For two decades the only explanation for William Bradford Bishop Jr.'s whereabouts has been in a long-forgotten folk song:
Some day they’ll find him, down in old Mexico.
With Leo his retriever, drinking Jose Cuervo.
Why did he do it? No one can tell.
He traded his family for a ticket to Hell.
The obscure tune on a 1977 Adelphi Records label captured the morbid fascination around one of the world’s most mysterious killers.
But the Montgomery County, Md., sheriff and a detective are still sifting through thousands of unconfirmed Bishop sightings around the globe, looking for the finish to the story.
There are no lyrics running through their heads, no images of old Mexico. Only the horrific images from police photographs of a family burned and battered beyond recognition, and questions that anyone familiar with the mystery longs to answer:
What happened to Brad Bishop? Why did a handsome, Yale-educated diplomat go home from his State Department job one day in 1976 and allegedly bludgeon to death his wife, mother and three children? And to where did he flee, presumably using passports he obtained through his diplomatic duties?
“I think he’s still alive. He’s only 60 years old. And I think wherever he is, he’s doing very well for himself,” said Montgomery County Sheriff’s Capt. Robert L. Keefer, who last year--20 years after the crime--got more than 200 leads on the Bishop case from tipsters around the world.
“We’ve put out a worldwide blitz to find him. We’ve had sightings everywhere--Spain, Italy, Sweden, Africa, Greece, even Russia,” Keefer says, the frustration of false leads evident in his voice. “It’s a repulsive crime that leaves an impression on anyone who has ever heard about it.”
Keefer and his boss, Montgomery County Sheriff Raymond M. Kight, have spent years following up tips, tossing around theories and even recently requesting files from the CIA, which they say has surfaced in the shadows of the Bishop investigation.
“My feeling is that Bishop had CIA connections and training, and that’s possibly how he was able to disappear,” says Kight, whose department holds the arrest warrants charging Bishop with five counts of murder.
Kight has written twice to the CIA, requesting their help and citing bits and pieces of evidence suggesting Bishop may have been an agency employee. For instance, Kight said in a letter to CIA officials, Bishop’s former psychiatrist told investigators that the diplomat admitted being “heavily involved” with the spy agency.
The CIA denies having any files on Bishop, who sparked an international manhunt in 1976 when he ditched the family station wagon in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and strolled off with his golden retriever at his side. Some 400 miles away, in a shallow North Carolina grave, police found what was left of his family.
“He was trained in the Army as a spy, so he knows how the authorities work,” said Robert Weis, the brother of Bishop’s wife, Annette. “It would be nice if there was ever some finality, but I don’t know that there ever will be.”
Awidely traveled Foreign Service officer with the State Department who served in American embassies in Italy, Ethiopia and Botswana, Bishop had impeccable credentials.
He spoke five languages fluently--English, Spanish, French, Italian and Serbo-Croatian--and had won commendations during a four-year stint with Army counterintelligence, which included assignments to Yugoslavia, State Department records show.
In his personal life, he gave the outward appearance of an all-American guy. He and Annette had been high school sweethearts in California; a homemade film shot at the time shows them to be a beautiful and popular couple. Brad was a hero on the football field, and Annette cheered him on as a majorette.
After he graduated from Yale and she from UC Berkeley, Brad Bishop rose steadily through the ranks of the State Department. But by the mid-1970s, his career apparently hit a wall.
On March 1, 1976, not long after he had returned to a Washington desk job from an overseas post, Brad Bishop left work early, complaining of the flu and upset over being passed over for a promotion.
“He looked like he’d lost his best friend,” recalls Roy A. Harrell Jr., a former State Department official who bumped into Bishop as he was leaving that day. “He said, ‘I didn’t get the promotion.’ And I said, ‘Well, neither did I.’ And he said, ‘Yes, but I’m more qualified.’ ”
On the way to his modest Bethesda, Md., home, using part of the $400 he had withdrawn from his bank earlier in the day, Bishop bought a 2 1/2-gallon gasoline can and a small sledgehammer at the Sears, Roebuck & Co. store in the Montgomery Mall.
That night, police allege, he used the sledgehammer to kill Annette, 37, and his mother, Lobelia Bishop, 68, who lived with them. He then killed his three sons--William, 14, Brenton, 10, and Geoffrey, 5--in their beds, police say. Neighbors did not hear a sound.
Police believe he packed the five battered bodies into the back of his maroon Chevrolet wagon and headed south to the Outer Banks of North Carolina, traveling through numerous tollbooths along the way. The bodies were out of sight, hidden underneath blankets, says Keefer, the detective trying to track Bishop down.
“It had to be one morbid ride,” Keefer says. “The bodies were in horrible condition.”
The killer dug a grave in a forest near Columbia, N.C., dumped gasoline on the bodies and set them afire. A forest ranger discovered the grisly scene after noticing the blaze from a nearby watchtower.
Police weren’t able to identify the victims until a week later, since no one had reported any of the Bishop family missing. Their home was eventually searched and blood was found spattered in the foyer, where a violent struggle had apparently occurred, and in the bedrooms.
After disposing of the bodies, police and the FBI believe, Bishop drove his car 400 miles west to the Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. The car was found 16 days after the discovery of the bodies; police bloodhounds picked up a faint scent of Bishop near the park’s tourist center.
Family and friends still recall Brad Bishop as an exceptional person. He was trained as a pilot while living in Botswana. He liked to ski, motorcycle, swim and play tennis. He had advanced degrees in history. And, when needed, he could be quite charming.
“I think he’s probably in Croatia or Yugoslavia somewhere. He liked that area,” Weis said. “He’ll probably never be found. But wherever he is, I hope his conscience finds him.”