New report questions homicide ruling in Durham dog-leash death

A new pathology report questions a medical examiner’s finding that the death of a man found with a dog leash around his neck was a homicide.

William “Bill” Bishop, 59, was found unresponsive in his Durham home in April, according to his teenage son who called 911. Bishop was slouched in a chair with the dog still attached to the leash.

Bishop, a father of two teenage boys, was a prominent developer in the Tampa, Florida, area. He moved to the Triangle in 2008 to get a doctorate at UNC-Chapel Hill.

A state medical examiner ruled Bishop’s death a homicide and said he died from strangulation. But a Greenville pathologist hired by Bishop’s family casts doubt on that ruling.

“Based on my review of the autopsy material and the information available to me at this time, it is my opinion that the manner of death in this case should remain undetermined,” Dr. Jonathan Privette wrote in a report.

Bishop died three days after his 16-year-old son told police he found him inside the home. Police have focused their investigation on the teen, but little information has been made public since August.

No arrests have been made. The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer are not naming the teenager because he hasn’t been charged with a crime.

In his report, Privette, a former state medical examiner who has completed 2,000 autopsies, pointed to a lack of self-defense injuries on Bishop.

“Expected self-defense injuries include scratches/abrasions at the face and neck created by Mr. Bishop frantically attempting to remove the ligature from his neck,” Privette wrote. He also wrote that the marks on Bishop’s neck, faint and on one side only, “are unusual” for a violent strangulation with the dog leash material.

Bishop had heart disease, according to Privette. His heart was enlarged and 80 percent blocked on one side.

Blockages over 75 percent can cause sudden heart “events” and death, the report said.

Bishop’s family believes he had a fatal heart attack, said Bob Idol, an attorney representing Bishop’s two sons in estate-related matters.

Bishop was admitted to the cardiac intensive care unit at Duke University Hospital after he was found unconscious April 18, Idol said, and stayed there until his death.

“His physicians told the family that Bill had suffered a heart attack and never told them otherwise,” Idol said. “We believe this was the actual cause of his death.”

Privette said he had no opinion as to whether Bishop’s dog, a Labrador retriever, could wrap a leash around someone’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,” his report states.

Julie Seel and Bill Bishop on a trip to Alaska. Submitted

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A contentious relationship

Bill Bishop was worth about $5.55 million in 2017, according to court documents. He had been a principal at the Development Planning and Finance Group, a national real estate consulting firm, since 2014, according to Bishop’s LinkedIn profile.

Court documents reveal a contentious divide between Bishop’s girlfriend Julie Seel and his ex-wife and two sons.

In the documents, Seel accuses Sharon Bishop, the ex-wife, of taking items from Bill Bishop’s safe. Meanwhile, Sharon Bishop and the sons question Seel’s relationship with Bill and criticize her for taking his Rolex, jewelry and other items.

Seel, who declined to comment, said in court filings that Sharon Bishop and the sons gave her the watch and other items and refused her offer to pay for them.

The Bishop family also expressed concern in court documents about Seel helping police with the investigation and surreptitiously taking temporary control of the estate.

Seel successfully sought to temporarily take control of his estate in July, saying in court documents she wanted to safeguard it during the police investigation.

Her filing cited a state law prohibiting people convicted of murder from collecting from their victim’s estate.

Seel resigned from overseeing the estate Aug. 27, a day before a hearing on the sons’ request to remove her.

In court documents filed Nov. 9, Seel sought a commission of $68,193 for managing the estate. She listed challenges she said she faced trying to preserve evidence and advocate for an autopsy as Sharon Bishop demanded an “immediate cremation” and discouraged Seel from turning over Bill Bishop’s cell phone and computer over to police.

Idol said Sharon Bishop denies demanding an immediate cremation and that she turned over the items to Seel when she asked for them and directed police to Seel when they requested them.

Search warrants

About a dozen search warrants related to Bishop’s death have been made public. The most recent, released in July and August, sought his medical records and access to his safety deposit box.

Idol said some of the information in the warrants is misleading and inaccurate.

A July 25 search warrant successfully sought to get a hypodermic needle and unknown substance from the 16-year-old son’s bedroom at Bill Bishop’s house.

Investigator T. Huelsman said he spoke to Seel who found the needle and substance, the warrants state.

Idol said the needle was part of a toy Seel had given the teenager for Christmas. The toy creates a sand vision between two pieces of glass and includes a needle to regulate the air.

The warrant “left a lingering impression of something that is totally false from reality,” Idol said.

A photo of the sand vision toy that was given to both of Bill Bishop’s sons by Julie Seel. In July, police collected as part of the homicide investigation the needle from the toy in the 16-year-old’s room in his father’s home. Contributed

Seel said in court documents that Bill Bishop’s safe was missing $50,000 in gold and $75,000 in jewelry and cash.

Seel said Sharon Bishop accessed the safe while Bill Bishop was in the hospital, although she was supposed to stay away from the home. The Bishops separated in November 2016, but their divorce was finalized 12 days before he was reportedly found unconscious.

Idol said Sharon Bishop opened the safe to look for Bill Bishop’s living will. She didn’t see any gold, jewelry or cash, but she did find guns, Idol said.

Police eventually drilled into the safe, but Idol said that wasn’t necessary since Sharon Bishop shared the location of the combination with them.

The warrant says Huelsman followed Sharon Bishop’s instructions but couldn’t find the combination.

The scene at the Hope Valley home of Bill Bishop, who’s death has been ruled a homicide by the Durham Police Dept. Bishop died April 21 of this year after being found unconscious in his living room with a dog leash around his neck on April 18. Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

A push to seal warrants

At a recent court hearing, Bishop’s 16-year-old son and his attorneys successfully moved to keep additional warrants from public view.

The Oct. 10 hearing sought to determine whether the son’s school and therapy records would be released to detectives, defense attorney Allyn Sharp said during the hearing.

Sharp, who requested the hearing be closed to the public, said the warrants should be sealed because they are related to confidential records of a minor.

District Attorney Roger Echols didn’t object to the courtroom being open, but Judge Orlando Hudson granted Sharp’s request since the teen hadn’t been charged.

In general, only a small percentage of search warrants are sealed, Echols said in an interview.

Meanwhile, friends of Bill Bishop are wondering what is happening in the investigation seven months after his death.

David Moore of Washington, D.C., recently contacted the Durham Police Department asking about the status of the investigation.

Gregory W. Pickrell, a criminal investigations division commander, replied that “he could not comment on specifics in an ongoing investigation.”

But Moore said Pickrell assured him police are taking the case seriously and working leads.

Durham police spokesman Wil Glenn wrote in an email to The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer that the investigation is ongoing.

“There aren’t any updates at this time,” he said.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges