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Amy Bishop case: Why no red flags were waved before shooting spree

Neurobiologist Amy Bishop, charged with killing three faculty colleagues at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, had a squeaky-clean public record despite several brushes with the law. There's more than one reason her record didn't follow her.

By Staff writer / February 17, 2010

College professor Amy Bishop is detained by Huntsville, Ala. police, Friday on the University of Alabama in Huntsville campus, after allegedly killing three people and injuring three others during a biology faculty meeting.

Bob Gathany/Huntsville Times/AP

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After Friday's bloodletting at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, police ran a background check on neurobiology professor Amy Bishop, who they suspect of methodically gunning down six colleagues, killing three.

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“Nothing came up,” said an Alabama police official.

Dr. Bishop’s public record showed her as a squeaky-clean, law-abiding citizen. Bishop had, in fact, a long record of interaction with police, including lodging dozens of complaints against neighbors and two cases of potentially murderous behavior. So, how did Bishop – an odd and cantankerous person by some accounts – pursue a career at high levels of academia without ever facing any fallout from a troubling rap sheet?

“There’s more than one reason why Amy Bishop slipped through the cracks,” says Jack Levin, a Northeastern University criminologist who has written extensively about mass murderers. “Local authorities dropped the ball. There’s a lack of coordination among [police] jurisdictions. And there’s gender: We don’t expect women to open fire with a semi-automatic 9 mm handgun, and statistically they don’t.”

Three brushes with the law

Most notable is the absence of charges resulting from the fatal shooting of Bishop's brother in 1986, a development that Professor Levin suggests could be a result of police “corruption or negligence.” (Meanwhile, Newsweek hints at a deeper conspiracy.)

Bishop, then 20, shot her 18-year-old brother and was apprehended still clutching the shotgun after a tense standoff with police. Questions are now multiplying about whether his death was accidental, as ruled, or was a homicide that followed a brother-sister argument. Bishop was not charged with anything in gun-wary Massachusetts – not even a violation for discharging a gun without a permit.

The revelation that Bishop and her mother were not interviewed until 11 days after the shooting caused some local police officials to now question the handling of the investigation into the death of Seth Bishop, a college student and virtuoso violin player.

“When I hear everything and I see this report for the first time, if this information was at my hands then, yes, I would have to do a lot of thinking before I made a decision then," former Braintree, Mass., police chief John Polio told The Boston Globe earlier this week. (State police had completed the investigation.)

In 1993, Bishop was a suspect, but was never charged, during an investigation into a mail bomb incident at the home of a Harvard University professor.

And police say charges were, in fact, filed against Bishop in 2002 after she punched another woman at a Massachusetts fast-food restaurant in a scuffle over a booster seat. She received probation and was ordered to take anger-management classes.

Alabama didn't know what Massachusetts knew

That arrest information apparently was not available to officials in Alabama, perhaps because of the of regional criminal background databases, Levin says. Even today, he says, “someone can commit an offense in Braintree, Mass., and that information may never get to Huntsville, Ala." (What’s more, workplace regulations in academia often make criminal background checks off-limits to search and hiring committees.)

But gender may be a major reason Bishop’s previous behavior escaped notice as she climbed the academic ladder. Numerous cases of male professors shooting colleagues are recorded in the annals of US crime, but there are only two in which female collegiates opened fire on colleagues.

“We wouldn’t expect a woman to even know how to use a shotgun in order to kill her brother, so we turn our backs to the possibility that women could commit such hideous acts of violence,” says Levin. “I think that’s part of it.”

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