The Fatal Meeting: Death, Heroism, and a Campus Changed Forever

U. of Alabama at Huntsville

A conference room in the Shelby Center for Science and Technology at the U. of Alabama at Huntsville is similar to the one where three people were shot and killed and three others were wounded during a biology-department meeting on February 12.
February 18, 2010

There were 13 people in the room that Friday afternoon. The meeting took place on the third floor of the Shelby Center for Science and Technology, a large, imposing building on the campus of the University of Alabama at Huntsville. It was a classic departmental meeting, with talk of increased enrollment and who was going to teach which classes.

Among those in the room was Robert O. Lawton, a professor at the university since 1980. He was editing a manuscript and worrying about missing his next appointment. Debra M. Moriarity, another department veteran, was scribbling on some papers. It couldn't have been more routine.

Amy Bishop hadn't said much. Dressed in jeans and a rose-colored shirt, she was sitting near the door, next to the department's chairman, Gopi K. Podila. This would most likely be one of Ms. Bishop's last faculty meetings. A year ago, she had been turned down for tenure and had since exhausted her formal appeals, though she was still trying to plead her case with anyone who would listen.

As it happens, Mr. Podila was among the minority who had supported her bid. Most tenured faculty members had voted against her, in effect firing her from the university and forcing her, at 44, to rethink her career. Yet none of that was the subject of the meeting.

It was nearly 4 p.m. when Ms. Bishop reportedly stood and drew a 9-millimeter handgun. She fired first at Mr. Podila, hitting him in the head and killing him. She then went down the line in the order people were seated: The professors Adriel D. Johnson Sr. and Maria Ragland Davis were shot in the head and killed. A staff member, Stephanie Monticciolo, was hit but survived. Next was Joseph G. Leahy, an associate professor who was reportedly trying to take cover when he, too, was shot in the head. Both he and Ms. Monticciolo were taken to the hospital in critical condition.


Ms. Bishop had assumed she would get tenure. That's according to a colleague, Eric Seemann, who started at Huntsville at the same time she did. Mr. Seemann, now an associate professor of psychology, was in the same orientation class as Ms. Bishop in 2003. That's where they met. They weren't friends, exactly—they didn't get together outside the campus. More like "workplace buddies," he said. He remembers talking with her early in 2009, before the tenure decision was made public, and she seemed confident about her chances.

But when the list of those who received tenure arrived in March 2009, her name wasn't on it. Mr. Seemann noticed and was surprised. He figured she would "sue the beans" out of the university.

For any professor, not getting tenure is a blow. For Ms. Bishop, it may have been even more devastating. She was older than most candidates. What's more, while her husband worked a few hours a week, she was the breadwinner for the couple and their four children, who range in age from 8 to 18. They live in a green two-story house with a swimming pool in an older neighborhood about 20 minutes from the campus.

After the initial tenure rejection, Ms. Bishop filed an appeal with the university. She also filed a complaint in September with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, accusing the university of gender discrimination. That complaint is still pending.

By November, though, David B. Williams, the university's president, had rejected Ms. Bishop's appeal. While her colleagues at the university considered the case over, she searched for ways to overturn the decision. William N. Setzer, chairman of the chemistry department, remembered that she would bring the topic up at meetings that had nothing to do with tenure. "She was right up front about not getting tenure," he said. And while she was persistent, according to Mr. Setzer, she didn't seem "overtly pissed off or anything like that."

But she did more than just complain. Colleagues knew Ms. Bishop as someone who could be very determined, and now that determination was turned toward salvaging her job. Ms. Bishop asked professors both in and out of the department if they would write letters on her behalf. Mr. Setzer told her it wasn't his place to intervene. She even came to Mr. Lawton, the head of the tenure-review committee that had voted against her, asking him to write a letter supporting her.

Another professor on the committee, who asked not to be named because of concerns about his safety, said she came to him several times with the same request. Either she didn't realize, or didn't care, that this professor was one of her biggest critics and had voted against her.

Just a week before the shootings, she asked an administrator she had worked with in technology transfer to help her get tenure.


The first blast made Ms. Moriarity look up from her papers. She saw the second shot fired, and then dove under the table. What Ms. Moriarity did next has been described by the university's president as heroic and may have saved the lives of others in the room.

"I was thinking 'Oh, my God, this has to stop,'" Ms. Moriarity said. She crawled beneath the table toward Ms. Bishop, who was blocking the doorway. She grabbed at Ms. Bishop's legs and pushed at her, yelling, "I have helped you before, I can help you again!"

Ms. Bishop stepped away from her grasp. Still on the floor, Ms. Moriarity managed to crawl partially out into the hallway. Ms. Bishop, who continued shooting the entire time, then turned her attention to Ms. Moriarity, placing two hands on the gun and pointing it at her. Ms. Bishop's expression was angry—"intense eyes, a set jaw," Ms. Moriarity recalled.

With Ms. Moriarity looking up at her, Ms. Bishop pulled the trigger twice. The gun clicked, apparently out of bullets. Ms. Moriarity scrambled back into the room. Meanwhile, Ms. Bishop, now out in the hallway, appeared to be rummaging in her bag, perhaps attempting to reload. Ms. Moriarity took advantage of Ms. Bishop's fumbling and closed the door. Others in the room then helped her push the table against the door, fearing that Ms. Bishop would continue her rampage.

