Amy Bishop, a neurobiologist at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, sat down at the conference table just moments before the faculty meeting began. It was three o’clock on February 12, 2010, and thirteen professors and staff members in the biology department had crowded into a windowless conference room on the third floor of the Shelby Center for Science and Technology. The department chair, a plant biologist named Gopi Podila, distributed a printed agenda. Bishop was sitting next to him, in a spot by the door. Inside her handbag was a gun.
Bishop was forty-five, with a long, pale face framed by dark hair that she wore in a pageboy, her bangs slashed just above her small blue eyes. She was normally a vocal participant in departmental meetings, but on this occasion she was silent, and she appeared to be brooding. There was an obvious explanation: a year earlier, the department had denied Bishop’s bid for tenure, and her protracted and increasingly desperate efforts to appeal the decision had been fruitless. When the semester ended, she knew, her job would end, as well. Much of Podila’s agenda concerned plans for the next semester, so there was another plausible reason for Bishop’s withdrawn manner: she didn’t really need to be there.
A biochemist named Debra Moriarity watched Bishop from across the table. Moriarity knew all about Bishop’s tenure woes; they had developed a friendship since Bishop had arrived on campus as an assistant professor, in 2003. They often talked about their families: Bishop had four children (her oldest, Lily, was a student at Huntsville); Moriarity had recently become a grandmother. Moriarity had voted against Bishop’s receiving tenure, and Bishop knew it, but they had remained cordial, and Bishop had confided in Moriarity about her professional despair. “My life is over,” she had said at one point. Moriarity reassured her that she would find another position. “It’s just a matter of the fit,” Moriarity said. During the meeting, she made a mental note to ask Bishop how her search for a new job was going.
For fifty minutes, Bishop said nothing. Then, just as the meeting was concluding, she stood up, pulled out the gun, a 9-mm. Ruger semiautomatic, and shot Podila in the head. The blast was deafening. She fired again, hitting a department assistant, Stephanie Monticciolo. Next, Bishop turned and shot Adriel Johnson, a cell biologist. People screamed and ducked for cover, but Bishop was blocking the only door. Moriarity did not fully register what was happening until she saw Bishop—her jaw set, her brow furrowed—train the gun on a fourth colleague, Maria Ragland Davis, and shoot her.
Moriarity dived under the table. With gunshots ringing out above her, she flung her arms around Bishop’s legs, looked up, and screamed, “Amy, don’t do this! Think of my daughter! Think of my grandson!” Bishop looked down—then turned the gun on Moriarity.
Click. Moriarity, in terror, stared at the gun. Click. The weapon had jammed. Moriarity crawled past Bishop and into the hallway; Bishop followed her, repeatedly squeezing the trigger. As Bishop tried to fix the gun, Moriarity scrambled back into the conference room and another colleague barricaded the door. The room, a prosecutor later said, looked “like a bomb went off. Like a war zone.” Six people had been shot, three of them fatally. The entire episode had lasted less than a minute.
Bishop went downstairs to a ladies’ room, where she rinsed off the gun and stuffed it, along with her bloodstained plaid blazer, into a trash can. Then she walked into a lab and asked a student if she could borrow his cell phone. She called her husband, Jim, who often picked her up after class, and said, “I’m done.” When she left the Shelby Center, through a loading dock in the back, a sheriff’s deputy apprehended her.
Satellite news trucks began arriving to report on the tragedy. By 2010, mass shootings in America had nearly lost their capacity to shock. Although it was only February, there had already been fifteen other shootings that year involving three or more victims. But Amy Bishop’s case was notable in that she did not fit the profile of a mass shooter: women very rarely commit such killings. Bishop had been a high achiever since childhood. An accomplished violinist in her youth, she had received a Ph.D. from Harvard, and had completed postdoctoral work at the Harvard School of Public Health. Her marriage appeared to be stable. She had no criminal record and no history of substance abuse.
After massacres involving gun violence, from Columbine High School, in 1999, to Sandy Hook Elementary School, in December, one of our national rituals is to search for some overlooked sign that the shooters were capable of such brutality. “This is not a whodunnit,” Amy Bishop’s court-appointed lawyer, Roy Miller, observed after the Huntsville attack: Bishop left nine living witnesses to her crime. The question was why. After the shooting, the press initially focussed on Bishop’s professional disgruntlement. (A headline in the Chronicle of Higher Education asked, “IS TENURE A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH?”) But Miller suggested that the problem was more complicated. “There are people in our community who are walking time bombs,” he said, adding, “They are so hard to identify.”
The morning after Bishop was taken into custody, the sheriff’s department in Huntsville received a phone call from a man named Paul Frazier, who said that he was the chief of police in Braintree, Massachusetts—the Boston suburb where Bishop had grown up. Frazier said, “The woman you have in custody, I thought you’d want to know: she shot and killed her brother back in 1986.”
The Bishop family home in Braintree, at 46 Hollis Avenue, is a gabled Victorian with a gracious covered porch. It was built in the nineteenth century by a dentist, who ran his practice from a cottage on the property. The front lawn is dominated by a giant copper beech whose knuckled branches are sturdy enough to support climbing children. When Amy’s little brother, Seth, was a boy, he would ascend the tree, then panic, unable to get back down. His mother, Judy, would issue branch-by-branch instructions until he reached the ground.
Judy, whose maiden name was Sanborn, came from an old New England family in Exeter, New Hampshire, where her grandfather had owned a shoe factory. She met her husband, Sam, at the New England School of Art, in Boston. He was in many ways her opposite: born Sotir Papazoglos, he was raised by immigrants in a Greek enclave of Somerville. He joined the Air Force in 1954 and later changed his name to Sam Bishop. Judy was a gregarious woman with a curly blond mane and a raucous sense of humor; Sam was taciturn and burly, with an Old World reserve. “I chased him until he caught me,” Judy liked to say.
In 1964, they moved to Iowa City, where Sam did graduate work in fine arts at the University of Iowa, painting during the day and working as a janitor at night. The next year, Judy gave birth to Amy. She was a bright, emphatic child who arranged her toys in elaborate formations, as if they were perpetually on parade. The family eventually returned to Massachusetts, where Sam got a teaching job in the art department at Northeastern University. They settled in Braintree in 1968, and Seth was born later that year.
Braintree is a middle-class suburb just south of Boston, at the edge of the Blue Hills. During the postwar years, it became a beachhead for Irish and Italian families fleeing the city’s grittier precincts. (When I was growing up, in Dorchester, a few miles away, people from Braintree and nearby towns used to joke that they were O.F.D., originally from Dorchester, with a distinctly Bostonian nostalgia—proud to be from there, but also proud to have left.)
Braintree could seem clannish, but Judy’s affability won people over. She got involved in civic life, joining the Town Meeting, the local governing body, and drawing editorial cartoons for the local paper. Deb Kosarick, a nurse who rented the cottage from the Bishops and grew close to the family, told me, “She was like the town spokesperson. If you had a question, you’d call her.”
Amy was asthmatic, and her childhood was punctuated by trips to the emergency room. Her early attraction to science was a by-product of this affliction: she resolved to find a cure. She started playing the violin in the third grade, and Seth asked Sam and Judy if he could play, too. It has been suggested that there was a rivalry between the siblings, and Amy certainly possessed a competitive streak. But those who knew them at the time insist that the Bishop kids were close. “She doted on her little brother,” Kathleen Oldham, who was close friends with Amy in Braintree, said. “They both loved music, loved science. She seemed to enjoy having someone younger to collaborate with.”
Amy recently called me from the Alabama prison where she is incarcerated. Maintaining that she and her brother always had “a good relationship,” she reminisced about childhood excursions to the beach with him, and about spending time together at her grandmother’s summer house, on Lake Winnipesaukee, in New Hampshire. “Seth and I loved each other,” she said.
Siblings can be confederates just as easily as rivals, particularly when they feel at odds with their milieu. “Braintree is a jock town,” one of Judy’s friends told me, and in this context the gangly, studious Bishops could seem exotic. When they practiced the violin on summer evenings, their shrill arpeggios elicited, among neighbors, a mixture of curiosity and envy. “Amy was kind of a loner,” Judy’s friend recalled. “But in a town like Braintree a bright kid is apt to be.”
Seth was shy, too, but less aloof. “Seth would sit and talk with you,” Deb Kosarick remembers. “He’d pull up a chair. Amy was more of a breeze-through kind of person.” He plunged into new hobbies with enthusiasm. “Seth liked to find out how things worked,” his best friend, Paul Agnew, told me. Their friendship grew out of a shared fascination with trains: they tinkered with a model railroad that Seth had constructed in his attic, and sneaked past “No Trespassing” signs into a local Conrail yard, where they could examine the mammoth locomotives up close. On his bike, Seth ventured beyond Braintree; with a pen and a map, he charted ambitious expeditions through surrounding communities. Sometimes Judy would be driving, miles from home, and see a solitary rider pedalling up ahead, only to discover that it was her son.
