By Desiree Hunter and Kristin M. Hall/The Associated Press
HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — 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.
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.”
Associated Press Writers Jay Lindsay in Braintree, Mass., and Thomas Watkins in Los Angeles contributed to this report.