Roy Exum: Scottsboro’s ‘John Doe’

  • Saturday, October 11, 2014
  • Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

On Thursday a grim-faced group of men gathered in the Cedar Hill Cemetery in Scottsboro, not to bury a citizen of the sleepy little northeast Alabama town but to exhume a total stranger. If an uncanny hunch proves true, the name “John Doe” could turn into one of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted and local folks would give almost anything to know how a legendary mass murderer like Brad Bishop could have ever wandered into their midst.

It might be he’s been there quite a while. It was 33 years ago this very week when a lone hitchhiker was hit and killed on Highway 72 East that runs from the Tennessee state line towards Huntsville. At the time the victim appeared to be homeless and his pockets were empty but when the casket was reopened at a Scottsboro funeral home this week, forensic experts took hair and other samples that might include his DNA and the evidence was flown to the FBI lab in Quantico, Va.

Again, nobody is sure who the Scottsboro ‘John Doe’ really is but there is rapt fascination because soon after the FBI placed William Bradford Bishop, Jr., on its Top 10 Most Wanted list this April, the celebrated TV sleuth, John Walsh, did a special on the chilling case. You see, back in 1976 Bishop was a Yale-educated diplomat for the State Department. One day he went to his home in Bethesda, Md., and, viciously using a small sledge hammer, is believed to have ghastly murdered his mother, his wife, and his three sons.

After he allegedly massacred his entire family, Brown inexplicably drove the bodies through the night to a remote area of the Great Smoky Mountains where he placed the corpses in a shallow grave and tried to burn the remains. The very next day he was positively identified at a sporting goods store in Jacksonville, N.C. (which is about 200 miles from Scottsboro) and then he miraculously disappeared. It is believed Bishop was never positively identified again.

As fate sometimes happens, last year the Scottsboro Police Department took another try at identifying the homeless John Doe who was killed on the highway back in 1981. The newspaper, the Daily Sentinel, even ran an old picture the coroner had taken. At the time, Jeremy Collins, a 32-year-old who sells signs for his family’s business in Scottsboro (and who wasn’t even born when the John Doe was killed) recalls studying the photo.

Then there was the night this summer when Jeremy and his wife were watching “The Hunt With John Walsh,” an episode that featured the brutal murders, and suddenly he turned to his wife and said, “You know, that looks like the guy in the Daily Sentinel.”

The excited Collins called the TV show’s tip-line and the next day took photos of both Brown and the unknown homeless victim to Scottsboro Police Chief Ralph Dawe, who in turn contacted Montgomery County Sheriff Darren Popkin in Maryland. Maryland authorities have actively pursued the case since 1976. “The similarities were incredible,” Popkin told the Washington Post.

The hairlines were the same, as was the nose and the chin. There was some small growth above the eye and the earlobe matched. When Bishop disappeared, he was 6-1 and weighed 180. The John Doe was 5-9 and weighed 155 but could he have been taller before being mangled when he was hit? Plus, five years on the lam could account for a weight loss.

Here’s what the FBI website says about Brown, who is believed to be the oldest person ever placed on the Top 10 Most Wanted (today he would be 72 years old):

* * *

“William Bradford Bishop, Jr. is wanted for allegedly bludgeoning to death his wife (age 37), mother (age 68), and three sons (ages 5, 10 and 14) in Bethesda, Maryland, on March 1, 1976. He then allegedly transported their bodies to Columbia, North Carolina, where he buried the bodies in a shallow grave and lit them on fire.

“Bishop was, and may still be, an avid outdoorsman, camper, and hiker. He had extensive camping experience in Africa. He also enjoyed canoeing, fishing, swimming, jogging, tennis, skiing and riding motorcycles. Bishop enjoyed working out several times a week. He was also a licensed amateur pilot who learned to fly in Botswana, Africa,” the profile reads.

“Bishop has an American Studies degree from Yale University and a Master's Degree in Italian from Middlebury College in Vermont. He was known to read extensively and may have kept a diary or journal. A longtime insomniac, Bishop reportedly had been under psychiatric care in the past and had used medication for depression. He drank scotch and wine and enjoyed eating peanuts and spicy food.

“Bishop was described as intense and self-absorbed, prone to violent outbursts, and preferred a neat and orderly environment.”

* * *

Gary Reals, a former radio and TV reporter in Maryland, extensively covered the case and said Bishop has been supposedly sighted all over the world. “There have been sightings in Stockholm, in Sorrento, Italy, in South Africa, in Switzerland, all over the United States,” he told WUSA9. “Factually, his last known whereabouts are the Smoky Mountains – this is in the same direction but five years later.

“You can do a lot of traveling in five years but it doesn’t fit Bishop the person. He’s a well-educated man, he’s an economist. Seeing him live in the rural South doesn’t really fit,” said Reals, knowing Bishop could speak five languages and specializes in passports for the State Department.

Brian Stafford, a detective for the Montgomery County Sheriff’s Department, said that the coroner’s photograph makes the case a “little stronger” and said earlier this year forensic specialists were able to get DNA samples from a shaving kit police found in Bishop’s station wagon. There are also blood cards from the victims.

“It might be him and we’re going to know in about two weeks,” the detective told the Washington newspaper.

Sheriff Popkin shook his head. “After all these years, if we can confirm this is him, there is some irony in the fact he was run over by a car without a dollar in his pocket.”

A reward for William Bradford Bishop was offered for William Bradford Bishop in April by the FBI when he was added to the Top 10 Most Wanted list. Now there is some belief he has been "hiding" in a John Doe grave in a Scottsboro cemetery after being struck by a car on Highway 72 East in 1981.
A reward for William Bradford Bishop was offered for William Bradford Bishop in April by the FBI when he was added to the Top 10 Most Wanted list. Now there is some belief he has been "hiding" in a John Doe grave in a Scottsboro cemetery after being struck by a car on Highway 72 East in 1981.
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