Ms. Moriarity's lab was next to Ms. Bishop's. They had similar research interests and had done some work together. That's what she meant when she screamed, "I can help you again!" Ms. Moriarity thought of Ms. Bishop as a good colleague. She explains, "We both did cell culture." The two had discussed the possibility of writing a proposal together for a large research grant.

Ms. Moriarity's support could have been key to Ms. Bishop's success: She had already been at the university for more than two decades when Ms. Bishop arrived, and is dean of the graduate school.

Women have a much harder time than men building careers in academic science, and there are many fewer women than men in all science and engineering disciplines. The reasons for that are the subject of a hot national debate. Some say it is women who take themselves out of the scientific pipeline when they find that the demands of a research laboratory are all-consuming and leave them little time to raise a family. Others say women like Ms. Bishop do not get the kind of support and mentorship they need from their mostly male colleagues to plot a determined path toward tenure. Many academic women complain about a steady stream of derogatory comments and discriminatory behavior from men in their departments. That is particularly a problem for some women like Ms. Bishop, who can turn people off because they are loud, opinionated, and confident.

Ms. Bishop's department was about 30-percent female, slightly more than the national average for biology. Some colleagues, like Mr. Lawton, called her scientific work creative, although he wouldn't go so far as labeling it brilliant. Mr. Setzer, the chemistry chairman, told The Chronicle that Ms. Bishop was "pretty smart. That was not a question."

But while Ms. Bishop's work was considered interesting—she had come up with a novel way to incubate cells and was working on a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis—her research output didn't dazzle anyone. At the start of her career at Huntsville, Ms. Bishop published only one peer-reviewed paper in each of the years 2004, 2005, and 2006. She published no papers in 2007 and 2008. Then last year she published three peer-reviewed papers, one of which appeared in the little-known International Journal of General Medicine. Other biologists who do work similar to hers tend to publish at a much faster clip.

One professor at Huntsville who sat on Ms. Bishop's tenure-review committee said many people there were "unimpressed" with her scientific abilities. When Ms. Bishop gave a seminar on her work the year her tenure bid was up for consideration, she completely flubbed it, recalls the professor, who asked to remain anonymous citing safety concerns. People who listened to the seminar, he remembered, could make no sense out of her science.

And when Ms. Bishop's tenure-review committee asked people in her field to write letters evaluating her work, "they said they wouldn't give her tenure at their universities."

Even under the best of circumstances, making tenure can be a trying process, accompanied by stress, isolation, and self-doubt. On top of that, science is perhaps more cutthroat and competitive than most academic disciplines, with every young scholar racing to make the biggest discovery, put out the most publications, and garner the largest grants.

Most universities, like Huntsville, take months to interview and vet young scholars, and when one is finally hired it is with the expectation that he or she will be able to clear the tenure hurdle six or seven years down the line. So when someone like Ms. Bishop fails to do so, the denial can feel even more devastating than being let go from most other kinds of jobs.

What's worse, perhaps, is that scholars like Ms. Bishop who are denied tenure are usually allowed to stay on at their campuses for another year, primarily to give them time to find another job. But working as a lame duck among colleagues who have deemed you unworthy can't help but be excruciating. And as the academic job market has grown tighter in recent years, the task of finding a new job and starting over on the tenure track at middle age must have seemed both daunting and depressing.

Of course, none of that explains why Ms. Bishop would stand up in a faculty meeting and open fire on her colleagues. And people at Huntsville, and on other campuses, are reluctant to make a connection between her murderous outburst and the vagaries of tenure. People are turned down for tenure at colleges across the United States every spring. That's common. Killing your colleagues is not.


Once the door to the meeting room was barricaded, two professors called 911: Luis Cruz-Vera, who had been shot in the chest, and Joseph D. Ng, who wasn't hurt. Mr. Cruz-Vera did not immediately realize he had been injured; he was treated and released from the hospital. Mr. Ng later sent an e-mail message to a colleague at the University of California at Irvine, which was published by The Orange County Register. "Blood was everywhere with crying and moaning," he wrote. "We were in a pool of blood in disbelief of what had happened."

After the shooting ended, Ms. Bishop went to the second-floor bathroom in the Shelby Center, where she left the gun. She called her husband, James Anderson, who was working just down the street, to come pick her up. The two had planned to go out for coffee after the meeting. Before he arrived, and less than 15 minutes after the shooting, Ms. Bishop was arrested by campus police officers.

Mr. Anderson said he didn't know his wife had a gun with her when he dropped her off for the meeting about an hour before. The two often commuted together; Mr. Anderson worked at Prodigy Biosystems, just a few minutes from the campus. Ms. Bishop sat on the fledgling company's Board of Directors and, according to her husband, was going to be its spokeswoman. The company's chief project was bringing the new cell incubator Mr. Anderson had helped his wife create to market.

