On Palm Sunday 1990, the choir of Chicago’s Fourth Presbyterian Church was waiting in the back of the church, anticipating the 6:30 AM service, when the church secretary approached, pulled Jeanne Bishop aside, and told her that she had received a phone call. Bishop, her mind on the impending performance, asked the secretary to take a message. The secretary suggested that this was not that kind of phone call. Bishop followed the secretary back to an office, thinking that her father might have had a heart attack.
When she picked up the phone, she heard the voice of the Reverend Gil Bowen, the minister from her parents’ church. “I’m glad we got ahold of you,” he said. “I’m going to put your father on the phone.”
“Oh, Dad’s all right,” Bishop thought. “It must be Mom.”
Her father came on the line. “Richard and Nancy have been killed,” he said. Nancy was Jeanne’s sister, Richard was Richard Langert, Nancy’s husband. “I thought, ‘Some traffic accident,'” Jeanne Bishop recalls. “He said, ‘Somebody killed them. They have been murdered.’ At that point nobody knew how they had been killed. My dad said, ‘They found an ax down there.’ He said, ‘Dr. Bowen is going to pick you up.’
“There was no one there, just me and the secretary. I think it took me ten minutes to start crying. I just refused to believe it. She is just 25 years old. You get the sobs that come from so deep. The secretary kept getting me Kleenex.
“Then they drove me around to my apartment. I knew I was going to go home for a while and I was pulling clothes out. I found myself reaching for a black dress and I just lost it. I thought, ‘I am picking out a dress to wear to my sister’s funeral.'”
Bishop was driven to the Winnetka town house where the bodies had been discovered. She recalls that the house and grounds were full of policemen. “There was a big hospital cart in the middle of the living room with a plastic bag on it. That was Nancy. I walked up and they unzipped the bag. Her eyes were glazed over. There was blood caked in her mouth. Her skin was white and her face was frozen in this expression. I couldn’t believe that that was the last time I was going to see her.
“My mother came and looked and then we walked out. I was shaking like you do when you’re cold. Then all of a sudden I couldn’t see. There was a blinding light. It was television.”
And so in the space of a couple of hours, the life of Jeanne Bishop was changed forever. At the time, she had no idea that that blinding light would add so much to her pain. Had it been a south- or west-side murder, it is likely that the television crew would not have been present, that the press would have made no mention of the deaths, and that the police would have gone about their search for the killer without fanfare. But this was Winnetka, one of the wealthiest communities in the nation, and murder is not supposed to happen here.
It did not take long for the Winnetka police to rule out the ax as the murder weapon. The Langerts had been shot with a .357 Magnum. Nothing of value had been taken, and there was money strewn around the floor, so the police also ruled out robbery as a motive. Two days after the murder, they seemed ready to believe that the victims must have been guilty of something to deserve such a cruel fate. Lieutenant Joe Sumner speculated before television cameras: “Did they get in debt and owe money? Were they involved in narcotics? These are things that we have to find out now.”
The victims, however, seemed unlikely suspects. Nancy Langert, three months pregnant at the time of her death, was a relatively simple person who enjoyed shopping and staying at home; she loved playing Trivial Pursuit. She came from an eminently respectable family, her father a lawyer, her mother a program coordinator at the Winnetka Community House. Richard Langert, 30, had been a high school baseball star in Oak Lawn, and at six foot two and 257 pounds was described in the press as a “gentle giant.” Gloria Jean Kvetko, owner of Gloria Jean’s Coffee Beans and employer of both the victims, could not say enough good things about them and offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the killer.
Counterterrorist experts from the FBI, however, did not believe the case was any simple suburban murder. Winnetka police documents indicate that it did not take long for the FBI to learn that Nancy Langert was the sister of Jeanne Bishop and in Jeanne Bishop, choir member, human rights activist, and corporate attorney at one of the largest law firms in the country, the FBI had an interest.
Jeanne Bishop’s involvement in human rights activity began in her college days when, as a junior at Northwestern, she served as a member of Evanston’s Human Relations Commission. Later, while attending Yale Law School, she saw television news footage of a policeman shooting a demonstrator in Northern Ireland and decided she could not stand idly by. Thereafter, she helped draft legislation that required the Connecticut state treasurer to withdraw investment from companies doing business in Northern Ireland if those companies practiced discrimination in hiring. Her involvement in Northern Ireland continued after she passed the bar: she became active in the legal defense of Joe Doherty, the former IRA man imprisoned in New York; she became a member of the board of directors of American Protestants for Truth in Ireland, a small Philadelphia-based charity that documents human rights violations; and she wrote five articles–two for newspaper op-ed pages and three for law journals–on human rights abuses committed by government security forces in Northern Ireland.
On that subject, there is much to be written. Amnesty International issued three papers last year that voiced grave concern over British practices in Northern Ireland. The November 1991 Amnesty report noted that in the previous three years over 600 people had complained of being assaulted by police or soldiers after arrest, yet not one of those complaints of assault was substantiated by government investigators. An Urgent Action Bulletin distributed by Amnesty in August 1991 told of a young man from Belfast who according to a doctor had been subjected to “severe assaults”; the victim alleged that he had been beaten, choked, and burned on the face with a cigarette, and that his trousers and underpants were pulled down while a cigarette lighter was held close to his pubic hair. An Amnesty report issued in June cited the cases of six Northern Irish citizens shot dead in suspicious circumstances by the police in 1982; the report noted that nine years had passed and the authorities had not yet scheduled inquests.
