TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Milton Bradley was a 72-year-old World War II Navy veteran living in Savannah, Georgia, in May 1994 when he met Gary Ray Bowles, a serial killer who had already taken the lives of two men and was looking for his next victim.
Bradley had suffered a severe head injury when his ship sank in the Pacific Ocean, and later had a partial lobotomy. He was well known around Savannah as a kind, gentle soul who gave whatever he could to those in need. It was a shock when his bludgeoned body was found behind a golf course shed, leaves and dirt stuffed down his throat.
Bowles confessed to the killing but was never tried or convicted for it. He was, however, convicted of murder for the November 1994 slaying of Walter Hinton in Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Attempts to reach relatives of Hinton for comment were unsuccessful. Now 57, Bowles is scheduled to be put to death for that killing on Thursday at Florida State Prison.
“It’s been a long time coming, hasn’t it?” said Milton Bradley’s nephew Mark Bradley. “People knew Milton. It’s amazing the outpouring that I still hear to this day when people say, ‘Oh! So sorry to hear that your uncle got murdered.’ … They’ll say how kind of a person he was, and it was a shame that it happened.”
Bowles began his killing rampage in March 1994 and ended it eight months later with the murder of Hinton, his sixth and last known victim, prosecutors have said.
The killings were sensationalized in part because Bowles targeted older, gay men. He has maintained he is straight but has acknowledged that he let gay men perform sex acts on him for money. Prosecutors said it was how the self-described hustler survived. They said he often used his targets for money or a place to stay, but eventually snapped and killed them.
Bradley didn’t quite fit the mold of Bowles’ usual targets. Yes, the two met at Faces Tavern, a now-closed gay bar in Savannah’s historic district, but Bradley liked to pop into a lot of bars in a city that has many, said John Best, a former Savannah police detective who investigated Bowles’ death.
Best believes Faces was just another stop for Bradley, who stopped driving after his head injury but enjoyed walking through the historic squares and parks around the city.
“I used to sit next to him at a bar. He used to like to go in for the happy hours,” Best said. “He liked to go have a beer at different locations.”
Best described Bradley as naive and perhaps asexual, but was he looking to pick up men?
“Hell no!” Best said.
Instead, he thinks Bradley’s friendly, trusting nature and his naivete led to his interaction with Bowles.
“I think Bowles thought Milton Bradley was an easy target and maybe thought he was gay,” Best said.
Mark Bradley also believes his uncle’s kindness may have opened him up to being a victim.
“He would talk to anyone,” Bradley said.
Bradley and his family were well known in Savannah: The family has run a lock and key shop downtown since 1883.
The shop was Milton Bradley’s base during the day, his nephew said. The elder Bradley also made regular stops at nearby restaurants and he was known for his generosity.
“People would approach him, they would need money, and he would just lend it to them never expecting it to be paid back,” Mark Bradley said. His uncle also helped people who lived thousands of miles away, “adopting” a family from Sri Lanka to whom he sent money “religiously,” receiving photos and letters in return, Bradley said.
“Sometimes I would joke with him, ‘They’re going to put a statue up for you in Sri Lanka because you’re so good to these people,'” Bradley said.
Bradley’s heart of gold and his gentle nature made his killing that much more horrifying to people in Savannah.
The fact that it has taken 25 years to carry out Bowles’ death sentence has been frustrating for the family.
“They just need to do what they need to do,” Bradley said. “Maybe the world will be a better place, I don’t know. It won’t be any worse, right?”