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 Maryland's most mysterious killers. But the Montgomery County sheriff and a detective are still sifting through thousands of unconfirmed Bishop sightings around the globe, looking for the real 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 ever 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 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 alone -- 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 Central Intelligence Agency, 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 worked for it. 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 later 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."
A widely traveled Foreign Service officer with the State Department who served in American embassies in Italy, Ethiopia, and Botswana, Bishop had impeccable credentials.
Spoke five languages
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. He and Annette had been high-school sweethearts California, and 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 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 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 and 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 as they slept, 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 toll booths 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.
The last confirmed sighting of Bishop was March 2 -- shortly after the bodies were dumped -- in a Jacksonville, N.C., sporting goods store where Bishop bought a pair of tennis shoes on his credit card. He was with an unidentified woman who held his dog, Leo, on a leash, recalls John Wheatley, who still runs the store.
"They seemed very much like a couple," said Wheatley, who said Bishop was polite and well-spoken. "The only thing I really remember is that she had on a beautiful dress, and she seemed to be Caribbean in nature. She was dark-skinned."
The woman is a tantalizing detail for Kight and Keefer. Find her, they say, and you take a big step toward finding the elusive Bishop.
Keefer uncovered a clue as to her whereabouts in 1992, when, while digging through Bishop's old files at the State Department, he found a March 15, 1976, letter sent to Bishop from a convicted bank robber that made a vague reference to a woman, passports, and the area where the bodies were discovered.
The numbered letter, apparently the sixth in a series, indicates Bishop may have been planning his family's murder for months.
"Now in answer to your question. Yes I am most sure she is in the North Carolina State penitentiary," wrote the bank robber, A. Ken Bankston. But he does not name the woman.
Undiscovered for 16 years
The letter went undiscovered in State Department archives for 16 years. Bankston died in 1983, before police knew of his connection to Bishop, going to the grave with whatever information he had of the Bishop mystery.
"It's just another frustrating piece of an incredible puzzle," says Keefer, his office packed with files and folders on the case.
Sightings of Brad Bishop -- or someone people think is him -- are common around the world. People who see wanted posters and "America's Most Wanted" seem to believe they've spotted him in car washes, libraries, and even posing as a janitor at a Southern California school.
CIA phone number
But none of the leads have panned out. In recent years, Kight has pursued the CIA angle, citing a series of bizarre clues that suggest there was more to Bishop than met the eye.
In his letters to the CIA, the sheriff mentions a clue found in Bishop's desk at the State Department -- a match book with a telephone number of a CIA office at the agency's Langley headquarters.
He also cites a document found in Bishop's security file at the State Department, which stated that the CIA had done a "damage assessment" of Bishop's knowledge of its activities after he disappeared. But the CIA concluded "that it does not consider Bishop as a possible espionage target," the report said.
Kight even took the unusual step for a law enforcement agency (( of filing a Freedom of Information Act request to the CIA, telling them the Bishop case "leads us to believe there is involvement of some unknown entity with unlimited resources."
The CIA's response was succinct: "No records responsive to your request were located."
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," said Weis, Annette Bishop's brother. "He'll probably never be found. But wherever he is, I hope his conscience finds him."
Pub Date: 7/24/97