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Relatives speak on missing-baby case Deborah Bradley's father calls the case of his missing granddaughter Lisa Irwin "insanity times 10."

  • Kansas City Star
  • Published Sunday, Nov. 6, 2011, at 12:08 a.m.
  • Updated Wednesday, April 4, 2012, at 1:20 p.m.

KANSAS CITY -- He can't sleep. He has trouble focusing his thoughts or quieting roiling emotions after each news story about his missing granddaughter.

And baby Lisa Irwin's first birthday looms five days away.

"That's going to be the oh-my-God moment," said David Netz Jr., weeping. "I can't even imagine what that day will be like. What will we do? How will we get through that? I don't even know how to ask Debbie and Jeremy what we should do or how to help them through that."

Since the mystifying Oct. 4 disappearance of the 10-month-old, much of the nation has been introduced to her parents, Debbie Bradley and Jeremy Irwin, as the latest cable-crime-case sensation.

Much of the coverage has been anything but favorable to Debbie. Her attorneys will no longer allow interviews with Bradley or Irwin.

"Most of my family says, 'Trust nobody.' But it's making things get even worse, I think," Netz says. So he, and a couple other members of the extended family, are speaking out, helping the Kansas City Star pull together some of the threads of Deborah Lee Netz Bradley's life of 25 years.

Netz shifts easily from streaming tears to fist-clenching anger — against the media, the police and others who disbelieve his daughter in the disappearance of her baby.

"People are judging whether Debbie's crying enough, or if she's crying too much, or if her lip curls up in some body language secret, or if Jeremy doesn't show enough emotion."

Another deep sigh.

"This whole thing is insanity times 10."

Netz, 48, acknowledges the troubles in the family tree. Alcoholism. Estrangement. Divorce. Untimely death.

Debbie's mother left him more than once. His daughter moved out of his house the first time as an angry 16-year-old. Still, he says, the two stayed connected, with visits at least once a week.

It feels like the whole world is judging his daughter, without knowing anything about her, he says, pained by Web postings that range from vitriol to know-it-all opinions by armchair sleuths.

Added to that is the media encampment at the family's homes in the Northland.

"My God, Debbie and Jeremy can't even relax and smoke on the back porch without seeing hidden cameras popping out of brush. It's horrible."

Last week, the family moved again to a location unknown to most.

"Nobody knows how they'd react until this happens. I'm sick of hearing, 'If they really cared they'd be doing so and so.' ... And through it all, little Lisa is out there somewhere, that's what gets me."

His voice goes silent as he sobs.

If the world only knew, he says, they'd stop comparing Debbie with other infamous mothers like Casey Anthony and Susan Smith.

Take the time the family dog bit Lisa's older half-brother in the face. Netz scooped up the bloody toddler and ran across the street to where Debbie was. "She started screaming and we rushed (him) to the hospital."

That's why Netz discounts the theory that she would try to hide an accidental or negligent death of Lisa.

"She would have picked that baby up and run up and down the street screaming for help," he said of his daughter.

"No, she didn't do this. She's not hiding anything. She's told the whole world about her drinking ...

"If they knew how Debbie prayed and prayed for a baby girl ever since her mother died because she wanted to name her Lisa," he says. "Then they would know there is no way she could do anything to the baby, or God forbid, if something horrible happened, she wouldn't be able to keep that secret.

"Debbie tells everything."

'They took her!'

The day of the Amber Alert, Hazel Bradley, Debbie's mother-in-law, heard about it from a neighbor. She rushed inside to keep her 9-year-old away from the TV.

But she was too late. Her daughter had slipped in from the school bus, saw the news and was crying: Mom! Somebody took Debbie's baby! They took her!

Bradley held her as they watched the live news conferences. She texted her stepson, Sean Bradley, who is still legally married to Debbie.

