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DA rips gap in Bishop report

He says omission of standoff ‘glaring’

By Maria Cramer and Shelley Murphy
Globe Staff / February 18, 2010

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The Norfolk district attorney ramped up his criticism of the 1986 investigation of Seth Bishop’s death yesterday, saying that it was “glaring’’ and “striking’’ that local police accounts of Amy Bishop’s armed standoff at a local business were not included in the State Police report or considered as part of the prosecutor’s decision about whether to pursue charges.

“It was a glaring omission that . . . there wasn’t the inclusion of the shooter who exited her house with a gun, leveling the gun at an innocent bystander, and making demands on that bystander,’’ William R. Keating said in a telephone interview.

Although Braintree police had documented in great detail how Bishop had pointed a 12-gauge shotgun at two employees at a local auto body shop and demanded a getaway car, there is no indication in the final State Police report that they shared this information with the troopers who worked out of the district attorney’s office and were assigned to the case.

Keating also revealed yesterday that the state trooper who wrote the report, Brian L. Howe, has told investigators in Keating’s office that he “did not have a recollection’’ of Braintree police telling him of the incident. That backs up the repeated assertions of the assistant district attorney assigned to the 1986 case, who also said he was never made aware of the second assault.

Last Friday, 23 years after Bishop escaped charges in the shooting death of her brother and her armed encounter at the body shop, police say the Harvard-educated neurobiologist fatally shot three of her colleagues at the University of Alabama at Huntsville and injured three others.

In the aftermath, a series of troubling questions have been raised about how the Braintree case was handled, with several key figures in the investigation - including former Braintree police chief John Polio - saying they were unaware of crucial facts surrounding the death of 18-year-old Seth Bishop.

Keating said yesterday that he was confounded by Polio’s admission that he did not know Bishop had pointed her firearm at a mechanic and demanded a getaway car. These details were included in Braintree police reports made public on Tuesday after they had previously been declared missing.

“The report reflects what his own police officers saw,’’ Keating said. “And if he’s saying that he wasn’t aware that Amy Bishop took a loaded shotgun and pointed it at an innocent bystander, I find that astounding. He’s saying he didn’t read his own [officers’] reports.’’

Polio acknowledged yesterday that he read the reports of his own officers for the first time when they were released by Keating’s office this week. Polio said he did not read the reports in 1986 because his officers told him the case would be handled by State Police and the district attorney’s office.

“I’m not fingerpointing at anybody,’’ Polio said. “I know what part I played and what I did, but the lines of communication broke somewhere. I have no regrets whatsoever.’’

US Representative William D. Delahunt, who was Norfolk district attorney at the time of the 1986 shooting, has been in Israel since the Alabama shootings, but was questioned about the case yesterday at a press availability called after the congressional delegation was blocked from entering Gaza.

“I haven’t had a real opportunity to get into the details of the case, but I suspect when I return I’ll have an opportunity to become debriefed,’’ the congressman told the Associated Press.

Braintree Police Chief Paul Frazier first raised concerns about the handling of the investigation during a Saturday press conference. Yesterday, an assistant in his office referred calls to Braintree’s mayor, Joseph Sullivan, who declined to comment on Keating’s remarks.

Sullivan said town officials worked through the weekend to find the Braintree police reports, which Frazier said had been missing for more than 20 years. They were ultimately found in a box at the police station among the papers of an investigator on the case, who has since died.

“I wanted to get the facts out as quick as we could,’’ Sullivan said.

On Sunday, the Globe, citing an anonymous law enforcement official, reported that Bishop and her husband were questioned in the attempted bombing of a Harvard Medical School professor in 1993. Investigators searched the home Bishop shared with her husband, but no one was ever charged in the crime.

Bishop’s husband, James Anderson, acknowledged that he and his wife had been questioned, but he told the New York Times that he had been given a letter from the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms that said: “You are hereby cleared in this incident. You are no longer a subject of the investigation.’’

However, Michael J. Sullivan, who served as US attorney for Massachusetts from 2001 to 2009 and had been acting director of the ATF, said it is extremely unusual for federal officials to write such a letter unless the suspects or those questioned were publicly linked to the case. The names of Bishop and her husband were never publicly linked to the case until after Friday’s shootings.

“There probably were one or two times during my career as a federal and state prosecutor where I felt an obligation to give that type of letter because a person’s reputation was harmed through no fault of their own and there was an exoneration of the individual,’’ said Sullivan, who emphasized that he had no personal knowledge of the Bishop case.

On Tuesday, Keating said Bishop should have been charged with assault with a dangerous weapon, unlawful possession of a firearm, and unlawful possession of ammunition for pointing her shotgun at innocent bystanders. Braintree police had to order her to put down her weapon, which she did not do, forcing one officer to grab her from behind, according to the newly released reports.

Keating said the errors made in the 1986 case are the kind that shake public confidence in law enforcement.

“It’s important to go forward so that the same mistakes can’t be repeated,’’ he said.

Among those mistakes, said Keating, were letting Bishop go without questioning her the day of the shooting because police concluded she was too distraught to be interviewed and the decision by local and State Police to wait 11 days before interviewing her and her mother, the sole witnesses to the shooting.

“If you eliminated everyone from an interview that was emotionally upset after a shooting death, you’d have no one to talk to,’’ Keating said. “If someone takes a loaded shotgun, levels it at someone, and makes demands, and the person goes to the police station and gets released and there are no charges, I don’t think anyone could say that wasn’t a mistake.’’

Braintree police also should have waited for the State Police crime scene response unit to arrive at the house and allowed their troopers to take pictures and document evidence, Keating said.

According to the local police report, in the moments following the shooting, Braintree officers photographed the scene and removed evidence, like spent shells, after Howe reportedly told Captain Theodore Buker of the Braintree police that “State Police would not respond.’’ But in Howe’s six-page report, which he wrote in March 1987, he said he was directed on the day of the shooting to conduct an investigation.

It is unclear from the state and town reports when or whether State Police went to the scene that day.

Keating said it is standard procedure for smaller towns, like Braintree, to immediately hand over death investigations to the State Police and the district attorney’s office, which have more resources.

“The statutes are clear that the district attorney and the State Police attached to the district attorney have primary responsibility over the investigations of death,’’ Keating said. “There should be a clear chain of command on investigations, and as I reviewed the documents . . . based on those reports, that chain of command, that sharing of information was not there.’’