Casefiles

Amy Bishop: The University Professor Who Committed Mass Murder

On 12 February 2010, assistant professor Dr Amy Bishop rose from her chair at the end of a staff facility meeting at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, pulled a 9mm handgun out of her handbag and began shooting. She shot three colleagues dead and seriously wounded three others before her gun jammed preventing any more injuries. Upon her arrest it was discovered this was not the first time this neurobiologist had killed someone with a gun.

In 1986 a 21-year-old Amy Bishop shot her 18-year-old brother in the chest with her father’s shotgun in the kitchen of their family home.  Ruled a terrible accident Bishop was never charged with any crime. Now 30 years later, Amy Bishop is facing her future locked in a prison cell with no chance of freedom.  What made this middle-aged intelligent and educated woman with four children commit mass murder?

The Shooting of Seth Bishop

Amy Bishop grew up in Braintree, Massachusetts with her parents and younger brother Seth. By all accounts the two children had a stable and loving upbringing and were close as siblings with a shared interest in music and science. One morning however in December 1986 when Amy was 21-years-old their lives would be changed forever.  One year earlier the family home had been broken into with valuables and jewellery stolen.  The incident prompted Amy’s father to purchase a twelve-gauge shotgun which he kept unloaded in his bedroom closet. On 6 December 1986, Amy’s mother Judy Bishop left early to tend to her horse in a nearby town returning to the house around 2pm.

In her statement to police she said herself and Seth were in the kitchen preparing lunch when Amy came down the stairs with her father’s shotgun in her hands.  She told them she was unable to unload the gun and asked Seth to help her. As Amy moved the gun around to show Seth the gun went off, firing a twelve-gauge round into her 18-year-old brother’s chest.  As he fell to the ground Amy fled still holding the gun and disappeared from the house.

Amy was found by police a short time later outside an auto dealership where she had demanded the use of a car from some terrified mechanics.  When the police arrived Amy refused to lay down the gun, only eventually complying when a police officer crept up behind her.

At the police station Amy gave her account of what happened that morning.  She said she had been alone in the house and became anxious with the previous years break-in on her mind.  She had gone to her parents’ bedroom and retrieved the shotgun, loading the gun as her brother had once shown her how to do.  When she tried to unload the gun and remove the shells the gun gone had gone off upstairs shattering a mirror in her bedroom.  Hearing her mother and brother in the kitchen downstairs, she had taken the gun down to ask Seth to help her unload it properly.  It was an accident she told them, she did not mean to shoot her brother.

Seth Bishop did not survive his injuries and died soon after he was shot. Amy Bishop was released into her family’s custody later that evening and an investigation was launched into the shooting. The coroner ruled the death of Seth Bishop was an accident and after eleven days the police closed the file, determining his death was the result of the accidental firing of a firearm.

“We know that what happened 24 years ago to our son, Seth, was an accident. Despite all the finger-pointing among local police, State Police, and the district attorney’s office, there is no evidence that Seth’s death was not an accident.” – Judy and Sam Bishop in 2010

The Bishop family continued to live in the house where their son and brother died. Amy Bishop did not undergo any counselling or therapy in regards to the incident or in addressing her own guilt about her brother’s death. Amy Bishop threw herself into her studies and achieved a doctorate from Harvard University and began post-doctoral work at the Harvard School of Public Health.  At the same time she married Jim Anderson and went on to have three daughters and a son born in 2001 who she named Seth, after her brother.

A PhD and University Career

Amy Bishop was an intelligent and educated woman. She had no criminal record, no mental health problems and no recent life events that could have caused this woman of science to crack.  She was the last person anyone would expect to carry out a mass shooting.

In the year leading up to the shooting, Amy Bishop’s behaviour however had begun to raise concerns among a number of people.  She was clearly under a great deal of stress running her home and looking after her family as well as pushing forward in her career and keeping up with her postdoctoral work. She published an academic paper in an online journal where she named her husband and three daughters as co-authors and at times displayed behaviour described as ‘erratic’ and ‘unbalanced’.

