The Bradford Bishop Mystery
Published 11:32 am Friday, April 11, 2014
THE BRADFORD BISHOP MYSTERY
Edited by Ray McClees
Wilma Swain was on duty in the lookout tower five miles south of Columbia on Tuesday, March 2, 1976. From the 120-foot height she could see up to 40 miles in all directions on a clear day. She noticed smoke rising from a wooded area only a mile from the tower’s base beside N.C. Highway 94. She radioed Ronald Brickhouse, a North Carolina Forestry Service ranger, who investigated the fire off Burton Shell Road around 1 p.m. The fire had spread over about three acres of brush and pine plantings when he arrived. He had been fighting the blaze about 10 minutes when he decided to return to his truck and radio for help. What he discovered next changed his life forever and began a mystery that remains unsolved to this day.
“On the way back out by the fire I saw a pile of dirt and walked over, and there were two bodies lying in the hole,” he said. “It’s the first time I ever saw anything like it. My belly turned and I hustled out of there and called for the sheriff.” He radioed Swain to send the sheriff, but he did not tell her what he had found. “I thought maybe it was a whiskey still he had run up on,” she said. It wasn’t.
He found a gasoline can still burning nearby and concluded the fire had been set by someone who had brought the can to the area. A shovel and old pitchfork were nearby. He also spotted fresh tire tracks. Because of heavy fog and damp weather, the fire could have been burning as long as an hour before he arrived.
Sheriff Royce Rhodes, deputy Edward Davis Jr., and game warden Carl Willis met Brickhouse and were directed to the pit.
“It was something I’ve never seen before or since, and I hope to God I never see again,” the sheriff recalled. He called for assistance from the State Bureau of Investigation. Agents Lewis Young, Lenny Wise and William Godley arrived soon, and the latter two began removing the bodies.
“Bill Godley and I lifted those bodies out of the grave,” Wise said. “Gosh, it was terrible. They were just dropped in there.”
Young recalled his growing horror as Wise and Godley discovered more and more bodies. At the bottom of the jumble of smoldering torsos and limbs was a very little boy. The bodies of the two women and three boys could not be identified because of burns and lack of clues, and no missing persons had been reported in the area. The remains were taken in funeral hearses to North Carolina Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill for identification.
The sheriff asked the public for information about missing persons. He ruled out local citizens as the victims, but he asked officials in surrounding counties to check school absentee lists to see if three children of the right ages, perhaps from the same family, had missed school Tuesday. An eerie feeling settled over Columbia. Townfolk that night refused to open their doors even for a team of SBI agents called to check leads into the slayings.
“My daddy told me not to go down there, not to talk to strangers,” said Denise Swain, a high school sophomore.
“I almost took an automatic (pistol) to my dog. He was creeping around the house making strange noises. People were not opening their doors for no one. It’s the roughest here in years,” said Gervis Liverman, a gas station operator.
Fifteen of the state’s top crime investigators converged on the wooded area the next day to scratch for clues. SBI agents moved a $90,000 mobile command post replete with sophisticated radio communications near the Confederate monument next to the Tyrrell County courthouse. As the van was guided into place, Rhodes, a former highway patrolman and Georgia policeman, said, “Maybe something good will come out of this, but this is a bad way for Columbia to be put on the map.”
“People are talking about it all over at school. There are all kinds of rumors. People are pretty scared because they don’t know who’s out there,” said Patsy Swain, a Columbia High School junior.
Dr. Page Hudson, the state’s chief medical examiner, and an assistant performed autopsies over an eight-hour period on Wednesday.