Jeanne Bishop first heard from the FBI on November 1, 1989, five months before the Winnetka murders. At 8:30 AM on that date, FBI agent Patrick “Ed” Buckley called Bishop at her office at the law firm of Mayer, Brown & Platt. (Buckley, who is notorious among Irish activists in Chicago, declined to be interviewed for this story, and spokesman Bob Long said it was FBI policy to decline to comment about specific cases unless doing so would “serve law enforcement purposes.” As a result, the FBI’s version of all of the events related here could not be determined.) Bishop says that in that initial phone call, Buckley said that he needed to speak with her in person about a threat against her life. Bishop, immediately suspicious, replied that she had a full day of meetings scheduled and that she would call the agent later that day. In the afternoon, Bishop sent a letter to Buckley’s office by messenger asking that all the details about the alleged threat be sent to her in writing.
Bishop says that within two days of receiving her letter, Buckley and another FBI agent arrived at her office unannounced and uninvited. Bishop met them in the reception area, told them they could not barge into a law office, and scheduled a meeting in their offices the following week. She again asked for details of the threat in writing.
At the appointed hour the following week, Bishop arrived at the FBI’s office with Jerome Boyle, her attorney. According to Bishop, Agent Buckley read a memo from the FBI’s New York office stating that two informants had reported that there had been a threat to hurt or kill Bishop if she went back to Northern Ireland because she was suspected of being an FBI informant. Buckley allegedly went on to say that the information had come from people who were spying on the IRA.
Bishop recalls that the FBI agents also said that the agency had never heard of her before this, that she was not under investigation, and that they only wanted details to protect her life. Bishop says she was then asked if she knew anyone in the IRA or worked with any groups here that might have IRA connections. She did not answer. Instead, Boyle pressed for more details about the alleged threat and its source, details that the agents refused to provide. The meeting ended with Boyle saying that Bishop would not answer questions about a threat that appeared to have no supporting information or evidence. Attorney and client left, conveying the impression that they believed the threat was nonexistent and that they did not want it to be investigated.
One of the reasons Bishop and Boyle were ready to dismiss the threat is that they knew what low esteem the FBI is held in by many Irish activists in the United States. Boyle, who does pro bono work for Irish immigrants, says it is not unusual for the FBI to threaten to deport Irish illegal immigrants unless they agree to inform on Irish Republican support groups. Colin Fagan, a spokesman for Noraid, a group that supports the dependents of IRA men serving time in prison, cites the case of one immigrant who was fired from his job because his employer did not like federal agents dropping by. Fagan also claims that Noraid is regularly harassed by the FBI; he cites as an example the 1989 arrest of a former IRA man who had been brought to Chicago from Belfast to speak at a Noraid banquet. Fagan says that the man’s speech was no secret, that it had been advertised on Irish radio stations, that the speaker was followed by the FBI for at least two weeks, and that he was arrested on the afternoon of the banquet simply to prevent him from speaking. In Northern Ireland he had been convicted of possessing ammunition and explosives in 1981, and he had not indicated this when he filled out his form for entry into the United States. He was sent back to Belfast a few days after his arrest. Before the arrest, Fagan says he received several calls from an FBI agent pretending to be a Northwestern University journalism student seeking an interview with the speaker. In May 1991, the FBI’s New York office used a similar journalism-student ruse in arresting another former IRA man, also a visa violator, who worked in the Manhattan Noraid office.
As someone who was familiar with the FBI’s activity in the Chicago Irish community, attorney Jerome Boyle believed that the alleged death threat against Jeanne Bishop was fabricated from the start. He says he imagined a scenario in which the FBI, in the alleged interest of protecting Bishop, would ask her to provide the names of Irish activists in the United States and Ireland; those named in the United States would then be called upon by FBI agents, who would show up unannounced at people’s offices, flashing their badges and creating a sensation. The agents would then say, “Jeanne Bishop’s life has been threatened because the IRA thinks she is an FBI informant. Do you know anything about this?” Boyle argues that the result would be that everyone would wonder if Jeanne Bishop was indeed an FBI informant.
Any activists in Northern Ireland that Bishop named, Boyle believed, would suffer worse fates. They could be arrested. In Northern Ireland people can be held for 48 hours without being charged, and that 48-hour period can be renewed. They can be denied lawyers for 48 hours, and that period can also be renewed. They can be convicted of a crime solely on the basis of an alleged oral confession; if a policeman says someone confessed to IRA membership, for example, that person can be sentenced to seven years for membership in an illegal organization. Furthermore, there is the possibility of ruptured eardrums, severe beatings, and cigarette lighters held to pubic hair. Lastly, there is the possibility that a Catholic person’s name could travel from the police or army to Protestant paramilitary groups; in the last several years this has resulted in the assassinations of several Northern Irish activists.
For all of those reasons, Bishop and Boyle thought the death threat should be ignored. After leaving the interview with Buckley, Bishop heard nothing from the FBI. She traveled to Northern Ireland four months later and returned without mishap. Three days after her return, she went to dinner at Bellagio’s restaurant with her parents and Richard and Nancy Langert. When the Langerts returned home at the end of the evening, their killer was waiting for them.
Bishop remembers the weeks and months that followed the murders as the worst period of her life. “It was just such an awful time. I couldn’t sleep or eat. I lost a lot of weight, my periods stopped, I got bruises on my skin. We were packing up things that belonged to her, and you would find something she had written as a little girl, and I remember feeling that I didn’t care if I lived or died. The whole week, I would get up in the morning and I would think, ‘Why should I brush my teeth? Why should I put on makeup? I don’t care what I do.'”
On the Saturday after the funeral, the FBI called Jeanne at her parents’ home and asked her to come to the Winnetka police station to hear their theory about the murder. Bishop says that although she had never intended to talk to the FBI again without an attorney being present, at this point she was so run-down and so low in spirit that she gave in and went to the station.
According to Bishop, the theory presented by FBI agents Ed Buckley and Jim Cicchini was that the IRA had meant to kill Jeanne and had killed Nancy by mistake. Bishop says she pointed out the theory’s flaws, which were enormous: No American has ever been killed in the Northern Irish conflict. The IRA publicly claims its killings, even its mistakes. If anyone in Northern Ireland had wanted to kill Jeanne Bishop, it would have been a hell of a lot easier to do so ten days earlier, when she was in Belfast. Furthermore, Bishop’s address was listed in the Chicago phone book; a hit man who had wanted to kill her would have no reason to expect to run into his intended victim at the town house where Nancy and Richard Langert lived. Also, Nancy and Jeanne could not have been mistaken for each other except by a blind man: Jeanne is blond, while Nancy had brown hair, and although in her wedding photographs Nancy Langert bears some resemblance to her sister, at the time of the murder Nancy was 50 pounds heavier than Jeanne. Finally Bishop pointed out that if anyone appeared to have been more of a target in the town house murders, it was Richard: he had been shot in the head and had died instantly; Nancy had been shot in the elbow, back, and abdomen, and was alive and conscious after the killer left (the trail of blood indicated that she had crawled first to Richard, then to a shelf, where she drew a heart and the letter U in her own blood, and then to the stairway, where she died).
Bishop says that after she pointed out these problems, agents Buckley and Cicchini began to ask her questions. She refused to respond, saying she preferred to have her lawyer present, and made an appointment for the following Monday. At that meeting, which she attended with Boyle, Bishop says that the FBI again asked who she knew in Northern Ireland, and that Boyle returned to asking questions about the original death threat. Bishop suggested that all they had to do to learn if there was a connection between the alleged threat and the murders was to go back to their informants and ask them. The FBI reportedly said that they were not interested in Bishop’s politics and again said that they had not found any mention of her in their records prior to the date of the New York memo on the threat. The discussion got heated, and Bishop says that one agent suggested that she was not interested in finding her sister’s killer.
After leaving the interview, Bishop and Boyle decided that she should retain a criminal lawyer (Boyle does only civil work). Bishop hired Peter Schmiedel of the People’s Law Office. In the meantime, Bishop told Boyle to file a Freedom of Information Act request with the FBI in order to learn what they could about the original death threat and to see if Agent Buckley was being truthful when he said that the agency had had no previous interest in her. Responses from various offices of the agency began to arrive about two weeks later; one of them indicated that the FBI had been collecting information on Jeanne Bishop for more than three years.
On April 23, one week after Bishop and Boyle’s encounter with the FBI, Channel Five’s Carol Marin broke a dramatic story on the ten o’clock news. After cutting from scenes in Winnetka to footage depicting a British soldier on patrol in Northern Ireland, Marin told her viewers that the leads on the Langert murder investigation went far beyond suburban Winnetka.
After explaining that Jeanne Bishop was the sister of the dead Nancy Langert, Marin said, “Sources say the FBI told Bishop that someone in the Irish Republican Army believed Bishop to have been disloyal to the cause, even though Jeanne Bishop has long worked as a human rights activist in behalf of the struggle in Northern Ireland.” Marin said that the FBI had told Bishop that if she went back to Northern Ireland, she would be hurt or killed.
The story concluded with Marin reporting that there were two theories under investigation–that Nancy Langert was mistaken for her sister when she was killed, or that she had been killed as some kind of warning to her sister. Marin said that Jeanne Bishop had declined to be interviewed but that “a family spokesman told us this evening that Bishop and her entire family reject any theory linking this tragedy to the IRA, believing that to do so is an attempt by federal authorities to intimidate or undermine both Bishop and a legitimate human rights movement.” Marin went on to say that the FBI and the Winnetka police had refused to comment on the case.
The next day, Marin reported that the IRA lead was one of four angles being pursued by the Winnetka police, the others being “business connections,” “personal relationships,” and “family connections”; most of the police department’s effort, Marin said, was going into the IRA investigation. She included a statement issued by the Bishop family, which said that “some unnamed person has chosen to seize upon our family tragedy in order to sully Jeanne and her legitimate work for human rights.” Marin then reported that “authorities who are heading up an investigative task force say Bishop has declined to cooperate with this investigation.”
Marin seemed to have scored a great coup. Who would have thought that the IRA could have established a presence in Winnetka? Or that the murder could have been, as Channel Five’s teaser had it, “an act of international terrorism”? She then left the story, never to return.
In the wake of her reports, the rest of the Chicago media devoted more energy to the story, giving significant play to the Winnetka police complaint that Jeanne Bishop was not cooperating with the investigation. Peter Schmiedel, Bishop’s attorney, kept explaining that she was happy to cooperate, but she wouldn’t participate in a fishing expedition by the FBI about Northern Ireland. On the Channel Two evening news on April 25, Winnetka police chief Herbert Timm said he was pleased to have learned that Bishop was willing to come in again and talk, but he added sarcastically, “Why she needs an attorney to do that is beyond me.”