In 2010 Amy Bishop was 45-years-old and had reached Assistant Professor at the University of Alabama, a role she had been working in since 2003.  The previous year she had applied for tenure at the University, a permanent and much sought after Professor post.  Her application however was turned down and despite a number of appeals throughout 2009, Amy Bishop’s role at the University was due to finish at the end of the first semester in 2010 meaning she would no longer be at the University and would need to find another job.

The University Mass Shooting

On 12 February 2010 thirteen professors and staff members at the University of Alabama sat down in a department meeting to discuss ongoing work and plans for the following semester.  Amy Bishop attended this meeting seating herself in front of the meeting room door and next to the chair of the meeting, plant biologist Gopi Podila. Much of the discussions did not apply to Amy as she would not be at the University in the following semester.  This, her colleagues thought, is why the usually talkative Amy Bishop was quiet for the duration of the 50 minute meeting.

As discussions were drawing to a close, Amy reached into her handbag under the table, stood from her chair and turned to face Gopi Podila.  In her hand was a 9mm Ruger gun and she shot Gopi Podila in the head.  She then turned to staff members seated around the table and began to pick them off one by one.  Department Assistant, Stephanie Monticciolo was hit as was cell biologists Adriel Johnson and Maria Ragland Davis.  Others dived for cover, crawling under the table hoping it would provide some protection from the bullets Amy Bishop continued to fire.

Professor Debra Moriarity was friends with Amy Bishop and could not believe what her friend was doing.  She pleaded with her to stop but her words had no effect. As Bishop turned the gun towards her, it jammed, giving Debra a few seconds of opportunity. She ran for the door and as she was followed by Amy who continued to try and shoot her. “She stepped out in the hall and pointed the gun at me and pulled the trigger. And it clicked and clicked again.” she said.  As Amy stopped to try and unjam her gun, she was able to dart back into the meeting room and with the help of colleagues’ barricade the door to stop Amy Bishop and her gun getting back in.

“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.” – Witness Joseph Ng

Realising she could no longer fire on her colleagues, Amy Bishop walked to the ladies restroom, cleaned herself up and threw her gun into the trashcan before borrowing a mobile phone from a student and calling her husband to come and pick her up.  As she left the building from a side door and waited for her husband she was apprehended by a sheriff’s deputy.

Three people lay dead and a further three were seriously injured. The nine people who were in the conference room that day and survived the attack were able to provide witness statements to police piecing together what happened.  There was no doubt who the shooter was.  The question everyone had is why a woman of such standing and apparent success would commit such a horrific crime?

The Question of Why

The rejected tenure application the year prior to the mass shooting was the first motive considered for why Amy Bishop would turn on her colleagues in such a dramatic and fatal fashion.  It was theorized that this rejection and repeated failed appeals had created a deep-seated anger within Amy Bishop pushing her into a plan of revenge. If it was revenge it was delayed revenge with Bishop being told more than three months before she opened fire on her colleagues that her final appeals had failed and she would not be getting tenure at the University.

Amy Bishop made no attempt to hide her actions on that day, she didn’t enter the university with her identity masked to carry out her plans, she openly stood up and looked her victims and colleagues in the eyes before shooting them.  She wanted them to know what she was doing.

Female mass shooters are exceptionally rare. In an analysis carried out by the FBI of mass shootings across America between 2000 and 2013 they found a total of 160 incidents with only 6 of these involving a female shooter.  Furthermore, of the 12 mass shootings that took place in higher education institutions 2 were carried out by a female shooter.

In cases where a female shooter is involved, places of work or education were often the targets with motives ranging from revenge to mental illness. Notable cases include 36-year-old Cathline Repunte who in April 2001 shot four people killing one at the Laidlaw Transit Services maintenance yard in San Jose, California. 44-year-old Jennifer San Marco, killed seven people in January 2006 at her former workplace, the Santa Barbara US Postal Processing and Distribution Center in Goleta, also in California.

Looking into her past there are a few unsettling incidents involving Amy Bishop which do raise some red flags.  In 1993 Dr. Paul Rosenberg received two pipe bombs in the mail which, luckily, did not detonate.  Amy Bishop was a postdoctoral research fellow with Dr Rosenberg at Boston’s Children’s Hospital and had recently resigned her position with an unfavourable review from Dr Rosenberg on her suitability for the post most likely having influence on her decision.