I spoke with some of Seth’s friends, now men in their forties, and more than one started crying at the mention of his name. They attested to his mischievous vitality and his self-possession. Once, in middle school, he was surrounded in the cafeteria by classmates who taunted him for carrying his violin and suggested, mockingly, that he play it. Seth removed the instrument from its case, raised his bow, and began to play, beautifully, until the bullies were cowed into silence. “He called their bluff,” Agnew, who observed the episode, remembered.
During his senior year of high school, Seth began dating a boisterous, diminutive junior named Melissa Tatreau. Amy, who had moved into Boston to attend Northeastern, did not seem to approve of the relationship. “I got the impression she thought I wasn’t good enough,” Melissa told me. Seth’s family was inviolable, Melissa was learning—“a unit.”
One night in 1985, the Bishops returned home from the wake of Sam’s father to find the curtains billowing out of an open first-floor window. Thieves had ransacked their house, stealing Judy’s wedding ring, a pair of silver cups commemorating the births of Seth and Amy, and other valuables, evidently stuffing them into pillowcases stripped from the children’s beds. The family was distraught. Judy wrote a letter to the local paper, pleading for the return of their keepsakes. Sam drove to nearby Canton, where he visited a sporting-goods store and purchased a twelve-gauge shotgun. Judy and Amy objected to having the gun in the house, but Sam kept the weapon, unloaded, in his bedroom closet, with a box of shells on a nearby dresser.
More than a year later, on December 6, 1986, the Braintree police received a frantic 911 call from Judy Bishop. Her daughter had shot her son, she said. Soon afterward, she told the police that she had witnessed the whole thing. It was an accident.
The chief of the Braintree police department, John Vincent Polio, was an acquaintance of Judy Bishop’s. He had joined the force in 1950 and rose to the top job in 1962, acquiring a reputation for being cunning, controlling, and eccentric. Polio had a gleaming bald head and hooded, skeptical eyes, and he wore pin-striped suits and colorful ties. He had made his name as a reformer and a moralist, shutting down pornographic theatres and unlicensed gambling parlors. He set about upending the cozy quid pro quos that can distinguish small-town life, banning practices like “ticket fixing,” in which local grandees who were stopped for speeding could call in a favor at the department and get the ticket expunged. “Between pols and cops, there gets to be a symbiotic relationship,” he once observed. “Like suckers feeding on sharks.”
Polio was especially determined to curb police corruption. Once, in 1974, he received a tip that two of his own officers were planning to burglarize a local restaurant, the Mai Tai, and he arrested the men himself. He was hard on his subordinates, even the honest ones, and one local resident who knew Polio told me, “He had a crew that didn’t like him very much.”
One of the young officers in the department was Paul Frazier, who went on to become chief himself, and later informed authorities in Alabama about Seth Bishop’s death. “Polio didn’t trust anybody,” Frazier told me, when I met him last summer. Yet, as embattled as Polio felt, Frazier said, “I would bet he was the most powerful person in this town.”
We were sitting in Frazier’s office, in a back corner of the police station. He was preparing to retire, but had agreed to talk about the Bishop case. “This used to be Polio’s office,” Frazier said with a smile, adding, “but it didn’t look like this.” Polio was something of an autodidact, and he had helped design the police station—a squat complex of striated brown stone. Keeping the drapes of his office closed, he would sit in the amber light of a single bulb above his desk and glower at visitors, Frazier recalled, “like he was J. Edgar Hoover.”
On the morning of December 6, 1986, Judy Bishop got up while it was still dark. With the rest of the family asleep upstairs, she left the house and drove, as she did most days, to nearby Quincy, where she stabled an elderly gelding. She usually spent a few hours exercising the horse and cleaning out the stable. It later became a significant question when, exactly, she returned to the house, but she was definitely there by just after 2 P.M., when she called the police.
The station is less than two miles from the Bishop house, so officers quickly arrived at the scene. Judy met them at the front door, her clothing spotted with blood. She directed them to the kitchen. Seth lay in a crimson slick on the floor, bleeding to death from a chest wound. Amy, who was twenty-one at the time, wasn’t there.
As paramedics tried to revive her son, Judy spoke to the police. Seth had just returned home from the grocery store, she said, and she was in the kitchen with him when Amy came downstairs, carrying Sam’s shotgun.
Judy told the officers, “Amy said to me, ‘I have a shell in the gun, and I don’t know how to unload it.’ I told Amy not to point the gun at anybody.” But, as Amy swung the weapon around to show it to her brother, Judy said, “the gun fired.” The kitchen was small, and Amy had been standing close to her brother, so the shot hit Seth point-blank. When he collapsed, Judy told the police, Amy fled.
The officers put out a bulletin, and not long afterward Amy was picked up outside an auto-body shop in town. She was taken to the police station, where a lieutenant named James Sullivan interviewed her. That morning, Amy had been alone in the house—after her mother had left for the stables, her father and her brother had also gone out. “She stated that she loaded the shotgun because she had been worried about ‘robbers’ coming into the house,” Sullivan wrote afterward. Seth had once taught her how to load the weapon, she said—but not how to unload it. So she loaded several shells, but as she was trying to figure out how to remove them she accidentally fired a shot, shattering a vanity mirror and blasting a hole in her bedroom wall. When she heard Seth come home, she went downstairs and asked him to help her unload it—at which point, Sullivan wrote, “she turned and the shotgun went off.” He added, “I asked her if she shot her brother on purpose and she stated no.”
Amy told the police that her father had left the house that morning after a family “spat.” Later, in Sam’s own interview with law enforcement, he described it as “a disagreement with Amy” over “a comment that she had made.” He left at around 11:30 A.M. and browsed for Christmas presents at the South Shore Plaza, a nearby mall. When he returned home, Hollis Avenue was aglow with emergency lights.
Sam hurried to the hospital and was there at 3:08 P.M., when Seth was pronounced dead. He was eighteen. As Seth’s thin body was pushed past Sam on a gurney, Seth seemed to turn his head and gaze up at his father. “They keep saying he was dead, but he didn’t seem dead to me,” Sam later recalled. “He looked at me.”
That evening, Amy was released from the police station, and Judy and Sam took her home. “[D]ue to the highly emotional state of Amy Bishop, it had generally been impossible to question her while she was at the Braintree Police Department,” a subsequent report maintained. So Amy had been “released to the custody of her parents with further investigation to follow.” While the family was out, some neighbors had scrubbed Seth’s blood from the kitchen floor, to spare them the task.
Deb Kosarick, the nurse renting the cottage, arrived home around suppertime, and she joined Judy in the kitchen. Amy had gone upstairs and climbed into her parents’ bed. Sam had retreated to his study. Kosarick’s grandfather had been a police officer in a small town in Massachusetts, and Kosarick, knowing a bit about law enforcement, was surprised that Amy had been released so quickly. As Judy relayed the horror of what had happened, Kosarick noticed specks of blood and tissue still clinging to the kitchen appliances. “You can’t be in here,” she said to Judy, gently escorting her from the room.
“When death comes to a young person . . . the community as a whole stops for just a second, attempting to catch its breath,” a friend of Judy’s, Vincent Martino, wrote in the local paper. In the days after Seth died, people came by the Bishops’ house to drop off Chinese food or to express condolences. Scores of mourners attended Seth’s wake, at the Church of All Souls. His body was in an open casket, and Sam and Judy clung to their daughter. “Amy looked like a zombie,” her friend Kathleen Oldham recalls. “She was catatonic.”
A medical examiner ruled Seth’s death an accident, pending a police investigation. Two days after the shooting, Chief Polio told the Boston Globe, “Every indication at this point in time leads us to believe it was an accidental shooting.” But the ultimate responsibility to investigate fell to the district attorney. Eleven days after the killing, Brian Howe, a state trooper working with the D.A.’s office, along with two Braintree police officers, interviewed the Bishops at the house on Hollis Avenue. In Howe’s final report on the case, dated March 30, 1987, he concluded that Seth’s death was the result of “the accidental discharge of a firearm.”