The couple thought of themselves as a research team. She was the one with the credentials and the research expertise, while he was the gadget guy, the tinkerer. The two met when they were undergraduates at Northeastern University.

Mr. Anderson was dating Ms. Bishop in 1986, when she shot her brother to death at her family's home in Braintree, Mass. At the time, police ruled the shooting an accident, but details from the incident that have become public in the last week have raised new questions, and the case is now being re-examined.

Ms. Bishop drew law-enforcement officials' attention again in 1993 when both she and Mr. Anderson were questioned by federal authorities during an investigation into a package containing two pipe bombs that was mailed to Paul A. Rosenberg, then an assistant professor of neurology at Harvard University. Ms. Bishop worked under him as a postdoctoral fellow in the same laboratory and was among the suspects early on. The bombs did not explode, and no one was ever charged.

In an interview, Mr. Anderson called the shooting death of Ms. Bishop's brother "an absolute accident." The couple broke up for a while afterward because Ms. Bishop was in such distress. She received counseling, he said, and they later got back together.

As for the mail bombs, Mr. Anderson said that his wife would have had no reason to hurt Mr. Rosenberg. Authorities "tore up" their house searching for evidence, he said, but apparently didn't find anything to connect them to the attempted bombing.

In a written statement, Mr. Rosenberg said he hopes there is a "thorough investigation into this recent crime." The word "thorough" is underlined.

Since the shootings, Mr. Anderson said he has been searching for "the trigger" that might have caused his wife to open fire on her colleagues. He wondered if perhaps an e-mail message might have upset her. Often, according to Mr. Anderson, higher-ups at the university sent "nastygrams" by e-mail on Fridays. (John D. Fix, dean of Huntsville's College of Science, said he didn't know what Mr. Anderson was talking about.) Mr. Anderson wondered whether his wife had received such a message, perhaps one affirming that university officials were standing behind her denial of tenure. But so far he hasn't found anything. Police seized Ms. Bishop's home computer and her tenure dossier.

Mr. Anderson's explanation of why his wife did not receive tenure does not match up with that of people on her tenure-review committee and others at the university familiar with the situation. For instance, Mr. Anderson says that her colleagues in the department supported her but the university's provost turned her down. In fact, Mr. Lawton, head of the tenure-review committee, said the committee—made up primarily of tenured faculty members in biology—voted against her. Mr. Anderson also said her denial was the result of a miscommunication over when two papers were published, and he called her a "loved teacher." Another member of the review committee, however, said that both her research and her teaching failed to measure up.

After she was turned down in 2009, Mr. Anderson said, he sat his wife down and said, "You're beautiful, you're smart, you have an IQ above 160, let's figure out what you want to do." She told him she wanted to do research, and that's when they decided to open a research institute. She was also looking for other academic jobs, and had leads on two possible positions, he said.

Still, she was worried about ending up like Douglas C. Prasher, a biochemist whose pioneering work on jellyfish and fluorescence was credited with helping his colleagues win a Nobel Prize, but who left science after failing to get a grant and struggling with depression. In 2008 he was driving a shuttle bus for a car dealer in Huntsville.

Mr. Anderson said his wife had given no indication that she might become violent. As for where the gun came from, at first he told The Chronicle he didn't know his wife even had one. In an interview the next day, however, he said that she had borrowed it but that she was "cagey" about where exactly it came from. She had been to a local indoor shooting range at least twice, he said, once with a friend and once with him a couple of weeks before the shootings. She told him she needed the gun because she was worried about "crazy students," and had been followed across a campus parking lot last summer. But Mr. Anderson said he told her he didn't want the gun in the house because of their children. And Mr. Anderson said he had warned her: "You can't carry it to work."

Last week, Ms. Bishop called her husband from jail and asked him how he and the children were doing and whether they had done their homework. Mr. Anderson is trying to keep his kids distracted. One morning last week they sang karaoke in another room while he talked to The Chronicle in the foyer of his home. Shoes were piled next to the stairs, and Christmas cards were still taped to the wall. A violin case lay on the floor in the living room. Mr. Anderson, dressed in plaid pajama pants and a red shirt, seemed exhausted, and his voice trembled with emotion when he talked about Ms. Bishop's dead colleagues. Three days after the shootings, he still did not know which ones she was accused of killing. He said he didn't want that information until he felt more emotionally stable.

Administrators canceled classes for the week after the shooting, to give people on the campus a chance to grieve and regroup. During the week off, officials quickly gathered faculty members from other campuses who agreed to fill in and teach biology. Ms. Moriarity, who had looked Ms. Bishop in the eye as she pulled the trigger, was back on the campus the following Monday. Mr. Lawton, who saw his colleagues die, said, "I'm not going to let this ruin my life."

In the weeks to come, the picture of what happened on that Friday afternoon, and in the months leading up to it, will no doubt become clearer. But determining exactly what prompted a professor to commit such a heinous act may be an impossible task. Are there lessons here about recognizing mental illness? Or about the intense pressure of the tenure process? Or does the whole thing simply make no sense? It may all boil down to the question Ms. Bishop's husband says he most wants to ask her: Why?

Paul Basken and David Glenn contributed to this article.