Both Amy Bishop and her husband were questioned over the mail-bombing at the time but no charges were ever brought. After the mass shooting the mail-bombing was looked into again but no further evidence could be found and the case remains unsolved. Roll forward nine years and Amy Bishop is again questioned by police over an incident in 2002 at the International House of Pancakes in Peabody, Massachusetts.

On a visit there with her family she was told by a member of staff that the last children’s booster seat had just been taken by another family.  Information that seemed to infuriate Amy Bishop who went to the family’s table and began shouting at the mother, screeching that she was ‘Dr Amy Bishop’ before hitting the poor woman in the head.

She was arrested after the incident, but as seems to be the pattern for Amy Bishop she was not charged with any crime. Add to these incidents reports from her students and former colleagues that she could be very intense with emotional outbursts and reactions entirely out of proportion for the circumstances and an image of a dark side to Amy Bishop’s personality, one full of anger with a tendency to retaliate when she feels wronged, begins to emerge.

“There were oddities of personality that made you just go, oh, well, that’s just the way she is. But nothing would have predicted any behavior like this. She never appeared hateful.” – Debra Moriarity

Amy Bishop called her husband after shooting her colleagues and reportedly told him ‘I’m done’, requesting he come and pick her up.  She was arrested before her husband arrived at the University.  One week after the shootings he gave an interview to The Chronicle.  In it Jim Anderson says he had no idea his wife was planning on killing her colleagues or that she even had a gun with her when he dropped her off at the University that morning.  He says Amy Bishop felt she had been ‘unfairly denied tenure’ at the University and intended to take her complaint to the Board of Trustees. He himself has been searching for answers and trying to find what it was that made his wife snap.  So far, he says, he has been unsuccessful in his search.

Charges and Sentencing

During police interviews after the shooting, Amy Bishop did not explain her actions or even admit what she had done, telling the interviewing officer “It didn’t happen. I wasn’t there. It wasn’t me.” Amy Bishop was charged with one count of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder.

In April 2010 a new investigation into the 1986 death of Seth Bishop was launched and two months later she was indicted for the first-degree murder of her brother.

After initially pleading not guilty by reason of insanity to capital murder charges after the mass shooting, Amy Bishop pleaded guilty to all charges on 11 September 2012. After family members of the victims requested that she was not given the death penalty, she accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole on 24 September 2012.

In regards to the charge of murder for her brother’s shooting, the prosecution against her was not pursued after she was jailed for life for the mass shooting. District Attorney Michael Morrissey announced in September 2012 after she was sentenced that “The penalty we would seek for a first-degree murder conviction is already in place. With a life-without-parole sentence in place, there is not an issue of public safety.”

In 2014, Amy Bishop by then aged 49-years-old filed a petition to have her murder conviction overturned.  The petition argued that she is schizophrenic and was not appropriately assessed after the mass shooting incident.  It also claimed she was not properly represented by her attorney during her 2012 trial and the court misinformed her of her rights. Part of the plea deal which she made with the state in 2012 was that she waived her rights to appeal her sentence. Due to this and opinions that her grounds for appeal were meritless, her appeal was rejected and Amy Bishop remains behind bars at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Alabama.

The case of Amy Bishop is perplexing.  A middle-aged mother who seemingly acted alone in a mass shooting intending to kill as many of her colleagues as she could.  If her gun had not jammed in that meeting room on 12 February 2010 there is no doubt there would have been many more deaths.  There is no indication that Amy Bishop had any plans to take her own life after the shooting, which many mass shooters do, but with a gun which no longer worked it is difficult to know what her original intentions were.

The rejection of her tenure application at the University of Alabama and what this meant for the future career of Amy Bishop remains the most obvious motive for this attack, but with Amy Bishop not talking or explaining her actions we may never know what really was behind this one woman’s crusade which took the lives of three people and had a devastating impact on so many others.

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2 Comments

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  • This ‘itch has a chance of being retried, found innocent due to insanity and one day going free. Chances are not good, of course. But if she keeps at it she could eventually find a flaw and win a new trial. Back in court there is a better chance for her insanity plea to be successful. Not hurting her efforts is fact that her original attorney is currently charged with possession of methamphetamine, possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. For now, we are paying a never ending number of attorneys to help her with appeals.