“I was impressed by the multiplicity of the blows on the victims,” he recalled. “When you cave somebody’s head in with one blow, why keep hitting them? The fact that there were so many bruises to the children struck me as odd.” The older woman’s injuries were less severe than the others “and I recall that some people might have survided those injuries, but the emotional aspect of the incident helped kill her.” If the first blows delivered were to the heads of the victims, they would have been knocked unconscious immediately, unaware of the subsequent pounding, he said. The victims, when alive, were in good health, he added. The experts could not identify the charred pajamas of the three boys or the street clothes of the two women, and their fingerprints were not on file. Slight head wounds were found on the woman aged about 60. “She might have been smothered, or she might literally had died of fright,” the state medical examiner said. The woman was clothed in a pants suit and an overcoat with fur trim. The three boys were clad in pajamas and wrapped in sheets, and the young woman was wearing jeans, a denim jacket and tennis shoes. She also was wearing a diamond ring that appeared to be a wedding or engagement ring. All the victims were white. All the bodies were soaked in gasoline, and two were slightly scorched by the fire. Authorities said the head of the two youngest boys were wrapped in towels, apparently in efforts to stop the bleeding. The dental work on all of the victims was excellent. There were no signs of struggle, and there was no indication that the victims had been tied up.
Dr. Robert Albanese, county medical examiner, theorized it took the killer more than an hour to dig the four-foot-deep, bathtub-sized grave. “He must have gotten out of there in a big hurry when the fire got going,” Albanese said. “They were just thrown in the hole.” Officials believe the victims were killed late Monday or early Tuesday and driven to the secluded spot about half a mile from the nearest house. The killer apparently panicked and fled when the flames got out of control.
The medical examiner’s findings were reported to the press by deputy Edward “Boy” Davis Jr. He said it appears the victims were: one female age 60, one female age 25, and three males ages 16, 10, and six. The victims apparently died of multiple head wounds, Davis said, although an autopsy report of how the older woman died was not yet complete. On Thursday, SBI agent Max Bryan in Columbia theorized the victims were “city” people rather than rural residents, because of the women’s hair styles.
Despite a massive investigation which included most of the Eastern Seaboard, and concentrated in school systems from Maine to Florida, authorities were slow in establishing the identities of the five bodies. Most of the victims had dental work, including a root canal on one of the boys, and the state medical examiner was preparing molds of the victims’ dental plates to be distributed to regional dentists. He said fingerprints could be lifted but he doubted records existed for the three boys and two women. Several watches were also found on the victims, discounting robbery as a possible motive for the slayings but providng possible leads. As the investigation entered its fourth day, no missing persons reports in North Carolina or Tidewater Virginia fitted the descriptions of the slain.
A torn price tag on a new shovel found next to the makeshift grave
was a key to the identities of the five dead persons. State SBI agents took the shovel to Tyrrell Hardware Co. in Columbia, where Shelton Ludford gave them the manufacturer’s telephone number. The company traced the last three letters (OCH) on the price tag to Poch’s Hardware Store in Bethesda, Maryland. A North Carolina SBI agent took morgue photographs of the victims to the Maryland store, but no one there could identify them. The store was selling a hundred a month of similar shovels, and employees had no way of identifying the buyer. Then, on Monday, March 8, a resident of Carderock Springs, Maryland, phoned police that her neighbors had not been seen for a week. Detective Joe Sargent drove out to investigate. He spotted blood on the front door steps, and there was a lot more blood inside, in a lower-level den leading to the master bedroom, trailing up a short flight of carpeted stairs, covering a hallway, on a bathroom door and in two bedrooms.
“On the walls, the ceiling, anywhere you looked, there was blood,” said Sargent. “It was plain to see something terrible had happened here.” A communications operator in the Maryland police headquarters recalled that North Carolina officials were asking for help in identifying five bodies. Sargent called the SBI, who told him photographs of the victims had been left at Poch’s Hardware Store. Neighbors tentatively confirmed that the bodies were those of their neighbors.
The Washington Post broke the story on its front page the next day, March 9: “Five members of a Bethesda family — the wife, mother and three sons of a missing State Department official — were beaten to death in their home last week and then driven to North Carolina, where their bodies were set afire in an open grave.
“The victims were identified yesterday as members of the Bradford Bishop family of 8103 Lilly Stone Drive, Carderock Springs. Police said the pajama-clad bodies of sons William Bradford III, 14; Brenton G., 10; and Geoffrey, 5, were found in the fiery grave beneath their fully clothed mother, Annette, 37, and paternal grandmother, Lobelia Bishop, 68.
“Montgomery County police said last night that bloodstains were found in all four bedrooms of the Bishop’s $100,000 contemporary split level home. Other bloodstains were found in the driveway, they said. Police found no weapon and there was no sign of a struggle in the home.”
