By Ben Leonard and Kristi Sturgill
In a stunning blow to prosecutors, a Durham judge ruled Monday that much of the evidence in the Alexander Bishop case should be tossed out because of reckless or untruthful work by the lead investigator.
After hearing three days of testimony from the investigator and other Durham police officers, Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. agreed to suppress evidence from search warrants that had provided much of the case against Bishop, a 17-year-old boy accused of killing his father William Bishop with a dog leash.
“The investigator either was untruthful or showed a reckless disregard for the truth,” Hudson said. “As a result of that, the court has to act.”
Monday was a long day for Tony Huelsman, the lead investigator.
Accused of using false information to get search warrants, he often stuttered when trying to explain the decisions he made. Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, grilled him for hours, asking pointed questions with a smile.
It’s not clear how much evidence will be left in the wake of Hudson’s ruling. The defense will now submit a filing to argue what evidence should remain that wasn’t obtained from improper search warrants.
In Sharp’s closing statement, she argued that once the tainted evidence is removed from the case, a few simple facts remain: William Bishop was found unresponsive in a chair, and that Alexander Bishop said he found him with the leash wrapped around his neck.
Another piece of evidence that will be left, she argued: Alexander Bishop told an EMS supervisor that his father had been emotionally abusive, had just gotten divorced and was having issues with his new girlfriend.
The case isn’t complicated, Sharp said. “When you remove those material misstatements and omissions, it is simply a death that is tragic, but not suspicious,” she said.
Bishop was charged with killing his father by wrapping a dog leash around his neck in April 2018. Internet search records obtained from his phone indicate he looked up how to manage the financial assets of a dead family member.
As she did in court last week, Sharp grilled Huelsman over a mistake he admitted in the search warrant process. Huelsman had filed search warrants based on “missing” gold bars, which suggested that Bishop could have killed his father in an attempt to claim his inheritance.
The problem? Much of the gold was not in fact missing.
A purchase order showed that William Bishop had sold the $462,773 of gold. Huelsman, who testified that dates are important to him, had failed to notice the sale was in August 2016, almost two years before William Bishop died.
“You didn’t find the date relevant at the time?” Sharp said.
“That’s correct,” Huelsman responded.
In her closing remarks, Sharp criticized Huelsman’s error.
“It’s unreasonable and untrue that Investigator Huelsman did not know exactly what it was when he saw it,” she said.
Huelsman said he didn’t intentionally mislead magistrates or judges in his search warrants.
In the search warrant, Huelsman had considered Alexander Bishop’s internet history “suspicious.” But there was a key detail that Huelsman had erased in the search warrant: the date of those searches.
If they had come before his father’s death, they could have pointed to premeditation. But Sharp pointed out that Bishop searched gold conversion on April 29, 2018, eight days after his father had died.
“What’s suspicious about searching for it eight days after he died?” Sharp asked.
“What makes it suspicious is everything that happened before this,” Huelsman responded.
Beth Hopkins Thomas, the assistant district attorney, said in rebuttal that there were other reasons to be suspicious of Alexander Bishop.
“The fact that he’s contending his dog strangled his father is where the suspicion is for this case, your honor,” Hopkins Thomas said.
She also argued that the internet searches weren’t “totally reasonable” given the circumstances and called the defense’s motions to suppress evidence “antics over semantics.”
Sharp also challenged the credibility of William Bishop’s girlfriend Julie Seel. Sharp said Huelsman overlooked potential issues with the information she provided.
That included a tip about a small hypodermic needle and a clear glass bottle found in Alexander Bishop’s bedroom. Investigators seized them when Seel made them “relevant,” telling Huelsman that Alexander Bishop was an advanced chemistry student and she encouraged Huelsman to ask Bishop’s teachers about any missing chemicals. They turned out to be from a sand art Christmas gift Seel had given him.
Sharp also suggested Seel lied about having served in the Army Special Forces, saying the first woman to make it through the training did so in 2018. Seel told the 9th Street Journal that she served in the 12th Special Forces group from 1990 to 1994.
Sharp also asked Huelsman about a Rolex that Seel wore. She claimed William Bishop gave her, rather than having taken it from him.
“I don’t believe she took the watch to gain anything,” Huelsman said. “I believe she was wearing the watch to help her through a hard time.”
Sharp also asked Huelsman if he was aware of notes from William Bishop’s final therapy session saying that he believed “the relationship was ending or over.” Huelsman said he had received the notes but he didn’t remember that detail.
Alexander Bishop had a blank expression throughout most the hearing, staring forward and yawning frequently.
But after about three hours of cross-examination of Huelsman, he started crying while Sharp was asking questions about Seel and the syringe. Sharp put her arm around him and continued asking questions.
Monday’s ruling was a surprise because the previous ruling from Hudson, made last Thursday, favored the prosecutors. Hudson rejected Sharp’s argument that statements Alexander Bishop made at the scene couldn’t be used because officers didn’t read him his Miranda rights.
On Monday, Hudson also ruled on two other motions presented by the defense, one requesting return of electronic devices owned by Alexander Bishop and his mother Sharon Bishop and another requesting all relevant documents for discovery.
Hudson also set deadlines for documents to be turned over to Bishop’s attorneys and for police to return devices they had gotten from Bishop and his mother because of search warrants.
In photo above, Allyn Sharp, Bishop’s attorney, questioned Huelsman for hours over two days of hearings. Photo by Ben Leonard | The 9th Street Journal