The Man Who Got Away
Bradford Bishop vanished after his family was brutally murdered in Bethesda. More than 37 years have passed, but two lawmen—one, the sheriff of Montgomery County; the other, retired—are still determined to find him.
Over the years, investigators have compiled more than 20 binders and folders of information relating to the Bishop murders. Photo by Ben Tankersley.
On March 8, 1976, Montgomery County police went to the home of William Bradford Bishop Jr. in the Carderock Springs neighborhood of Bethesda after a neighbor reported not seeing the family for a while.
Outside the house at 8103 Lilly Stone Drive, they spotted a trail of blood leading from the front door to the driveway. Inside the split-level, police found blood everywhere, in each of the four bedrooms and all over the upstairs bathroom. There were blood-soaked linens, mattresses and pillowcases, human bones, tissue, fibers and hair—but no bodies.
Eventually, police would connect the dots to an equally grisly discovery in eastern North Carolina. Days earlier, a forest ranger had spied smoke in a remote area, leading him to five charred bodies in a shallow grave. The bludgeoned remains would be identified as Bishop’s wife, three sons and mother.
Bishop, however, had vanished.
More than 37 years later, Bradford Bishop—believed to have committed one of the most heinous crimes in Montgomery County history—remains gone, but hardly forgotten. He continues to haunt Ray Kight, the former sheriff of Montgomery County who worked the case early on as a deputy in the fugitive squad and continues, from his North Potomac home, to follow leads even in retirement.
“We’ll try anything,” says the 6-foot-1-inch, 250-pound Kight, 72. Even psychics: Two offered to help, he says, then backed out, claiming they were afraid.
Kight isn’t the only one who’s obsessed. So is the man who succeeded him as sheriff of Montgomery County in 2010: his former chief deputy, Darren Popkin, an imposing 6-foot-3 and a trim 190 pounds at age 51.
At the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office in Rockville, a 36-inch by 30-inch blowup of an FBI wanted poster for Bishop serves as a daily reminder of the case. It stands upright on a shelf in the conference room, yellowed with age. In Popkin’s office, three bookshelves and a horizontal file drawer hold 20 or so 5-inch-thick binders, along with many bulging folders about the Bishop homicides.
As a family man—framed pictures of his wife and three children sit above the mahogany file drawer—Popkin is particularly affected by the case. He had just turned 14 and was living in Rockville when the killings occurred. He vividly remembers watching the TV news for updates.
During the 10 years he spent as Kight’s chief deputy and in the two and a half years since as sheriff, Popkin has continued to follow up leads in the case.
“We’ve seen pictures of the horrific crime scene,” says Popkin, who lives in Olney. “The beautiful children murdered in cold blood—it motivates you to try to find Bishop and bring him to justice.”
The story has been replayed time and again on national television: ABC’s Vanished; America’s Most Wanted, which continues to carry the case on its website; and a 12-minute segment on NBC’s Today Show with Katie Couric in 1998. The Washington Post revisited it on the 10th and 30th anniversaries of the slayings, as well.
All this exposure has produced so many leads that have led to so many dead ends. And questions that have led to more questions.
Was Bishop secretly working for the CIA, as a State Department co-worker surmised on the Today Show? Were the slayings premeditated, with others involved? Or was this a case of a seemingly successful man in a picture-perfect marriage who simply cracked one day? Has Bishop adopted a new identity in a foreign land? Or is he living off the grid somewhere in the States?
Kight and Popkin meet for lunch once or twice a month, and Bishop—who would turn 77 in August, if he’s still alive—is often a subject of conversation. Not a year goes by that they don’t think of the victims, and the fugitive, on the anniversary of the killings. It is, Popkin says, “a book without a last chapter.”
Or a preface, for that matter.
To the outside world, the Bishops were the perfect family, with three kids, a dog, two cars—a VW Beetle and a station wagon—and a motorcycle. They played tennis and went swimming at the community club, and liked to ski. Yale-educated, Bishop worked for the State Department; his wife, Annette, was a stay-at-home mom.