Police believed the killings occurred about 6:30 p.m., Monday, March 1, and that the bodies were carried out the front door. A station wagon resembling that of the Bishops was seen near the grave site about 10 a.m., Tuesday, the Post reported. William Bradford Bishop Jr., 39, assistant chief of the special trade activities office of the State Department’s economic and business section, was listed as a missing person and was being sought for questioning.
The Post reported that the search for the identity of the victims first forcused on the Washington, D.C., area late the previous week when investigators in North Carolina traced the shovel to the hardware store in Potomoc. The second link came when the Bishops were reported missing. Another hint was that the younger female victim was wearing shoes purchased at Hahn’s Shoe Store and the older woman was wearing a coat from Saks Fifth Avenue, which has a store in Chevy Chase.
A neighbor said Bishop left his office at the State Department downtown at 5:30 p.m. on Monday, March 1, saying he was not feeling well and thought he might be coming down with the flu.
Friends said all of the Bishops were active, including his mother, Lobelia, who frequently would jog down the drive to get the mail.
Bishop’s wife, Annette, was repeatedly described as very attractive, a dark blonde who resembled movie star Ali McGraw. Annette Bishop was taking art classes full time at the University of Maryland in College Park, and was an avid tennis player. The bulletin board at the Carderock Springs Tennis and Swim Club listed her as a participant in the upcoming women’s double tennis tournament. The boys also were attractive, athletic blonds. Brent, who attended Carderock Elementary School, was on the club swim team and was described by one of his friends as a strong little kid who was a super performer on a skateboard. Brad, a ninth grader at Thomas W. Pyle Junior High, played basketball, swam and was a gymnast. Little Jeff attended nursery school.
Neighbors seemed to know less about Bishop than other members of the family, probably because he traveled a lot. But he too was described as athletic, and liking to play tennis and ride a motorcycle. The Bishops moved to the neighborhood two years earlier when he was transferred back to the states after serving as deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Gaborone, Botswana, in southern Africa.
The romance of William Bradford Bishop Jr. and Annette Kathryn Weis, for all outward appearances, personified the ideals of mid-twentieth century America. Tall, handsome, intelligent California boy meets intelligent, beautiful, artistic California girl. Boy goes to Yale, girl goes to Berkeley. Boy and girl marry. Boy has important, successful career; girl pursues interest in the arts and athletics while caring for three young boys who are handsome, intelligent, etc.
Annette Weis was born in Toledo, Ohio, on April 14, 1938. Her parents moved to California when she and her brother Robert were children. The family settled in the Los Angeles suburb of San Marino, and Annette attended nearby South Pasadena High School. It was there that she met Brad Bishop, the son of Lobelia Amaryllis and William Bradford Bishop, an independent geologist, who lived in South Pasadena. Brad was born August 1, 1936. He was graduated from high School in 1954, a year before Annette, and he went to Yale to study economics. At Yale, he was remembered as an above-average student academically. He played freshman football, talked about being a doctor, and was very gregarious. Bishop dropped out of Yale for a year but returned and graduated in 1959. He and Annette were married shortly, in San Clemente, where her family had moved.
Bishop enlisted in the Army on August 7, 1959, at Fort Dix, N.J., took basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., and enrolled in the Army’s intelligence school at Fort Holabird, in Baltimore. In the summer of 1960, he went to the Army’s language school in Monterey, California, where he learned Serbo-Croatian. While the Bishops were living in Monterey, their first son was born on August 14, 1961. Ten days later, Bishop was assigned to the 163rd military intelligence battalion, in Europe, where his wife and young son soon joined him. For the next two years, Bishop served in Europe, primarily in Italy, where he carried out mundane spying efforts such as listening to Yugoslavian radio broadcasts and translating Serbo-Croatian publications into English. When his four-year enlistment ended in 1963, Staff Sgt. Bishop accepted his honorable discharge in Verona; his only medal was for good conduct. The Bishops stayed in Italy, and he enrolled at the Florence campus of Middlebury (Vermont) College, where he studied Italian. Later, the Bishops returned to California where, on July 30, their second son, Brenton Germain Bishop, was born in Pasadena.