Sean hasn't talked with his wife for more than two years. Hazel hasn't been in contact, either, but photographs of Debbie still are scattered throughout her house. She's lived in Hazel's Independence home at different times.

Sean is the father to Debbie's 5-year-old son who lives with her and Irwin. Hazel says Sean hadn't known that Lisa was born.

Hazel just ached for Debbie when she appeared on television.

"She looked so scared and was hurting so bad. I couldn't stop watching."

Overwhelmed by the insinuations, Hazel was shaken. The 39-year-old woman is re-examining every minute detail of her past with her daughter-in-law. It was 2002 when the Bradleys first met the Fort Osage High sophomore. Debbie was working at QuikTrip, the same store that employed Sean, a high school junior.

Hazel says she was self-conscious about her weight, but typical for a teen. She liked the happy and bubbly girl right away.

There were enough tears, though, for her mother who had died the previous year. "She was struggling ... really missing her, and she wasn't getting along with her dad."

The two women had those empty places in common. Hazel's husband, Michael, an Army Desert Storm veteran, had just died of a heart attack at age 42. Married only a short time, she was a young widow, caring for her and Michael's 4- month-old daughter; her little boy from a previous relationship and her dead husband's two teenagers, Sean and his sister.

When Debbie asked to move in, Hazel said yes, but set the ground rules: no drugs or drinking, nightly curfews and no fooling around with Sean.

The family settled in. Debbie helped with the baby girl. Little by little, Hazel learned the story.

Debbie was the oldest child of David and Lisa Netz. They divorced in 1992, and Lisa moved back home to the Delaware/Pennsylvania area to be closer to her mother and siblings. She took Debbie and her two younger brothers, Tony and Phillip.

David Netz moved east, too, to stay close to his children. He bought a house in New Castle, Del. Lisa and Debbie lived in the basement, David and the boys on the first floor.

"She told us how her mom loved to brush her hair when they watched TV," Hazel says.

In 2001, Lisa died unexpectedly. Her heart, Debbie told the Bradleys.

The saddest part: She died on Phillip's 10th birthday.

"She told me Phillip was the one who found her," Hazel remembers. Lisa had promised her little boy that he could stay home from school, and they would go buy him a toy. He'd asked for a scooter.

Debbie had just turned 15.

Mother's struggles

Lisa Netz's obituary said she was a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for eight years.

David Netz and other family members told of Lisa's struggles with drinking, how one of her sisters sometimes would step in and take the three children until Lisa could sleep it off.

The children had a little counseling after their mom's death, but Netz said they blamed him for her drinking, her death, all of it. Netz says he tried his best as a divorced dad but that he was working 60-hour weeks and knows he wasn't as present as he should have been.

It wasn't like that in the beginning.

"Debbie was a girly girl, a Daddy's girl, too," he says, smiling. "She loved the color pink, loved clothes and loved her 'slippery' black shoes. She liked those shoes called Jellies, too."

She was always a "mother-hen" to her brothers, he says. After her mother's death, "she did it even more."

But after the return to Independence, father and daughter fought constantly.

Debbie dropped out of high school in her sophomore year, met a boy and moved out.

Married young

It was Hazel who helped Debbie get ready for Sean's senior prom. The girl chose a sparkly purple dress. Hazel took her to Independence Center and bought her a silver tiara, earrings and a necklace.

Prom night, she brushed Debbie's hair like Lisa once did, and pinned it into an up do. She also did her makeup.

"She looked beautiful." The photo from that night is quickly found, causing fresh tears.

It wasn't long afterward that Hazel asked Debbie and Sean to move out. She'd caught them in bed together.

"I told them that if they were going to be like grown-ups they needed to get their own place. That's something I will not tolerate in my house with all the other children here," she says.

Weeks later, the teens announced wedding plans — and the news that Sean had enlisted in the Army.

Debbie's father signed the paperwork allowing her to marry at 17.

Separate ways

According to military records, Sean Michael Bradley enlisted on Aug. 7, 2003, and entered training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.

