Accused Alabama Professor Has History Of Violence

Mourners at the University of Alabama comfort one another after the fatal shooting on Feb. 12. i i

Brandon Doss (left) comforts Kourtney Lattimore as they mourn the loss of three professors in front of the Shelby Center on the campus of the University of Alabama, Huntsville. Professor Amy Bishop was arrested for the shooting deaths. Butch Dill/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Butch Dill/AP
Mourners at the University of Alabama comfort one another after the fatal shooting on Feb. 12.

Brandon Doss (left) comforts Kourtney Lattimore as they mourn the loss of three professors in front of the Shelby Center on the campus of the University of Alabama, Huntsville. Professor Amy Bishop was arrested for the shooting deaths.

Butch Dill/AP

More information suggesting a violent past continues to come to light about professor Amy Bishop, who is accused of fatally shooting three colleagues at the University of Alabama in Huntsville last week.

Bishop, a neurobiology professor, was charged with assaulting a stranger at a restaurant in 2002. It wasn't her only brush with the law, and questions continue to swirl around whether key warning signs may have been missed.

Connecting The Dots

In retrospect, it's often easy to connect the dots. In 1986, Bishop fatally shot her brother in what was officially ruled an accident. Seven years later, she was questioned about a mail bomb sent to a Harvard professor who was her supervisor. Neither of those incidents resulted in any charges.

But she also was arrested for punching a stranger in the head at a pancake restaurant because the woman was using a child booster seat that Bishop wanted.

For that incident, prosecutors recommended anger management courses as part of her probation.

The altercation would have shown up on the deepest kind of criminal checks — for example, those for a child care position. But university spokesman Ray Garner says it did not turn up on the background check the university ran when Bishop was hired in 2003, or even when they ran another check this week.

"I think it would have got our attention," says Garner. "And I think we may have looked a little bit closer if we had been aware of it. I don't think it is productive to look back, but I think it is more appropriate to look forward and see how we can do things better."

Some say the university should, and could, have done a better job piecing together even the more subtle clues they did have. Since the shooting, plenty of people have been saying they were not surprised.

"Honestly, like, when it first happened and they said it was a faculty member, students started texting me, and they were like, 'We bet it was Bishop,' " says nursing student Caitlin Phillips.

Phillips says she always felt something was "off" with Bishop.

"She would never make eye contact with you, like when I was in her office, she would just kind of glance around the room, look at the table, look at computer, never once would she look at me while having a conversation with me," Phillips says. "There was something wrong with her. We saw this for a whole year."

'We're All A Little Bit Eccentric'

Eventually, Phillips and a group of students voiced their concerns in a letter to Associate Dean Daniel Rochowiak. Today, he concedes, he's second-guessing himself.

But he says students complain all the time, and it is impossible to round up everyone on campus who's a little "off."

"We're all a little bit eccentric," says Rochowiak. "But unless someone is violent or exhibits that kind of behavior, what can you possibly do?"

Marisa Randazzo, a former chief research psychologist for the Secret Service and a consultant on threat assessment, says it is possible to tell the difference between someone who exhibits weird or eccentric tendencies, and someone who might pose a real threat.

Even without knowing about Bishop's prior brushes with the law, Randazzo says a well-trained team on campus could have pieced together other clues that this professor, who was desperately fighting to keep her job, posed a potential threat.

"In this case, her husband was aware of the fact that she had borrowed a handgun and was practicing at the firing range," Randazzo says. "And that, in and of itself, may be fine behavior, but that coupled with a long-standing grievance and failure to be able to address her problems other ways would, for me, raise concerns."

Her husband wasn't likely to alert the university to her weapons training, and the University of Alabama, Huntsville does not have a formal threat assessment team on campus. But many schools now do; some states even mandate it.

Randazzo says the teams encourage people to report even small concerns, but Northeastern University criminologist Jack Levin says that can yield lots of false alarms.

"All of these so-called warning signs are also associated with many, maybe millions, of very good, decent people who wouldn't hurt anyone," Levin says.

Still, in the wake of last week's shooting, university officials say setting up a formal threat assessment board is among the things they will now consider.

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