Editor’s note: This story was produced through a partnership between the INDY and The 9th Street Journal, which is published by journalism students at Duke University’s DeWitt Wallace Center for Media & Democracy.
This is the first of a three-part series exploring theories into Bill Bishop’s death.
On paper, Winston is just another yellow Labrador Retriever. He’s up-to-date on his rabies shots, good until 2021.
He’s registered under his owner, Bill Bishop of Durham. But he’s not a typical dog.
Winston has been thrust into the center of a Durham murder case.
Bill’s son, Alexander Bishop, 17, has been charged with killing his father. Alexander has raised the possibility that Winston did it. He told first responders to their Hope Valley home on April 18, 2018, that he found his father unconscious in an armchair with Winston’s leash around his father’s neck and the dog still attached, according to court records. Officers found Bill, 59, in the chair, unresponsive. He died a few days later.
Alexander was charged with murdering his father in February, 10 months after his father’s death. He is out on $250,000 unsecured bond. A trial date has not been set.
Alexander’s attorney Allyn Sharp still has many months to prepare her defense. But it appears from Alexander’s statements to first responders and Sharp’s comments in court that the dog could be a key part of her defense.
Could Winston, a yellow Lab estimated at 50 to 60 pounds, get his leash tangled around Bill’s neck and create sufficient force to kill him?
To explore this theory, The 9th Street Journal spoke with four forensic experts. They agreed that it’s unlikely that Winston could have killed Bill Bishop.
“The story about the dog sounds pretty far-fetched,” said Katherine Maloney, Deputy Chief Medical Examiner for the Erie County Medical Examiner’s Office in New York. “What they should have done is to say it was hanging. That would have been more difficult to disprove. But the story with the dog is just sort of ridiculous.”
Winston: Good with children, loyal, trained
Labrador Retrievers are the most popular dog in America for a reason: they’re friendly, energetic, and social, according to the American Kennel Club.
Unlike some more aggressive breeds, they are “companionable housemates who bond with the whole family,” the club says. It describes them as a “friendly, outgoing, and high-spirited companions who have more than enough affection to go around for a family looking for a medium-to-large dog.”
Historically, they love to help their masters hunt and fish. Originally from Newfoundland, Labradors went duck hunting and fishing with their masters. One job was to plunge into frigid waters and snag fish that had been hauled in. Their coats were bred to keep ice from freezing onto their fur when they got out of the water.
These days you don’t see them jumping off boats as much, but they’re still swimming. The Kennel Club describes them as very energetic — Labs need a lot of exercise, whether that’s in their second home of the water or chasing sticks (or their tails) on land.
Even more than their athleticism, Labs are defined by gentility and smarts.
“The Labrador has much that appeals to people; his gentle ways, intelligence and adaptability make him an ideal dog,” the club says in its breed standard.
Neighbors and friends were reluctant to discuss Winston on the record, but all the evidence suggests he is a pretty typical Labrador: friendly, good with kids, respectful of Bill.
In photos, Winston looks docile and loyal beside Bill. Photos of him over the years show him friendly and calm.
Winston went to a three-week-long obedience camp where he was “alpha trained” to become “beta” or subservient to the “alpha” master, Bill.
That’s based on the theory of “Dog Whisperer” Cesar Millan: dogs need a strong, “alpha” leader of the pack in their master. Lead your dogs with “calm, assertive energy” and set clear rules, while allowing for a lot of exercise and affection “when the time is right.”
Walking dogs is an important part of his philosophy in training dogs.
“The whole experience is the leash represents calmness,” Millan said in 2013. “And happiness is also expressed through that calmness.”
The only characteristic where Winston seems to stray from a typical Lab is his small size.
At an estimated 50 to 60 pounds, Winston weighs less than the average male yellow Labrador Retriever, which tend to weigh in at 65 to 80 pounds, according to the American Kennel Club.
Winston now appears to be staying with Alexander and Sharon Bishop, according to estate filings.
Here’s what Alexander Bishop claimed happened
The early narrative from police and the prosecutors seemed clear: the kid plotted to kill his dad.
But the picture has gotten fuzzier since last month, when Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. tossed some of the most tantalizing evidence that seemed to indicate Alexander planned the killing to cash in on Bill’s $5.5 million estate. Hudson ruled that the lead investigator left out key details or was deliberately misleading when he sought search warrants. The judge tossed out evidence obtained from those warrants.
“When you remove those material misstatements and omissions, it is simply a death that is tragic, but not suspicious,” Alexander’s attorney Allyn Sharp said at a September hearing on her successful bid to dismiss much of the key evidence in the case.
Prosecutors have scoffed at a potential “dog killed my dad” argument.
“The fact that he’s contending his dog strangled his father is where the suspicion is for this case,” Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas said in a September hearing.
Sharp objected to this statement in the hearing, arguing it was a “mischaracterization” of what Alexander had said. She said Alexander never alleged that Winston strangled his father. Hudson overruled the objection.
Sharp declined to comment for this story, saying she won’t comment on the case outside of the court record.
Still, Alexander raised the dog as a possible killer when he called 911.
Here’s what unfolded on April 18, 2018, according to Hudson’s order and 911 records.
Alexander called 911 to report that he had found his father unresponsive with Winston’s leash around his neck.
“I think my dad is dead,” he said. “I think my dog got his [leash] wrapped around his throat and his face is purple.”
Alexander said he took Winston’s leash off his father’s neck.
He told a firefighter that the leash was attached to Winston and was wrapped around Bill’s neck, although he was unsure how many times. The EMS supervisor said at the scene that Alexander thought that “the dog just happened to freak out and get him wrapped up in it.”
