Search continues for longtime fugitive
Aug. 1, 2001
Janet Rathner
Staff Writer

The yearbook photo of William Bradford Bishop III.

William Bradford Bishop Jr. turns 65 today, and the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office suspects that the person whose name is listed on its longest outstanding arrest warrant is enjoying a game of tennis or taking an exhilarating motorcycle ride.

Afterwards, the graying, brown-eyed former State Department employee and Bethesda resident with a distinctive cleft in his chin will probably indulge his habit of snacking on peanuts.

It's all mundane, but how Bishop is able to go about it is a puzzle to law enforcement officers.

"I couldn't imagine what he's been living through after what he did to his family," said Chief Deputy Sheriff Darren Popkin.

What the married father of three is accused of doing is murdering the people closest to him: his wife Annette, 37; mother, Lobelia, 68; and children, Bradford III, 14, Brenton, 10, and Geoffrey, 5.

The crime

The Sheriff's Office gives the following account of the crime:

On March 1, 1976, Bishop had been passed over for a promotion and told his secretary he wasn't feeling well.

He left work about 5:30 p.m. and headed home. He stopped at Sears in Montgomery Mall and bought a 2 1/2 gallon gas can and a 2 1/2 pound mini-maul sledgehammer. He then went to the adjacent Bethesda Texaco station, bought 13 gallons of gasoline for his 1974 Chevy Malibu station wagon, and filled the gas can.

Bishop drove to his house on Lilly Stone Drive in the Carderock Springs community, and beat his family to death with the sledgehammer. Later that night, the bodies loaded into the station wagon, Bishop drove approximately 300 miles to remote Creswell, N.C. There he dug a shallow grave, dumped his bloody cargo, and after dousing it with gasoline, set it on fire.

Eight days later, following notification that North Carolina authorities had found five burned bodies and a gas can bearing Bishop's thumb print, Montgomery County Police went to the Bishop home.

Blood throughout the house indicated there had been a systematic slaughter. "He was going into the bedrooms and one by one hitting them over the head," Popkin said.

Between March 12, the day the Sheriff's Office issued an arrest warrant for Bishop, and March 18, the day his blood-splattered car was found in Smokey Mountain National Park near Gatlinburg, Tenn., word came that the 39-year-old Pasadena, Calif., native had been spotted in North Carolina and Florida.

The notification came too late.

Schooled in intelligence, fluent in five languages, and accustomed to living and working overseas, Bishop disappeared.

Bishop is still on the loose 25 years later, despite international law enforcement cooperation; what Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond Kight refers to as "good sightings" in Sweden, Italy and Switzerland; and an average of 50 to 100 new leads annually generated by periodic look-backs from nationally televised programs.

His elusiveness frustrates authorities who have come to know him in the abstract. "We knew who we were looking for," said Kight, who was a sheriff's deputy lieutenant at the time of the murders and has been looking for Bishop since. "I thought [apprehension] was just a matter of time."

But other than the fact that he had been seeing psychiatrist Frank Caprio, Kight said there are no red flags in Bishop's dossier.

Caprio, citing confidentiality, has never disclosed what went on during those counseling sessions, except to say that his client on occasion worked for the Central Intelligence Agency.

The psychiatrist, now living in New Jersey, did not return phone calls to The Gazette.

Bishop's background

Bishop's profile confirms, among other aspects of his life, enrollment in various military intelligence programs and top-secret security clearance.

Kight believes Bishop's background and a clerical error have factored in to the fugitive's success in remaining out of sight.

The day after Bishop's offices were searched, a letter addressed to Bishop arrived from A. Ken Bankston, an inmate at the Marion Federal Penitentiary in Marion, Ill. The letter, which authorities did not see until 1992 when Kight decided to re-examine the case, not only indicated an ongoing correspondence, but also mentioned Creswell, N.C., the town where the bodies were found.

"You could walk to Phelps lake from Creswell. I think it's about 5 miles," Bankston wrote in the letter dated March 15, 1976.

"This was a surprise to me, this letter," Kight said.