In the fall of 1965, Bishop went to Washington, and, armed with a master’s degree and fluency in two foreign languages, he entered the State Department’s foreign service program. By November, he had been promoted to Foreign Service Office grade 7. “Brad was intellectually superior, clearly one of the brightest guys in the class,” said a classmate. Shortly before Christmas 1965, Bishop got his first overseas assignment, as a junior officer in the U.S. embassy at Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. The Bishops quickly became an integral part of the small American community there. He was given high ratings by the ambassador, and she was among the liveliest of the American mission wives.
In January 1968, Bishop was transferred to Milan, Italy, where his fluency in Italian helped him advance. He became FSO 5 in May 1969. The Bishops got the customary rotation back to the states in 1970, and he was sent to UCLA, where he graduated with high grades in mid-1971 with a second master’s degree in African studies. On February 12, 1971, their third son, Geoffrey Corder Bishop, was born, in Pasadena.
Bishop returned to the State Department in Washington in June 1971, and was assigned to the East African Office of the Bureau of African Affairs. When the famil;y returned to Washington that summer, they were accompanied by his mother, whose husband had died earlier. When Bishop was posted for his next foreign assignment, to Gaborone, Botswana, in January 1972, it was a family of six who made the trip.
In Botswana, Bishop was deputy chief of the mission, a position that made him second only to the ambassador. He had been promoted to FSO-4, first in his class to reach that grade. The Bishops returned to Washington in 1974 and settled into the modern frame house in Bethesda, Maryland. The older boys swam competitively at the Carderock Springs Tennis and Swim Club, and Bishop and Annette were popular tennis partners. Lobelia Bishop acted as “mother of the family,” as she had since joining them, freeing Annette to pursue here interest in art. “She did practically everything: buy groceries, drive the kids around, and cook. In fact, young Brad had a paper route for the evening paper and when he didn’t want to run it, his grandmother would do it for him,” a neighbor said. Excellent tennis players, swimmers and skiers, the Bishops often took family trips, so school officials were not disturbed when the boys did not show up for a week.
The slayings stunned Tyrrell County.
“I’ve seen many bodies in worse shape,” said mayor George Rowsom, who is also an undertaker, “but it was a different feeling knowing they were murdered people and the murderer put them there.”
“Even though I deal with crime frequently in my work, it caused me concern that in the small town I live in, we aren’t immune to it either,” said lawyer Charles Ogletree.
Birdie Swain Phelps could look across a field and see the area where the bodies were found. North Carolina’s Mother of the Year for 1976 said the event was a shock. “We thought, oh how awful, how can anybody do this sort of thing. This is foreign to us. This was something dumped in our backyard. I’ve never even heard of anybody being mugged anywhere in the county.”
“We were definitely concerned. We were appalled, but it was a relief to find out it was not somebody you know,” said county coordinator Ray McClees.
With the bodies identified, the coffee klatches at the Scuppernong Restaurant and the boys over the cold draft beer at Carley’s Cafe turned the speculation on who did it and why Tyrrell County was chosen for disposal of the bodies. Many local people found it difficult to believe that a man steeped in tact and subtle diplomacy would revert to the brutal style slaying, especially when the victims were members of his own family. Some speculated Bishop was a victim, too.
Joyce Howell said, “People here aren’t the type to be afraid. It won’t change the lifestyle at all. It’s the best place in the world to live. The people around here aren’t the type to maliciously hurt anyone.”
“When it’s all over, we’ll settle back,” Sheriff Rhodes said.
On Wednesday, March 10, Montgomery County, Maryland, police examined evidence in Tyrrell County and autopsy reports in Chapel Hill. A spokesman said Bishop was being sought through a nationwide alert sent out Monday night. On Thursdayafternoon, the SBI agents left Columbia, taking the big blue mobile command center with them, but helicopeters continued to circle over Tyrrell County, looking for Bishop, his maroon 1974 Chevrolet Malibu station wagon and the family’s golden retriever Leo. On Friday, March 12, Maryland police obtained a murder warrant for Bishop, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation simultaneously obtained a warrent for interstate flight. They had also learned that Bishop had withdrawn the few hundred dollars in his bank account on March 1. And his bloody fingerprints were in the bathroom of his Bethesda home.
