Crime File

George Michael Gwaltney – I The Murder, the Culprit and the Lack of Evidence

The murder of Robin Bishop was an interesting case from the standpoint of investigation and prosecution. Gwaltney’s guilt was never doubtful, yet it was a very difficult case to secure a conviction in. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the story of a painstaking investigation and a gritty prosecution.  

On January 11, 1982, Robin Bishop, an attractive 23-year-old aspiring actress went to Los Angeles from her home in Las Vegas to see a friend. The friend convinced her that to get into Hollywood, it was necessary that she moved to Los Angeles and gave it a serious try. With dreams of bright future she left Las Vegas for Los Angeles at around 5:00 p.m., having made up her mind to follow the counsel of her friend and move to Los Angeles as soon as she could. It was a four and a half hour drive from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. On the way, Robin decided to make a brief stop at Barstow, California, at about 7:50 p.m. to grab a sandwich and make a call to her mother. That was the last talk Robin ever had with anybody.

At 9:23 p.m., a California Highway Patrol officer by the name George Michael Gwaltney reported on radio that he had found a woman’s body by a frontage road on Interstate 15 about 30 miles northeast of Barstow, California. The woman had been shot in the head once, and the officer also reported that it appeared to be a case of suicide. The homicide detective assigned to investigate the case did not fail to note that the girl had been shot in the back of the head, which threw the suicide theory out of the window right away. The car was at some distance from the body, the car keys were in the ignition of the car and the car was in a perfect condition without any sign of a mechanical breakdown that could force a stop. The first question, therefore, was what made the girl stop the car, get out of the vehicle and walk away from it on a highway leaving the car keys in the ignition. Officer Gwaltney, who had found the body, told that when he found the body the first thing he did was check the pulse, and when he couldn’t find any, he checked the body for some document to identify the girl by. By the time the homicide detective arrived, Gwaltney had already ascertained that the name of the victim was Robin Bishop and she was the owner of the abandoned car registered in Nevada. A little before reporting the body, officer Gwaltney had reported an abandoned car. Apparently, the officer had spotted the abandoned car first, and later when he looked around he came across the body, after which he radioed the control room a second time to report the body.

When the detective opened Robin’s purse to check if it was a case of robbery, he did not find the contents of the purse disturbed but found the driving license and the vehicle registration papers on the top of the contents of the bag as though they had been presented for inspection to someone and had been kept back in a hurry. It was possible that someone posing as a policeman had asked Robin to step out of the car, which could very well explain why the car keys were left behind. A close scrutiny of the body revealed the thin marks on the wrists of the deceased. No policeman could have failed to see that the marks had to be from the handcuffs put on the victim immediately preceding her death – a fact later confirmed by the autopsy report, which would further reveal that there was fresh semen in the vaginal cavity of the victim indicating that the deceased had engaged in sexual intercourse within 24 hours prior to the death, but there was nothing to suggest forced sex. Sexual intercourse, therefore, might have been unrelated to the murder. The death and the sexual intercourse could just be two independent events taking place in close succession.

Since there was no sign of struggle and since it did not appear a case of robbery because nothing was missing, the motive of murder was not apparent. But it could be a case of rape by forced consent. The way the vehicle registration papers and the driving license were found lying on the top of the contents of the purse indicating that the victim had been asked to present them suggested that she was hauled up by either a member of the police force or someone posing as one. The handcuff marks on victim’s wrist further strengthened the theory.

The investigators started by questioning the officers who had been to the area to eliminate the possibility of the involvement of any of the policemen. Officer Gwaltney was the first one to be questioned because he was the one who had found the body. The next day, all officers were asked to submit their service weapons for a ballistic test for the purpose of elimination as the bullet that had caused Bishop’s death had been recovered, having been found lodged in her jaw. Gwaltney was present during the briefing. By the evening all officers save George Gwaltney had submitted their service weapons for the test as required.