Bishop, once considered a victim, began to appear to be a suspect. On the same day that Timm was questioning her need for an attorney, the Sun-Times reported that the police claimed that at Bellagio’s restaurant on the night of the murder, Bishop “got up several times from the dinner table and requested change from the cashier to make phone calls.” No context was provided, but the implication was clearly that the calls were linked to the deaths, and the sentence that followed quoted a policeman saying that Bishop had been “less than cooperative.” (Two and a half months later, the Winnetka police received records from Illinois Bell indicating that on the night of the murder not a single call had been made from the restaurant’s pay phone.)
On the same day that the telephone leak appeared in the Sun-Times, Tribune reporters Jessica Seigel and Joel Kaplan connected Bishop to two new sets of armed revolutionaries. First, Seigel and Kaplan noted that Bishop was now being represented by the People’s Law Office, “a firm which has represented a number of activist groups, including the FALN Puerto Rican independence group.” Seigel and Kaplan went on to report that Bishop had written a letter to the National Law Journal deriding efforts by the U.S. government to extradite to India two Sikhs who had been accused of terrorist activity there. What went unreported was that the letter was in response to a National Law Journal story that Bishop felt was a sympathetic portrayal of former U.S. attorney Judy Russell, the prosecutor of the two Sikhs. Both Russell and the presiding magistrate in the New Jersey case had received anonymous death threats during the Sikhs’ extradition hearing, and as a result the hearing was conducted under intense security: sharpshooters from the U.S. marshal’s office occupied the roof of the court building; helicopters circled overhead; the street leading to the Newark courthouse was barricaded; everyone who entered the courtroom was subjected to triple screening by X-ray machines; and the two defendants were forced to wear leg chains and shackles that bound their hands to their waists. After the hearing ended, the FBI discovered that the author of the death threats was none other than U.S. Attorney Russell. Bishop was a friend of one of the lawyers who had defended the Sikhs, and she wrote to the Law Journal not in support of terrorism but in support of fair trials, pointing out that the two defendants whose case Russell had prejudiced faced “torture and a death sentence” if they were extradited.
On the following day, Tribune reporters Seigel and Kaplan noted that the Winnetka police did not consider Bishop a suspect, but the two reporters then went on to publish excerpts from her divorce papers. They quoted her former husband, a New Hampshire dentist, complaining that his wife had spent “inordinate amounts of time trying to free the Northern Irish from their ties with Britain and in defending IRA members imprisoned in the United States.”
On June 10, Kaplan reported that police were now theorizing that terrorists had wanted to kidnap Nancy and use her as a bargaining chip with Jeanne. “Some investigators believe this angle could be their best bet. . . . Police say they have been hampered by the continued unwillingness of Jeanne Bishop and other members of her family to discuss her human rights activities.”
The same story noted that Nancy Langert had had an affair three years earlier and that she and her husband had credit-card debts and seemed to live from paycheck to paycheck. The story also raised suspicions about a pizzeria owner who was a legal client of Lee Bishop, Jeanne Bishop’s father; this man was also a bookie, the Tribune said, and two members of his family had recently been pistol-whipped. Finally, the story reported that one of Richard and Nancy’s employers had once displayed a handgun during a confrontation with an employee who was suspected of stealing.
The press coverage and the investigation began to have strange and unpredictable effects. At the time of the murders, Jeanne Bishop’s older sister Jennifer was teaching in a Catholic school 60 miles from Chicago. When she came back to work after the funeral, FBI agent Buckley dropped in at her school and she was pulled out of a class to meet with him. A few days later she was told her contract for the following year would not be renewed.
Jeanne Bishop found her workplace more supportive, though she says that some members of Mayer, Brown’s office staff complained about the possibility of getting a letter bomb. The partners of the firm offered her four weeks’ paid leave, for which she was grateful. “I’d go down to the train station and you would see all the people reading the newspaper, and there you are on the front page with excerpts from your divorce papers,” Bishop says. “You get this paranoid feeling that everyone is talking about you. I remember I used to physically hold my head up walking in the front door of the building where I worked and getting into the elevator. Suddenly no one is saying, ‘Well, how is it going?’ It makes small talk uncomfortable.”
Within weeks of the murders, Bishop realized that her phone records were being monitored by the police and the FBI. Every time she called a friend or associate from her home phone, that person seemed to get a visit from the FBI or the Winnetka police. Bishop claims that male friends and associates received particular attention, and that some of the recipients of the visits indicated that the calls seemed to have been made not to gather information so much as to convince the person that he or she should persuade Jeanne Bishop to “cooperate fully” with the FBI and the police.
“Between the FBI and the police, they hit everyone we knew,” said Colin Fagan, the Noraid spokesman. “They called on people who were hardly involved at all, who just showed up at [Noraid] meetings. There’s a little old lady who sends money to the family of a guy who is in prison for 17 or 18 years, she doesn’t even know what Republicans are. She heard the family needed help, she happened to have met the guy’s wife and their seven or eight kids and liked them, and she sends them birthday presents. She has no connection at all with anything. She sends them the money directly. The FBI was all over her like she was some mad gunrunner.”