The next day, Montgomery County police said a BankAmericard belonging to Bradford Bishop Jr. was used on the same day the bodies were discovered to purchase tennis shoes in Jacksonville, North Carolina. The confirmation placed Bishop about 125 miles south of the place where the bodies of his wife, mother, and three sons were found the same day. And they reported that about midnight Wednesday (March 3), a Wilmington, North Carolina, waitress said a man fitting Bishop’s description, who seemed to have been drinking, entered the Copper Kettle Pancake House, tipped her two dollars before he was served, ate, insulted some blacks in the restaurant and left after he tipped her another dollar. “He said he had to get back on the road,” she said. Police checked airport parking lots in Maryland, North Carolina and Florida on the theory Bishop may have fled the country. He traveled overseas frequently and had a diplomatic passport, although it would not give him any special advantages in leaving the United States, the State Department said.
By March 15, a handwriting specialist in Maryland was examining the BankAmericard receipt with Bishop’s signature, and Montgomery County police were sifting through a flood of reported nationwide sightings of Bradford Bishop. On the 17th, a news report stated that Bishop had been seen in Wilmington, N.C. on March 9, a week after the bodies were discovered, a man driving a maroon Chevrolet station wagon with Maryland tags bought gasoline in a New Hanover County gas station on the 11th, and a man matching Bishop’s description was seen the same day in a tavern in Wilmington, the sheriff’s office there stated. And speculation ran high he may have stowed away on one of 13 vessels leaving Wilmington March 2-10, five of them bound for foreign ports.
By Thursday, March 18, the FBI disclosed that Bishop had been under recent psychiatric care and must have a prescription drug to control his condition. Flyers distributed nationwide by the FBI warned that he should be considered extremely dangerous and may have suicidal tendencies. Herbert D. Clough Jr., special agent in charge of the Norfolk, Va., FBI office, said Bishop had been taking the drug Serax under a psychiatrist’s supervision. Without the drug, he said, Bishop “gets real bad,” extremely depressed. Clough also said an intensive search had begun for the family’s 1974 Chevrolet Malibu station wagon, metallic red-brown in color with Maryland license plate DFL-896. Bishop was described as a 39-year-old white male, six feet, one inch tall and weighing 180 pounds, brown hair and brown eyes. The FBI also learned that Bishop had a pilot’s license, although he had not flown in some time. “We are literally involved in a nationwide manhunt,” Clough said, displaying a “Wanted by the FBI” poster with two photographs of Bishop and his descripton.
While Clough was talking to reporters in Norfolk, police found the missing station wagon, abandoned in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. German shepherds, which FBI agents said could identify a two-weeks-old scent, began working the mountain trails near where the blood-stained vehicle was found. The earliest reported sighting of the station wagon in the area was on March 5, but it was unconfirmed, the FBI said. His car contained a bloody blanket, ax and shotgun. Also inside were bed clothing, dog biscuits and two capsules of a depressant drug called Serax, which Bishop had been taking. The spare tire well was filled with blood. Meanwhile, the bodies of the five murder victims were being buried in California.
TIME magazine ran a story with photos of Brad Bishop, son William and the gravesite in its March 22 issue. It closed with speculation by some of Bishop’s friends that he might have been a spy and he and his family could be victims of a rub-out. The same day the FBI announced it was searching for Bishop in the area around Spindale, N.C., near Gatlinburg, and in Florida, where the FBI believed Bishop was. By Thursday, the dogs had turned up the man’s scent in a visitors center on the outskirts of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. However, FBI agents in Knoxville, Tennessee, said the scent may be several weeks old, and agents had already surmised Bishop had been to the visitors center because they found up-to-date park maps in his station wagon on March 18.
On the twenty-third, a team of scent-sensitive German shepherds turned apathetic when taken into a Spindale gun shop where Bishop was alleged to have tried to swap handguns on March 12. “The dogs did nothing inside the store, and that makes us discount the theory that Bishop may have been in the store,” the FBI in Charlotte said. The gunshop owner had told the SBI a man matching Bishop’s description tried to swap a loaded .38-caliber pistol for a more powerful magnum pistol. The man showed what the owner said were State Department credentials but was refused business when he waved a loaded gun in the store. The gunshop lead was another misfitting piece of a nationwide jigsaw puzzle to locate Bishop.
