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The New York Times

Woman’s Search for Her Birth Parents Leads to a Story of Murder

In 2017, Kathy Gillcrist, newly retired from her job as a high school teacher, was wondering what she would do next. She had always known she was adopted but had never felt a strong desire to learn about her birth parents. But curiosity and a need to fill her free time overcame that ambivalence. She took a DNA test, the first step of a genealogical journey that led her to a stunning discovery: Her father was most likely William Bradford Bishop Jr., who vanished in 1976 after bludgeoning his family to death with a sledgehammer, law enforcement officials believe. Sign up for The Morning newsletter from the New York Times “It just was surreal,” Gillcrist, 63, said Tuesday. “It still is surreal.” What began as a casual search through 23andMe, a DNA testing company, led Gillcrist down a rabbit hole in which she discovered numerous cousins and half-siblings on her biological mother’s side, leading her to reflect on how her own strong and driven personality may have been inherited from a man on the FBI’s most wanted list. The search has also resurrected public interest in a horrifying case that the authorities have been unable to solve. Gillcrist, who lives in Carolina Shores, North Carolina, published a book about the experience in November and had asked the FBI to let her compare her DNA to Bishop’s so she can confirm that she is his daughter. Her request was denied. In a statement Tuesday, the FBI said that its DNA records were confidential and “restricted to criminal justice agencies for law enforcement identification purposes.” On March 1, 1976, Bishop, 39, left his office at the State Department and bought a large hammer on the way to his home in Bethesda, Maryland, where, according to the FBI, he beat his wife, his mother and his three sons to death. The boys were 5, 10 and 14 years old, according to the bureau, which has not described a motive for the killings. Bishop drove the battered bodies six hours south and left them burning in a shallow grave in North Carolina, according to the FBI’s reconstruction of the crime. The abandoned, blood-soaked car was discovered hundreds of miles away in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, near Gatlinburg, Tennessee. Then Bishop disappeared. There were reported sightings of him in Stockholm and Sorrento, Italy, later in the 1970s, but the FBI never tracked him down. In October 2014, the FBI exhumed the body of a John Doe with a striking resemblance to Bishop who had been killed by a car in 1981 and buried in a pauper’s grave in Alabama. However, a DNA test determined that the John Doe was not Bishop. Bishop, who had majored in American studies at Yale University and received a master’s degree in Italian from Middlebury College in Vermont, also spoke French, Spanish and Serbo-Croatian, according to his FBI profile. Officials described him as an avid reader, expert camper and longtime insomniac who may have been receiving psychiatric care. “Bishop was described as intense and self-absorbed, prone to violent outbursts, and preferred a neat and orderly environment,” the profile says. Gillcrist, who was born in 1957, said she believed Bishop and her mother must have met at a party or bar while he was in college. “I don’t know whether my birth father knew anything about me,” she said. Her birth mother identified another man on the birth certificate, Gillcrist said. She has not revealed her birth mother’s identity because, she said, she wanted to protect the woman’s other children. Gillcrist was adopted by a couple from Stoughton, Massachusetts, who had previously adopted another child, a boy. As a child, Gillcrist said, she was dramatic and dreamed of becoming a child star like Shirley Temple. Her disposition was in stark contrast with that of her working-class parents, who were quiet and humble, she said. She studied theater at Boston University and eventually became a teacher. She married and had two daughters of her own. When she took the DNA test in 2017, she found a third cousin, Susan Gillmor, who lived in Portland, Maine. Gillmor, 71, was an amateur genealogist who helped other adopted children track down their birth parents. She was thrilled to help Gillcrist, who took a test through Ancestry.com to find more relatives. Gillmor created multiple family trees and found that one name, St. Germain, kept coming up. Then she found another name: Corder, who married a Bishop in the late 1800s. As she kept researching, she learned of a William Bradford Bishop Sr. who married Lobelia Amaryllis St. Germain. They had one son: William Bradford Bishop Jr. Gillmor said she typed the name into Facebook and found the FBI picture of Bishop. “I just sat there stunned,” Gillmor said. “I’m used to finding encyclopedia salesmen. This is the quintessential worst fear of adoptees.” Gillmor said she could not find evidence that Bishop had any other children besides Gillcrist and his three sons. Gillcrist said she tried not to think about them. “I can’t go there,” she said. “It’s just too heinous for me to imagine.” After the story was reported by WECT News 6 last week, Gillcrist began hearing from people connected to the investigation, including the wife and children of the forest ranger who discovered the bodies. “That traumatized him for the rest of his life,” she said. Gillcrist said she has been struck by her physical resemblance to Bishop, whose nose and mouth appear to be identical to her own. Like Bishop, she has experienced insomnia and anxiety. She said she believes her flair for the dramatic and her attraction to chaos are qualities that might have come from him. Gillcrist said she would be open to meeting Bishop, who would now be 84, but only under certain circumstances. “In a supervised setting,” she said. “Do I want him to knock on my door? No, thank you.” This article originally appeared in The New York Times. © 2021 The New York Times Company



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