When I spoke to Amy on the phone, she said that she was “horrified” by her brother’s death. She insisted that it had been an accident, but said that she nevertheless felt “guilty.” For months after the shooting, she crawled into bed with her parents. During the day, friends had to coax her to leave the house. Today, a young person who had witnessed—or been responsible for—the violent death of a sibling would almost certainly receive therapy. But Amy received no counselling or psychiatric evaluation after Seth’s death. Her father was not a big believer in psychiatry, and Amy told me that she had not wanted to confront what had happened. “I was very insular, sticking to the house and trying to get over things,” she recalled. “I felt terrible. I didn’t want to explore feeling terrible.” The Bishops chose not to move, so Amy continued to eat meals in the kitchen where her brother had died, and to walk past his bedroom, which her parents had left intact, with its Revolutionary War wallpaper and a handmade sign above the door—an old woodworking project that bore the chiselled letters “S-E-T-H.”
Amy returned to Northeastern, but for a time she lived at the house in Braintree. After finishing classes for the day, she would go to Sam’s office on campus and wait for him to drive her home. Eileen Sharkey, Sam’s longtime secretary and a friend of the family, said that Amy seemed to deflect her grief by becoming a dedicated student; she earned excellent grades. Sam grew more sombre and withdrawn. “Judy focussed on keeping Sam going, and on saving Amy,” Sharkey said. “Judy’s purpose was to save her family.”
Occasionally, Judy, while driving, would spot a boy riding his bike up ahead. Maybe there’s been a terrible mistake, she would think, overcome by excitement. But then she would pull alongside, and see that it was not her son.
As Amy moved on with her life, graduating from Northeastern and enrolling in the Ph.D. program in genetics at Harvard, in 1988, she seldom spoke of her brother. Brian Roach, a college classmate, said, “You just knew: don’t bring it up.”
One person who attended Seth’s wake was Jim Anderson, a student at Northeastern, whom Amy had met in a campus group devoted to Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. After dating for a few years, they got married in 1989, in a simple ceremony at the church where the Bishops had held Seth’s wake.
Sam Bishop had told his daughter that one way to overcome her loss was to create life herself. In 1991, she gave birth to Lily, who was followed by two more daughters, Thea and Phaedra. Friends describe Amy as a loving, if high-strung, mother. She bought organic food, encouraged her children to play instruments, and fretted over whether they were adequately challenged in school. Amy found the Ph.D. program difficult, and distinguished herself less at Harvard than she had at Northeastern. But in 1993, after revising her thesis, she was awarded a degree, and began the first of several postdoctoral appointments. For a time, Amy, Jim, and the children lived in the cottage on Hollis Avenue—a convenient arrangement, because Amy trusted only Judy to babysit. But, in 1996, Sam and Judy sold the house and moved to Ipswich, thirty-five miles to the north. “Too many ghosts,” Sam said.
In 2001, Amy had a baby boy. She named him Seth. Few of her friends were aware of the significance of the name. “I knew her when she was pregnant,” her friend Gail Doktor recalled. “Imagine having a whole conversation about baby names with someone who is sidestepping the fact that she’s going to name her baby after her brother—who she killed.” Amy’s son was born on what would have been her brother’s thirty-third birthday.
Amy had written poetry in college, and later took up fiction. She became friends with Gail Doktor through a local writers’ group. Amy eventually produced three novels, dark thrillers in the Michael Crichton vein, but they were never published. Like Bishop, the books’ protagonists are of Greek extraction, dream of an illustrious career in science, and are haunted by the death of a child they once knew. For several of Amy’s characters, procreation offers a symbolic redemption. One of her protagonists is seized by a fear that her baby might grow up to resemble a boy named Luke, who died. Amy writes, “She wondered whether she could survive her boy’s childhood, if she could, without crying, watch her child that looked like Luke run and play.” (Amy acknowledged to me that “there are some parallels” between her life and her novels, but cautioned, “I try to keep it a fictionalized account.”)
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Amy was a divisive figure in the writing group. She boasted that she was working with a literary agent to secure a book deal, and she liked to mention that she was distantly related, on her mother’s side, to the novelist John Irving. She had little patience for the gently constructive language of a writing workshop, and could be brusque and disparaging. “Kill it,” she would say of a plot element that she found wanting. She was proud of her Ph.D., and the status conferred by a Harvard education was a leitmotif in her books. (Her writing colleagues did not know that Amy had been considered a weak doctoral candidate. “This is local scandal No. 1,” someone who was familiar with her graduate work at Harvard told me. “She should never have got a degree.”)
As brittle and imperious as Bishop could be, she also could be a warm and considerate friend. Many people told me about her quick, barbed humor. Gail Doktor used to call her Crazy Amy, in affectionate acknowledgment of her volatility. “People vibrate at different speeds,” Doktor said. “And Amy vibrated at a high frequency.” When Doktor’s daughter was given a diagnosis of cancer, Amy sent along clips about new courses of treatment; occasionally, she clutched Doktor’s hands and said a prayer.
Amy had discovered religion after Seth’s death, while she was still in college, and began attending a local evangelical church. This might have seemed an anomalous development for a budding Harvard scientist; moreover, Sam was lapsed Greek Orthodox and Judy was a Unitarian whose church, Sam joked, was more like “a debate society.” But Amy’s novels reveal a deep preoccupation with the concept of deliverance from sin. The protagonist of “Easter in Boston” wonders whether “any amount of calling on the Lord Jesus would erase her sins.” The central figure in “The Martian Experiment” finds solace only at the end, when a friend tells her, “Jesus loves you no matter what you’ve done.” (Amy told me that she accepts Christ as her Saviour, and she has been reading the Bible in prison.)
One Saturday morning in 2002, Amy, Jim, and the children went for breakfast at a crowded IHOP in Peabody, Massachusetts. When they requested a booster seat for Seth, a waitress told them that the last one had just been given to another party. “But we were here first!” Amy protested. She approached the offending customer—a woman sitting down to breakfast with her own kids—and launched into an expletive-laced rant. “I am Dr. Amy Bishop!” she shrieked repeatedly, according to a police report. A manager asked Amy to leave the restaurant, and she complied—after walking back to the woman with the booster seat and punching her in the head. Amy was arrested, but the charges against her were dropped, and never appeared on her permanent record.
At the time, Amy was still doing postdoctoral research; it was clear to those who knew her well that she was under a great deal of pressure to succeed in a demanding profession that can be inhospitable to women, while also caring for four young children. The stress of reconciling one’s desire to have a family with the imperatives of an élite job is a recurring theme in the novels. “We will be regarded as leaders in our fields just because of the name on our diplomas,” a pompous scientist says to one heroine. “And you want to change nappies, wipe snotty noses, and shovel green glop into a baby’s mouth like any fat, stupid Hausfrau?”
Several people who know the family noted that Amy was, effectively, the sole breadwinner: Jim never obtained an advanced degree and worked only sporadically, often in laboratory jobs that he secured through Amy’s assistance. In “Easter in Boston,” the heroine, Elizabeth, is married to Jack, a computer programmer who can’t hold a job in his field and ends up working at Radio Shack; she describes him as “ambition-challenged” and a “flaccid, bed-loving loser.” Amy once told one of her Alabama colleagues that her husband was “too smart to work.”
In Amy’s third novel, “Amazon Fever,” about a Harvard postdoctoral fellow, Olivia White, who must save the planet from a deadly retrovirus, the University of Alabama in Huntsville is described as the “M.I.T. of the South.” When Amy accepted a tenure-track job there and the family relocated, in 2003, the move seemed to promise some financial stability. She and Jim began to collaborate on the invention of an automated cell incubator; David Williams, the president of the university, predicted to a local paper that the device would “change the way biological and medical research is conducted.” But, because Amy was pursuing patents rather than writing papers, her publication record was scant, and she appears not to have heeded repeated warnings that failing to publish more could jeopardize her prospects for tenure. She fared no better in the classroom, where she would occasionally inform pupils that they were not as bright as their counterparts at Harvard. She abruptly dismissed several graduate students from her lab. Others requested to be transferred.
Amy had always been anchored, to some extent, by her friends and family in Massachusetts, but as her career began to drift in Huntsville she grew increasingly isolated, and stopped returning their phone calls and e-mails. She was prone to erratic, at times bizarre behavior. In 2009, she published an article in the International Journal of General Medicine, an online publication widely regarded as a vanity press, and listed four co-authors: Jim, Lily, Thea, and Phaedra. “We were going to do a lot of work side-by-side and bring the kids in on it,” Jim later explained to Wired. “Like the Curies did.”