During May 1976 Inside Detective magazine featured the Bishop mystery in a story titled “Was This The Ultimate American Tragedy?” It included large photos of Bishop, Annette’s face in a morgue photograph, state trooper W.D. Foley and Washington County deputy Walter Peal peering down into the grave, and men with a bloodhound searching a trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
By the middle of June, reporters were rehashing old information to keep the story alive. Attorney General Rufus Edmisten was not at all sure Bishop killed his family, but if he did, he was still alive somewhere. The station wagon could have been parked as a decoy, and the credit card signature may not be legitimate, Edmisten speculated. Maryland investigators believed Bishop took his own life. To vanish, without known underworld connections, seemed improbable to them. In Tyrrell County, Sheriff Rhodes said the case “is past tense.” And Birdie Swain Phelps said only an occasional curious outsider traveled up the logging road to the spot where the bodies were found. Edmisten mused, “We may never know a thing more.”
On September 27, Chuck Lontor, a Baltimore FBI agent, said, “We found his car March 18 at a campsite deep in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, and that’s been the end of his trail. There’ve been no positive developments, although we have interviewed several hundred people now, including friends, associates and campers. There’s been a lot of publicity on this and we still get reports of sightings from people around the country, but nothing’s checked out.” The FBI and Montgomery County, Maryland, police could advance no motive for the killings. There was no evidence of infidelity, financial problems or job worries. “If he’s alive, we have a very bizarre situation,” Lontor said. “If he committed the crimes, the question becomes was he rational or irrational? And if you assume he was rational, the man had a two-week headstart on us. A man like Bradford Bishop could go around the world twice in that amount of time.”
On February 22, 1977, Ronald Brickhouse mailed a short account he had written of his discovery to Reader’s Digest, which did not publish it. The next Sunday, the twenty-seventh, The Washington Star featured “The Bishop Mystery” with photos of the family before Geoffrey was born, Bishop and Annette in a theatrical pose in Florence, Italy, in 1969, and Leo, the family dog that also disappeared. The newspaper reported that Bishop suffered from depression since before attending Yale, then insomnia; he tried hypnosis and finally sought help from a psychiatrist. Some of Bishop’s closest friends were unable for months to believe that the handsome, intelligent, first-class Foreign Service officer could have done it, the newspaper stated. A few friends, including his wife’s family still don’t. One year after the deaths, they felt he must have “flipped out,” that the depression and other troubles he kept inside him, and the fact he didn’t get a job promotion, all suddenly boiled over. One of them suggested that Bishop was a manic-depressive. Two months before the murders, Bishop was passed over for a promotion. That factor, his closest friends said, must have depressed and frustrated Bishop, who, on the verge of turning 40, may have felt more than ever that life was passing him by.
Bishop dreaded the day he would have to sit behind a desk in the State Department in Washington, one close friend said. He didn’t like bureaucrats and didn’t want to become one. The day came, however, in January 1975, when he was assigned to be assistant chief in the division of special trade activities and commercial treaties. He was still in that job in March 1976 when his family was murdered.
The prevailing theory among investigators in 1977 was that Bishop, an experienced camper, left the car and began walking in the half-million acres of forest and wilderness. They felt he was somewhere in that great mountainous region — probably dead by then.
Meanwhile, the family’s belongings had been auctioned. His West Bethesda house was sold in October 1976 for $106,000 to a couple who subsequently decided they didn’t want to live in the house “because of the history surrounding the Bishop home.” Another couple then agreed to buy for the same price. Annette Bishop’s brother and parents, who were co-administrators of her estate, had the house sold and the belongings auctioned. Robert Weis had been appointed temporary receiver of Bishop’s property and received court permission to deposit Bishop’s share of the net proceeds of the house sale with the clerk of court. All this was being done, yet Bradford Bishop’s whereabouts were still a mystery.
In Tyrrell County, a year after discovery of the bodies, the case was rarely mentioned, only in passing when some news report said there were no new leads. They sometimes wondered about Bishop’s fate, but almost as intriguing to the local folks was why Tyrrell was selected as the grave site, whether by design or chance.