When news of the slayings hit, there was shock and disbelief throughout their suburban neighborhood off Seven Locks Road just outside the Beltway. The front-page headline in The Washington Post the day after the discovery said simply, “5 in Md. Family Found Slain. Killed in Home, Dumped in N.C.; Father Missing.”
Later, investigators would reconstruct Bishop’s movements on the day of the crime. That Monday—March 1, 1976—Bishop went to look at a memo listing new promotions that had been posted in a hallway of the State Department’s Foggy Bottom office. According to a co-worker, Bishop became upset, saying a position that should have been his had gone to the co-worker. Bishop then went and told his supervisor that he didn’t feel well and left for the day.
At 2 p.m., he withdrew $400 from the American Security Bank and drove to a Texaco station at Montgomery Mall, where he purchased 13 gallons of gas with his credit card. Four hours later, he used a credit card again to buy a gas can and a sledgehammer at Sears in the mall.
Bishop returned to his Carderock Springs home. There, police say, he bludgeoned to death Annette, 37; their three sons, William Bradford III, 14, Brenton, 10, and Geoffrey, 5; and his mother, Lobelia Amaryllis Bishop, 68. He then packed their bodies into the family station wagon, a maroon 1974 Chevy Malibu, and with their golden retriever, Leo, drove nearly 300 miles to a site off Albemarle Sound in North Carolina, where he allegedly placed the bodies in a shallow grave and set them on fire.
Nearly three weeks later, Bishop’s abandoned vehicle turned up in Great Smoky Mountains National Park near Gatlinburg, Tenn. Credit card receipts found in the station wagon and eyewitness accounts indicated that he’d stopped at a sporting goods shop and then at a convenience store, but that he wasn’t alone: He was seen with a woman and a dog.
Then Bishop vanished. Like D.B. Cooper—the hijacker who disappeared in 1971 after parachuting from a Boeing 727 somewhere between Seattle and Reno with $200,000 in $20 bills extorted from Northwest Airlines—Bishop has achieved legendary status. And like ax-wielding Lizzie Borden—who, the rhyme goes, “gave her mother 40 whacks”—he has been immortalized in verse. In the late ’70s, a Charlottesville, Va., bluegrass band, Coup de Grass, wrote “The Ballad of Bradford Bishop.”
To those who knew the family, the case remains baffling. Jacques d’Amboise, the celebrated ballet dancer and protégé of New York City Ballet’s George Balanchine, is among them. He writes in his 2011 memoir, I Was a Dancer (Alfred A. Knopf), that he got to know Bishop as a teenager. Bishop’s parents—Bradford Sr., a geologist, and Lobelia, who’d once dreamed of being a singer/actress—were living in Pasadena, Calif., and were both ballet fans, he writes. They took d’Amboise in to live with them for a while when he was 17 and Brad, their only child, was 14.
In the memoir, d’Amboise recalls Bishop being “super smart, analytical, and somewhat remote,” and describes teaching the younger boy how to throw knives. “In any of our games,” d’Amboise writes, “he was determined to excel, to win.”
D’Amboise remained friends with the family over the years, and followed the younger man’s career through his mother. On Feb. 29, 1976, d’Amboise and his wife, Carrie, were planning to stay with Bishop and his family in Bethesda after a performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. That would have placed the couple in the Bishop house on March 1. But after suffering an injury to his knee two days earlier, the dancer had to cancel.
“Had Carrie and I been with them, would we have added our blood to the house?” d’Amboise writes in his memoir. “Would we have been in the fire pit? Or would our presence somehow have deflected or deferred the killings?”
D’Amboise wasn’t the only one nearly touched by the brutal crime.
Alvina Long, who carpooled with the Bishops and played tennis with Annette at the Carderock Springs Swim and Tennis Club, almost walked in on the crime scene the day after the killings.
“I just drove over to pick up the kids” and take them to the Rockville municipal swimming pool, recalls Long, now 77 and living elsewhere in Bethesda. “There was no one home, but the back door was open. I opened it a little bit more, saw a pot on the stove with a little oatmeal, like normal. I didn’t notice anything special, slid the sliding door closed and went back home. I thought they’d gone skiing.”