That spring, Amy’s tenure was denied. At least one member of her committee expressed a concern that she was “crazy,” telling the Chronicle of Higher Education that he had first worried about her mental health “five minutes after I met her.” Amy filed a series of appeals, eventually hiring a lawyer. And she began to fixate on what she considered the cautionary tale of Douglas Prasher, a molecular biologist whose research funding dried up in 1992, when his tenure prospects at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution seemed in doubt. Prasher ultimately abandoned science. Then, in 2008, two scientists with whom he had collaborated won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, based in part on Prasher’s research. By that time, Prasher was living in the Huntsville area, where he drove a courtesy van for a local Toyota dealership. Amy told her husband that she was worried she might have a similar fate.
Since childhood, Amy had suffered from severe allergies, which could manifest as hives or eczema. In the months before the shootings in Alabama, she told me, she was under tremendous stress, and she began to hallucinate. Shortly after Seth’s death, she said, she started to “hear voices,” and since then they had continued, off and on, coinciding occasionally with allergy attacks. “Sometimes they’re scary and sometimes they’re not,” she said of the voices, but she refused to elaborate.
One day, Amy drove to the university and parked in front of the administration building. Sitting in her car, she called the office of the president and announced her intention to come upstairs to discuss her case. She was told that President Williams would not meet with her, and that she should not even enter the building. According to an affidavit written by Amy in prison, which was described in a recent court filing, she then saw Williams and the provost, Vistasp Karbhari, hurriedly leave the building, escorted by police. Amy telephoned Debra Moriarity. “They act like I’m going to walk in and shoot somebody,” she said.
A week before the killings, Amy’s husband accompanied her to Larry’s Pistol & Pawn, a firing range on the edge of town, for target practice. They brought along a 9-mm. Ruger that Jim had acquired, more than a decade earlier, in Massachusetts; a friend had bought the weapon in New Hampshire and given it to him, illegally, allowing Jim to circumvent the waiting period that Massachusetts imposes on gun permits. It remains unclear whether Jim had concerns about entrusting Amy with a firearm; he refused repeated requests for an interview. But Amy occasionally described her husband to friends as “a Svengali.” Several people who knew them during these years suggested to me that, when Amy felt injured or humiliated by some professional slight, Jim tended not to soothe his wife’s outrage but to fan it. One close friend of the couple told me, “Amy was a narcissist. She had a deep desire to be reaffirmed, and that was the way that Jim held power over her.”
When Jim called Judy Bishop to tell her that the police had taken Amy into custody, she asked, “Jim, did you have a gun in the house?”
Not long after Amy Bishop shot her colleagues in Huntsville, authorities in Massachusetts released decades-old documents about the death of her brother. The original police reports—several dozen yellowed pages, some covered in handwritten jottings, some of them typed—contain revelations that call into question the 1987 state-police report that declared the killing an accident.
When Seth fell to the floor and Amy ran out of the kitchen, she left the house through the back door, taking the shotgun with her. She crossed Hollis Avenue and cut through a wooded area, emerging in an alley that dead-ended at the body shop of Dave Dinger Ford, an auto dealership. Because it was a Saturday, the place was closed, but a few off-duty mechanics were hanging out there. According to the mechanics, Amy came inside, holding the shotgun. She said that she needed a car and demanded that they turn over some keys. The men ran, and Amy was outside Dinger Ford when Ronald Solimini—a cop who had been sent from the Bishops’ house to look for a young woman wearing a jean jacket and carrying a shotgun—came across her.
Amy looked “frightened, disoriented,” Solimini noted in his report, but “she kept both her hands on the shotgun.” Solimini approached her slowly, trying to reason with her. But she wouldn’t put down the weapon.
As he was talking, Solimini noticed that another officer, Tim Murphy, was approaching Amy from behind, his .38 revolver drawn. Solimini continued to talk as Murphy crept closer, until he was just a few feet behind Amy. Then Murphy shouted, “Drop the rifle! Drop the rifle! Drop the rifle!” According to Murphy’s report, Amy complied. The officers handcuffed her, recited her Miranda rights, and took away her gun.
One afternoon not long ago, I visited a friend who is knowledgeable about firearms and spent an hour loading and firing the same model of twelve-gauge Mossberg that Amy Bishop used that day. A pump-action shotgun is loaded by “racking the slide”—a thrust-and-pull gesture, familiar from action films, that emits a satisfying mechanical shuck. The Mossberg that Amy carried could hold up to five rounds. Shotgun rounds are brass-and-plastic cylinders densely packed with gunpowder and tiny pellets, or shot. When the trigger is pulled, the shot explodes out of the weapon, but the casing—the shell—remains inside the gun. If one of these spent shells is in the chamber, racking the slide will, in a single fluid motion, eject the old shell out the side of the gun and push a fresh round into the chamber.
As I racked the shotgun, fired it, and racked it again, one detail from the police reports nagged at me. At the house on Hollis Avenue, the officers had discovered a cardboard box of twenty-five rounds on Amy’s bed. Four rounds were missing. She had fired one of them in her bedroom. (The police recovered the spent shell on the bedroom floor.) A second round had killed Seth. They discovered a third round in Amy’s jacket pocket. And, when the police examined the shotgun after taking it from Amy, they found the fourth round. It was in the chamber, ready to fire. After you have fired a pump-action shotgun, the only way to chamber another round is to pump it again. So at some point after shooting Seth and before being arrested, Amy must have racked the slide, jettisoning the shell that had killed her brother and loading a fresh one in its place.
When Amy arrived at the Braintree police station, she was taken to the booking room. Pointing a loaded weapon at anybody is grounds for a felony charge of assault, and brandishing a gun in front of a police officer is an affront to law enforcement that is seldom taken lightly. So why did the police let Amy Bishop go?
Soon after the Alabama massacre, Paul Frazier, the Braintree chief of police, offered an unsettling answer. At a press conference, he was unambiguous in his assignment of blame. One of the lieutenants had been booking Amy, he explained, when he was informed that the police chief had ordered her release.
A reporter asked Frazier who the chief had been at the time.
“John Polio,” he replied.
“It was all Polio’s decision,” Frazier told me. Amy was being questioned at the station when Judy Bishop arrived. According to Ronald Solimini, who had returned to the station by then, Judy demanded to see the chief, shouting, “Where’s John V.?”
When I asked Frazier how Judy came to be on a first-name basis with the chief, he said, “She was a big supporter of his.” In the mid-eighties, he reminded me, Judy had been a member of the Town Meeting, the local representative body. Polio, who was in his early sixties at the time, had been “quietly working” members of the group in the hope of raising the mandatory retirement age of police officers, which was sixty-five.
In this telling, the famously incorruptible Polio ended up granting the ultimate political favor. For years afterward, Frazier told me, officers in the department whispered among themselves about the decision to let Amy go. It was an open secret in the station house, Frazier said, and knowledge of this transgression cast in a different light Polio’s prohibition on ticket-fixing and other forms of small-bore police corruption. “If he can fix a murder, I can fix a ticket” was the prevailing attitude, Frazier said. “It was a miscarriage of justice,” he concluded. “Just because it was a friend of his.”
By the time these new details emerged, Polio was eighty-seven, and still living in Braintree. When reporters showed up at his front door, they found a frail old man with concave cheeks, wearing a white baseball cap that said “#1 Grandpa.” He invited them in.
Polio said that, in his recollection, Seth and Amy had been “horsing around” with the family shotgun when it went off. “The mother was saying her version of how it happened, and her version was that it was an accident,” Polio recalled. He said that it was “outlandish” to suggest that there had been any sort of coverup. Polio refused to accept responsibility for the decision to let Amy go without charging her. “I didn’t tell anybody to release her,” he said.
Bill Delahunt, who was then the district attorney for Norfolk County, which includes Braintree, and who went on to serve seven terms in Congress, told me that if he had been aware of the incident at Dinger Ford he would have charged Amy with assault, which likely would have triggered a psychiatric evaluation. “It might have had a totally different result in terms of what happened in her life,” he said. Delahunt blamed Brian Howe, the state trooper who had written the final police report calling Seth’s death an accident, for omitting an account of the standoff with the police.
But when I tracked down Howe, who is now retired and living in Georgia, he told me that he hadn’t included the aftermath of the shooting in his report because he hadn’t known about it. He said that he had asked the Braintree police for their original reports, but they had not been turned over. Although Delahunt told me that Howe should have been more diligent in his investigation, he, too, placed the ultimate responsibility on the Braintree police department—and, in particular, on Polio. “They never would have released Amy without the imprimatur of Polio,” Delahunt said. “They would have been afraid to.”
Bishop in 2012, two years after she shot six people in Huntsville, Alabama.
