Federal and Maryland state officials are doubling down on a cold case file from nearly four decades ago, perhaps after receiving tips that the fugitive, Bradford Bishop, is still alive and basking in the light of freedom. The renewed attention sounds completely warranted. This case is a doozy—described as one of “stunning violence” and even “international intrigue.”
In 1976 Bishop was a State Department Foreign Service Officer stationed in DC. He had degrees from Yale and Middlebury College, served four years in Army counterintelligence in then-Yugoslavia, then joined the State Department and completed postings in Italy, Ethiopia, Botswana. Like many diplomats, he mastered a number of foreign languages, including French, Italian, Spanish and Serbo-Croatian.
He also seemingly had the perfect family: he and his wife were high school sweethearts (quarterback and cheerleader to boot), with three sons and a dog living in suburban Maryland. The family played tennis, swam at their community club and liked to ski.
But on March 1, 1976, everything went horribly wrong. Bishop left work early, bought a three-pound sledgehammer, returned to his home and one-by-one bludgeoned to death each of his family members: his wife, mother, and three sons (ages 14, 10 and 5). The crime scene—discovered about a week later—was gruesome, with blood and human remnants splattered along the floors and walls.
From ivy-league, Foreign Service golden boy to psychopathic family killer—what happened? Did the State Department forget to cover the “Don’t murder your family” bullet point during orientation? In the intervening years there have been many theories posited, from the entirely speculative and sensationalistic (Bishop was actually a CIA spy drugged by the agency for nefarious experimentation) to methodical conjecture. Some of the more credible tidbits:
*According to friends and co-workers, career aspirations were a source of tension in the marriage. Bishop wanted another overseas posting; his wife, Annette, wanted to stay put in Maryland. She also wanted to go back to school to pursue art; Bishop wanted her to remain a stay-at-home mom. And to top it off, the family was having financial troubles, and undergoing an IRS audit.
*Bishop also reportedly clashed with his mother, who was living with the family. Incidentally, she had lent Bishop $30,000 to buy their house, and was close with Annette.
*Bishop was described by police as “intense and self-absorbed, prone to violent outbursts” and as preferring “a neat and orderly environment.”
*He suffered from insomnia, took anti-depressants and saw a psychiatrist twice a week. In a diary attributed to Bishop (though not officially confirmed), the author complained about his mental state: “Toxic, degenerative psychose . . . chronic, low-level maniac, involutional [sic] megalomania.”
*The unconfirmed diary also included concerns about personal inability: “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.”
*Finally, on the day of the killings, Bishop learned he had been passed up for a work promotion he thought he deserved. A coworker reported this deeply depressed Bishop, and he left work after complaining of feeling ill.
Hmmm. So he sounds kind of crazy, real anxious about keeping all the balls in the air, and perhaps resentful toward his family for keeping him back from achievement. (Or maybe the CIA drugs theory better suits your fancy.)
Whatever the reason, Bishop’s homicidal night in with the family concluded with him loading the bloody corpses into his car, and driving nearly 300 miles away to a wooded part of North Carolina. Bishop spared the life of the family’s golden retriever (I guess the dog wasn’t dragging him down), who accompanied him on the drive. There in the forest, Bishop dug a shallow hole, dumped in the bodies and set them ablaze. Again, it’s unclear what motivated all this—given that his fingerprints were all over the murder scene at the house, there seems to be no point in trying to do away with the bodies.
Bishop bought a few items at some North Carolina stores later that night, and then vanished. While there have been a host of unconfirmed sightings throughout the U.S. and Europe, there’s been no clear indication of his whereabouts since.
His heinous acts have since catapulted Bishop to infamy. The killings have been the focus of numerous news segments and TV murder investigations, and Bishop has even had a song written about him: “The Ballad of Bradford Bishop” by Virginia bluegrass band Coup de Grass. Most recently, he’s earned a rare place on the notorious FBI Ten Most Wanted list, along with an age-progressed sculpture officials created to aid the public search. Police hope the internet and social media will aid in finally finding and bringing to justice the elusive former diplomat. Just last year public appeals led to the discovery of Boston-crime boss Whitey Bulger after he was on the lam from police for 16 years. So check your neighbors, acquaintances and Serbo-Croatian language teachers—do any of them look like this?!