Long later learned about the homicides from news reports. “None of us could understand why it happened,” she says. “Everyone was shocked.” To outward appearances, she says, all was well. “I didn’t see any tension.”
Nor did Annette’s brother.
“I never saw a problem between Annette and Brad,” says Robert Weis, 79, who lives in San Juan Capistrano, Calif. “I always thought they had a good relationship.”
Brad and Annette met in high school in Pasadena, Calif., where he quarterbacked the football team and she was a cheerleader. Brad graduated in 1954; Annette, the following year.
At Yale, Bishop earned a C average before going on to earn graduate degrees in Italian at Vermont’s Middlebury College and in African Studies at UCLA. He and Annette were married in San Clemente in 1959.
At the State Department, Bishop had postings in Italy, Ethiopia and Botswana, where his title was deputy chief of mission. Before entering the Foreign Service, he spent four years in U.S. military intelligence in the former Yugoslavia. He was fluent in French, Serbo-Croatian, Spanish and Italian. D’Amboise would note in his memoir that Bishop’s mother was always vague about her son’s jobs, and when he first learned of the murders, d’Amboise’s early thought was that someone was exacting revenge for Bishop’s work as “a spy.”
Whatever his true work, Bishop’s career was a source of tension in the marriage, according to co-workers and Annette’s neighborhood friends. Bishop wanted another overseas posting, Annette didn’t. She wanted to pursue an art education and had begun to take classes, but Bishop wanted her to remain a stay-at-home mom. The family was having financial troubles, too; the IRS was auditing its taxes.
Bishop’s mother had helped them buy the house with a $30,000 down payment, and she moved in after her husband died. She and Annette were close, but the mother-son relationship was strained. Bishop had trouble sleeping, and twice weekly was seeing a psychiatrist, who prescribed drugs. Annette was also under psychiatric care.
Frank Caprio, the psychiatrist who prescribed antidepressants for Bishop, refused to speak with investigators after the killings, citing patient-physician confidentiality. He died in New Jersey in 2005.
But if dead men tell no tales, at least one provided a few clues about the case.
Kight had been elected county sheriff a decade after the homicides and had a continuing interest in Bishop. He’d occasionally run Bishop’s Social Security number through credit bureaus. And in 1990, he got a hit on a man in the Los Angeles area with a different name but the same Social Security number.
Robert Keefer was working as a sheriff’s deputy at the time. “It turned out the guy had died,” recalls Keefer, who’s now 60, retired and living in Tennessee. “We never got to the bottom of it.”
But the lead eventually prompted Kight to send Keefer and another investigator to the State Department to look at Bishop’s file. What they found there in 1992 was startling.
There was a certified letter from Albert Kenneth Bankston, a prisoner at the federal penitentiary in Marion, Ill., addressed to “Mr. Bradford Bishop, Jr., Assistant Chief Special Trade Office,” at the State Department’s Foggy Bottom building. Dated 16 days after the slayings, it referred to two earlier letters he’d written the month before to Bishop and hinted at a plot involving other people. It mentioned a man named David Paul Allen, who was familiar with the area where the bodies ended up. Allen had advised Bankston that “you could walk to Phelps Lake from Creswell. I think it’s about five miles…”
In addition to Allen, the letter mentioned a woman and a man named “Sonny,” both of whom Kight and Popkin believe may have been part of a plot to kill Bishop’s family.
Bankston had died of cancer in prison nine years earlier, in 1983. But Keefer interviewed Allen by phone at a prison in Marquette, Mich. “Allen told us that Bishop had paid them some money to kill the family, and they were to come to the house under the guise of doing some gutter or home repair work,” Keefer recalls. “All this was supposed to take place while he was over in Europe on a business trip. It seemed to me he paid them some cash and some jewelry.”
According to a State Department dossier, Bishop was attending a meeting in Geneva from Jan. 27 to Feb. 6, 1976—giving him an alibi if the family were killed.
Keefer went to Maine to interview the man known as “Sonny,” who was in a witness protection program there. The man “said he didn’t know anything about it and wouldn’t have done the kids anyway, because it was against their code,” Keefer recalls.