A Mayer, Brown employee who was visited by the FBI says that the agents suggested that Bishop might be carrying weapons components to the IRA on her visits to Belfast. Jack Krafcisin, an attorney who had dated Bishop in 1989 and had called her to offer support, received a visit from two Winnetka policemen in early July. He recalls that the detectives were still focusing almost entirely on the terrorist angle, and that one of them said that his family was being harassed as a result of the murder investigation. The detective went on to explain that his parents lived on a golf course and that recently a lot of golf balls had been hit into their house. Krafcisin recalls that the detective said something on the order of, “Those bastards, they can come after me, but not my family. It’s personal now.” When contacted recently, the detective declined comment.
One of those whom the FBI called upon early was Delia Lachenauer, a former reporter with the Wall Street Journal and the Boston Globe who now works for a photographer as a field editor. At the time of the murders, Lachenauer had known Jeanne Bishop and Nancy Langert for 11 years, and Lachenauer said in a recent interview that in the spring of 1990 the two sisters were the people she felt “closest to in the world.” Yet a police report filed a few days after the murders has Lachenauer telling three anecdotes that portray Bishop as someone who is casual and naive about the IRA and very bitter about the British army.
“I was not in my right mind,” Lachenauer says. She was pregnant with her second child at the time of the murder and says that she was sick from her pregnancy, stricken by the murder of her friend, and afraid for the safety of her own family. One of the theories being batted around was that the Langerts had been killed because they knew something, and Delia wondered if the assassins might not reach the conclusion that the Lachenauers knew it too, given that the two couples were such close friends.
Lachenauer was eventually served with a subpoena to testify before a federal grand jury; the subpoena also demanded that she submit all of the letters she had from Jeanne Bishop pertaining to Northern Ireland. Lachenauer copied the letters, feeling, she says, “like the biggest piece of scum I could ever imagine.” In the end, her attorney worked out a deal with the U.S. attorney’s office under which Lachenauer avoided the grand jury by consenting to a second interview with the FBI, and at that meeting no one asked for the letters. She says that Agent Buckley and another agent whose name she does not remember asked about Bishop’s boyfriends. “Did I know of any sexual relationship she had with these people, and I said no. People in the IRA, people in Northern Ireland, anybody, names of anybody. They just wanted to know everything about her, sexually, morally, it was very strange. . . . They said that they thought that Jeanne had gotten involved with somebody and unknowingly, innocently, naively, had slept with the wrong person, been intimate with the wrong person, and someone had seen that and decided that she couldn’t be trusted . . . that somebody had decided that she wasn’t trustworthy and that she knew too much or she knew something. So here in the United States, they decided to look for her. So the only thing they had was a passport or driver’s license which listed her parents’ address. So they got somebody–a Chicago hit man or someone–to go to that address in Winnetka. And they see a tallish young woman leaving the house often, coming in and out with a dark-haired man. And they know that Jeanne Bishop is married to an Italian, so this dark-haired man is obviously him. So they follow them, and they go to the town house and they surprise them and something happens, and maybe they were only meaning to hurt them, but they murder both of them. And the reason that the contents of Nancy’s purse were scattered around was that they had gone through the wallet and pulled out the driver’s license and realized, ‘Oh God, this is not Jeanne Bishop, it is Nancy Langert, whoever she is.’ And in terror they threw everything down and left.”
Upon learning of Delia’s subpoena, Jeanne Bishop decided that it might be wise to keep her distance. The two friends did not speak for almost a year.
In the summer after the murders, the Fourth Presbyterian Church had organized a tour of England and Scotland during which the choir would perform a series of concerts. At a rehearsal a few weeks before the group was scheduled to depart, the director of the choir pulled Bishop aside, said that someone had expressed fear of flying on the same plane with her, and asked if she would change her airline reservation. Bishop politely agreed and then arranged for a quick visit to Northern Ireland before the choir’s tour started. Bishop was considering enrolling at Queen’s University in Belfast to study British law, and she made arrangements to meet with university officials there.
Winnetka police documents indicate that someone from the church group also contacted the FBI, expressing concern for the group’s safety. The FBI then alerted the Customs Department and the Winnetka police, and the three agencies made plans to meet at the airport on Bishop’s date of departure. On August 9, 1990, Bishop was standing on the ramp just a few feet from the entrance to the airplane when she was approached by customs agents. They pulled her aside and searched her hand luggage, saying they were checking to see if she was carrying more than $10,000 in U.S. currency. (Carrying such an amount without filing a declaration with the Customs Department is a federal offense.) The customs agents found a few hundred dollars’ worth of traveler’s checks, a choir robe, some church music, and registration papers for Queen’s University.
Winnetka police documents also indicate that federal agents intended to follow Bishop on at least part of her trip (which included choir engagements in Edinburgh, York, Cambridge, Oxford, Bath, and London) and that customs agents had been warned to prepare for Bishop’s return. When she arrived at O’Hare on August 23 she was directed to a special area, where her luggage was thoroughly searched. The customs agent who filed a report on the incident wrote that “there were no weapons or other contraband in Bishop’s luggage. . . . Bishop does not appear to be violating customs laws at this time.”
At that point, four months had passed since the murder. A task force of members of several suburban police departments had come and gone. Winnetka police had traveled to New York, New Hampshire, Florida, and Pennsylvania. Customs agents had stopped ships in New York harbor in conjunction with the theory that drugs were somehow involved in connection with coffee beans coming from Colombia. Interpol, Scotland Yard, and the Royal Ulster Constabulary had been consulted.
