Tuesday, April 24, 2018
Public safety

Teen gunman Benjamin Bishop: Rage drove him to kill, gun laws were no obstacle

LARGO — It is wrong to kill children. Benjamin Bishop says he knows this, even if Adam Lanza, the Connecticut gunman two years his senior, did not.

Lanza's armed rampage through Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 left 26 people, including 20 children, dead. Beforehand, he fatally shot his mother. He ended by taking his own life.

"Insane," Bishop says, shaking his head. Those kids didn't deserve to die.

Bishop, 18, has had time to think about this. For the past three months, the Oldsmar resident has been incarcerated without bail, awaiting trial on two counts of first-degree murder.

On Oct. 28, authorities say, Bishop used a 12-gauge shotgun — a weapon he obtained in spite of a criminal record and history of mental illness — to kill his mother and her boyfriend as they lay in bed. Detectives say he has confessed to the killings of Imari Shibata and Kelley Allen, both 49.

It's wrong to kill children. But Bishop will tell you there is nothing wrong with someone having a gun. Not even someone like him.

• • •

His face is round and soft, easily molded into a smile. A crown of spiky black hair offsets his pallor. He hasn't spent much time in the sun since that night in October, when he called the police to tell them what he had done.

Bishop has pleaded not guilty to the charges against him. Christina Porrello, his court-appointed lawyer from the Pinellas-Pasco Public Defender's Office, declined to comment for this story.

Bishop is old enough to be prosecuted as an adult, but in a recent interview at the Pinellas County Jail, his demeanor often resembled that of a 6-foot-tall kid. He broke down giggling. He said he is a virgin. He talked about how he liked to smoke pot.

Shibata, his mother, was a nursing assistant and Japanese immigrant whose surviving family members live overseas. Allen, Shibata's boyfriend, was a popular swim coach, known to many in the Tampa Bay area because of his long involvement in youth aquatics.

As news of Allen's death spread on Oct. 28, a Sunday, about 100 swimmers and their family members gathered at the Westchase Swim and Tennis Center to share their memories, calling him "irreplaceable," his death "senseless."

Bishop didn't like him. By way of explanation, he offers a catalogue of confused grievances: mix-ups of men's underwear in the laundry room, competition for the front seat on family car rides. He seethed at Allen's presence in his mother's life.

In 10th grade, Bishop stopped regularly attending school and started puttering, stoned, around the house. He says his mom hated the way marijuana made him shrink from family and friends.

He had other worries. Strange things had begun happening to him, experiences he struggled to understand.

"When I was in 9th grade I was attacked by a ghost. Well, I thought I was. . . . There was something, like, pounding on my back when I had just woken up," he says. "It was screaming, and it had two voices, and it was speaking in Japanese. Or it could have been speaking in German." He continues, "And then I looked behind me and there was nothing there. So then I just slowly walked to my door and opened it up and ran outside."

Another time:

"I was watching TV. Right before that one commercial — that dog commercial that's like, 'Trouble, trouble, trouble' — a cat five seconds before that started meowing to the left of me. It meowed, like, seven times or so. My other cat was sleeping in a chair way to my right. I was just sitting there, saying, 'Oh, crap, there's a cat meowing and there's nothing there.' So I ran outside. That was about a year and a half ago."

In July 2011, Shibata called the Pinellas County Sheriff's Office to report that her son was wandering the family's home in Oldsmar, smashing holes through walls with a hammer and saying he was Osama Bin Laden. Bishop was taken into custody through the Baker Act, a Florida law that allows for forcible examination of the mentally ill.

He was released and, within a week, arrested again, this time for trying to strangle his mother. He pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor battery charge.

On one of his rare trips to school, he got caught with a knife and was declared delinquent in juvenile court.

The shape of the story is familiar to anyone who has seen a relative or friend make the grim pilgrimage through social-service agencies that is reserved for the severely mentally ill. Over three months in 2011, Bishop was detained four times under the Baker Act. He went off to drug rehab. He was kicked out of rehab for fighting with another patient.

A psychiatrist diagnosed Bishop with schizophrenia and prescribed Risperdal, an antipsychotic drug, he says. The medicine can cause undesirable side effects, including heartburn, dizziness and anxiety. Bishop became convinced it was putting him at risk of cardiac arrest. "I felt like I was about to die," he says.

In October 2012, his mom, often the object of his rants, was losing patience. She demanded he take the meds. Bishop resisted fiercely, claiming the drugs would kill him.

He began to see the dispute in stark terms. It was a matter of life and death. And Allen and Shibata didn't know it, but Bishop had found a way to protect himself.

• • •

Bishop was a juvenile delinquent with a schizophrenia diagnosis. Many would say he should not have been allowed to possess a gun.

The state of Florida agreed.

Bishop's history of mental illness would not have stopped him from buying a weapon, since a judge had never declared him mentally defective. But the terms of his sentencing after he took the knife to school put him in the same class as felons under state law, prohibited from owning firearms or ammunition, according to officials in the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

This posed a dilemma for Bishop, who wanted a weapon. Not to kill anyone in his house. He says he just needed to protect himself from gang members, bad kids he had met in rehab.

To solve his problem, he didn't go to a gun show, where he could have avoided a background check, or an illegal weapons trafficker on a street corner. His 12-gauge pump-action shotgun was purchased for $279 at Lock N Load, a gun store in an Oldsmar strip mall, authorities say.

