Outwardly, there was nothing out of the ordinary as the faculty members took their seats that afternoon. It was a routine meeting for 13 members of the biology department of The University of Alabama in Huntsville. But there would be an unexpected and horrific item added to the meeting agenda for February 12, 2010.
Chairing the departmental meeting in Room 369 of the university’s Shelby Center for Science and Technology was noted academic Gopi Podila, a plant biologist. Sitting next to him, closest to the door, was biology professor Amy Bishop. Other attendees included Debra Moriarity, a biochemist, and two other biology professors, Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel D. Johnson, Sr. But of the learned professionals gathered together in that room, only one could have had any prior knowledge of the cataclysm about to engulf them.
The then 44-year-old mother of four Amy Bishop came from a comfortable background. She was born in 1965 to a university tutor father, Sam, and cartoonist mother, Judy, in Iowa City. The family moved to Braintree, a suburb of Boston, Massachusetts, in 1968. It was here that Bishop was raised, along with her beloved little brother, Seth, who arrived that same year.
Sam’s teaching job at the art department of Northeastern University meant the family could afford to live in a handsome 19th-century clapperboard house on Hollis Avenue. Bishop got on especially well with her little brother. Kathleen Oldham, a friend of Bishop’s from that time, told The New Yorker magazine, “She doted on her little brother. They both loved music, loved science. She seemed to enjoy having someone younger to collaborate with.”
Bishop’s mother Judy came from a respected New England family while her father’s parents had arrived in the U.S. from Greece. He had changed his name from Sotir Papazoglos to Sam Bishop after serving in the air force in the 1950s. The couple’s academic and gifted children are said to have had some difficulty fitting in with the folks of Braintree. Oldham described it as a “jock town.” Bishop gained the reputation of being something of a loner. Nevertheless, she and Seth seem to have enjoyed a happy childhood.
Bishop attended Braintree High School where she distinguished herself with her academic ability and a talent for playing the violin. The student passed out of the institution with top grades. These allowed her to go on to study at Northeastern University, where her father Sam still taught in the art department.
In 1988, Bishop graduated from Northeastern and commenced a Ph.D. program at Harvard University, studying genetics. The next year Bishop married Jim Anderson, a fellow student she had met in a role-playing club at Northeastern. The couple had their first child, Lily, in 1991, followed by two more girls, Thea and Phaedra.
Bishop found the Ph.D. work at Harvard a lot more challenging than her studies at the Boston university. Nevertheless, in 1993 she was awarded a doctorate and then entered the academic world of postdoctoral posts. In 2001 Bishop gave birth to another child. This time it was a boy and she called it Seth. Few of her academic friends at Harvard were aware she had named the baby after her brother, let alone the sad significance of the act.
About this time, Bishop tried her hand at creative writing. She had composed poetry when she was a student and now she turned to prose. According to an acquaintance quoted in The Boston Globe, Bishop saw literature as “her ticket out of academia.” She penned three thrillers which were never published. Ominously, one of the novels featured a female scientist who becomes suicidal after failing to win a permanent post at a university.
Coincidently, the main thing happening in Bishop’s life at this point was her academic career seemingly hitting the skids. She had been an associate professor at the University of Alabama since 2003. But in early 2009, her application for tenure as a professor at the Huntsville institution was unsuccessful. Bishop did not take this lying down. She made various appeals and even took on a lawyer to help fight her case. But all to no avail – a formal contract was still denied.
And now here she was at the faculty meeting in February 2010. Bishop’s presence was not necessary at the gathering, since most of the agenda concerned the following semester, when she would no longer be employed at the university. Perhaps this was the reason the usually active member was subdued and quiet during the meeting.
All this changed dramatically as the meeting was drawing to a close. Bishop took a semi-automatic nine-millimeter Ruger pistol from her purse and opened fire, shooting chairman Podila point blank. One of those in the room, Joseph Ng, told The Boston Globe, “[She] got up suddenly, took out a gun and started shooting at each one of us. She started with the one closest to her, and went down the row shooting her targets in the head.”
Debra Moriarty had previously voted to deny Bishop tenure. Now she dived to the floor beneath a table, grabbed Bishop’s legs and cried out, “Amy, don’t do this! Think of my daughter! Think of my grandson!” The gunwoman turned her pistol on Moriarity and fired. But the gun jammed, doubtlessly sparing the pleading woman’s life.
Moriarity struggled out of the room to the hallway. Bishop followed, repeatedly pulling on the trigger to kill her colleague but to no avail. Moriarity then managed to re-enter the room and her colleagues barricaded the door against the gunwoman. Bishop now departed the scene – the whole incident had lasted one minute. Bishop dumped the jammed gun and her bloodied jacket in a restroom, only to be arrested by a law officer at the back of the Shelby Center building.
Moriarty was one of the lucky ones, she survived the one-minute onslaught unscathed – at least physically. Gopi Podila, Maria Ragland Davis, and Adriel D. Johnson, Sr. all lost their lives. Luis Rogelio Cruz-Vera, Joseph G. Leahy and Stephanie Monticciolo were wounded, the latter two seriously. Now came the questions – people were mystified as to how a professional, academic woman with four children could turn killer. This was no disaffected teenage boy, the usual profile for those involved in large-scale school atrocities.
In fact, once investigators started to delve into Bishop’s past, her horrific crime began to fall into some kind of perspective. The first bombshell came from Paul Frazier, the chief of the police department in Braintree. He called the Huntsville sheriff’s office and said, “The woman you have in custody, I thought you’d want to know – she shot and killed her brother back in 1986.”
The deadly incident had occurred on December 6 of that year at the Bishop family home in Braintree. Mother Judy told police she had returned home in the morning after a visit to a local stables where she kept a horse. She said that her daughter had come into the kitchen carrying her father’s shotgun. Sam had bought the firearm after the Bishops had been burgled previously. Bishop said she had loaded the gun because she thought she had heard an intruder.
According to Judy, Seth had then returned from an errand to the grocery store. The three were standing in the kitchen when Bishop turned to her brother saying, “I have a shell in the gun, and I don’t know how to unload it.” Judy said the shotgun discharged accidentally and Seth received a fatal bullet wound from close range. Mysteriously, the Braintree police under its then chief John Polio seems not to have properly investigated the incident. Judy’s version of events was simply accepted without real question. Seth’s death was put down by police as being a ghastly accident, but now new boss Frazier was not so sure.
Other strange episodes from Bishop’s past also began to add to the doubts. In 1993 one of her Harvard colleagues received a pipe bomb in the post. The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms questioned Bishop over the incident but didn’t arrest her. Then in 2002, while on an outing with her husband and kids, Bishop got into an argument and assaulted a woman in a pancake restaurant, punching her victim in the head. “I am Dr. Amy Bishop!” she cried repeatedly. She was arrested after this fracas but not charged.
With hindsight it now seems there were obvious clues in Bishop’s past to indicate she was a potentially dangerous woman. The most indicative of her potential for violence was the killing of her brother, an incident where the details are still murky to this day. If that killing had been properly investigated, it might well have saved life and limb at Huntsville in 2010.