Judge rules teen’s statements to police can be used in Durham’s dog-leash murder case

A Durham judge ruled Wednesday that a then-16-year-old’s statements to police the night his father was found unresponsive with a dog leash wrapped around his neck may be used in the murder case against him.

During a nearly 4-1/2 hour hearing Wednesday, Alexander Bishop’s attorney, Allyn Sharp, argued that her client’s statements about his relationship with his father, 59-year-old William “Bill” Bishop, and other items should be excluded from evidence.

Officers who responded to the house were suspicious of the circumstances, she said. They prevented Alexander Bishop’s mother from entering the home, and interrogated the teen without informing him of his rights to remain silent or have a parent or an attorney present, she said.

When officers first arrived it was appropriate to ask what had happened, Sharp said.

“At a certain point, your honor, this shifted from find information to assist in life-saving efforts to interrogate Alexander because we determined this is a crime scene,” she said.

Assistant District Attorney Beth Hopkins Thomas, however, argued that officers were following standard procedures to “secure a scene and speak to the only witness available as to what had happened.”

“They did a thorough job to maintain the scene and to maintain any evidence that could assist them in determining what had occurred,” she said.

Senior resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson agreed.

“It doesn’t look like under North Carolina law it was an in-custody interrogation,” Hudson said.

Missing gold

The decision was the first in a hearing that started Wednesday morning and will continue Thursday.

Alexander Bishop, now 17, has also filed motions that include asking Hudson to throw out most of the evidence in the case, claiming the lead investigator lied to get it.

The court filing says Durham police investigator T. Huelsman intentionally misrepresented a document to claim that more than $460,000 worth of gold bars was missing from Bill Bishop’s estate.

Instead, it says, Bishop had sold the gold and police used the invoice from the sale to imply the gold played a role in his death.

Misstatements about the gold and other items led to police being improperly granted search warrants providing access to the family’s house, computers, cell phones, school and bank records, according to the filing.

Alexander Bishop mug.jpg

Alexander Bishop’s 911 call

On April 18, 2018, Alexander Bishop called 911 from his father’s home on Dover Road.

“I think my Dad is dead,” he said. “I think my dog got his leash wrapped around my Dad’s throat.”

When police and paramedics arrived around 6 p.m., Bill Bishop didn’t have a pulse but was warm to the touch, according to court documents.

He was taken to Duke University Hospital, where he died three days later. Police officials decided not to send the department’s criminal investigation division and the call was ultimately considered an assist to EMS.

Huelsman began to investigate the suspicious death on April 24, 2018, according to court documents.

Wednesday court testimony

Officer Kimberly Schooley testified Alexander Bishop opened the door when she and another officer responded to his 911 call around 6 p.m. April 18, 2018.

They asked where the victim was, and he motioned downstairs, she said. The officers found Bill Bishop in a big leather chair in a theater room, and as they walked in, one of them asked what had happened.

“And he made a comment about he found him with a dog leash around his neck,” Schooley said.

Bill Bishop’s face “was almost purple,” she said.

The two officers performed CPR until EMS arrived and took over.

Schooley then spoke with Alexander Bishop, who told her that his father had picked him up from school. When they got home, the teen said he took their dog for a walk and then went to his room.

“He told me that roughly 20 minutes later he went in to ask his dad something and found the dog leash handle around the upper part of his father’s arm with the leash wrapped around his neck,” she said.

Bishop told the officer that he unhooked the dog from the leash. His father wasn’t breathing so he called his mother, who told him to call 911.

Schooley’s body-camera video from the evening was shown in court.

At first Alexander Bishop stared straight ahead as the video showed police trying to revive his father, but then his face reddened and twisted as he wiped away tears. Bishop’s mother sat a couple of rows behind him.

On the other side of the courtroom sat Julie Seel, Bill Bishop’s girlfriend, who has told police she believes Alexander Bishop killed his father. She broke down in tears at seeing police try to save him.

Three other officers testified about the chaotic scene in which the family’s yellow Labrador retriever continued to get in the way and officers continued to ask Alexander Bishop questions about what had happened.

Officer Austin Farley, who was in training at the time, said he asked Alexander Bishop in a family room what his relationship with his father was like.

“He stated that he was emotionally abused his whole life,” Farley said. “He also went on to state that he wasn’t too concerned if his father didn’t come back.”

He also stated he would be afraid what his father would do “if his father did survive,” and “he was tired of living in fear.”

During cross-examination, Sharp pointed out that Alexander Bishop said he was scared about his dad surviving because he would be upset about him leaving the leash on the dog.

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

Search warrants focus on missing gold

The police investigation surfaced publicly in search warrants sought by Huelsman in the months following Bill Bishop’s death.

In his application for the warrants, Huelsman mentions gold bars worth more than $460,000 and describes a purchase order found in Bill Bishop’s home office.

“Part of the paperwork seized included a purchase order of 20, 10 ounce gold bars and five 32.15 ounce gold bars totaling $462,773.30,” states an August 2018 search warrant. “At this time, it is unknown where the gold bars or other valuables belonging to William Bishop’s estate are located.”

“I believe Sharon and Alexander Bishop obtained the gold from the Liberty Safe in William Bishop’s home on 4/20/2018,” a January 2019 warrant states.

Sharp, contends in motions filed in April 2019 that the purchase order records the gold being sold to a buyer named “Eric” and shipped to Tampa-based precious metals dealer Gainesville Coins.

“The purchase order clearly shows that on August 26, 2016, William Bishop sold twenty 10-ounce gold bars and five 32.15-ounce gold bars with payment method being bank wire with the total amount paid and wired to William Bishop being $462,773.30,” the filing states.

A filing on behalf of Alexander Bishop, who is charged with killing his father, contends this purchase order is the document that Durham police have cited in search warrants that indicate more than $460,000 in gold bars are missing from Bill Bishop’s estate.

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

Homicide or heart attack?

The state medical examiner ruled Bill Bishop’s death a homicide and said he died from strangulation.

But a Greenville pathologist hired by Bishop’s family cast doubt on that ruling, The News & Observer reported.

Bob Idol, an attorney representing Bishop’s sons in estate-related matters, has said the family believes Bishop died from a heart attack.

Alexander Bishop was indicted by a grand jury Feb. 18 on a charge of first-degree murder. He was arrested four days later and was released from jail Feb. 25 on an unsecured bond.

Bishop was a prominent Florida developer who moved to the Triangle in 2008 to get a doctorate at UNC-Chapel Hill. He was worth about $5.5 million in 2017.

His divorce from Alexander’s mother, Sharon Bishop, was finalized about two weeks before he was found unresponsive, according to court documents.

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Virginia Bridges covers criminal justice in Orange and Durham counties for The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer. She has worked for newspapers for more than 15 years. In 2017, the N.C. Press Association awarded her first place for beat feature reporting. The N.C. State Bar Association awarded her the 2018 Media & Law Award for Best Series.