When Gwaltney did not submit his weapon for the test, the detectives presented themselves at Gwaltney’s house asking for his service weapon. Gwaltney went inside and brought his off-duty weapon. The detectives insisted on the service weapon. Gwaltney went back inside and returned empty-handed saying that he suspected his weapon had been stolen. He did not look particularly perturbed by the missing weapon despite that the missing weapon brought him under suspicion.

Gwaltney was brought to the police headquarters for questioning, but before proceeding to question him the detectives asked Gwaltney to open his station locker for inspection, which he agreed to. The weapon was not found. During the questioning Gwaltney was remarkably composed, which stood out as odd for an officer whose service weapon had been stolen even on a normal day, let alone when the missing weapon brought him squarely under suspicion. The abnormal composure heightened the suspicion, but the detectives were still inclined to believe Gwaltney because he was a widely respected police officer and had never been suspected of being involved in any murky business before. However, given the missing gun and his strange behaviour, Gwaltney was read his constitutional rights but was not placed under arrest because the evidence was largely circumstantial and was still insufficient for an arrest. Gwaltney agreed to a tape-recorded interview, in which he maintained his innocence and said that on January 11, 1982, after his dinner break, on his regular patrol beat, he picked a young boy of his acquaintance and dropped him home, as the boy was walking home alone. Gwaltney was known for such small kindnesses. After dropping the young boy he was back on Interstate 15 by 8:50 p.m., which is where he found the abandoned car at around 9:15 p.m., and moved to the access road to look around, and came across the body.

Detectives interviewing Gwaltney noted that he was not behaving normally for someone who was being suspected of such a serious crime. Gwaltney insisted on taking a polygraph test. The test did not find any sign of lying even in Gwaltney’s response to such direct question as to whether he had killed Robin Bishop.

Gwaltney also consented to a search of his house, and the deputies to the Sheriff tried to verify Gwaltney’s claim of burglary. There was no sign of forced entry or burglary. However, later, on January 14, 1982, when the detectives looked into Gwaltney’s truck, they found a badly damaged frame of a Smith and Wesson Model 19 (.357 Magnum) revolver. The tool marks on the frame indicated that brute force had been applied to the frame by someone who did not have a particularly intimate knowledge of how to dismantle a revolver. But there was no barrel found, which killed the possibility of a ballistics match. However, it was not difficult to find in whose name was the gun frame registered. Unsurprisingly, it was in Gwaltney’s name. The dismantling of the gun indicated that Gwaltney was trying to prevent a ballistics test, which was sufficient cause for his arrest. However, the evidence, being largely circumstantial, was still not enough to secure a conviction.

The detectives returned to Gwaltney’s house for more and managed to find a pipe vice with fresh metal marks on it suggesting that it had been put to use recently. This was in addition to the box of bullets they found in Gwaltney’s bedroom closet. Apart from the standard issue police bullets, they found 27 rounds of .357 caliber bullets made by Remington Arms – the same kind as the one retrieved from Robin Bishop’s jaw. However, despite the mounting pile of evidence against Gwaltney, his wife as well as his colleagues, who had worked with him for over a decade, found it hard to believe that he was capable of murdering.

Traces of semen were found in Gwaltney’s patrol car and also on Robin’s jeans. And while Gwaltney was in custody, Deputy Sherriff Kaufman, filed a report saying that he had driven by the crime scene area around the time when the crime was committed and he had indeed spotted a car on the access road and when he flashed light on the car he could see an officer standing by the car but he was driving too fast to recognize the officer, and minutes later he had heard Gwaltney on the radio reporting a dead body from a possible suicide. Deputy Sherriff Kaufman had been out of town for a few days immediately after Robin’s murder, and had not known anything about the crime until he returned and heard of Gwaltney’s arrest, which is when he could connect what he had seen with the crime committed. Kaufman also said in his report that Gwaltney sounded unusually agitated on the radio, which was very unlike Gwaltney, who was well known for his composure in tough situations. Although it was quite an addition to the evidence against Gwaltney, it was still circumstantial, for Deputy Sherriff had not positively identified Gwaltney as the officer he had seen that night.