Photograph by Michael Mercier / The Huntsville Times / AP
The newly disclosed evidence reframed the public persona of Amy Bishop. After the Alabama shootings, the media had initially portrayed her as an oddity, a “nutty professor” whose actions were an extreme expression of the pressures of academic life. Now she was depicted as something more malevolent and familiar: the bad seed. Seth’s death, in this reckoning, was only the first entry in a catalogue of unheeded warnings. There was the episode at IHOP, and another case, in 1993, in which Amy and her husband had been questioned by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms. Amy’s postdoctoral adviser at Harvard, Paul Rosenberg, with whom she had apparently had some dispute, received a suspicious package in the mail one day. Rosenberg opened it carefully—the Unabomber was active in those years—and narrowly circumvented the trigger mechanism attached to a pair of six-inch pipe bombs. The case remains unsolved, and charges were never brought against Amy or her husband. But they were both identified as suspects. They were living in the cottage on Hollis Avenue at the time, and authorities searched the place while Sam and Judy looked on. Law-enforcement interviews revealed that Amy and Jim had spoken to friends about how one might build a pipe bomb. And Amy had once given her college friend Brian Roach a strange birthday present: ten pounds of potassium permanganate, which can be used to make explosives. (Roach told me that it was “just a joke.”)
In the weeks after the Alabama shootings, several former colleagues and neighbors came forward, describing various altercations with Amy, mostly over trivial matters. Jimmy Anderson, Sr., Amy’s father-in-law, told a reporter that he had seen “the Devil in her eyes.”
“People kept sweeping her bad behavior under the rug, and now we’re paying a tremendous price,” one trustee of the University of Alabama told the Huntsville Times. Even Roy Miller, Amy’s lawyer, believed that there was a telling pattern of violence. “Something is wrong with this lady,” he said. “Her history speaks for itself.”
As this new interpretation of Amy Bishop’s past took hold, Judy Bishop began her own metamorphosis in the public eye. The grief-stricken mother transformed into a manipulative schemer who had subverted the law in order to protect her wayward child. In this new interpretation, Judy resembled the Joan Crawford character in “Mildred Pierce,” a strenuously doting mother who covers up a string of misdeeds, including murder, committed by her daughter, with disastrous results.
Euripides describes motherhood as “a potent spell,” and the human instinct to protect one’s children can inspire awe. One winter day in northern Quebec some years ago, a polar bear wandered into a village and approached a seven-year-old Inuit child. The child’s mother threw herself at the seven-hundred-pound animal, and held it off until a hunter arrived and shot it.
Of course, it’s one thing to save your children from certain death and another to shield them from criminal prosecution. But most parents would likely recognize the impulse to cover for a child’s transgressions, whether or not they might actually do so themselves. Several years ago, an Atlanta elementary-school teacher named Sheila Michael was sentenced to eight years in prison for concealing her twenty-two-year-old daughter’s involvement in a hit-and-run accident that killed five people. While a manhunt was under way for the driver who caused the accident, Michael persuaded a mechanic to mask the damage to the family car. It emerged in court that her daughter had wanted to confess, but Michael had told her not to, because, as the judge observed, “you did not want to lose her.”
Had Judy Bishop, witness to the death of her own son, made a similar calculation?
Cold cases are hard to investigate under the best of circumstances, and the shooting of Seth Bishop was especially difficult because it had not been treated as a crime to begin with. Neither the Braintree police nor the state police had run much of an investigation. None of the physical evidence had been retained—even the Mossberg shotgun had vanished after the ballistics tests. There were a few perfunctory crime-scene photographs, but the Bishop house had not been subjected to a comprehensive investigation; in any case, the integrity of the scene had been compromised by the sympathetic neighbors who had wiped away the blood.
There was another problem: by 2010, the statute of limitations had long since expired on any crimes that Amy might be charged with in relation to the confrontation at Dinger Ford. The only crime that had no statute of limitations was murder, but, to convict Amy of that, prosecutors would have to prove that she had intentionally killed her brother.
One day, as investigators were reviewing the crime-scene photographs, they stumbled on a possible clue. In one of the pictures taken in Amy’s room, a copy of the National Enquirer was visible on the floor. Someone in the district attorney’s office ordered the issue from the Library of Congress, and investigators saw that much of it was devoted to the murder of the parents of Patrick Duffy, an actor on “Dallas.” On November 18, 1986, two young assailants had killed Duffy’s parents in the Montana bar that they owned. They used a twelve-gauge shotgun and fled the scene, brandishing the weapon in an attempt to steal a getaway car. This may have seemed like a tenuous basis for divining Amy’s mental state on the day of the shooting, but investigators wondered if Amy had seen the article as a kind of instruction manual. William Keating, the district attorney at the time, suggested to the Globe that the photograph could be used to prove intent.
In April, 2010, local authorities opened an inquest into Seth’s death. Twenty witnesses appeared at a red brick courthouse in Quincy. Tom Pettigrew, one of the mechanics who had encountered Amy at Dinger, described her holding the shotgun, saying, “Put your hands up!”
Solimini, the cop, recalled how strange it was to hear Judy Bishop ask for Polio by his first name. “I never heard anybody call him John,” he said. Kenneth Brady, a sergeant who was in the station that day, testified that he, too, heard Judy ask for the chief. James Sullivan, the lieutenant who questioned Amy, said that he had actually written the words “murder” and “assault with a dangerous weapon” on the charging sheet. But, because the officers were later instructed to release Amy, she was never charged with those crimes.
According to Sullivan, whom I spoke with recently, his interrogation of Amy came to an “abrupt halt” when Judy Bishop entered the booking room, in a conspicuous breach of protocol. One of the captains on duty told him that Judy Bishop had spoken to Polio and explained that the shooting had been an accident—and Polio believed her.
“I was like, What?” Sullivan told me. He recalled complaining to the captain, “If we let every person go because their mother didn’t think they committed a crime, there would be no point in arresting anyone.” But he was told that Polio had ordered the release, and that he was “to obey that order.”
At the inquest, Sergeant Brady testified that, after Amy was reunited with her mother, they embraced: “Mrs. Bishop stated that she had lost her son today, and she didn’t want to lose her daughter.”
When Sam Bishop took the stand, he denied that the “spat” with Amy had been serious. “I didn’t leave there thinking we had some terrible disagreement,” he said. The robbery in the summer of 1985 had been “traumatic” for Amy, he explained, which was why she dug out the gun and loaded it. “She was sitting in that Victorian house,” he said. “She was afraid. And she made a terrible mistake in acting on that fear.” He had brought along a photograph of Seth and Amy, to remind the judge that “they’re real people.” The picture, which was taken around Halloween, just a few months before Seth died, captured the siblings grinning at each other, carving a small pumpkin on a kitchen table blanketed in newsprint.
“I left the house at about six in the morning and I was gone until two o’clock,” Judy said when she took the stand. “I pulled into the driveway and Seth pulled in right behind me.” She helped him carry the groceries inside, then Amy came downstairs and asked for help in unloading the shotgun. At that point, Judy said, Seth reached for the gun, Amy turned, and “it fired.” Amy had one hand on the barrel and one hand on the stock: “She didn’t even have her hand on the trigger.”
As the mother of the victim and an eyewitness to the shooting, Judy was a powerful presence on the stand. She recounted hearing her son say, “Oh, no, Mom,” before he collapsed to the floor. “The blood was just—it just came in a wave,” she said. “My shoes were full of blood. My hair was full of blood.” She concluded by saying, “I just would add that it was the worst day of our lives.”
Judy denied having any sort of friendship with John Polio, and insisted that she never asked for him at the station. Polio and his wife, Ginny, testified, and they, too, said that Judy and the chief had not been close friends. I recently met with Ginny Polio at a coffee shop in Braintree, and she made a surprising claim: although the officers at the station had not known it, the chief had actually been in the building that day. Polio had designed his office to have its own entrance, through a private garage, so that his subordinates would not know whether he was there. “Part of my job is to have the most evasive schedule I can,” he once said. “Knowing cops the way I do, they have to realize that Daddy may be around at any time.”
Ginny was also at the station that day, she told me; before marrying Polio, in 1999, she had been his secretary. She recalled that a captain, Ted Buker, discovered Polio in his office, and told him, “Chief, you know Judy Bishop, the Town Meeting member? Her daughter, Amy, shot her brother. Her mother said it was an accident.” According to Ginny, Buker didn’t mention the incident at Dinger Ford, and said that he intended to turn the case over to the state police and the district attorney. In Ginny’s rendering, Polio replied, “Do it.” He never spoke with Judy Bishop; he never ordered Amy’s release. (Ted Buker is no longer alive.)
