A Previous Death at the Hand of Alabama Suspect

February 13, 2010
Shaila Dewan and Liz Robbins
NY Times

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The neurobiologist accused of killing three colleagues at the University of Alabama, Huntsville, on Friday fatally shot her brother in 1986 in suburban Boston, and the police there are now questioning whether their department mishandled that case when it let her go without filing charges.

Photo: Amy Bishop was arrested after the shootings on Friday.

Early Saturday, the police in Huntsville charged the neurobiologist, Amy Bishop, who they said was 45, with capital murder in the shootings Friday that also left three people wounded during a faculty meeting. Dr. Bishop, who appeared to have had a promising future in the biotechnology business, had recently been told she would not be granted tenure, university officials said.

On Saturday afternoon, the police in Braintree, Mass., announced that 24 years ago, Dr. Bishop had fatally wounded her brother, Seth Bishop, in an argument at their home, which The Boston Globe first reported on its Web site. The police were considering reopening the case, in which she was not charged and the report by the officer on duty at the time was no longer available, said Paul Frazier, the Braintree police chief.

“The release of Ms. Bishop did not sit well with the police officers,” Chief Frazier said in a statement, “and I can assure you that this would not happen in this day and age.” He said at a news conference on Saturday that the original account describing the shooting as an accident had been inaccurate and, The Globe said, that while he was reluctant to use the word “cover-up,” it did not “look good” that the detailed records of the case have been missing since 1988.

A 1987 state police report, released Saturday by the Norfolk County district attorney’s office, said that Dr. Bishop tried to teach herself to use the family’s shotgun after a break-in occurred at their home. She said she had loaded the gun but could not unload it and asked her brother for help, in their mother’s presence. She said the gun accidentally went off, striking her brother. Because her mother, Judith Bishop, confirmed that account, the report said, the death was ruled accidental.

But Chief Frazier said in his statement that the officer on duty, Ronald Solimini, remembered that Dr. Bishop had shot and killed her brother after an argument. She fired another round from the shotgun into the ceiling as she left the home, the officer said, and fled down the street with the shotgun. The officer also remembered her pointing the shotgun at a vehicle in an attempt to get the driver to stop, the chief said.

Another officer, Timothy Murphy, seized the shotgun, and Dr. Bishop was handcuffed and transported to the police station under arrest, Chief Frazier said.

He said that he spoke with the person who was the booking officer at the time, who recalled getting a call “he believes was from then-Police Chief John Polio or possibly from a captain on Chief Polio’s behalf” to stop the process. Dr. Bishop was released from police custody, and the two left the police station by a rear exit, Chief Frazier said.

But Mr. Polio, 87, reached at home on Saturday, called even the suggestion of a cover-up laughable and said that the case had been handled lawfully. He said he remembered there being a shooting and recalled that Dr. Bishop and her brother had been “horsing around.”

“Everything was done that should have been done under the circumstances,” Mr. Polio said in a phone interview. “She was questioned, and then turned over to her mother. The determination was made that we were going to turn the inquiry over to the district attorney.”

The district attorney at the time was Bill Delahunt, who is now a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. Mr. Delahunt was traveling in Israel and could not be reached.

Dr. Bishop, a grant-winning scientist and a mother of four, is now charged with murder. If convicted, she would be eligible for the death penalty in Alabama.

She was part of a biotechnology start-up that had won an early round of financing in a highly competitive environment, but people who knew her said she had learned shortly before the shooting that she had been denied tenure at the university.

On Friday, she presided over her regular anatomy and neurosciences class before going to an afternoon faculty meeting on the third floor of the Shelby Center for Science and Technology.

There she sat quietly for about 30 or 40 minutes, said one faculty member who had spoken to some of the dozen people who were in the room. Then Dr. Bishop pulled out a 9-millimeter handgun and began shooting, firing several rounds, the police said. At least one person in the room tried to stop her and prevent further bloodshed, said Sgt. Mark Roberts of the Huntsville Police Department.

Dr. Bishop stopped shooting when the gun either jammed or ran out of ammunition, the faculty member said.