The detectives theorized that since Gwaltney did not dispose of the gun altogether, he might have tried to get its barrel replaced to clear the ballistics test. They went to all the gun stores in the area, but nobody recalled Gwaltney visiting any gun store looking for a barrel. Although after seven months of investigation, there was no direct evidence linking Gwaltney to the murder of Robin Bishop, there was nothing to clearly absolve him either. Gwaltney was fired from the California Highway Patrol.

Trial commenced in October 1982 with prosecutor Betty Kennedy confident that although evidence in the case was largely circumstantial, it was sufficient in terms of quantity and quality to obtain a conviction without much trouble. A surprise lay in wait.

The defence argued a frame up by someone within the department. The defence also produced a witness who testified that he saw Robin’s empty car parked on the highway and saw someone approaching the car from behind, but the physical description of the person by the witness eliminated the possibility of it being Gwaltney.

The prosecution also drew a precise timeline of the events from the time Gwaltney picked the boy walking down home and dropped him off to the time the investigation team arrived at the crime scene after Gwaltney’s call to the control room. The defence produced a number of witnesses who testified to Gwaltney’s impeccable character and unblemished career. Furthermore, the defence also demonstrated that going by the timeline given by the prosecution Gwaltney had only a 20-minute time window to do all that he was accused of, including stopping Robin, checking her registration papers and driving license, forcing her to step out of the car, taking her to the secluded spot, raping her, shooting her dead and then calling the control room first to report the ‘abandoned car’ and then to report the body. Quite clearly 20 minutes was hardly enough time to do all of that. The semen samples were hardly of help to the prosecution because the forensic DNA tests to establish trustworthy matches were still under research. So, the defence did not find much difficulty in casting doubt on the reliability of the evidence from the match of semen residues from Gwaltney’s car and the victim’s clothes. The analysis of the metal marks on the pipe vice was also scientifically inconclusive and it could not be said with certainty that the pipe vice had been used to dismantle the gun, the frame of which had been recovered from Gwaltney’s truck.

The prosecution was left with just the frame of the gun that was found in Gwaltney’s pick-up truck and the fact that the barrel was missing together with the fact that the bullet that killed was fired from a gun of a similar make and model. But there was still no direct evidence to link Gwaltney to Bishop’s murder. When Gwaltney took the stand finally, he had an explanation for everything; although he did not have a very convincing explanation for the frame of the gun, it was circumstantial evidence and the defence had already propounded the theory of frame-up. If someone within the department was actually trying to frame Gwaltney, it couldn’t be very difficult for the person to plant the frame in his truck. The defence managed to successfully introduce doubt in each piece of evidence produced before the jury. Consequently, the local jury as a whole was not convinced that the prosecution had been able to prove Gwaltney’s guilt beyond reasonable doubt. After four days of deliberations, a deadlock was declared. Gwaltney was free to go. But prosecutors believed that they had a good case, and Gwaltney stood trial once again in the superior court, but with no new evidence placed on record, the prosecutors once again failed to convince the jury with the jurors finding in favour of acquittal by a 7:5 majority. The appeal for a third trial was turned down because the prosecutors could not make a case for it and the court found no reason to have another trial when the first two had resulted in hung juries. Nothing further could be done in the case.

To be continued…   

1 Comment

  • Today, Jan. 26,2019 I met the retired Homicide detective from the Barstow Police Dept. that investigated the murder of this aspiring actress back in 1982. He has moved to Middle TN. from California and in our conversation it prompted me to research this story about the California Highway Patrolman who was convicted of this egregious crime. The whole story should be told by Dateline. It’s very interesting and shows what good police work finally brought this to a proper end after a hung jury at the first trial.

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