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Alabama professor's troubled past scrutinized

HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — When a young woman in Massachusetts killed her brother with a shotgun blast in 1986, no ballistics tests were done, and authorities waited more than a week to question family members.

The death was ultimately ruled an accident. Now, a quarter-century later, Amy Bishop is accused in another shooting — an attack that killed three fellow biology professors at the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

In the days since Friday's shooting, revelations about Amy Bishop's past have raised questions about whether much of the violence could have been prevented. In the latest twist Tuesday, a police report revealed that Bishop had also been charged with assaulting a woman in 2002 during a tirade over a child's booster seat at a restaurant.

The story started more than two decades ago when police were called to the Braintree, Mass., home Bishop shared with her parents. Authorities found her 18-year-old brother, Seth, dead of a shotgun wound to the chest.

Bishop's father later told police he and his daughter had a disagreement and she went to her room. She said she had wanted to learn to load a shotgun her parents had bought after a recent break-in.

Bishop said she accidentally fired the gun in her bedroom as she tried to unload it, then went downstairs to ask her brother to help, according to a police report.

She said the gun went off again as Seth, a Northeastern University freshman and a virtuoso violinist, walked across the kitchen.

She told police she thought she had ruined the kitchen, but did not realize she had hit her brother. She said she ran away and thought she dropped the gun, which went off a third time. She did not remember anything else until she was taken to a police station.

But police and witnesses say she fled with the gun to a car dealership, where she pointed it at employees and demanded a getaway car. She told them her husband was going to come after her and she needed to flee.

She was caught but never charged. Police said it took 11 days before they could interview family members because they were so distraught. When they finally did, authorities decided to let her go, declaring the whole thing an accident.

John Polio, who headed the Braintree police force at the time, at first defended the handling of the case. The 87-year-old said Tuesday that he recently read a 1987 report on the investigation written by a state trooper. At the time, he had not seen the document. But now, he says, "I would have wanted a lot more questions answered."

The Norfolk County district attorney at the time was William Delahunt, now a Democratic congressman from Massachusetts. He was traveling in the Middle East and did not reply to repeated requests for comment.

The current district attorney, William Keating, said Tuesday that newly found police reports show there was probable cause to arrest Bishop in 1986 on charges of assault with a dangerous weapon, carrying a dangerous weapon and unlawful possession of ammunition.

But, Keating said, the reports do not contradict accounts that the shooting was an accident.

Also Tuesday, radio station WBZ-AM and The Boston Globe reported that Bishop was charged with assault after a 2002 tirade at the International House of Pancakes in Peabody, Mass. A police report said Bishop became incensed when she found out another woman had received the restaurant's last booster seat. Bishop hit the woman while shouting, "I am Dr. Amy Bishop," according to the police report. Bishop received probation for the assault.

Bishop and her husband, James Anderson, graduated from Northeastern in 1988 with biology degrees. In 1993, Bishop earned a doctorate in genetics from Harvard.

That same year, she and her husband were questioned in another unsettling episode: Two mail bombs were sent to a Harvard professor she worked with at Children's Hospital Boston. The explosives did not go off.

Anderson told The Associated Press he and his wife were among a number of innocent people questioned by investigators who cast a wide net. He said the case "had a dozen people swept up in this, and everybody was a subject, not a suspect."

"There was never any indictment, arrest, nothing, and then everyone was cleared after five years," he said.

Anderson also said his wife had been writing a novel at the time that was reviewed by law enforcement. The Boston Globe, citing a law enforcement source it did not identify, reported that it was about a woman who had killed her brother and was hoping to make amends by becoming a great scientist.

But Anderson said the novel was not autobiographical.

"It was just a novel. A medical thriller is the best way to describe it," he said.

In 2003, Bishop and Anderson moved to Huntsville, where they were raising their four children. Bishop appeared to be a rising star at the university — she developed a new type of portable cell incubator and won $25,000 in a statewide business competition in 2007. She appeared, smiling, on the cover of a local tech magazine that touted her advances.

But she was denied tenure by the university, and she was vocal among colleagues about her displeasure over being forced to look for work elsewhere after this semester.

Bishop also filed a complaint last year alleging gender discrimination by the university. The university denied the allegations, which are in a complaint pending before the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The complaint itself, filed Sept. 15, was not immediately available.

Joseph Ng, an associate professor who worked with Bishop in the biology department, was in the cramped faculty conference room when gunfire erupted Friday afternoon during a monthly meeting.

About a dozen teachers and staff members were sitting elbow-to-elbow at a long table when Ng heard the "pop-pop-pop" of a 9 mm handgun.

He watched several of his colleagues go down, starting with the ones close to Bishop. He and the rest of the survivors dived under the table desperate for cover. Three people were wounded.

Within seconds, the shooting stopped. During the lull, Debra Moriarity, a biochemistry professor, scrambled toward Bishop and urged her to stop, he said.

Bishop aimed at Moriarity and attempted to fire but the gun did not go off. Moriarity then led the charge that forced Bishop out the door into a hallway. Her colleagues barricaded themselves in the room, and Bishop was arrested moments later outside the building.

"Moriarity was probably the one that saved our lives. She was the one that initiated the rush," Ng said. "It took a lot of guts to just go up to her."

On Tuesday, the 44-year-old Bishop was under extra guard at an Alabama jail. Students and victims' relatives want to know how someone with such a tortured past could ever have been hired at a state university.

"Do they not do background checks on teachers? How did all this slip through the cracks?" nursing student Caitlin Phillips asked.

University President David B. Williams defended the decision to hire Bishop. He said a review of her personnel file and her hiring file raised no red flags. She has no criminal record because she was never convicted of a crime.

Police ran a criminal background check Monday, after she was charged with one count of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder.

"Even now, nothing came up," Williams said.