Jerome Boyle, Bishop’s attorney, was incredulous at the breadth of the investigation, which seemed to be based on the assumption that the killer was a professional. Boyle thought the evidence clearly pointed to an amateur. “The thing that jumped out the most was that the intruder cut glass,” Boyle says. “Now we all see professional burglars in the movies cutting glass to gain entry to buildings. No professional burglar does that. They either use a pry bar or they just bust the glass. Have you ever used a glass cutter? It is not something that happens fast. And then it happened on Saturday night. Who works on Saturday night? Professionals don’t work on Saturday night–kids work on Saturday night because they don’t have to go to school the next day.” In late spring, Boyle was interviewed by writer Bruce Rubenstein for an article on the murder that appeared in the August issue of Chicago magazine. “I bet if they ever do catch the culprit,” Boyle said, “it will turn out to be some local teenager.”
On October 4, 1990, a local teenager named Phu Hoang walked into the Winnetka police station. He told Sergeant Patricia McConnell that his 16-year-old friend David Biro claimed to have committed the murders and had related the following sequence of events: He broke into the town house, waited for the Langerts to return, and handcuffed them when they arrived. He made them lie on the floor and talked to them for some time. He was offered money and considered taking it, but decided that was not what he had come for. After accidentally firing his gun into the wall, he took the Langerts to the basement and shot them. Hoang said that Biro told him that the Langerts “deserved to die anyhow. They were annoying.”
David Biro was arrested the following day. At the trial, Biro took the stand and blamed another local teenager. The jury, however, didn’t put much credence in the story. They began deliberations in the afternoon of November 14, 1991, and returned with a guilty verdict just two hours later. The prosecutors did not present a motive, and aside from speculation by Chief Timm and one of Biro’s New Trier classmates that Biro wanted to be a professional assassin, no reason for the killing has ever emerged.
At the trial Winnetka police officer Bobby Lee Caldwell testified that he had seen Biro on the night of the murder walking near the town house wearing dark clothing and at least one glove. Biro was notorious within the police department for his activities, which according to a recently filed civil suit included attempting to poison the milk in his family’s refrigerator, shooting a seven-year-old child with a high-powered BB gun, setting another child’s clothing on fire, and firing the BB gun at a women in a car, shooting out her windows. Caldwell said that Biro was someone the police kept an eye on, and the night of the murder, Caldwell radioed the beat officer patrolling the area to warn him that Biro was on the prowl. The following day, in the wake of the discovery of the murder, Caldwell phoned the department and told investigator Eddie Benoit of his sighting of Biro close to the scene of the crime. Benoit noted the tip on a “lead card” and filed it. In a recent interview, Chief Timm said that it was the second card in the file.
Biro lived two blocks from the police station. In the six months between the murder and the tip that led to his arrest, no one from any law enforcement agency had knocked on his door.
Chief Timm was the subject of considerable heat and some ridicule during the investigation. An article published on the front page of the Wall Street Journal six weeks after the Langert murders portrayed the chief as a man who dressed like a banker, who had a “boundless” imagination, and who had “little interest in routine resolutions to his case.”
Yet in person Timm is no buffoon. Sitting in his office, a computer at his side, he initially seems like some sort of executive cop. After a short time in conversation, however, he comes across as what he is–the talkative police chief of a small town, a town so small that the chief’s daughter ran on the same cross-country team as the murderer.
“In a community like this,” Timm says, “you tend to look towards outsiders. It can’t be one of our own. We are learning to realize that the local talent has been responsible for many of the serious crimes committed here, and it always has been. Laurie Dann was one of our own. David Biro was one of our own. Much of the crime that is committed here is done by people who aren’t necessarily from the big bad city.”
Armed with the assumption that outsiders were responsible, Timm set out upon unfamiliar terrain. He says that he asked the FBI to come down to the Winnetka police station to outline the IRA theory to Jeanne Bishop because he thought the theory would have more credibility coming from federal agents than it would coming from suburban policemen who knew nothing about Northern Ireland. He did not know how the FBI was perceived by many Irish activists. “It blew up in our face,” Timm said recently. “It was just the wrong thing to have done because what we got into was a very contentious situation between Jeanne Bishop’s associates and the FBI agents. It was a terrible situation. It was a losing proposition from there on.”
Thereafter, the two sides polarized. Bishop insists that she was always willing to talk to the police about why she went to Northern Ireland, what she did there, what dates she came and went, anything but who she saw and who she knew. She believes that the FBI derailed the investigation in order to conduct its own fishing expedition in the Irish community. Timm insists that he couldn’t have cared less about Irish politics, that he would not have shared information with the FBI (a claim that Bishop does not believe). Timm insists that Bishop’s attorneys led him to believe that she was completely off limits about any aspect of the investigation, and as a result his suspicions were aroused: “If I slammed the door in your face, you would say, ‘What is he hiding?’ And that is what we were doing.”
And so the IRA scenario evolved like a children’s game in which the message whispered at one end of the table becomes something entirely different by the time it has traveled back to its starting point. The FBI initially indicated that the death threat was directed at Bishop by the IRA. Then, according to Bishop, the FBI changed its story, claiming that the threat might have been the plan of renegade IRA members. Then investigators theorized that the killers had mistaken Nancy for Jeanne. Then, well, maybe they didn’t mistake the two, but had instead meant to kill Nancy as a way of threatening Jeanne. Then they may have meant to kidnap Nancy as a way of getting information from Jeanne, though the information the culprits wanted was never clear. Then it seemed natural to wonder if the murder had been committed by Northern Irish Protestant paramilitary groups. Then the murderer was thought to belong to the Chicago Irish activist community, though the original death threat had allegedly come from Ireland and there was no reason to think that someone who knew Jeanne Bishop well could possibly mistake her for her sister Nancy or would kill her sister thinking that Bishop would be able to decipher a message from that act. And while all that was going on, work was simultaneously being done on the drug and gambling angles.