After she left the room, the police said, she dumped the gun — for which she did not have a permit — in a second-floor bathroom. The people still in the conference room barred the door, fearing she would return, the faculty member said.

Dr. Bishop was arrested outside the building minutes later, Sergeant Roberts said at a morning news conference on Saturday.

The 911 call came at 4:10 p.m., the authorities said. Few students were in the building, and none were involved in the shooting, said Ray Garner, a university spokesman. At the time, Dr. Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, was across the street from the campus, where he worked at the start-up company, Prodigy Biosystems, said Dick Reeves, the company chairman. He left to pick up his wife, apparently having no idea what had happened, Mr. Reeves said.

Officials said the dead were all biology professors: G. K. Podila, the department’s chairman, who is a native of India, according to a family friend who answered the phone at his house; Maria Ragland Davis; and Adriel D. Johnson Sr. Two other biology professors, Luis Rogelio Cruz-Vera and Joseph G. Leahy, as well as a professor’s assistant, Stephanie Monticciolo, were at Huntsville Hospital. Mr. Cruz-Vera was in fair condition; the others were in critical condition.

Mr. Garner said Dr. Bishop, who arrived in the 2003-4 academic year, was first told last spring that she had been denied tenure. If a tenure-track professor is not granted tenure after six years, the university will no longer employ them, Mr. Garner said. This would have been the final semester of Dr. Bishop’s sixth year.

The university does have an appeals process, and people who knew Dr. Bishop said she had appealed the decision.

Dr. Bishop may have had academic problems, but her business prospects seemed bright. She had developed a new approach to treating Lou Gehrig’s disease, which a company was in the process of licensing for development. And she and her husband, a computer engineer with a biology degree, had invented an automated system for incubating cells that investors said would be a vast improvement over the petri dish. The system is to be marketed by Prodigy Biosystems, which raised $1.2 million in capital financing.

“From the way it looked to us, looking from the outside, she’s had success,” said Krishnan Chittur, a chemical engineering professor. “I’ve been here longer than she has, and she’s had more success raising money than I’ve had.”

The tenure decision would not have affected Dr. Bishop’s standing at Prodigy, where she sits on the board, but it would have lowered her status among her peers and deprived her of a laboratory and institutional support for further research, Mr. Reeves said, adding that she had already begun to look for another job.

Dr. Chittur said Dr. Bishop was a respected scientist who nevertheless had trouble getting along with colleagues. As members of the biotechnology program, students have to pass core classes in biology, chemistry and chemical engineering. But Dr. Bishop became convinced, he said, that the chemical engineering professors were trying to keep biology students from succeeding by making the classes too difficult.

“It was one of those things that ultimately became irrational with her, in my opinion,” Dr. Chittur said.

Some students also had problems with Dr. Bishop’s teaching style, saying she simply read from the book in class but then tested them on material that she had not covered. Nursing students repeatedly complained to Dr. Podila, the department chairman, as well as to the dean, and even sent a petition, said Caitlin Phillips, a junior in the nursing program, who took two courses with Dr. Bishop in her sophomore year

She was “very socially awkward with students” and never made eye contact during personal conversations, Ms. Phillips said. “We all had kind of a problem with her. She never really taught much. She just read straight from the book.”

But Dr. Bishop also defended students, saying a new policy requiring freshmen and sophomores to live on campus was too expensive and would affect diversity. She was involved in an effort to censure the university president, David B. Williams, over that and other policies, according to Richard Lieu, a Distinguished Professor of Astrophysics at the university who sits on the Faculty Senate.

She was not the only vocal protester. But last month, the censure vote failed, 20 to 18.

Dr. Bishop and Mr. Anderson have four children, ranging in age from 9 to 18, Mr. Reeves said, and they frequently took them to hockey and soccer games.

He and others who knew Dr. Bishop described her as a normal person, perhaps a little quirky but no more so than most scientists. They expressed total shock at the shootings.

“She was a very outspoken person,” Mr. Reeves said, “and outspoken people don’t bottle things up.”

Shaila Dewan reported from Huntsville, Ala., and Liz Robbins from New York. Sarah Wheaton contributed from New York and Katie Zezima from Boston.


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