Ginny is a small woman with a flinty gaze. She remains incensed by what she regards as a concerted effort by veterans of the Braintree police to smear her husband. Polio died in December, 2010, weakened, Ginny believes, by the ordeal of defending himself. He was buried with a police escort, but when family members were organizing a wake they requested that Paul Frazier stay away.
After the inquest, the case was referred to a grand jury, and on June 16, 2010, Amy Bishop was indicted for the first-degree murder of her brother. Sam and Judy released a statement. “We cannot explain or even understand what happened in Alabama,” they wrote. “However, we know that what happened 23 years ago to our son, Seth, was an accident.”
Two days after the Massachusetts indictment was announced, Amy, in jail in Alabama, popped the blade out of a safety razor and slashed her wrists. When I asked her about this incident, she told me that she had tried to end her life once before, after Seth’s death. That time, she said, she hadn’t known what she was doing; by 2010, she had experience teaching anatomy and physiology. “I slashed longitudinally, over the radial artery,” she said. She collapsed in her cell, bleeding, and survived only because a prison guard discovered her. Roy Miller, her lawyer, told me, “Another four minutes, and she would have been dead.”
One morning last fall, I drove north from Boston to the blustery coastal town of Ipswich. In a quiet subdivision, I stopped at a gray clapboard house set back from the road. Sam Bishop met me at the door.
I had been speaking with Judy for some time, in phone conversations during which her voice often warbled and thickened with tears, and we’d exchanged a series of e-mails. Whether despite or because of their anguish and isolation, Judy and Sam remain very close. They share an e-mail address, which meant that it was sometimes difficult for me to ascertain who, precisely, was writing.
“Every time I go to the doctor, I’ve lost another inch,” Judy said, straining as she retrieved a photo album from a high shelf. She was in their living room, an airy space with exposed beams and art work, by both of them, on the walls. She was wearing an oversized Mark Eckō T-shirt that was tagged with fake graffiti. Her hair, which was still voluminous, had turned translucent white. “Growing old,” she said with a smile. “It’s not for sissies.”
We flipped through the photo album, and Judy showed me pictures of her children’s birthday parties; of Seth and Amy flying balsa-wood airplanes in the back yard; of Seth on his way to the prom, grinning, in his red Camaro. Then the images of Seth ceased and, as Judy turned the pages, we saw a pressed flower; a poem, in Greek, by Sam’s mother; and the faded program from Seth’s memorial service.
“What the Bishops have gone through really is a Greek tragedy,” their friend Eileen Sharkey had told me. “One child destroys another by accident, then is destroyed herself, and the parents are left to watch as every little thing that could be salvaged from Seth’s death—Amy’s attempt to have a normal life—is torn away.”
Judy had prepared a lunch of tuna sandwiches, and as we ate at the kitchen table Sam said that, during the weeks after the Alabama shooting, TV crews had set up klieg lights outside their home and shone them through the windows, so that at midnight it felt like the middle of the day. They did not dispute the horror of what Amy had done in Alabama, though they didn’t dwell on it, either. “She’s a brilliant, brilliant girl, and she just snapped,” Judy said. But the Bishops expressed a righteous fury over what they perceive to be the opportunistic score-settling of authorities in Massachusetts. “They were out to find some way to nail Polio,” Judy said. She is offended by the notion that these men would presume to tell her how her own son died. “I was there!” she exclaimed. “I saw it happen. It changed my life.”
The Bishops told me that Frazier had lied in his February press conference. At that event, Frazier had not only suggested a conspiracy between Judy Bishop and Chief Polio; he had erroneously claimed that the morning argument had been between Amy and Seth. Judy scoffed at Frazier’s implication that she was politically powerful in Braintree: she had been a member of the Town Meeting, but that body consisted of some two hundred and forty people. The Bishops believe that Solimini also lied at the inquest when he conjured Judy asking to see Polio and invoking his first name. “We are damaged people—we’ll never be the same,” Judy said, her voice rising. “What they did is unforgivable. And I hope they burn in Hell.”
“O.K., Judy,” Sam said, gently. He had been nervously thumbing through a folder of documents, and he began to pull out copies of the original police reports, each underlined and annotated. He had discovered a U.S. Army report suggesting that a military version of the Mossberg twelve-gauge, when dropped on its muzzle, can occasionally misfire. But when he presented the report at the inquest, Sam said, it was ignored. (In fact, the officer who examined the gun after Seth’s death mentioned the report when he testified—but he added that he had personally “shock tested” the weapon, and it had not misfired.)
Sam explained that the kitchen in the house on Hollis Avenue was a very tight space. He stood up from the table and mimed sweeping the shotgun around, as Amy would have done to show it to Seth. “I have a feeling she may have banged it,” he said, speculating that if the stock had hit a cabinet or a counter, that might account for the misfire.
When I asked about the family “spat,” Sam said that he had woken at around ten that morning, but did not come downstairs until around eleven-thirty. “I almost tripped on something in the hallway,” he said. He doesn’t remember what it was, but he reprimanded Seth and Amy and told them to pick up their belongings. “And they responded, Amy especially,” he said. But they resolved the matter amicably. “I didn’t think anything of it,” Sam insisted.
On the subject of Amy’s moods, Judy said, “She had her father’s temper.”
“Did Amy and Sam ever butt heads?” I inquired.
“Oh, yeah,” Judy said, eying her husband and chuckling. Sam said nothing.
In the Bishops’ view, the Dinger Ford incident has been overblown. “She was in shock!” Sam said, though he could not explain why Amy had racked the slide again after leaving the house. In any case, Judy pointed out, if Amy was looking for a getaway car, she didn’t need to go waving a shotgun around. Judy’s car was in the driveway. The keys were hanging by the kitchen door.
One thing that particularly angers the Bishops is the fact that Frazier and other members of the department—who supposedly were so troubled by the decision to release Amy in 1986—said nothing about the matter until the news arrived from Alabama in 2010. The Bishops have a point: dozens of cold cases were reopened in Massachusetts during those years. Fear of John Polio might account for a reluctance to speak out while he was still in power, but he retired in 1987. “There was nothing said for twenty-five years,” Sam said. “Now, all of a sudden, everyone’s got the answer?” (When I asked Frazier about the inaction of the Braintree police, he said, “That’s a good question.” After a pause, he ventured, “We just never thought we could resurrect the case.”)
Amy’s parents blame her suicide attempt in prison squarely on the indictment in Massachusetts. But, when I asked them whether Amy had ever tried to kill herself before that incident, Judy said, “No.”
“Well, she cut herself . . . ,” Sam began.
Judy corrected him: Amy had been “carving pumpkins,” she said, and “she stabbed herself right here”—she tapped her wrist. “That was not a suicide attempt.” They took Amy to the hospital, where a doctor stitched her up.
“She was saying she wanted to see how sharp the knife was,” Sam explained.
“It wasn’t a suicide attempt,” Judy said again.
Roy Miller, an Alabama native with a croaky drawl, has been practicing law in the Huntsville area for nearly four decades. After the court assigned him to be Amy Bishop’s lawyer, he spent eighteen months preparing an insanity defense. Amy had asked for the death penalty. (“The woman wants to die,” Miller told me.) The alternative would likely be life without parole, and Amy, who was incarcerated at the county jail in Huntsville, would probably be transferred to the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women, a notoriously brutal institution in central Alabama. Last year, a complaint filed with the Justice Department alleged that the prison was marked by “frequent and severe officer-on-inmate sexual violence.” When I asked Miller about Tutwiler, he said, “It is antediluvian down there.” Amy told a friend that she didn’t want to spend the rest of her life in “a tiny little box.”
But Sam and Judy persuaded her that, even if she wished to be executed, capital cases are often so attenuated that it could be decades before an execution happened. So she entered a plea of not guilty by reason of insanity. The defense hired a series of prominent psychiatrists to evaluate Amy, but it would not be an easy case to make. Juries in Alabama have exhibited a notable distaste for the insanity defense. “Someone essentially is caught in the act and the next thing you know they are insane,” Rob Broussard, the district attorney prosecuting Amy, has remarked. “The public sees insanity defenses for what they’re worth, which is not much.”
Amy told me that, though she is “horrified” by what she calls “the U.A.H. incident,” she has no memory of the killings. Moments after the shootings, as police officers shoved her into a cruiser, she told them, “It didn’t happen. . . . They’re still alive.” It is difficult to know whether this partial amnesia is genuine or a tactic. She told me that, though she remembered shooting Seth by accident, she didn’t recall anything that happened at Dinger Ford. When I asked her why she had racked the shotgun after shooting her brother, she said, “I don’t remember that at all.” I pointed out that her periods of memory loss seemed to coincide with her gravest misdeeds. She responded, “After traumatic events, people often remember nothing.”