“What made this investigation so unique was that there were so many issues involved and none of them could be discounted,” Timm says. “You couldn’t afford at the time to say, ‘Oh the hell with it, that sounds ridiculous.’ Would it sound ridiculous to say a 16-year-old kid walked over there and shot somebody? At the time we would have probably said, ‘Are you kidding?’
“Quite frankly, it is probably better that the investigation was strung out as long as it was.” Timm says that because the investigation took so long, Biro started telling his friends about the murders, and one of them–Phu Hoang–took him seriously. Timm argues that if the Winnetka police had walked over to Biro’s house immediately after the murder, they would have had no leverage. “What are you going to do? Just say, ‘David, what were you doing over there?’ That would have spooked him.” Having been spooked, Timm says, Biro might have disposed of the murder weapon and never mentioned the shooting to anyone. Without the gun and Biro’s loose tongue, the state would have had no case.
But the police department’s leverage against Biro did not come cheap. Timm estimates that the investigation cost over a million dollars, half of it borne by Winnetka, the other half borne by the other agencies and police departments involved in the task force. And the human cost was immense.
On the day charges were filed against David Biro, Chief Timm apologized to Jeanne Bishop, saying he was sincerely sorry for the difficulties the investigation had caused her.
Some of those difficulties came about because of the media coverage of the sensational murder theories, coverage that began with Carol Marin’s broadcast on April 23.
Marin defends her story. “The media has a responsibility, when a heinous murder has hit a community and the murderer is still at large, to provide the public with information on a timely basis about the course of that investigation. . . . We were not proposing a theory that was going to come true or not.” In Marin’s view, the fact that the Winnetka police were investigating the IRA angle was news, and therefore deserved to be reported. Evaluating the theory was not required.
“It was pretty thin gruel,” Peter Schmiedel says of Marin’s first report, “but it made for a nice story. I have a lot of respect for Carol Marin, but I have a disagreement with her on this story because I don’t think it should have been run. Given the FBI’s interest in the Irish struggle and some of the things they have done in the past in order to achieve some kind of foray into the Irish community and other groups as well, this story should have been looked at with more skepticism, especially in light of the consequences it had personally for the people that were involved. But the effect that it has on somebody personally, is that something that reporters take into account when they run a story?”
Marin claims that she did take that into account, and that she thought the effect on the Bishops was outweighed by the public’s right to know what was going on. It is on the question of what was going on that Marin and Irish activists differ. Marin believes that the Winnetka police were investigating a tie between an alleged death threat from the IRA and the murder of Nancy Langert. Irish activists believe that the Winnetka police were wasting a lot of time and money investigating a trumped-up theory.
Compared with the coverage by others in the media, however, Marin was conservative. Unlike other reporters, Marin did not run Bishop’s photo or footage showing Bishop leaving the murder scene. (If the mistaken-identity theory had any credence, showing a picture of the alleged intended victim would seem to be giving the killer a second chance.) Marin also did not go through Bishop’s divorce papers, as the Tribune reporters would.
“I was totally appalled by the way she [Bishop] was being treated,” Tribune reporter Jessica Seigel said in a recent interview. “It was just outrageous. The whole thing was so ridiculous. We tried, at least I did as a journalist, to do the best job that I could, but when the police are feeding you this information, you can’t ignore a story that everyone has. You just can’t say, ‘Well, that’s ridiculous,’ because then you can be the one who ends up looking like a stupid idiot. News stories happen all the time where the police say something that sounds ridiculous and it turns out to be true.”
Seigel went on to say that she agonized over the stories she wrote with Joel Kaplan, that she tried to put herself in Bishop’s place, that she tried to get the information she had into the paper in the least offensive way possible. “I felt that maybe we were being used by law enforcement. But then again, to look at both sides of this, all the news media got on the story after Channel Five broke it and so it was not as if the police had come to us. We did go to them.”
Joel Kaplan, who also covered the story for the Tribune, is now an assistant professor of journalism at Syracuse University. In his analysis, it was the FBI’s alleged death threat that drove Carol Marin’s report and all of the subsequent coverage, and he admits that the death threat was not examined as closely as it should have been. Kaplan says he did not know that the IRA’s political wing maintains offices in Dublin and Belfast and gives interviews to the press all the time, and so he never called them to see if they had any comment on the murder or if they even knew who Jeanne Bishop was. (Kaplan was not alone in this. No Chicago journalist appears to have made that call.) The Tribune did note that Irish American activists thought the IRA theory was ludicrous, that Irish and British officials said that IRA participation in such an event would be extraordinary, and that the IRA and other Irish groups had never been known to kill anyone in the United States. The paper, however, just never seemed to take those assessments seriously.