The investigators returned to State for a second look at the file. But copies of Bankston’s certified letter were now missing. A State Department official said an FBI agent had reviewed the file since their last visit. “We tried to locate this agent, but nobody could even tell us this guy existed,” Keefer says.
The investigators did learn from the file that the CIA had done a “threat assessment” of Bishop after the homicides and concluded that he didn’t pose a security threat. In an effort to learn more, Kight filed a freedom of information request. Six months later, on March 23, 1993, the CIA responded that after “thorough and diligent” searches, “no records responsive to your request were located.”
On March 19, 2000, Lorene Klepacki of Asheboro, N.C., acquired an old diary for $38 at the Super Flea Market at the Greensboro Coliseum. On the first page were the words: “Bradford Bishop Diary.” Her son found the name on the Internet and called the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Office. Popkin says the woman sent it to be copied and returned.
Its existence has never before been reported, and its provenance remains murky. But under Bishop’s name is another notation: “7/76 Col. James Auction.” On July 9, 1976, contents of the Bishop house were auctioned off at the Col. James Auction Gallery in College Park. Who bought it and how it wound up in North Carolina are unknown.
The diary—which covers six years, from October 1965 to October 1971—begins with a quote from Walt Whitman: “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road…” On June 12, 1968, Bishop writes: “One should seize upon life and embellish it!”
He discusses his career, writing in February 1967: “If you’re going to succeed in the Foreign Service—make Ambassador before you’re 50—hold positions of responsibility—constant dedication and considerable sacrifice of time & thought are required.”
There are two references to one of his sons, but no mention of Annette.
On Feb. 27, 1967, Bishop writes: “Toxic, degenerative psychoses…chronic, low-level maniac, involutional megalomania.”
A year later, he complains of “this accursed insomnia. …It’s amazing, despite how lousy you feel all doped up—smoking a few cigarettes, etc.” His problems, he writes, “must be overcome with love, style, self satisfaction…”
The writing goes from neat to nearly illegible, with about a four-year gap before the last entry on Oct. 23, 1971. He writes: “Your family grows more beautiful, and you still stand on the threshold. Outwardly, your accomplishments are great. …My, such symbols [equal] promotions, citations, languages, degrees. Still, you stand on the threshold. You have soared to the heights & plummeted, each time, to the depths.”
From the heights to the depths: words that could as easily be applied to the efforts to find Bradford Bishop.
The case is “always in the back of your mind,” Keefer says. “…If these kids had grown up, they would be leading their own lives with their own kids. It’s pretty hard to take.”
Over the years, the national media exposure has resulted in thousands of tips, especially from America’s Most Wanted. There was one from Arizona about a homeless guy living in a shelter. “We sent warrants,” Popkin says. “It wasn’t him.”
Then there were the unidentified bodies. One John Doe who washed up in a sail on the coast of rural Hyde County, N.C., in April 1987 seemed like a possibility. The man had no teeth left, and his hands had been severed at the wrist. But a coroner’s report classified him as Native American, eliminating him as the suspect.
On April 10, 2002, Popkin got a call from someone purporting to be with the Hong Kong police. He said they’d found a body in a fishing area and that the fingerprints identified the man as Bishop. “He needed us to come to Hong Kong and identify him.” The call turned out to be a hoax.
The Russians called about a dead man who looked like Bishop, but he turned out to be “just a citizen vacationing over there,” Kight says.
Responding to a tip in McAllen, Texas, Kight and Popkin apprehended a criminal who looked like Bishop, but wasn’t. “We caught him coming out of a house, followed him down the road,” Popkin says. “[Kight] made the arrest. We interviewed him. He was a drifter wanted in several states [for arson]. He was confessing to every crime he’d committed since he was 18.”
Adds Kight, “We cleared him of the murder[s]. He was all happy about that.”
Another tip, about a recluse living in Moose Lake, Minn., came in after Bishop’s picture appeared in Reader’s Digest. “This guy was clearly hiding and looked similar to Bishop,” Popkin says. “Ray and I thought there was enough credibility” to check it out.