He said the letter was discovered in a State Department box containing papers taken from Bishop's office. The letter referred to earlier correspondence about secluded locations, and indicated that the murders were premeditated. The letter also indicated that Bishop may have had some assistance in carrying out the killings.

Kight said he felt Bankston could have helped locate Bishop, but Bankston had died by the time the letter was discovered in 1992.

Those left behind

Regardless of whether Bishop acted alone or what his motives were, the emotional fallout was far-reaching and enduring, as evidenced by comments from Brad III's classmates at the then-Thomas W. Pyle Junior High School in Bethesda.

Brad was in the ninth grade when he was killed. He had only been at Pyle a little more than a year, enrolling after his family returned from a State Department stint in Botswana, South Africa.

Former classmates said the teenager quickly made a place for himself. His sunny personality, good looks and sophistication from having spent most of his life overseas gave Bishop entry to the "in-crowd" without becoming part of the "in-crowd" cliques, classmates said.

"He was my boyfriend in the eighth grade," said Joanne Fitzgerald Bryant of Rockville. "He had a grace and worldliness about him. I remember him talking about Botswana and going on safari. It was exciting. In eighth grade, you're just starting to begin talking to boys. I was madly in love with him."

Bryant said Brad's home life appeared solid. She took gymnastics with him after school and said his mother and grandmother, who lived with the family, often came to watch. Family ski trips were frequent and Brad's father often brought his son to school, Bryant said.

"They were very nice," she said.

The boy's murder and that fact that his father allegedly committed it traumatized the school and left lasting scars, Bryant said.

"[We] were in denial when it was pointing to the father," Bryant said. "Everyone was like, 'No way. How could that be?' For a 15-year-old to process, this is so difficult. It was so brutal. I had nightmares for two years. We'd drive by his house and just sit there and look at it. I can get choked up now."

Scott Matejik of Bethesda was in Bishop's science class when the killings occurred.

"I will never forget ... when the principal and vice principal walked down the hall and cleaned out his locker," Matejik said. "That memory of finality and death really made an impression that day and I can always picture that moment in time."

Bishop's murder was not the only tragedy to befall Pyle that year. Another ninth-grader died a few months earlier, the victim of a drunk driver. After Bishop's death, the school organized a fund-raiser to buy memorial plaques for both of the students.

The plaques, which today adorn a hallway wall near Pyle's main entrance, were initially placed in the school's courtyard, recalled Gary Clarke, a social studies teacher who is now an instructor at St. Albans School for Boys in Washington, D.C.

"We were shell-shocked. It was so tragic. I remember thinking it was almost like a cemetery out there," Clarke said.

Joyce Rinehart, at the time Pyle's attendance secretary, was one of the first at the school to realize something awful had happened to the attractive, well-mannered student who she recalled as being the image of his father. Brad had not come to school for several days, and his family had been uncharacteristically silent about the absences. When Rinehart called the home, a detective answered.

"I asked could he give any information and he said no. I immediately [went to the office] and said there's something drastically wrong at the Bishop house. It was on the news that night," Rinehart said.

Rinehart, who today works in the office of Bannockburn Elementary School in Bethesda, said she saw the Bishops regularly because the father frequently brought his son to school.

"You just couldn't believe that the father would do this. You never think of someone taking someone's life. It was such a shock," Rinehart said.

She's also convinced she could spot him, even after all this time.

"He's very distinctive looking, a handsome gentleman. His manners are impeccable," Rinehart said.

A never-ending search

Twenty-five years later, the shock and the desire to find Bishop and hold him accountable continues.

America's Most Wanted -- 20th Century Television's weekly crime-solving program that airs Saturdays at 9 p.m. on Fox TV stations and has been instrumental in capturing 676 fugitives in its 13 years of operation -- has featured the Bishop murders 11 times.

"It's one of those cases that sticks in your craw. We're going to stick with it," said Phil Lerman, co-executive producer of the TV show. "We've caught people all over the world, and we're hopeful one of our viewers will give us the one tip that will bring him in."

The Montgomery County Sheriff's Office remains committed as well.

"The beat goes on with this," Kight said. "I'll take him any way we can get him. We'll never stop looking."