Had Tribune reporters or anyone else in the media subjected the death threat to any significant analysis, their presentation of the investigation might have been considerably different. A journalist who examined the tactics, methods, and history of the IRA in the last 25 years would have to say that the likelihood of the IRA purposely killing any American was just about nil; that the likelihood of their killing an American in the United States was even more remote; and that the idea that they would kill the sister of a not-very-well-known human rights activist in a wealthy Chicago suburb was preposterous. On the other hand, any journalist who’d studied the tactics, methods, and history of the FBI in the last 25 years would have little difficulty believing there was something not quite on the level about the agency’s story of the death threat.
With steady repetition and the chorus of police comments about Bishop’s alleged lack of cooperation, the theory gathered a certain momentum. “It might be a chicken-and-egg thing,” Kaplan says. “Why are you [the press] looking at it? Well, because the police are looking at it. Why are the police looking at it? Because the press is looking at it.”
Kaplan confesses some ambivalence about having reported that Nancy Langert had had an affair. Kaplan says that the Bishop family, their neighbors, and the Langerts’ employers depicted the couple as “the all-American couple,” who “only had eyes for each other”–and that, Kaplan says, was a false image. He maintains that the Tribune had to present what he calls “the true story” because the citizenry of Winnetka were frightened and wanted to know how this could have happened in their community; because in a murder you always look to see if there was a sexual angle; and because the press has made mistakes in the past by buying the “all-American couple” story. He cites the Boston case of Charles Stuart, the man who murdered his pregnant wife and wounded himself and then told police that it had been done by an African American. Kaplan argues that in that case the press did not look beyond the image of the ideal couple, that the police also bought the story, and that as a result someone else was blamed for the crime.
“We were wrong because [Nancy Langert’s affair] had nothing to do with the murder,” Kaplan says. “But what we wrote wasn’t wrong–it was accurate. . . . The truth of the matter is, when people die they are fair game. Look what we do with everybody in this society, look at when someone is nominated to the Supreme Court. . . . [The Langerts] got caught in the vortex of a public issue. And the affair wouldn’t have come up except that the murder hadn’t been solved, and it probably wouldn’t have come up if they hadn’t been portrayed as the all-American couple.”
As for the rest of those accused in the stories–Jeanne with her involvement in Northern Ireland, Mr. Bishop with his suspicious client, the Langerts’ employer who waved a gun around during a dispute with an employee–Kaplan says they did themselves no service by refusing to be interviewed. (Immediately after the murder, the Langert and Bishop families had decided together not to give any interviews until the murderer had been convicted so as not to jeopardize the investigation or prosecution.) Also in his defense, Kaplan says that he knew a lot more than he printed, that he could have tarnished reputations to a much greater extent. On the other hand, he says that when he puts himself in the shoes of the victims, his heart goes out to them.
Overall, however, Kaplan believes that the Tribune did a good job in its coverage. “To be fair about this you have to go back to the perspective at the time,” he says. “We started with this notion that no one would want to kill them and we came up with these myriad of angles–financial, sexual, political. And it turned out they got killed for no reason. That is more bizarre than anything we wrote in those stories.”
Chief Timm blames neither the press nor the police for the suffering of the Bishops and Langerts. “Reputations got tarnished by murder,” he says, “and that is what happens in murder. Because when murder touches somebody it hurts them in many ways. We had two victims who are the immediate victims, right? But we had their families, not only the Bishop family and the Langert family but the Biro family. All of these people were absolutely changed forever by this and by the fact that we had to investigate other people. And that is what happens in a murder case. You find out things about people that have to be found out, but it is a shame that it is, and that is why we have to be very careful about what we say about other people. You could write a book about some of the people that we had to go into; fortunately they weren’t responsible, but unfortunately they were changed forever too. Jeanne Bishop was a prime example. She went through a lot of public scrutiny here; it probably wasn’t very helpful to her in her professional career at the time, it was difficult for her in her own personal relationships, and for those things I feel very badly. But was it the fault of the Winnetka police department? The Winnetka police department would never have known Jeanne Bishop had it not been for the fact that her sister and brother-in-law were murdered. That was the catalyst–it was murder, and it will always be that way.”
On December 20, 1991, David Biro came before Judge Shelvin Singer for sentencing. As he had been 16 at the time of the murders, Biro was not eligible for the death penalty, and he was instead given the mandatory sentence of life in prison without possibility of parole.
In hopes of preventing Biro from ever profiting from the crime by writing a book or selling his story to a filmmaker, the Bishop family has filed a wrongful death suit against him. The suit, filed last week, also names Biro’s lawyer, from whom he stole the murder weapon, and Biro’s parents, charging that Mr. and Mrs. Biro knew their son was given to violence, having interceded on his behalf with police and numerous victims, yet did not notify authorities when they discovered he was trying to illegally obtain firearms and ammunition. The suit also alleges that Mr. and Mrs. Biro knew their son “had been diagnosed as a psychopath/sociopath” needing psychiatric treatment, and that they had failed to require him to continue such treatment. The Bishops are asking for more than $30 million in damages.
Jeanne Bishop now works for the Cook County public defender’s office. She continues her human rights work, and has returned to Northern Ireland twice since the murders. Jennifer, Jeanne and Nancy’s older sister, who lost her teaching job as a result of the murder, found a better position at a different school. Jeanne Bishop’s father continues his law practice; as the trial of David Biro approached, a journalist tried to arrange for the theft of documents dealing with the case from Mr. Bishop’s office, but ultimately the theft did not take place. Last September, Mrs. Bishop returned from a short vacation to find that photographs of Richard and Nancy had been stolen from her office at the Winnetka Community House. A local writer is suspected of the crime, but there have been no arrests.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.