“We went up there in the middle of the winter,” Kight recalls. “You can imagine what it was like. It was January, brutally cold. The only people we saw had dug holes off the back of their trucks and were ice fishing.”
The recluse, it turned out, had a reason to hide: He’d been involved in criminal activities in Minnesota and was soon taken into custody. But he was not Bradford Bishop.
And so it goes.
“Ray and I think that he fled to Europe,” Popkin says.
Their belief is bolstered by claims of sightings overseas—in England, Belgium, Finland, Sweden, Spain, the Netherlands, Germany, Greece and Switzerland. Bishop reportedly was seen twice on a Stockholm street in July 1978 by a former Foreign Service officer who knew him from his posting in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She said the man was following her and had a beard.
There was another claimed sighting in January 1979, in Sorrento, Italy, by another former co-worker who also noted a beard. A State Department cable reported that the man spotted Bishop at a public urinal. “He said, ‘You’re Brad Bishop, aren’t you?’ The man trembled, said, ‘Oh, my God, no,’ and fled.”
Years passed before anyone else stepped forward to say they had seen Bishop. Then, on Sept. 19, 1994, came a credible sighting in Basel, Switzerland.
Jean Wadsworth, now 87 and living in a King Farm retirement community in Rockville, was a former neighbor who knew Annette as “a good tennis player” from watching her on the next court. Wadsworth and her husband were at the train station in Basel when she noticed someone watching her husband from a train on the adjoining track.
“All of sudden this sick feeling came over me,” she says. “I realized it was Bradford Bishop.”
The man “immediately closed the window, put on specs and opened up his newspaper,” Wadsworth says. “His train started to move just as ours came in. As his window passed us, he was looking anxiously out and laughed as he went past our window. I said to my husband, ‘Should we report it?’ He said they wouldn’t understand because we didn’t speak the language.
“The very next day I called the FBI. The last thing the guy said to me was, ‘That’s exactly the kind of place a fugitive would hang out.’ They never contacted me after that.”
The most recent tip came in a call to Kight following his 2010 retirement after 24 years as sheriff. Someone had seen a man coming and going from a house owned by Bishop’s uncle in a Paris suburb. French police staked it out. The man, who resembled Bishop, turned out to be a cousin.
Keefer, who retired in 1998, used to review all the tips from America’s Most Wanted and made sure that press packets about Bishop went to all U.S. embassies.
“I’ve always felt he’s alive,” Keefer says. “I’m more convinced than ever.”
The house that once belonged to the Bishop family is set back from Lilly Stone Drive, a wide street that cuts through the 1960s community. Built in 1967, the 2,497-square-foot, brick-and-frame house sits on a half acre. It was sold 14 months after the killings and has changed hands several times since.
The current owners, who purchased it in 2009 for $750,000, are a couple with two teenagers. “We knew about [its history] before we bought it,” Gloria Uribe says. “I don’t feel anything in the house. The house is great.”
For a while shortly after the crime, Kight says, he and another deputy would “ride around the neighborhood, hoping the sucker would come back. Of course, he never did.”
At Kight’s retirement dinner, Popkin presented him with an enlarged Brad Bishop wanted poster, intended to be hung above the fireplace in Kight’s family room. (Kight’s wife didn’t buy into that decorating scheme, so it’s on the floor of her computer room instead.)
Popkin and Kight know that the likelihood of finding Bishop grows smaller as time passes. They still wish they understood the why behind the case. Beyond the family tensions and Bishop’s career disappointments, Kight thinks there might be another explanation.
As he sits at the kitchen table of his North Potomac home, Kight enters the misty realm of unconfirmed speculation. He notes that the CIA “was giving its agents various drugs,” referring to secret experiments the agency reportedly conducted on unsuspecting subjects into the 1970s. “I’m not so sure this didn’t happen to Bishop,” Kight says. “[How else] could you go into your house and bludgeon your wife, children and mother?”
During the investigation of the slayings, Kight never went to the remote wooded area of North Carolina where the bodies were found. But he’s thinking of driving there now. You never know, he says: He just might run into someone who knows something.
Eugene L. Meyer is a contributing editor for the magazine who lives in Silver Spring.