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Cold Case: ‘Family Annihilator’ evades justice for 42 years

Bradford Bishop

Bradford Bishop in 1976 at age 39, left, is shown with an FBI sculpture of what he might look like now.


Staff Writer

Monday, May 28, 2018

A swamp fire in 1976 led an eastern North Carolina park ranger to a grisly mass grave.

The prime suspect — the only suspect — has been running or hiding ever since.

Bradford Bishop lived the American Dream. He worked for the U.S. State Department earning a respectable salary; owned a home in Bethesda, Maryland; and had a wife, three sons and a golden retriever named Leo.

But on March 1, 1976, Bishop, 39 at the time, learned he wouldn't receive a promotion he'd been expecting. He told his secretary he didn't feel well and left work early. He went to his bank and withdrew his life's savings. He then bought a sledgehammer, pitchfork, shovel and gas can. He filled up the gas can and the family's 1974 Chevy station wagon, according to archived news reports.

Bishop went home after his three sons were asleep. He killed his wife in the living room, striking her several times with the sledgehammer, splitting her skull. He waited, covered in blood, for his mother to return from walking Leo. After beating his mother to death, trailing blood all over the walls, Bishop went upstairs into his sons' bedrooms. He hit each of them in the head several times while they slept, all according to alleged charges leveled in five first-degree murder grand jury indictments.

With five bodies in the trunk of the station wagon, Bishop drove through the night about 300 miles south to a rural spot in coastal Tyrrell County, about an hour from Elizabeth City, according to court records.

Bishop dug a hole, dumped the bodies inside and set them on fire. Later that day, he stopped at a sporting goods store and used a credit card to purchase a pair of sneakers. He had Leo with him on a leash.

Two weeks later, Bishop's abandoned car was found in an isolated area of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee. Inside the car were dog biscuits, a bloody blanket, a shotgun, an ax and a shaving kit with Bishop's medication. The spare-tire well in the trunk was full of blood, according to authorities.

No one knows for sure why Bishop apparently killed his family, other than the obvious — to get rid of them and start a new life. Such killers are known as Family Annihilators.

It took authorities a week to identify the bodies, giving Bishop time to travel just about anywhere. A Yale graduate and diplomat at that time of the murders, Bishop knows five languages. He's believed to be hiding in Europe.

Bishop was an avid outdoorsman. He had extensive camping experience in Africa. He was a licensed amateur pilot who learned to fly in Botswana. He enjoyed canoeing, fishing, swimming, jogging, tennis, skiing and riding motorcycling. He read extensively. A longtime insomniac, Bishop was under psychiatric care and taking medication for depression. He drank scotch and wine. He liked peanuts and spicy foods. All of that was in his first life — he may have left his old habits behind.

Since Bishop broke with his established life and assumed new identities, traditional fugitive investigative techniques are worthless, according to FBI Special Agent Steve Vogt, who added folks on social media have the best chance of finding Bishop, now 80.

The manhunt for Bishop has been extensively covered over the last 42 year in The Washington Post, Reader's Digest and Time Magazine. The case has been featured on television shows “Unsolved Mysteries,” “Vanished” and “America's Most Wanted.”

Bishop was added to the FBI's 10 Most Wanted List in 2014. Fugitives on that list have included terrorist mastermind Osama Bin Laden, Boston gangster Whitey Bulger and abortion clinic bomber Eric Rudolph. Since its inception in 1950, more than 90 percent of the more than 500 fugitives placed on the list have been located.

The FBI is offering a reward of up to $100,000 for information leading to Bishop's capture. Anyone with information on his whereabouts should call the FBI Major Case Contact Center at 800-CALLFBI.