A Lock N Load employee initially refused to sell to him after learning he had a criminal record, according to investigators. So Bishop came back with a friend, Oldsmar resident Matthew Schwab, who bought the gun for him.

Helping someone avoid a background check like this is called "straw buying." It is prohibited by federal law. Schwab, who has cooperated with homicide detectives and is expected to be a witness for the state if Bishop's case goes to trial, has not been charged.

Schwab, a slight 18-year-old, declined to speak to a reporter when approached at his house in Oldsmar. His father, Steven Schwab, said the family would have no comment for this article. "I don't think there's anything we need to try to talk about," he said. "We're kind of hoping it will all go away. We don't want to drag (Matthew) through anything else."

At Lock N Load, an employee who would identify himself only by his first name, Gerry, refused to discuss Bishop's case and asked a reporter to leave the store.

"I'm not going to discuss anything. We've got nothing to do with it. It has nothing to do with the shop," he said. "Please just go. I don't want to be in the newspaper."

Bishop needed ammo. Here he faced a similar problem: He was ineligible to possess ammunition under the same state and federal laws that barred him from owning a gun. Again, the problem was easily solved.

There is no federal law, and no law in the state of Florida, requiring background checks for ammunition purchases. Bishop says he returned to Lock N Load and bought shotgun shells without a hitch.

"It was pretty easy. I also got to hug a very hot girl," he recalls, chuckling. "She was all happy that she was getting a gun and stuff. . . . I said congratulations, and she said congratulations to me."

Forbidden from owning guns and ammunition, Bishop had armed himself, and gotten a hug to boot. He says he wrapped the shotgun in a blanket and hid it in his family's attic. He didn't intend to kill Allen and his mom, he says. Not at first.

But his mom kept pushing him about getting back on his meds.

"I was, like, in a rage. I was throwing doors down and stuff. I was cussing out my mom's boyfriend. I was mad at my mom because she was forcing me on medication," he says. "She said either that or I was going to get kicked out of the house."

Sometime before 1:30 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 28, Bishop crept to the attic.

This is how he describes what happened next.

• • •

I guess I'll just tell you the story. I had taken my 12-gauge shotgun in the attic. I brought it into my room and hid it in a dresser.

I got it and loaded it, very late at night. And, um, I don't know. I was, like, chilling with it for a while.

That's pretty much, when, like, I just decided to, like, kill them.

I opened up my door. I went from my room to their room. I got the gun ready. It was pretty heavy.

I walked into the room about halfway. While I was walking in, my mom said, 'What are you doing?'

I could see her face, barely, because it was pitch-black in the room. She just stared at the gun for 2 or 3 seconds, and I fired the weapon. I had the baseball bat with me behind the door, just in case the gun didn't go off.

There was a slight kick to it. The muzzle flash. She, like, leaned over to the side.

I could tell that she got hit, but I didn't see any bullet holes or dust flying off her or anything.

The muzzle flash didn't light up the whole room.

I couldn't see where Kelley was. That's what I was afraid of the most.

I racked the shotgun as fast as I could and I pointed at Kelley. He said, 'Oh my God, no.'

I was literally, like, three feet away from him. It was pretty much point-blank with Kelley.

I shot six shots in there altogether. I know that I hit my mom every single time. But Kelley, I don't know if I shot him every single time.

I was kind of afraid they were still alive, so I went back outside and I reloaded the shotgun. I went back and I shot Kelley again. But this time I made sure that I shot him. I got really close.

I was in a hurry. I thought the cops were going to get there really fast. So I put another round in and I shot my mom again.

I called the police, and they got there. I got into a police car. I was crying, because I was realizing what I had just done. I was like, 'Are they alive or dead?'

(A sheriff's deputy) was talking to some of the paramedics that had arrived there. And he's like, 'No, they're dead.' Like, he was like all dramatic and stuff.

I regret it. Because I might get first-degree murder. Also I regret it because it was just a bad situation altogether and I shouldn't have done it. Because of, uh, what happened to them. And me.

Yeah. That's the reason pretty much why that all happened.

• • •

A judge ordered Bishop held without bail after his arrest. He was in jail on Dec. 14, when Lanza leveled his assault rifle at fleeing 6- and 7-year-olds at Sandy Hook Elementary, and on Jan. 16, when President Barack Obama announced a sweeping proposal to overhaul the nation's gun laws — the most ambitious regulatory effort of its kind in a generation.

Among the provisions are many directly relevant to the circumstances of Bishop's case, such as improved and expanded criminal background checks for firearm purchases, more severe penalties for "straw buyers," increased funding for youth mental-health services and a new emphasis on identifying mentally ill patients dangerous enough to be prevented from obtaining weapons.

Bishop has followed the debate, on and off, from the Pinellas County Jail. He has only heard bits and pieces; when he was booked into custody he was placed in isolation, on suicide watch, and still doesn't interact much with other prisoners. He knows the drift of politicians' talk in the massacre's aftermath. He knows gun laws might be changing.

Asked whether he thinks legislators should establish stricter firearm regulations, he has a ready answer.

"Honestly, I don't think they should," he says. "Guns are pretty fun to shoot."

He pauses for a moment, looking thoughtful.

"I don't know. Just don't give it to somebody who's going to end up killing a bunch of innocent 6-year-olds."

Peter Jamison can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 445-4157.

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