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 they mishandled that case when they let her go without filing charges.
Early Saturday, the police in Huntsville charged the neurobiologist, Amy Bishop (45), with capital murder in the shootings during a faculty meeting that also left three people wounded. Bishop, who appeared to have had a promising future in the biotechnology business, had recently been told she would not be granted tenure, said university officials.
On Saturday afternoon, police in Braintree, Massachusetts, announced that Bishop had fatally wounded her brother, Seth Bishop, 24 years ago in an argument in their home, which The Boston Globe first reported on its website. The police were considering reopening the case, in which Bishop was not charged and the case records were no longer available, said Paul Frazier, the Braintree police chief.
“The release of Bishop did not sit well with the police officers,” said Mr. Frazier in a statement, “and I can assure you that this would not happen in this day and age.” He told reporters at a news conference on Saturday that the original account describing the shooting as an accident had been inaccurate and, said The Globe, 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.
In 1986, The Globe reported that John Polio, then the police chief, said Bishop, who was about 20, had asked her mother, Judith, how to unload a 12-gauge shotgun. While Bishop was handling the weapon, it fired, hitting her brother in the abdomen.
Mr. Frazier said in his statement the officer on duty, Ronald Solimini, remembered that Bishop had argued with her brother and shot and killed him with a pump-action shotgun. She fired another round from the shotgun into the ceiling as she left the home, said the officer, and fled down the street with the shotgun. The officer remembered her pointing the shotgun at a motor vehicle in an attempt to get the driver to stop, said the chief.
Another officer, Timothy Murphy, seized the shotgun, and Bishop was handcuffed and transported to the police station under arrest, said Mr. Frazier.
He said 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. Bishop was released from police custody, and the two left the police station by a rear exit, said Mr. Frazier.
Mr. Polio (87), reached at home on Saturday, called even the suggestion of a cover-up laughable and said the case had been handled lawfully. He said he remembered there being a shooting and recalled that Bishop and her brother had been “horsing around”.
“Everything was done that should have been done under the circumstances,” said Mr. Polio 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 travelling in Israel and could not be reached. Bishop, a grant-winning scientist and a mother of four, is charged with murder. If convicted, she would be eligible for the death penalty in Alabama.
The shootings on the university campus opened a window into the pressure-cooker world of biotechnology start-ups, where scientists often depend on their association with academia for a leg up. Bishop was part of a 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, Bishop 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 Bishop pulled out a 9-mm handgun and began shooting, firing several rounds, said the police. At least one person in the room tried to stop Bishop and prevent further bloodshed, said Sgt. Mark Roberts of the Huntsville Police Department.
Bishop stopped shooting when the gun either jammed or ran out of ammunition, said the faculty member.
After Bishop 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, said the faculty member. Bishop was arrested outside the building minutes later, said Sergeant Roberts at a morning news conference on Saturday.
The 911 call came at 4:10 p.m., said the authorities. Few students were in the building, and none was involved in the shooting, said Ray Garner, a university spokesman. At the time, 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, said Mr. Reeves.
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. Cruz-Vera was in fair condition; the others were in critical condition.
Mr. Garner said Bishop, who arrived in the 2003-2004 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, said Ray Garner, a spokesman for the university. This would have been the final semester of Bishop’s sixth year. The university does have an appeals process, and people who knew Bishop said she had appealed the decision.
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 had licensed 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 was 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 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, said Mr. Reeves, adding that she had already begun to look for another job.
Mr. Chittur said Bishop was a respected scientist who nevertheless had trouble getting along with colleagues. As members of the biotechnology programme, students have to pass core classes in biology, chemistry and chemical engineering. But 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,” he said.
Some students also had problems with 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 Podila, department chairman, as well as to the dean, and even sent a petition, said Caitlin Phillips, a junior in the nursing programme, who took two courses with Bishop in her sophomore year.
Bishop was “very socially awkward with students” and never made eye contact during personal conversations, said Ms. Phillips. “We all had kind of a problem with her. She never really taught much. She just read straight from the book.”
But 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 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, 20-18.
She and Anderson had four children, ranging in age from 9 to 18, said Mr. Reeves, and frequently took them to hockey and soccer games.
He and others who knew 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,” said Mr. Reeves, “and outspoken people don’t bottle things up.” — © 2010 The New York Times News Service