In March of 1978, authorities said they were no closer to developing a motive or finding Bishop. Technically, the case was still open, said Montgomery County, Maryland, policewoman Nancy Moses, “but we are no longer actively seeking evidence, and the FBI hasn’t found anything either.” The State Department officially terminated the once-promising diplomatic career of Bradford Bishop. The department at one point was working under the assumption that he had left the country, but his passport had still not surfaced. Investigators had learned that, unknown to his friend and associates, Bishop had seen at least three different psychiatrists in the year or so before the murders of his family. The hole where the five bodies were discovered was still there, unfilled, and still drew an occasional curious visitor, said Sheriff Rhodes. Each summer, federal officers monitored tourists leaving the Tennessee mountain park for a potential clue to Bishop’s fate in the vast area. None has surfaced.
A sighting came from the Netherlands in June 1978, where a man being held hostage by South Molluccan terrorists was thought possibly to be Bishop. The hostage turned out to be a Dutch taxi driver. Authorities still had no idea where Bishop, if he is still alive, may be. Three major theories dominated the case:
1. Bishop, known to be under psychiatric care and taking medication for depression and suicidal tendencies, killed his family, disposed of them in Tyrrell County, and then, in a fit of remorse, took his own life in some remote location.
2. Bishop killed his family and, using his world-travel background and fluency in several languages, escaped capture by fleeing the country.
3. Bishop was the sixth victim of a murder plot against the family and his body was disposed of elsewhere.
Birdie Phelps said nearly everybody in Tyrrell believed the third theory.
On January 6, 1979, The Associated Press reported that police believed the most plausible theory of what happened to Bishop was that he carried out an elaborate plan to disappear. Some officers believed he planned his disappearance by having one or more phony passports prepared that would enable him to travel abroad. They also assumed that he has changed his appearance. Three days later, the AP reported that the FBI and police in Sweden were looking into a report that Brad Bishop was seen in Stockholm during the first week of July 1978. FBI reports said an old friend of Bishop’s had seen him on the streets of Stockholm several times, sporting a beard. The woman who claimed to have seen Bishop in Stockholm said she was a close friend of the Bishop family when they were stationed in Ethiopia with the U.S. State Department. The Stockholm sighting was the most substantial information the FBI had received about the case since Bishop’s disappearance, the Swedish newspaper accounts said.
Washington, D.C., radio station WMAL, in June 1979, quoted Roy Harrell, a State Department employee in the U.S. Embassy in Niger, as saying he was 75 percent sure he saw Brad Bishop in Sorrento, Italy, on January 11, 1979. Harrell said he saw the man in a public restroom and asked, “Say, aren’t you Brad Bishop?” The man replied in English, “Oh, my God, no,” and ran out into a blinding rain. The FBI said agents had been cooperating with Italian authorities since January to validate the report, which came two weeks after the sighting report in Stockholm, Sweden.
During 1980, Ronald Brickhouse sent his story to True Story magazine for publication, again without success. In March 1982, Harry Stapleton wrote the longest and most detailed account anywhere of the entire Bishop mystery in The Virginian-Pilot, but there were no new leads. The following year Dennis Rogers reported that Frank Stephenson, a Chowan College professor in Murfreesboro, had written a screenplay, Bradford Bishop, Where Are You? The writer believed Bishop was an intelligence agent trained at Harvey Point in Perquimans County and knew the area where the bodies were discovered. It was also possible that Bishop was a double agent who was going to be exposed and knew he had to run, Stephenson theorized. In support, Attorney General Rufus Edmisten had said only two weeks after the murders that “eastern North Carolina has long been a haven for covert federal government activities, so it is not an impossibility at all” that Bishop might be familiar with the area.
Stapleton wrote another update in March 1986, on the 10th anniversary. The only new lead was a telephone call the week before to Montgomery County, Maryland, police from a man who said he had spoken with Bishop in a southwestern state in the early 1980s. The caller made the connection only after reading about Bishop shortly before. Robert Weis, Bishop’s brother-in-law, said without a legal declaration of Bishop’s death, the family’s estate was settled only a year earlier, nine years after Bishop’s disappearance. The bulk of it went to Annette’s parents and a cousin of Bishop’s who lives in France. Of all the supposed sightings, the FBI only considered two as valid: in Stockholm, Sweden, and later in Sorrento, Italy.
