Police: Prof. charged in campus shootings killed before
HUNTSVILLE, AL -- The professor accused of killing three colleagues during a faculty meeting was a Harvard-educated neurobiologist, inventor and mother whose life had been marred by a violent episode in her distant past.
More than two decades ago, police said Amy Bishop killed her teenage brother with a shotgun at their Massachusetts home in a shooting that investigators concluded was an accident.
Bishop had just months left teaching at the University of Alabama in Huntsville when police said she opened fire with a handgun Friday in a room filled with a dozen of her colleagues from the school's biology department.
Bishop, a rare woman suspected in a workplace shooting, was to leave after this semester because she had been denied tenure. Police say she is 42, but the university's Web site lists her as 44.
Some have said she was upset after being denied the job-for-life security afforded tenured academics, and the husband of one victim and one of Bishop's students said they were told the shooting stemmed from the school's refusal to grant her such status. Authorities have refused to discuss a motive, and school spokesman Ray Garner said the faculty meeting wasn't called to discuss tenure.
William Setzer, chairman of chemistry department at UAH, said Bishop was appealing the decision made last year.
"Politics and personalities" always play a role in the tenure process, he said. "In a close department it's more so. If you have any lone wolves or bizarre personalities, it's a problem and I'm thinking that certainly came into play here."
The three killed were Gopi K. Podila, the chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences, and two other faculty members, Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel Johnson. The wounded were still recovering in hospitals early Saturday. Luis Cruz-Vera was in fair condition; Joseph Leahy in critical condition; and staffer Stephanie Monticciolo also was in critical condition.
Descriptions of Bishop from students and colleagues were mixed. Some saw a strange woman who had difficulty relating to her students, while others described a witty, intelligent teacher.
Students and colleagues described Bishop as intelligent, but someone who often had difficulty explaining difficult concepts.
Bishop was well-known in the research community, appearing on the cover of the winter 2009 issue of "The Huntsville R&D Report," a local magazine focusing on engineering, space and genetics.
However, it was unclear how many of her colleagues and students knew about a more tragic part of her past. Setzer, the chemistry chairman, and the university's police chief said they weren't aware of her brother's death until they were asked by reporters Saturday.
Bishop shot her brother, Seth, an 18-year-old accomplished violinist, in the chest in 1986, said Paul Frazier, the police chief in Braintree, Mass., where the shooting occurred.
The Norfolk County District Attorney's office released a 1987 report with details of their investigation, based on interviews with Amy Bishop and her parents conducted by a state trooper after the shooting. The report concluded Seth Bishop was killed by an "accidental discharge of a firearm."
Amy Bishop told investigators she was trying to learn how to use a shotgun that her father had purchased for protection in the home after a break-in. She said she did not know how to use the weapon and brought it downstairs to the kitchen for help unloading it.
She said she was raising it when "someone said something to her and she turned and the gun went off" while her brother was walking across the kitchen, according to the report.
She then ran out of the house with the weapon. When she talked to investigators 11 days after the shooting, she told them she could only remember hearing her mother scream and she didn't know the gunshot struck her brother until later.
The report by Trooper Brian Howe said Bishop's "highly emotional state" immediately after the shooting made it impossible to question her.
The handling of the case prompted back-and-forth claims from the current Braintree police chief, Frazier, and the former chief, Polio.
Frazier said Polio instructed officers to release Amy Bishop to her mother, who had once served on a police personnel board. That move upset officers who remembered the 1986 shooting, Frazier said.
"The police officers here were very upset about that," said Frazier, who was a patrolman at the time and spoke to officers who remembered the incident that day, including one who filed a report on it.
Frazier also said the police records of the shooting have disappeared and he planned to meet with the local district attorney over the possibility of launching a criminal investigation into how the Bishop case was handled.
Polio, now 87, said Saturday at his Braintree home that he was astonished at any implication of a cover-up. He said he didn't instruct officers to release Bishop and wasn't close to her mother, who he said served on the police board years before the shooting.
"(There's) no cover-up, no missing records," Polio said. "If they're missing, they're missing since I retired."
Polio said Saturday that at the time there were questions about whether Amy Bishop intended to kill her brother because of conflicting reports about whether the two had argued or had just been horsing around when the gun was fired.
Polio said the officer who took Bishop into custody told Polio he was upset she was released but "it was an isolated cop, telling me something. It wasn't a big movement."
Polio stepped down as police chief in 1987 after more than 37 years with the department, including 25 years as chief. He said he served honorably and his integrity shouldn't be questioned.
"That's one thing that could never be called into question," he said. "I don't blink at that, except it annoys me."
Attempts by AP to track down addresses and phone numbers for Bishop's family in the Braintree area weren't immediately successful Saturday. The current police chief said he believed her family had moved away.
Amy Bishop moved on to attend Harvard University and eventually an associate professor at the University of Alabama-Huntsville in 2003. The school, with about 7,500 students, has close ties with NASA and is known for its engineering and science programs.
Bishop was in custody and it wasn't immediately known if she has an attorney. No one was home at the couple's house. Her husband, James Anderson, was detained and questioned by police but has not been charged.
A 9-millimeter handgun was found in the bathroom of the building where the shootings occurred, and Huntsville police spokesman Sgt. Mark Roberts said Bishop did not have a permit for it.
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