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Professor's arrest roils Alabama campus after shootings

Amy Bishop is charged with capital murder in the shooting deaths of three fellow biology professors. A Massachusetts police chief discloses that Bishop fatally shot her own brother in 1986.

February 14, 2010|By Richard Fausset

Reporting from Huntsville, Ala. — In this Southern city famed for its science and technology, residents are coming to grips with perhaps the most unsettling fact in Friday's campus shooting: The suspect was not a student but a professor.

And, it was learned Saturday that she had fatally shot her brother in 1986.

Amy Bishop, 45, a neurobiologist and assistant professor at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, was arrested shortly after the incident and charged with capital murder.

She is accused of killing three of her colleagues and injuring three more during a faculty meeting.

According to her campus biography, Bishop holds a doctorate in genetics from Harvard University. In 2008, UAH President David Williams predicted that one of her cell-research advances would "change the way biological and medical research is conducted."

On Saturday, students struggled to process the news of her arrest on this historically low-key campus best known for churning out engineers.

LaMardra Moore, a nursing graduate student who took an anatomy and physiology class from Bishop as an undergraduate, said she was shocked that police had arrested a teacher -- one of "the people you're supposed to go and confide in."

In a news conference Saturday, Huntsville Police Chief Henry Reyes declined to discuss a motive for the shootings.

But Bishop was apparently not happy with the school: In recent months, she had been denied a tenured faculty position, said college spokesman Ray Garner. Dick Reeves, chairman of a company that plans to market one of Bishop's innovations, said she was upset by the slight.

On Saturday, the story took an odd twist when Braintree, Mass., Police Chief Paul Frazier announced that Bishop had shot and killed her brother in December 1986 after an argument. The police report of the incident could not be found, but the officer who wrote it up recalled that Bishop was arrested after fleeing the scene with a shotgun, Frazier said in a statement.

But Bishop was released when the booking officer received a call from then-Chief John Polio, or a captain calling on the chief's behalf, Frazier said.

Late Saturday, the Norfolk County district attorney's office in Massachusetts released a state police report of the incident from its archives. It states that Bishop and her mother told police the shooting was an accident that occurred when Bishop was trying to unload the shotgun.

In 2003, it was apparently tenure that was a key goal for Bishop when she and her family moved from Massachusetts to Alabama. Neighbor Bill Armstrong said Bishop told him that "you almost had to win a Nobel Prize to get tenure at Harvard."

Bishop, her four children and her husband, Jim Anderson -- a sometime-collaborator in her research -- settled in a two-story house about 12 miles from campus. They were outspoken Northeastern liberals whose political yard signs stood out a little on their suburban lot facing a cul-de-sac called Scarlett O'Hara Circle.

Some neighbors found them to be friendly. Others clashed with them. Armstrong said that Bishop passed around a petition to get another neighbor's dogs to quiet down. Armstrong signed the petition; he said Bishop and the dogs' owner eventually ended up in court.

"She really got intense about getting that situation done," he said. She had an intense personality in general, he said.

On campus, Bishop taught introductory and advanced classes. Nursing student Moore recalled that Bishop seemed passionate about science, though somewhat awkward socially. She also remembers grueling tests.

"She was very interested in details," Moore said. "I heard she was getting tougher over the years too."

On Friday, Bishop was one of about a dozen members of the biology department meeting in a conference room around 4 p.m. According to police, she took out a 9-millimeter handgun and began shooting.

Gopi Podila, the department chairman, was killed, as were professors Maria Davis and Adriel Johnson. Three others were hospitalized; two of them are in critical condition, and one has been released.

Police said they arrested Bishop outside the building; she did not resist.

richard.fausset@ latimes.com

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