In June 1989, Patricia Brickhouse, Ronald’s wife, wrote to Unsolved Mysteries, a nationally televised program. She enclosed clippings about the Bishop case and asked the producers to broadcast the information in hopes of tracing Bishop’s whereabouts. The same week, the Associated Press ran a story about Bishop and John Emil List, arrested the previous week in Virginia and accused of shooting to death his wife, mother, and three children in Westfield, N.J., in 1971. The worldwide search captured the imagination of many, and the saga was put to words and music. The Ballad of Brad Bishop was popularized on Washington radio stations. A novel was written about the killings, and the continuing search for Bishop was eventually the subject of reports on the television programs Amerca’s Most Wanted and Unsolved Mysteries and their counterparts in Germany and England.
In April 1993, the Associated Press reported that a cryptic letter from a bank robber serving a federal prison sentence suggested Bradford Bishop may once have considered hiring a contract killer to murder his family. Montgomery County, Maryland, Sheriff Raymond M. Kight said investigators interviewed persons named in the letter who said the author, A. Ken Bankston, was someone who could have arranged to find a “shooter” to do the killings. The letter, which was sent by registered mail from the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Illinois in 1976, also suggested Bishop may have been planning to dispose of the bodies in North Carolina and may have planned to rendezvous with a woman in Wilmington. The letter did not refer to a murder, “but a lot could be read into it,” Kight said. The letter referred to Lake Phelps and Creswell, two places near the site where the bodies were found. Kight said the letter may have affected the Bishop investigation had police found it in a timely fashion and interviewed its author. The letter was found in September 1992 in Bishop’s files at the State Department. The sheriff said county police and the FBI visited Bishop’s office the day the letter was postmarked and did not learn of its existence until 16 years later.
Bankston wrote in one section of the discovered letter, believed to be the sixth from him to Bishop, that he was sure “she is in the North Carolina state penitentiary.” Although the woman was not further identified, investigators said a witness reported seeing Bishop and a female companion in Jacksonville, N.C., one day after the killings. Authorities began checking a list of women released from North Carolina prisons about that time and especially any who were assigned to a halfway house in Jacksonville. Bankston also told Bishop in the letter that “you could walk to Phelps Lake from Creswell. I think it’s about five miles.” The registered letter was postmarked March 15, 1976, leading sheriff’s investigators to assume that it arrived at Bishop’s office at the State Department a few days after the FBI and Montgomery County police had searched his office for clues. It apparently was opened by a secretary and then placed in Bishop’s files, which were packed away until the investigators came upon it in September 1992.
In April 1993, after months of work, they traced down a man referred to in the letter only as Sonny, who told them he believed Bishop had offered to provide a passport for Bankston in return for information on how to hire a killer. In the letter, Bankston wrote, “I was only interested in Mexico and/or Central America, as you know.” Another convict mentioned in the letter, David Paul Allen, told The Washington Post in a telephone interview at the same time that Bishop wanted a shooter. “He was willing to spend good money and more to kill his family.” Allen said Bishop “hired a couple of men to do the job, but they took off on him.” Bankston died in 1983.
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The foregoing story was gleaned from newspaper accounts written as the events transpired. The editor acknowledges with gratitude the contributions of Jeanette Davis, Thomas E. Humphrey and Harry Stapleton, The Virginian-Pilot; Gwen White,The Daily Advance; Jerry Allegood and Dennis Rogers, The News & Observer; Donald P. Baker, Cynthia Gorney, Felicity Barringer, Donnel Nunes, Kathy Sawyer and J. Y. Smith, The Washington Post; James Nichols and Peter Galuska, Ledger-Star; Blanche W. Cohoon, The Coastland Times; Time; United Press International; Reader’s Digest; Mary Ann Kuhn, The Washington Star; Inside Detective; Norman Black, Associated Press; Ronald and Patricia Brickhouse; Cosgrove-Meurer Productions Inc. (Unsolved Mysteries); The East Carolina Reminder; and MacFadden Women’s Group (True Story).