Some of Alexander’s comments at the scene weren’t what many would have expected.
After the EMS supervisor began a conversation with Alexander, he asked to speak in private with the supervisor. Alexander told the supervisor that he felt “bad that he doesn’t necessarily want [Bill] to live” but that he “didn’t do anything to harm him.”
Alexander also asked an officer on the scene how he should be feeling.
“Honestly…I’m afraid of what happens if he comes back,” Alexander told the officer. “I’m afraid he’ll get mad at me for leaving the leash around the dog.”
Bill was taken to Duke Hospital and died there on April 21, 2018, three days later.
Medical examiner says death was homicide
The state medical examiner’s office, which performed the autopsy, ruled the death was a homicide.
The autopsy says Bill was strangled with a “ligature,” some kind of cord-like device. Due to the strangulation, he died from a lack of oxygen to the brain despite efforts to resuscitate him, the report says.
The medical examiner bases this conclusion on hemorrhages, a ligature mark (a mark indicating strangulation with a cord-like object) on Bill’s neck, and fractures of the thyroid cartilage in his neck.
Alexander’s defense sees things differently.
Bishop’s family hired a pathologist, Dr. Jonathan Privette, who reviewed the autopsy findings and then argued in a 2018 report that the cause of death could not be determined.
Bill’s body showed no self-defense injuries, which would have been expected if someone tried to kill him, Privette argued.
Privette also said Bill had heart disease and that one side of his heart was 80 percent clogged, enough to cause “sudden heart ‘events’.” The family seems to believe that theory — Alexander’s mother, Sharon Bishop, told the Tampa Bay Times in May 2018 that Bill died of a heart attack. (We’ll explore that theory in a later article.)
As for the dog theory, Privette had “no opinion” on whether Winston could encircle his leash around Bill’s neck.
“However, assuming that the events are possible, it is my opinion that a 60-pound dog would have the force to cause the described injuries,” he wrote.
Experts say dog probably didn’t kill Bill
The Bishop case got a jolt this fall when Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. agreed with Sharp’s motion to suppress a host of evidence. The judge said a Durham police investigator had been misleading about the facts of the case when he sought search warrants. So evidence regarding “suspicious” internet searches and “missing” gold that was not in fact missing will not be considered.
But that ruling doesn’t appear to have much impact on the Winston theory, which hinges on questions about the dog and his leash. The 9th Street Journal interviewed four forensics experts who evaluated Bill’s autopsy report. They all agreed: it’s not likely that Winston could have killed Bill.
To the experts, the evidence just doesn’t support the theory that Winston’s leash could have gotten wrapped around Bill’s neck and strangled him with enough force to kill him. The injuries weren’t consistent with such a strangling.
“It looks like someone took the dog leash and then came up from behind him, wrapped it around one time and strangled him,” said Kendall Von Crowns, deputy chief medical examiner with the Travis County (Texas) Medical Examiner’s office.
Jeffrey Springer, a Louisville forensic pathologist, and Bill Smock, police surgeon for the Louisville Metro Police Department and on the staff of the Training Institute for Strangulation Prevention in San Diego, and Katherine Maloney, deputy chief medical examiner for the Erie County (New York) Medical Examiner’s Office, pointed to the same reason.
They described a dense phrase in the autopsy — “fractured superior bilateral horns of thyroid cartilage” — as an important clue. Smock said it was suspicious that the cartilage was fractured without marks on the outside of the neck.
“I find it very difficult to believe that a 50 to 60 pound…dog was able to entangle a conscious, neurologically-intact adult man in a leash and then be able to pull on the leash with enough force for a long enough period of time — at least 10 seconds — to cause loss of consciousness and then continue to apply that pressure for another few minutes until near-fatal brain damage occurred,” Springer said.
Smock, who has examined victims of hundreds of fatal and non-fatal strangulations over 30 years, agreed with that assessment. He has never seen a dog cause a death like Bill’s.
Maloney and Kendall Von Crowns, deputy chief medical examiner with the Travis County (Texas) medical examiner’s office, agreed that it would be logistically difficult for Winston to work up the force to strangle Bill.
“I don’t think the dog would have been like ‘Sweet, the leash is around the neck. Now I’m going to run in the opposite direction as fast as I can so I can strangle him,’” Maloney said. “I’m pretty sure the dog feeling resistance would have stopped pulling and just stood there.”
The dog theory “doesn’t make any sense,” Maloney said.
She zeroed in on a detail from the autopsy that said the mark on Bill’s neck was “serpiginous,” which indicates strangulation with a cord-like device, she said. It would be very difficult for the leash to get tangled around his neck, whether sitting or standing, she argued.
She also said the bleeding noted in the autopsy report shows that Bill was alive when he was strangled, so it doesn’t make sense that Bill wouldn’t try and do something to stop the strangulation.
For Crowns, the location of the injuries essentially rule out Winston as a strangler.
The autopsy report notes that the injuries were only on the front of Bill’s neck, Crowns said. If the leash were tightly wrapped around his neck, there would be “circumferential” marks all around his neck—front and back.
“When you think about it, for the dog to have killed him the leash would have to have been complete about his neck to have been able to constrict and kill,” Crowns said. “If it was only partially about his neck, it would not have worked.”
The injuries in the report are more consistent with someone coming from behind Bill, putting the leash around the front of his neck and strangling him, Crowns said.
Crowns has worked on 50 to 60 strangulation cases over about 20 years and has never come across a dog strangling someone.
“Anything’s possible, but the probability is really low.”
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