The Alabama case was further complicated by the fact that several of the people she shot, including Gopi Podila, the department head, had actually voted for her tenure; the bloodshed could not be explained simply as an act of vengeance. Amy’s parents, and her friends, tend to refer to Seth’s death as “the accidental shooting” with a robotic insistence that can sometimes feel like spin. When it comes to the shootings in Alabama, they often employ the passive voice, as though Amy had no agency in the matter. Once, when I was talking with her friend Brian Roach, he referred to “the accident in Alabama.”
Amy told me that she is being treated with the antipsychotic Haldol, and that she has paranoid schizophrenia. But Roy Miller said that she had not received so definitive a diagnosis, and that, in any case, it could be difficult to sustain in court the notion that Amy was beset by extreme delusions. She had, by and large, lived a well-adjusted life. She earned a Ph.D. and raised four children without major incident.
When I asked Judy if she had been aware that Amy sometimes heard voices, she said, “Absolutely not.” She added that, if such a thing were true, Amy “wouldn’t tell her father or me.”
Amy did not shed her imperiousness in jail. She joked to Miller that her vocabulary was deteriorating because of the company that she was forced to keep, and that her I.Q. was dropping. “She has a tremendous sense of humor,” Miller said, noting that it occasionally got her into trouble. “They had her in a cell with one of these real fat ladies from one of these real country burgs,” Miller told me. “This lady, she didn’t have any teeth.” The cellmate had a pair of false teeth that, on one occasion, she placed on the windowsill. A passing guard spotted the dentures and asked Amy and her cellmate who owned them. Amy grinned at the guard and said, “Let me give you a hint.”
“She got chewed out for that,” Miller said, with a dry laugh.
“I punched out a girl—three girls, actually,” Amy told me, explaining that the county jail was “rowdy.” She insisted that, in all three cases, she had acted in “self-defense.” After one verbal dispute in the mess hall, another inmate beat her mercilessly with a cafeteria tray.
Amy’s trial was scheduled for September 24, 2012. But two weeks before that date Miller approached the prosecution about the possibility of a deal. Amy was willing to plead guilty to capital murder in exchange for a commitment by prosecutors that they would not seek the death penalty. She would spend the rest of her life in prison, without the possibility of parole. It is not entirely clear what drove this reversal, but Miller told me that if they went to trial there would have been a “one-per-cent chance” that they could have convinced a jury that Bishop was not guilty by reason of insanity. He also said that a battery of psychiatric tests had proved inconclusive: the defense had no satisfying evidence that Bishop was insane.
The prosecutors agreed to the deal. One afternoon in September, I went to the Madison County Courthouse, in downtown Huntsville, to watch Bishop plead guilty. Dozens of policemen had congregated for the arrival of the most notorious murderer in the county’s history. The courtroom was full of spectators, but Amy had asked her family to stay away. As she was led in, everyone craned their necks to catch a glimpse. She wore a red jumpsuit and flip-flops over white socks. The shackles around her ankles jingled like sleigh bells as she shuffled past. She had lost weight: her eyes were sunken and her pale forearms looked like Popsicle sticks. But she held her head high, flaring her nostrils a little, appraising the room with a residual trace of her anxious hauteur.
When a defendant pleads guilty in a capital-murder case in Alabama, the state must present an abbreviated version of its evidence in court, and Amy sat quietly, clasping and unclasping her hands, while the prosecution described her crimes. As photographs of her slaughtered colleagues were projected, she buried her head in her arms like a schoolchild, her dark hair spilling onto the table. When the judge asked Amy if she agreed to plead guilty and waive any right to appeal, she addressed the court for the first and only time, saying, in a soft voice, “Yes.” She was subsequently moved to Tutwiler.
The next question was whether Amy might still face a murder trial in Massachusetts. That would be a disastrous turn for the Bishops, who would have to relive once more the trauma of Seth’s death, and face uncomfortable questions about Amy’s actions at Dinger Ford and the circumstances of her release. Yet it might also pose a problem for the prosecutors. It was one thing to indict Amy; many litigators will tell you that it is not difficult to secure an indictment from a grand jury. But trying her for first-degree murder would oblige the prosecution to present a case involving an alleged crime that took place more than a quarter of a century earlier. Some of the people who might be called to testify were now elderly, with faulty memories. Many others were dead. Almost all the original physical evidence was missing, including the apparent murder weapon, and the only eyewitness to the event was the mother of both the victim and the shooter—and she would no doubt be summoned as the star witness for the defense.
There was also the matter of motive. While some accounts suggested that there had been animosity between Amy and her brother, I was unable to identify a single person who knew the siblings and could testify to that; the prosecutors would likely face a similar challenge. Paul Frazier had asserted in his press conference that the quarrel on the morning of December 6th had been between Amy and Seth, but all the other evidence indicated that it actually had been between Amy and her dad.
A few days after Amy’s guilty plea, the Norfolk County district attorney’s office released a statement announcing that it would not seek her extradition, because Massachusetts does not have the death penalty; given that Amy is serving life without parole in Alabama, the statement explained, “the penalty we would seek . . . is already in place.”
Then the case took an unexpected turn. Amy let it be known, through a public defender named Larry Tipton, who was representing her in Massachusetts, that she wanted to be tried for Seth’s death. She had always insisted that the shooting was an accident, and she appeared to resent the implication of the withdrawn indictment. ‘‘She wants to use a trial to help demonstrate that she’s innocent,” Tipton said.
“I want the truth to come out,” Amy told me. “I want that for me, for my parents, for closure.”
When violence suddenly ruptures the course of our lives, we tend to tell ourselves stories in order to make it more explicable. Confronted with scrambled pieces of evidence, we arrange them into a narrative. Faced with the same tragic facts, those who concluded that Amy Bishop murdered her brother and those who concluded that she didn’t both took messy events and turned them into a story. But neither story was especially convincing.
The caricature of Amy as the demonic sister who sought inspiration in the pages of the National Enquirer before murdering her brother in cold blood is too facile, as is the cynical narrative of a secret handshake between John Polio and Judy Bishop that kept the truth buried for decades. In the months that I spent talking with people in Braintree, I came to believe that there had indeed been a coverup, but that it had been an act not of conspiracy but of compassion. In small towns, in particular, some degree of denial about what happens behind the closed doors of one’s neighbors can come to seem not merely exigent but humane. “I’ve always believed it was an accident,” Amy’s friend Kathleen Oldham told me. Then, echoing a sentiment that I heard countless times, she added, “And I’ve always said, If it wasn’t, I didn’t want to find out.” Some of the police officers in Braintree knew the Bishop family. Judy knew the parents of some of the younger cops, through the Town Meeting. It may have seemed that the most charitable way to address the confounding tragedy at Hollis Avenue was simply to move on—a parochial gesture of mercy and denial that had an incalculable cost, decades later, in Alabama.
The counter-narratives put forward by the Bishops and by Ginny Polio are also unsustainable. However much Chief Frazier and his colleagues loathed John Polio, the notion that they would fabricate evidence and invent misgivings simply to defame him seems dubious. Again, there is a more humane and logical explanation for the zeal with which the authorities in Braintree pried open this painful case in 2010: for officials there, the inquest offered a way to purge past misconduct and exorcise an old form of government. “This wasn’t just about a shooting that happened twenty-three years ago,” the town’s mayor, Joe Sullivan, told me. “It was about Braintree today.”
Whatever sympathy one might feel for the Bishops, there was no denying the anomalies in their account of that Saturday. One afternoon, I went to see someone who knows the family but had asked that I not use her name. “I’m going to tell you something that I haven’t told anyone in twenty years,” she said.
In the eighties, Judy Bishop had a close friend named Saran Gillies, a local woman who was active in Braintree politics. On the day that Seth was shot, Gillies was planning to go to Judy’s house for tea, but Judy had called her to cancel. “There’s been a terrible fight here,” Judy told Gillies, according to the woman, whom Gillies telephoned immediately afterward. “It’s bad.” Sam had gone off “in a huff.” Shortly thereafter, Gillies learned that Seth Bishop had been shot.
“Saran and I put it together,” the friend told me. When Amy heard Seth return with the groceries, they surmised, she must have “thought it was her father coming home.” The hypothesis that these two women secretly shared was that Amy had no intention of killing her brother. What she may have intended, when she descended the stairs with the shotgun, was to kill her father.
