William Bradford Bishop Jr. was born August 1, 1936, in Pasadena, California to Lobelia and William Bradford Bishop Sr. He received a BS in history from Yale University and an MA in international studies from Middlebury College. Alternatively, he has been reported to have a bachelor's degree in American Studies from Yale and a master's degree in Italian from Middlebury College. He also holds a master's degree in African Studies from UCLA.
After graduating from Yale in 1959, Bishop married his high school sweetheart Annette Weis, with whom he had three sons. He joined the U.S. Army and spent four years in the counterintelligence area. Bishop also learned to speak four foreign languages fluently: Italian, French, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish. After leaving the Army, Bishop joined the U.S. State Department and served in the Foreign Service in many postings overseas. This included postings in the Italian cities of Verona, Milan, and Florence (where he did post-graduate work at the University of Florence) from 1968 to 1972. He also served in Africa, including posts in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and in Gaborone, Botswana, from 1972 to 1974. His last posting, which began in 1974, was at State Department Headquarters in Washington, D.C. as an Assistant Chief in the Division of Special Activities and Commercial Treaties. He was living in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife and three sons as well as his mother, Lobelia.
On March 1, 1976, after learning he would not receive a promotion he had sought, Bishop told his secretary he did not feel well and left his office in Foggy Bottom. Police believe he drove to his bank, where he withdrew several hundred dollars, then to Montgomery Mall, where he bought a sledgehammer and gas can; he also filled the gas can, and the tank of his station wagon, at an adjacent gas station. From there he drove to a hardware store, where he purchased a shovel and pitchfork.
He returned to his home in Bethesda between 7:30 and 8 p.m. Police believe Bishop's wife was likely killed first, then his mother as she returned from walking the family dog. Finally, his three sons (aged 5, 10, and 14) were killed while they slept in an upstairs bedroom.
Bishop allegedly drove the bodies 275 miles (443 km) in a station wagon to a densely wooded swamp about 5 miles (8.0 km) south of Columbia, North Carolina, where on March 2, he dug a shallow hole where he piled the bodies and set them ablaze with gasoline. Found with the burned bodies were a gas can, a pitchfork, and a shovel with a label of "OCH HDW", which was determined to be from "Poch's Hardware".
Bishop is known to have purchased tennis shoes at a sporting goods store in Jacksonville, North Carolina later that same day. According to witnesses, he had the family dog with him and was possibly accompanied by a woman described as "dark skinned".
On March 10 a neighbor contacted police, after not seeing the family for some time. A detective found blood on the Bishop home's front porch and on the floor and walls of the front hall and bedrooms. Dental records were used to confirm that the bodies found in North Carolina were of Bishop's family.
On March 18, Bishop's 1974 Chevy station wagon was found abandoned at an isolated campground in Elkmont, Tennessee at the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, a few miles from the Appalachian Trail and about 400 miles (640 km) from Columbia, North Carolina (where the bodies were found). The car contained dog biscuits, a bloody blanket, a shotgun, an ax and a shaving kit with Bishop's medication; the trunk's spare-tire well was full of blood. A witness believed the car had been there since about March 5 through 7. Police theorized that Bishop joined the flow of hikers on the Appalachian Trail and attempted to follow his scent with bloodhounds but without success. The following day, a grand jury indicted Bishop on five counts of first degree murder and other charges.
Bishop's motives have never been fully explained. A 1977 article in The Washington Post reported that there was "no evidence of infidelity, or financial or job problems." Although Bishop had been passed over for a promotion, there was no history of work-related issues; his being passed over has been described as "the first glitch in the storybook tale".
It has been reported that Bishop's career had caused some marital tension. Bishop was unhappy at his desk job and interested in another foreign posting, but his wife Annette was reluctant. She had begun to study art at the University of Maryland despite Bishop's desire for her to remain a stay-at-home mom.
Most sources agree that the Bishops were experiencing some financial issues, but there has been disagreement as to their severity. The Washington Post reported in 1986 that the issues were "mild" and "familiar to most upwardly mobile families." John E. Douglas described them as "nothing terribly unusual for people in their thirties living in that kind of neighborhood." In 2013, Bethesda Magazine reported that the Internal Revenue Service had been auditing the family's taxes due to financial troubles. The existence of an audit has not been confirmed by the FBI or the IRS.
As of 2010 authorities believed Bishop was living in Switzerland, Italy or elsewhere in Europe, or possibly in California; he may have worked as a teacher or become involved in criminal activities.
In 2010 it was revealed that before the murders Bishop had been corresponding with federal prison inmate Albert Kenneth Bankston in United States Penitentiary, Marion, though it is unknown why or how. Bishop evidently had instructed Bankston to send letters to his U.S. State Department office address. America's Most Wanted posted on its web site the last letter, which Bankston mailed 16 days after the murders without knowing they had happened and without knowing Bishop was now a fugitive unable to receive mail at his office. Bankston died before law enforcement discovered his connection to Bishop, hence Bankston became a dead end.
In 2014, the body of an unidentified man resembling Bishop, who had been killed by a car while walking along an Alabama highway in 1981, was exhumed by the FBI. A DNA test indicated the man was not Bishop. In 2011 the FBI used fingerprints to determine that reports that Bishop had died in Hong Kong or France were false.
In 2014, at the request of the FBI, forensic artist Karen Taylor created an age progression sculpture to suggest Bishop's projected appearance at about age 77. Using Taylor's sculpture, several alternative images were created by Lisa Sheppard to show the addition of facial hair and glasses.