By Paul Duggan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006
Surely he's dead, right?
A lot of people think so.
All these years after Brad Bishop, a State Department Foreign Service officer, allegedly bludgeoned his mother, his wife and his three young sons in their Bethesda home and burned their bodies -- all these years after a Maryland grand jury indicted the missing diplomat on five counts of murder in one of the most baffling cases in the annals of local crime -- he couldn't still be out there, hiding under a phony name, living quietly on the lam. . . .
A lot of people think so.
Who knows, really?
"Until I can prove he's dead," said Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond M. Kight, "I'm going to assume he's alive."
A bright-green arrest warrant folder bearing his name -- "Bishop, William Bradford Jr." -- contains the oldest of nearly 2,000 open cases (alleged traffic scofflaws, deadbeat dads, rapists, drug dealers and killers) in the files of the fugitive squad at the sheriff's office, in Rockville. Generations of deputies have been on the lookout for him since Gerald R. Ford was in the White House. Decades have gone by. And the Bishop warrant sits on a shelf.
Where did he go?
Why did it happen?
That distant March.
Thirty years ago this week.
In the modern, digital, hyper-vigilant world of surveillance cameras and watch lists, high-speed computer networks and satellite monitoring, sneaking out of the country is a lot more difficult than it used to be. In 1976, Kight said, it wouldn't have been hard at all, if that is what Bishop did.
"Back in those days," he said, "people would buy a plane ticket, then they couldn't make the flight, they'd give it to someone else. And then that person would fly under the other person's name."
Kight was a police officer for five years before joining the sheriff's office in 1967 and was a lieutenant in the fugitive squad when the Bishop warrant came in. The mystery of the vanished diplomat has weighed on him for three decades.
Bishop, 39, a Yale University graduate, a former Army intelligence officer and a suave dinner guest fluent in five languages, told his secretary that he wasn't feeling well March 1 and left work early. On the drive from Foggy Bottom to Bethesda, he stopped at a Sears and bought a malletlike metal hammer and a gas can, which he filled at a Texaco.
He used the hammer on his wife first, police said. She was 37. His 68-year-old mother was killed next, when she came in from walking the dog. Then he allegedly bludgeoned the boys, ages 5 to 14, as they slept.
He drove 275 miles overnight in his Chevy station wagon, police said, to swampy woods in Tyrrell County, N.C., where he piled the bodies in a bathtub-size hole, doused them with gasoline and set them on fire. He stopped at a sporting goods store in Columbia, N.C., that day, March 2. And on March 18, his car was found abandoned at a campground near the Tennessee-North Carolina border, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Did he wander into the forest, out of his mind, and die? By accident? By his own hand?
Then bears and wild boars devoured his remains.
That's one theory.
Yet no trace of him turned up in extensive searches -- no bones, no scraps of clothing.
So maybe . . .
"A new life, a new name, over in Europe," Kight said, sitting in his office recently. He shrugged. "I'm not ruling it out."
With proper planning and discipline, the sheriff said, it's possible to assume a false identify and hide in plain sight indefinitely.
It's no secret, Kight said. "There are plenty of books out there on how to do it. Look in the paper at the obituaries; find someone near your date of birth. Go in and get their birth certificate. Get their Social Security number."
Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, obtaining false identification has become more difficult. Laws and procedures have been tightened. "But there are still ways for someone with a devious mind to do it," Kight said. Then it's just a matter of living quietly under the radar, avoiding background checks and contact with police.
Consider John E. List:
His wife, his mother and his three children were shot to death in their New Jersey home in 1971 -- and List (like Bishop five years later) was nowhere to be found. With an assumed Social Security number and a driver's license in the name of Robert P. Clark, List remarried and lived for nearly two decades in Colorado and a Richmond suburb, where he was working as an accountant in 1989.
He was arrested that year, and later sentenced to life in prison, only after an acquaintance saw him profiled on the TV show "America's Most Wanted."
And reputed Boston crime boss James J. "Whitey" Bulger:
No alleged gangster in the city was more notorious than Bulger, a household name in Irish South Boston, where he reigned for decades. But in 1995, after learning he had been indicted, he managed to disappear with hardly a trace because of years of careful planning, investigators have said. Eleven years later, he remains in the wind, a fugitive from racketeering charges and 18 counts of murder.
Bishop had the advantage of being an experienced international traveler, fluent in Italian, Spanish, French and Croatian. He had served tours at embassies in Italy, Ethiopia and Botswana. He had military intelligence training. He understood the arcane ins and outs of overseas immigration bureaucracies. With his know-how, Kight said, Bishop could easily have melted into a foreign society under layers of false paperwork.
Long before the killings, for example, "he could have issued himself numerous passports in any number of different names, and we'd never know."
Plus, if his plan was to flee the country, he had a head start. The burned bodies weren't identified, and Bishop wasn't missed, until a week after the slayings.
Why the slayings occurred is anyone's guess. As far as investigators could tell, nothing had been terribly amiss in the family -- no dire financial woes or major job worries, no extramarital affairs or serious mental problems. Thirty years later, the sheriff said, Bishop remains an enigma. "I don't think I know him at all."
Was he a spy? Was the Foreign Service career just a cover?
The State Department has said no. So has the CIA.
Yet people wonder.
"I do," said Kight, 65, a barrel-chested lawman who was first elected sheriff in 1986. "It's my cop's suspicious mind."
The only money Bishop was known to have when he vanished was $400 that he took out of a bank hours before the killings.
"But he could go to work," Kight said. "He could get a job. He could be doing that now."
Police handled the murder investigation, but tracking the fugitive is the sheriff's responsibility. His investigative files -- big binders labeled "Interpol" and "State Department," "North Carolina" and "Sightings, William Bradford Bishop Jr., 1992-96" -- are stacked on shelves by his desk.
"This never leaves me," Kight said. "Every day, I hope I'll get a call or a letter or a lead from somewhere, and it'll finally be valid."
For fugitive hunters, the world is a lot smaller today than it was in 1976, before advanced computer systems allowed for rapid information-sharing among far-flung law enforcement agencies. Kight's office, in searching for Bishop, has tried to take advantage of the technology, to no avail.
In 2002, said Kight's chief deputy, Darren Popkin, "we thought by now there'd be a good database of unidentified bodies" from North Carolina to Pennsylvania -- and there was. "We checked them all and narrowed it down to three bodies," Popkin said. Dental records showed none was Bishop.
There have been hundreds of reported sightings over the years, but only three by people acquainted with the missing diplomat.
A Swedish woman who said she had socialized with him in Ethiopia said she saw him in a public park in Stockholm in 1978. A former State Department colleague said he saw Bishop in a restroom in Sorrento, Italy, in 1979. A long-ago Bethesda neighbor said she saw him at a train station is Basel, Switzerland, in 1994. The reports led authorities straight to dead ends.
About all Kight's deputies can do now is wait for tips, look into them and occasionally check data-mining services for some hint that Bishop is out there.
"McAllen, Texas," the sheriff said, recalling one such lead. "Someone sent in a photo, said this man is very secretive. He was dating the person's daughter. And he looked like Bishop. So we hopped a plane, went down there, pulled the guy off the street. Turned out he was wanted in two other states. But it wasn't Bishop."
Who's dead now.
Or is 69.
"It's still open," Kight said. "It's still a good warrant."