Transferred to Fort Bragg, N.C., for paratrooper training and deployed to Afghanistan.

Debbie delivered a baby boy at Fort Bragg in late November 2005.

Sgt. Sean Bradley's service ended in March 2007. The couple returned to Independence and moved in with Debbie's dad. But Sean couldn't find a job and struggled in the civilian world, Hazel says.

Bills were mounting. The tension was too much. Debbie and Sean separated.

Debbie tried again to live with the Delaware relatives, but was drawn back to the Kansas City area once more. Again, she went to Hazel's.

Debbie talked of getting her G.E.D., and insisted that her youngest brother, Phillip, graduate. But she didn't go back to school. Instead, she started leaving the house at night, taking Hazel's truck without asking when the family slept.

"I never knew for sure where she went or what she did," said Hazel. They had words. Debbie was again asked to leave.

The Bradleys looked into the cost of divorce, but the legal fees were daunting for both families.

Debbie began working at Payless Shoe Source, according to Hazel. There, she met Jeremy Irwin, an electrician. He was a graduate of Kearney High School and was working as an apprentice in the trade, said an Irwin family member.

Irwin already had a child, now 8, from another relationship.

She never called Hazel again.

"I miss Debbie. She was a good mother ... There's just no way she could have done this, and she's just not smart enough — not that she's dumb — but she couldn't cover up something like this so well."

Doubtful uncle

Not all of Debbie's family rallied around her.

Her uncle, Johnny Chivalette III, called her twice from Delaware, the second time to ask her to confess.

"She hung up on me. But you have to understand. Our family is so dysfunctional," he said. He also wrote her a letter calling for her to give up. He sent a copy to The Star.

He'd already called the Kansas City Police Department and had a conference call with four detectives.

Chivalette said he told them how the tragedies of alcoholism wove through the family, causing pain and dysfunction, how siblings refuse to talk with each other, often for years.

Some family members think Chivalette just represents more of the dysfunction. Indeed, he concedes he has served time in prison.

Considering her mother's genes, Chivalette thinks Debbie shouldn't be drinking at all. The night of Lisa's disappearance, according to a source close the family, she'd consumed at least five glasses of wine. "I don't think she'd do something on purpose," Chivalette says, "but I can see her hiding something after that ... .

"Look, I hope they find baby Lisa with a clean diaper and a full tummy, but with my family, it'll probably end worse."

All over TV

The family drama has become reality TV and fodder for supermarket mags.

"Twisted Secret Life Of Baby Lisa Mom," the National Enquirer blares, touting a gossipy tale of Debbie —"a slender, buxom brunette ... considered the most beautiful of the soldiers' wives" — allegedly trying to steal another Army wife's man at Fort Bragg.

The blogs have been brutal, too. One called for the immediate execution of Bradley and Irwin.

Garbage, says Netz.

All the family members have been hounded by national media. Netz has stopped watching television in disgust. He has angry words for the police, too.

He says officers called Debbie white trash, told her to cut the innocence act, that it was obvious she'd killed Lisa. They said they'd found the body, showed her burnt clothes, he says.

"Then, they told Jeremy that Debbie had confessed to them that Lisa wasn't his, even though she looks just like him! Eleven hours they talked with both Jeremy and Debbie and when they asked for a break, the police announced they weren't cooperating!"

The police deny those accusations. Legally, though, they can say anything they want in interviews and interrogations.

Netz feels his daughter would have cracked if guilty.

"If they had anything, anything on Debbie they'd arrested her by now." His hand clenches.

"But they have nothing."

Baby Lisa is out there, somewhere, Netz says.

"They can take her away but they can't take away her memory.

"She is so special to us."

Again, he stops talking. He wipes his nose.

"Yeah, I think she's still alive ...

"Tell people to keep looking."

Contributing: James Hart and Tony Rizzo of the Kansas City Star

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