Durham County

Loving father or abusive parent, spouse? Tales conflict in suspicious dog-leash death

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

Court documents and interviews tell two different stories about a Durham man whose son said he found him unconscious with a dog leash wrapped around his neck.

One depicts William "Bill" Bishop as a recently divorced man, loving father and successful businessman days from receiving his doctorate from UNC-Chapel Hill and preparing to travel across the globe.

“I love and miss him terribly,” girlfriend Julie Seel, a clinical psychologist at Duke Integrative Medicine, said in a statement. “He continues to take my breath away. There are so many moments I simply cannot breathe knowing that he is no longer physically with me.”

Another depicts an emotionally abusive father and husband who threatened his wife, broke his children’s toys in fits of rage and sometimes carried around a loaded gun or left one atop the refrigerator.

“Historically, my husband has had episodes of rage in which he has been unpredictable and threatening,” ex-wife Sharon Bishop stated in 2010 court documents in which she successfully sought a protection order for her and the couple’s two sons, now 16 and 17. The order was voluntarily dismissed 10 days after it was granted.

Despite those and other concerns in the documents, Bill Bishop received permanent and sole custody of the boys in 2017 after Sharon Bishop moved to Florida and then sought treatment for alcohol and other issues, according to court documents.

“[Bill Bishop] is a fit and proper person to have physical custody of minor children on a temporary basis and permanent basis, and it is in the best interest of said minor children,” Bill Bishop successfully argued in a 2017 court filing.

All those documents are likely to come into play in the ongoing investigation into Bishop’s death. No one has been charged, though court records show police are investigating one of his sons for a possible motive. The Herald-Sun and The News & Observer are not naming the teenager because he hasn't been charged.

A reporter left a telephone message with Sharon Bishop, her attorney Allyn Sharp, and delivered a letter to Sharon Bishop's home requesting an interview or comments. Bishop didn't respond.

Durham police wouldn't say whether there are any suspects or pending arrests in the case.

"It remains a death investigation," police spokesman Wil Glenn said. "No charges have been filed."

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

The investigation

On April 18, police responded to a 911 call from Bishop’s 16-year-old son. The son, a student at Durham Academy, said he found his father unconscious, slouched in an oversized leather chair holding with his right hand a dog leash that was wrapped around his neck with the dog, a yellow Labrador, still attached. Bishop died three days later.

Durham Police Detective T. Huelsman outlined suspicious statements and actions by the 16-year-old son who made the 911 call, in the seven search warrants applications that have been released.

The 16-year-old told a firefighter he felt relieved his father was gone after being emotionally abused his entire life, according to the warrants.

“[The son] explained that there had never been anything physical to occur, just constant verbal abuse over minor things like dishes being left in the sink and homework not being completed,” a search warrant application states. “[He] also told officers that he would be extremely fearful for what his father would do if he survived.”

A search of the son’s phone showed he searched for financial information, how to calculate the value of an estate, the value of gold, and how to transfer bank accounts after death, state the search warrants. In addition, he called his mother five times before he called 911, the search warrant states.

Two weeks after Bill Bishop died, police searched the home on Dover Road in the Hope Valley neighborhood and found a locked room with a large safe. Huelsman reached out to Sharon Bishop, who said she didn’t know the combination but that he might find it written on a file inside a filing cabinet.

“I followed Sharon’s instructions but I could not find a combination for the safe,” the detective wrote in the warrant.

Part of the paperwork seized during the search included a purchase order for $462,773 in gold, the warrant states.

According to another search warrant, Seel told police on June 5, that there was at least $50,000 in gold, $75,000 in jewelry and cash inside a safe.

Seel told police she texted Sharon Bishop on April 20 and asked her to check the safe at Bishop’s house for will-related documents. Bishop was still alive, but doctors had said he had no significant brain activity.

“Finally got it open no documents in safe. Leaving house now,” Sharon Bishop texted back, Seel told police, according to a search warrant.

2010 domestic violence allegations

Bill and Sharon Bishop married in October 1998 in Hillsborough, Florida.

Bill Bishop a was prominent developer in Hillsborough County, Florida, where he created numerous communities, according to an obituary in the Tampa Bay Times.

According to court records, the couple's problem go back at least 13 years, when they were still in Florida.

Sharon Bishop said in court documents that she called the police in 2005 during “an episode when my husband was suicidal and enraged.”

“During this episode, he threatened to kill my family members and threatened to kill me. He has never forgiven me for [calling police], and I am deeply afraid of how he will react when he receives these papers,” the 2010 documents state.

A year later Bill Bishop carried a loaded gun with him telling "our sons that it was ‘so Mommy won’t call the police on me again,'” the documents state.

Other incidents that Sharon Bishop outlined in court documents included Bill Bishop smashing a battleship game into the wall in 2007 in retaliation for their sons' accidentally breaking his glasses, Bishop stated.