Of course, this was just another speculative narrative about murky events, and Gillies died several years ago. Yet this theory might explain how a fight between Sam and Amy, and not Seth and Amy, had left Seth dead. It would also explain a key discrepancy in the timing of the story that the Bishops have related. At the inquest, and in Judy Bishop’s interviews with me, she insisted that she was at the stables from 6 A.M. until roughly 2 P.M., and that she arrived home just as Seth returned from the grocery store. But, when Brian Howe, the state trooper, interviewed the Bishops shortly after Seth’s death, Amy told him that when she came downstairs with the shotgun she had the impression that her mother had been home “for a while.” In the same set of interviews, Sam Bishop told Howe and the two officers with him that he had expected Judy home between eleven o’clock and noon. In her statement, Judy said that she had “returned to the residence to see if there was anything for lunch.” Seth was home when she got there, Judy told Howe, and “stated that he would go to the store to pick up some food so that [we] could all have lunch.”
According to this account, delivered shortly after the shooting, Judy came home not after Seth returned from the grocery store but before he had left. There is a good reason that Sam and Judy Bishop would be uncomfortable with such a timeline: in their telling, Amy took out the shotgun in the first place because she had been home alone for several hours.
At the inquest, the firearms expert who had examined the twelve-gauge Mossberg testified that it normally takes five pounds of pressure on the trigger in order to fire the gun. “You’re saying the only way it could have gone off accidentally, even if her finger was on the trigger, was if someone was actually pulling it?” he was asked.
“Trying to pull the gun out of her hands,” he responded. “Yeah.”
None of this necessarily indicates that Amy intended to kill her father. She could have been waving the gun around, angry with Sam and wanting to make a demonstration. When I was about fourteen, I once had an argument with my father. It was about some trivial matter—I don’t remember what—but I was furious. We were staying by the ocean, and my father would swim every day, taking long laps parallel to the beach. As he swam that day, I started skipping rocks. I saw him approaching, and continued to pick stones from the sand and hurl them at the waves. Then, suddenly, I heard a howl. My father staggered out of the water, disoriented and alarmed. I hadn’t meant to hit my father—I had intended simply to frighten him, to assert myself somehow. Apart from the shock, it did him no real harm. But it could have. When I told my mother this story recently, she surprised me by saying, “You know, in all these years, your father has never told me about that.”
After I heard the story about Saran Gillies, I went back through Amy’s novels, looking for any further clues that they might hold, and I made a startling discovery. In her first book, “The Martian Experiment,” Abigail White, the protagonist, is haunted by an incident from her childhood. Early in the novel, Abigail is playing with Kathy, a friend from school, and Kathy’s younger brother, Luke. The two girls quarrel, and Kathy throws a rock at Abigail. Overcome by fury, Abigail spies a fist-size rock on the ground and “fires” it into the air, “hoping to make Kathy dodge away in fear.” The rock sails toward Kathy, but it misses her—and lands, instead, on the head of her little brother, Luke.
“He fell back like a toy soldier,” Amy writes. “He never knew what hit him.” Abigail is stunned, “dreading what horror her rock, meant to scare Kathy, had visited upon Luke.” He slips into a coma and dies, and his parents conclude that he must have had an aneurysm.
The passage echoed what seemed to be the most plausible account of Seth’s death: in a fit of anger, a young woman wields a dangerous weapon, intending to frighten one person, but ends up killing another. Abigail is tormented by her actions, and she eventually tries to confess to her grandmother, whom she calls, in the Greek style, Yaya—the name that Amy used with her own grandmother. “I killed Luke,” she says. In a firm whisper, Yaya tells her, “The boy is with God. He knows you are sorry.”
Later, Abigail’s father enters her room, thinking that she is asleep, and kisses her on the forehead. “That one kiss told her that the decision was made and final.” The family will say nothing of her possible responsibility for the death.
When I posed the alternative hypothesis of that day to Amy, she hurried off the phone. The next day, she called back. She denied that the argument with her father had been serious, and offered a different account of it: she had finished a pot of coffee, and Sam had been irritated because “he had to make another pot.” She said, “So I’m not sure where that phone call when Mom said we had a fight came from, because we didn’t,” adding, “Our family always had a very nice relationship.”
Andrew Solomon, in his recent book “Far from the Tree,” writes, in a discussion about how parents cope with children who have killed, “There’s a fine line between heroic love and willful blindness.” Parental denial may be driven by compassion, Solomon argues, but it can also be profoundly confusing for the child. If the child has committed a terrible crime, the parent may refuse to confront it because that feels like the surest strategy for restoring a stable existence. But that very refusal may actually be further destabilizing. In Solomon’s view, it can be “alienating—even traumatic” when parents refuse to acknowledge the horrible things that their children have done. In her novel “Amazon Fever,” Amy Bishop describes the father of her heroine as “willfully blind,” and wonders whether that blindness might make him, on some level, “complicit.” The passage made me wonder about Sam. Had he considered that Amy might have been intent on shooting him? And had he and Judy ever discussed this possibility?
I decided to talk to Judy about the alternative theory, although I wondered if there was much point. “There are only two people who really know what happened in that house,” the woman who related the theory to me said. “And I think Judy has buried it and come up with something she can deal with.” She paused. “And bless her for that.”
She was not alone in this feeling. In speaking with people in Braintree, I was often asked if I had children, as if that might be some prerequisite for grasping the moral calculus at play. “I’ve never asked Sam and Judy what happened in the house that day, because I don’t want them to lie to me,” Judy’s friend Deb Kosarick told me. “And you know what? To protect my kids, I’d lie, too. I’d lie on a stack of Bibles.”
The day before Thanksgiving, I went to see the Bishops again. It was a bitterly cold morning, and smoke curled from their chimney. On December 6th, they had plans to visit Seth’s grave, which is in New Hampshire. It was an annual pilgrimage, and for years Amy had joined them. She would speak to the grave, telling Seth about her life and her children. Even today, she will occasionally call her parents and tell them that Seth has visited her in her jail cell—that he talks to her, and sits on the edge of her bed. Until very recently, Amy told me, she spoke of her brother “in the present tense, or not at all.”
Amy seems unlikely to prevail in her request for a trial in Massachusetts. The decision is up to the district attorney, who appears disinclined to proceed. She has also appealed her conviction in Alabama. This move—which baffled her parents, given that she had pleaded guilty and waived her right to an appeal—also has little chance of success. “The worst thing about prison is being separated from my children,” she told me. Jim, who still lives in Huntsville, has custody of the kids. She speaks to them on the phone as often as she can. Her daughter Phaedra is in the process of selecting colleges. Amy is encouraging her to apply to Harvard.
Sam made coffee and we sat at the kitchen table. When I asked Judy about where she had been on December 6th, she reiterated that she had been at the stables all morning, and did not return home until approximately 2 P.M., just as Seth was getting back with the groceries.
I pointed out that, in her original statement to police officials, she had said that she had come home before Seth left to buy groceries.
“That’s not true,” Judy said.
“Those weren’t statements,” Sam said. Brian Howe and two other officers had interviewed them; the three of them then compiled their notes into a summary report. Perhaps the summary was mistaken. In any case, Sam told me, he had told the men that he had expected Judy to return at eleven-thirty or twelve simply because that was the time she normally came home from the stables.
“All I know is what happened,” Judy said. “I left the barn. I drove in the driveway. Seth pulled in right behind me.”
“I wasn’t thinking about trying to get some alibi for anyone,” Sam said, growing flustered. “We had a funeral. We had a burial. We had a daughter who was totally depressed. They asked the questions. We weren’t thinking of the time. They heard things, the three of them.”
I asked Judy whether she had made plans to have tea with Saran Gillies that day—plans that she broke, because of the fight between Sam and Amy.
“What?” she said. “That’s not true.”
I explained that I had heard this from someone who knew Gillies well.
“Holy God, look at these people!” Judy exclaimed, her voice rising.
I then told the Bishops the story about my father and the rock. “Is there any scenario where Amy was angry with Sam,” I began, “and she came down with the gun, and she was waving it, and—”
“Absolutely not,” Judy said. She moved from the table to an adjacent couch, by the fire.
I asked why Gillies would tell someone that she had plans with Judy that day if she didn’t.
“I don’t think she did,” Judy said. “Someone is saying something that isn’t true.” She began to cry. “All these people that are talking about it, they weren’t there,” she said.
“It’s over, Judy,” Sam said.
“It isn’t over,” she said.
“I know, but there’s nothing we can do about it.”
“Amy was a good, good girl. We lived a decent life,” Judy told me. “All I know is what happened. I was there.” She looked at me intently, her eyes glazed with tears. “I was there,” she repeated. “I was there.” She held her stare, unblinking, until, eventually, I grew uncomfortable and looked away. ♦