Before Ala., Prof Marred by Violent Past

WHNT-TV Screen Grab of Amy Bishop, accused of killing three colleagues at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. WHNT

Updated at 8:53 p.m.

The professor accused of killing three colleagues during a faculty meeting was a Harvard-educated neurobiologist, inventor and mother whose life had been marred by a violent episode in her distant past.

More than two decades ago, police said Amy Bishop fatally shot her teenage brother at their Massachusetts home in what officers at the time logged as an accident - though authorities said Saturday that records of the shooting are missing.

Bishop had just months left teaching at the University of Alabama in Huntsville when police said she opened fire with a handgun Friday in a room filled with a dozen of her colleagues from the school's biology department. Bishop, a rare woman suspected in a workplace shooting, was to leave after this semester because she had been denied tenure.

Photos: Shooting on Campus

Police say she is 42, but the university's Web site lists her as 44.

Some have said she was upset after being denied the job-for-life security afforded tenured academics, and the husband of one victim and one of Bishop's students said they were told the shooting stemmed from the school's refusal to grant her such status. Authorities have refused to discuss a motive, and school spokesman Ray Garner said the faculty meeting wasn't called to discuss tenure.

William Setzer, chairman of chemistry department at UAH, said Bishop was appealing the decision made last year.

"Politics and personalities" always play a role in the tenure process, he said. "In a close department it's more so. If you have any lone wolves or bizarre personalities, it's a problem and I'm thinking that certainly came into play here."

The three killed were Gopi K. Podila, the chairman of the Department of Biological Sciences, and two other faculty members, Maria Ragland Davis and Adriel Johnson. The wounded were still recovering in hospitals early Saturday. Luis Cruz-Vera was in fair condition; Joseph Leahy in critical condition; and staffer Stephanie Monticciolo also was in critical condition.

Descriptions of Bishop from students and colleagues were mixed. Some saw a strange woman who had difficulty relating to her students, while others described a witty, intelligent teacher.

Students and colleagues described Bishop as intelligent, but someone who often had difficulty explaining difficult concepts.

Bishop was well-known in the research community, appearing on the cover of the winter 2009 issue of "The Huntsville R&D Report," a local magazine focusing on engineering, space and genetics. However, it was unclear how many of her colleagues and students knew about a more tragic part of her past.

She shot her brother, an 18-year-old accomplished violinist, in the chest in 1986, said Paul Frazier, the police chief in Braintree, Mass., where the shooting occurred. Bishop fired at least three shots, hitting her brother once and hitting her bedroom wall before police took her into custody at gunpoint, he said.

Frazier said the police chief at the time told officers to release Bishop to her mother before she could be booked. It was logged as an accident.

But Frazier's account was disputed by former police Chief John Polio, who told The Associated Press he didn't call officers to tell them to release Bishop. "There's no cover-up, no missing records," he said.

Attempts by AP to track down addresses and phone numbers for Bishop's family in the Braintree area weren't immediately successful Saturday. The current police chief said he believed her family had moved away.

After being educated at Harvard University, Bishop moved to Huntsville and in 2003 became an associate professor at the University of Alabama's campus there. The school, with about 7,500 students, has close ties with NASA and is known for its engineering and science programs.

Setzer, the chemistry chairman, said he was not aware of the incident with Bishop's brother.

Bishop and her husband placed third in a statewide university business plan competition in July 2007, presenting a portable cell incubator they had invented. They won $25,000 to help start a company to market the device.

Her husband, James Anderson, was detained and questioned by police but has not been charged. Police said Bishop was quickly caught after Friday's shooting. A 9-millimeter handgun was found in the bathroom of the building where the shootings occurred, and Huntsville police spokesman Sgt. Mark Roberts said Bishop did not have a permit for it.

Bishop was in custody and it wasn't immediately known if she has an attorney. No one was home at the couple's house.

Several experts said campus shootings commonly occur because the shooter has some kind of festering grievance that university officials haven't addressed, and the granting of tenure can be a polarizing and politicized process for many academics.

"Universities tend to string it out without resolution, tolerate too much and to have a cumbersome decision process that endangers the comfort of many and the safety of some," said Dr. Park Dietz, who is president of Threat Assessment Group Inc., a Newport Beach, Calif.-based violence prevention firm.

Tenure, which makes firing and other discipline difficult if not impossible, can seem generous to outsiders. But the job protection gives professors the freedom to express ideas and conduct studies without fear of reprisal. The system typically emphasizes research over teaching, and tenured professors typically are paid more.

While it's rare for the stresses of the tenure process to incur violence, what's even rarer is for a woman to be accused in such an incident like the one Friday that also left three of Bishop's colleagues injured, two critically.

"Workplace shootings of that kind are overwhelmingly male," said Franklin E. Zimring, a law professor and director of violence prevention at the University of California, Berkeley. "Going postal was essentially a monopoly position of the XY chromosome."