The couple moved to Orange County in July 2008, allowing Bill Bishop to study city and regional planning at UNC-Chapel Hill, according to court documents and interviews.

In August 2009, Bill Bishop started storing a loaded gun on top of the refrigerator in the kitchen, when previously his gun collection had been confined to the basement, Sharon Bishop wrote in court documents.

March 2010

Sharon Bishop "fled the home," on March 28, 2010, saying in court filings that Bill Bishop had recently threatened to use a weapon against her and that the children were exposed to “outbursts of rage.”

The documents said Bill Bishop had stopped taking his medications for severe depression about a month prior.

“(William Bishop) has a violent temper, is not taking his prescription medications Lexapro and Lithium, has a history of threatening suicide, and his behavior has become increasingly bizarre, erratic, hostile, and violent over the last few weeks,” the documents state.

He told Sharon Bishop “that he had been taking them in order to deal with his anger towards me and still live with me, but that he was ‘through with that,’” the documents in 2010 case state.

Sharon Bishop also said in court documents that Bill Bishop smashed a chair against the wall, crushed Lego toys and could be in danger of harming himself.

“My husband has been using profanity and yelling at me and our children for minor incidents and sometimes for no discernible reason,” the court documents state. “The children have expressed to me that they are afraid to go home if my husband is there.”

In another March 2010 court filing Sharon Bishop asks for access to the couple’s bank accounts after Bill Bishop emptied one marital account, ‘including about $150,000” and blocked Sharon Bishop’s access to an investment account with over $2.8 million.

The couple’s assets were frozen and Sharon Bishop was granted a domestic violence order of protection against Bill Bishop March 30, 2010.

On April 9, 2010 Sharon Bishop gave notice for voluntary dismissal of the restraining order.

On March 2017, Bill Bishop sought custody of the two boys saying they had lived at his Durham address from 2013 to present. The filing states the couple had been separated since November 2016, when Sharon Bishop moved to Florida and “subsequently began treatment for addiction to alcohol and other issues” in Arizona.

Sharon Bishop was released from treatment in January 2017 and was living with her sister in Vero Beach, Florida, at the time of the filing, it states.

Divorce, custody filings

On Nov. 13, 2017, William Bishop filed for divorce from Sharon Bishop, who by that time had moved to southwest Durham.

The divorce was granted April 6, 2018. Nearly two weeks later, April 18, his 16-year-old son called 911 to report finding his father unconscious with no pulse.

Bishop’s brother, Scott, said the only behavior that concerned him related to his brother's marriage was that of Sharon Bishop.

Bishop’s friends presented a very different portrait of the man described by Sharon Bishop in the 2010 court documents.

David Moore, of Washington D.C., has known Bill Bishop for 45 years. Moore and his partner are godfathers to the boys.

After Bishop died, Moore came to Durham to visit the family and attend a memorial dinner. He was told Bishop had died from a heart attack and didn't learn until about a week after he returned home about the circumstances and questions about his friend's death.

Moore soon learned about the allegations in the 2010 court documents, and he said he was surprised. After knowing them so long, "it didn't make sense," he said.

Moore met Bishop when he was installing metal art work that Moore’s roommate had bought. “He was age 14 and designing, producing and selling his artwork,” Moore wrote in a statement. “In spite of a 12-year age difference, we became best of friends – until April of this year.”

Bishop has an “intense, inner strength" that enabled him to overcome substantial setbacks that included the Great Recession and a a freak accident at a fitness center that cost him the use of his right arm and hand, Moore said.

"Bill adored his sons, and tried to provide them every opportunity to develop as well-balanced, intellectually advanced and more successful than he had been,” Moore said in his statement. “This included trips to Argentina, Alaska, tours of major colleges and universities, a grand tour from Istanbul to Stockholm. … He was very proud of his sons’ accomplishments and constantly challenged them intellectually.”

Seel, Bishop's girlfriend, said in a statement when they would take trips together, she would get sad toward the end because they were almost over.

He replied, “Then I’ll just plan a future you can never get to.”

And so he did, Seel said.

They were planning on going to the beach in June, Cozumel in July, Disney in August. They also planned to go to Paris, London, and Rome in September and October and Breckenridge, Colorado in December.

Instead of enjoying and looking forward to those trips, now Seel is missing her “best friend” and “partner.”

“Bill gave me and my daughter so much love, happiness and hope over the past year – that even with this devastating loss – we continue to feel so grateful and blessed for the time we had and all the beautiful love, laughter and life we created together in ‘our one year that lasted a lifetime,’" she wrote. “He powerfully changed our lives for the better."

The South Carolina Department of Social Services lists numerous signs of child abuse and neglect. Here are 10 signs to look for if you suspect a school-aged child is being abused.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges