Street. Except for one grandparent who had attended the U.S. Naval Academy, nobody in Cordle's family had ever graduated from college.

Like most of his buddies in town, the young Cordle didn't care much for the hippies who attended the nearby liberal arts college. "They all hung out at State Circle," the investigator recalls today. "Whenever we'd go down there, we'd complain about 'all the damn hippies' lying around on the grass!

"My dad worked in the bank, right up the street. So, I remembered the homicide quite well. It was the talk of the town...that pizza she bought at the Colonial Kitchen and how they found her around 3 a.m. when the State House guard made his rounds."

As a kid, Cordle never dreamed he would end up working sometimes 12 hours a day, six and seven days a week, to solve the crime and identify Miss Bradley's killer.

But, that's what happened. After arriving on the campus of the University of Delaware in 1975, Cordle settled into Lane Hall. A few months later, on the advice of a Phi Kappa Tau fraternity brother, he took a course in criminal justice, got hooked and decided that he'd found his major. Soon, he was riding along with New Castle County Police, intent on learning everything he could about their police work.

After graduation, Cordle signed on as a $12,500-a-year investigator in the State's Attorney's Office, where he would spend the next few years chasing forgers, thieves, bad check-cashers and other chronic miscreants.

By 1992, the hard-working and no-nonsense Cordle had climbed the ranks to become chief investigator, after having solved several major "cold cases" and having won many accolades for his methodical police work.

"I become obsessive," says the softspoken, sandy-haired Cordle. "I live it. I lose sleep over it. I wake up in the middle of the night. If I could work eight days a week, I would.

I love the challenge. I'm like a bulldog, I guess. The truth is, I love going to work on Monday morning; I work a lot of extra hours; I don't get any overtime; I don't get any comp time. I just get job satisfaction, when I can solve these old cases.

"Sometimes people ask me: Why are you so determined? I don't know. I guess, well, I always tell myself, 'My victim is still dead, and the killer is still out there!'"

The chase

In the summer of 1993, Cordle started digging into one of Maryland's older "cold" homicide cases-the unsolved, 1968 handgun-slaying of Annie Bradley.

What followed were two years of painstakingly methodical work. Cordle spent endless hours hunched over cranky microfilm machines-reading old newspaper clips, hospital records, police reports. While working a "basic, 12-hour day," he re-interviewed dozens of people who had been questioned years before by the Annapolis police force. He made long lists of acquaintances of people in the files, then tracked each one down. He knocked on doors; he made hundreds of phone calls.

Working day and night to find Miss Bradley's killer, Cordle struggled to keep his home-life from falling completely apart. The father of four kids did his best to attend his kids' baseball games, soccer matches and school plays. But, the case was driving him crazy. "I get pretty strung out," he says. "Wake up at 3 in the morning, start scribbling notes to myself...get in the car and bang on doors all afternoon.

"I know I'm obsessive. It's probably a negative," he says, "but I guess that's what it takes, if you're going to solve a case that's been idle for two decades."

After two years of continuing effort, Cordle finally got a break.

He managed to locate a key witness, a middle-aged man who took Cordle to the scene of a burglary he had helped pull off as a teenager, way back in 1968. The witness showed the investigator how he had broken into a lawyer's office on the outskirts of Annapolis, how he and a friend had stolen a .38-caliber pistol from that office.

Without missing a beat, the witness detailed how he had passed the gun on to a 19-year-old Annapolis resident with a criminal record, a troubled adolescent named Alonzo Henry Johnson Jr. Why had Johnson asked for the gun? It was simple, said the witness: "He said he wanted to rob somebody."

Cordle redoubled his efforts. Soon, he found other witnesses who told him that Johnson-a native New Yorker who had only recently moved to Annapolis-had been telling friends he "needed some money" and that the only way to get it was armed robbery.

But, Miss Bradley had no money when she sat down on the bench. She'd actually "charged" her pizza at the Colonial Kitchen, and she didn't have a dime on her.

A few months after learning about the burglary of the handgun, Cordle found another key witness, one of Johnson's former pals, who said he had seen the young man running from State Circle soon after the killing. Johnson had told his friends, "I shot the bitch!"

After several interviews with this witness, Cordle located yet another piece of convincing evidence: A prison inmate who had told one of Johnson's relatives about a conversation in which Johnson admitted the killing.

After piecing all of the evidence together, Cordle concluded that Johnson had stepped up to the bench, put the gun to Annie's left temple and demanded money. When he learned she had none, he either panicked or became enraged and pulled the trigger.

The murder strained the resources of the Annapolis Police Department to the breaking point. Although their early investigation had also pointed to Johnson as a possible suspect, the homicide cops had never learned about the burglary or the gun, and after a year or so, the investigation had been declared a "cold case." For more than 20 years, it had remained idle on the shelf, until the obsessive Cordle picked up the dusty folder and went to work.

The alleged killer

According to Cordle and his investigators, Alonzo Johnson died of a drug overdose in New York City in 1983.

Although the evidence against him in the Bradley killing appears to be overwhelming, it should be noted for the record that the now-deceased Johnson has never been tried by a jury of his peers, and thus, he remains innocent of murder.

Still, the evidence that Cordle turned up during his two-year effort is utterly convincing, according to law enforcement officers familiar with the case. Example: Cordle took the first witness he located back to the scene of the burglary that produced the murder weapon, and the witness remembered dozens of accurate details about the breaking-and-entering, the gun and how it was passed to Johnson.

Other witnesses gave Cordle lengthy statements in which they recalled seeing Johnson run from the scene of the crime, or reported hearing him admit to the killing.

After reviewing all of Cordle's evidence, the Anne Arundel County State's Attorney's Office in Annapolis issued a statement: "If Mr. Johnson were alive today, he would be charged with first-degree murder and related handgun charges."

But, Johnson, who had a criminal record that included burglary and robbery convictions, according to Cordle, had been dead for a dozen years when the county prosecutor announced that the killing of Annie Bradley had finally been solved.

On Nov. 9, 1995, Cordle telephoned Miss Bradley's older sister, Georgia Houle, a professor of education at the Community College of Rhode Island, located in Warwick, R.I., to tell her that the case had been solved.

"What we gave the family was a sense of closure," Cordle says, "and that's the greatest satisfaction that a prosecutorial investigator will ever know.

"After I called Prof. Houle, I learned that her mother was quite ill, but that she was still coherent enough to understand what we had done. She died soon after that, but several other family members told me that she died at peace.

"You know, investigating these cold cases can get pretty grim at times. But, every once in a while, you get one that works out like this. One that wraps everything up.

"It's the only thing we can still do for the memory of the victim, and for the families and friends they leave behind."

-Tom Nugent>