One of the victims in Friday afternoon's shooting described Bishop as "not being able to deal with reality," according to the victim's husband.

Sammie Lee Davis, whose wife Maria Ragland Davis was killed at a faculty meeting, said his wife also described Bishop as "not as good as she thought she was."

Bishop was charged Friday night with one count of capital murder, which means she could face the death penalty if convicted. Three of Bishop's fellow biology professors were killed and three other university employees were wounded. No students were harmed in the shooting, which happened in a community known for its space and technology industries.

Several sources told CBS News affiliate WHNT-TV in Huntsville that after being denied tenure in the morning, the suspect walked into a biology department faculty meeting Friday afternoon and opened fire.

Davis said he was told those at the meeting were discussing tenure for Bishop, who had been an assistant professor since 2003. Authorities have not discussed a motive.

Dave Williams, the university's president, said the "whole campus is in shock," but wouldn't speculate on a motive for the shooting.

Appearing on CBS' "The Early Show Saturday Edition", Williams said classes would be canceled next week and the school has not determined when they will resume.

Students offered varying assessments of Bishop.

Andrea Bennett, a sophomore majoring in nursing, described Bishop as being "very weird" and "a really big nerd."

"She's well-known on campus, but I wouldn't say she's a good teacher. I've heard a lot of complaints," Bennett said. "She's a genius, but she really just can't explain things."

Bennett, an athlete at UAH, said her coach told her team Bishop had been denied tenure and that may have led to the shooting.

Amanda Tucker, a junior nursing major from Alabaster, Ala., had Bishop for anatomy class about a year ago. Tucker said a group of students complained to a dean about Bishop's performance in the classroom.

"When it came down to tests, and people asked her what was the best way to study, she'd just tell you, 'Read the book.' When the test came, there were just ridiculous questions. No one even knew what she was asking," said Tucker.

But Nick Lawton, 25, described Bishop as funny and accommodating with students.

"She lectured from the textbook, mostly stuck to the subject matter at hand," Nick Lawton said. "She seemed like a nice enough professor."

UAH student Andrew Cole was in Bishop's anatomy class Friday morning and said she seemed perfectly normal.

"She's understanding, and was concerned about students," he said. "I would have never thought it was her."

Bishop, a neurobiologist who studied at Harvard University, was taken Friday night in handcuffs from a police precinct to the county jail and could be heard saying, "It didn't happen. There's no way. ... They are still alive."

Three others were wounded, two critically, in the gunfire. The wounded were identified as department members Luis Cruz-Vera, who was listed in fair condition, and Joseph Leahy, in critical condition in intensive care, and staffer Stephanie Monticello, also in critical condition in intensive care.

Sammie Lee Davis said his wife was a researcher who had tenure at the university.

Bishop and her husband placed third in a statewide university business plan competition in July 2007, presenting a portable cell incubator they had invented. They won $25,000 to help start a company to market the device.

Biology major Julia Hollis was among the students who gathered to support each other and try to make sense of the news.

"When someone told me it was a staff person and it was faculty I was in complete denial," said Hollis, 23, who had taken classes with two of the instructors who were killed. "It took me a bit for it to sink in."

Sophomore Erin Johnson told The Huntsville Times a biology faculty meeting was under way when she heard screams coming from a conference room.

University police secured the building and students were cleared from it. There was still a heavy police presence on campus Friday night, with police tape cordoning off the main entrance to the university.

The Huntsville campus has about 7,500 students in northern Alabama, not far from the Tennessee line. The university is known for its scientific and engineering programs and often works closely with NASA.

The space agency has a research center on the school's campus, where many scientists and engineers from NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center perform Earth and space science research and development.

The university will remain closed next week and all athletic events were canceled to give students and staff time to grieve. Counselors were available to speak with students.

It's the second shooting in a week on an area campus. On Feb. 5, a 14-year-old student was killed in a middle school hallway in nearby Madison, allegedly by a fellow student.

Mass shootings are rarely carried out by women, said Dr. Park Dietz, who is president of Threat Assessment Group Inc., a Newport Beach, Calif.-based violence prevention firm.

A notable exception was a 1985 rampage at a Springfield, Pa., mall in which three people were killed. In June 1986, Sylvia Seegrist was deemed guilty but mentally ill on three counts of murder and seven counts of attempted murder in the shooting spree.

Dietz, who interviewed Seegrist after her arrest, said it was possible the suspect in Friday's shooting had a long-standing grudge against colleagues or superiors and felt complaints had not been dealt with fairly.

Gregg McCrary, a retired FBI agent and private criminal profiler based in Fredericksburg, Va., said there is no typical outline of a mass shooter but noted they often share a sense of paranoia, depression or a feeling that they are not appreciated.
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