Crime File

George Michael Gwaltney – II FBI Steps in, takes Unprecedented Plea, secures Conviction

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.


Unfortunately for George Gwaltney, every homicide involving a law enforcement officer is routinely monitored by the FBI, and the Bureau had been keeping a close watch on Gwaltney’s case all along. Public pressure for a conclusion in the case kept on building and when Gwaltney was allowed to walk away the second time, FBI decided it was time for it to step in. FBI’s Los Angeles field office took over the case with a clear understanding that Gwaltney could not be tried for the murder of Robin Bishop again in the State of California, but he could still be charged with violation of Bishop’s civil rights in a federal court because he had violated her civil rights by killing her while he was on duty. By this line of reasoning Gwaltney had committed a federal crime and he could be tried in a federal court, but such plea had never been taken before in a criminal trial. The FBI was willing to give it a try anyway. But before that they needed to get themselves a watertight case against Gwaltney.

Special Agent Mike Randolph took over the investigation and started by having a meeting with local investigators and carefully going through the pile of evidence collected by them against Gwaltney. The first thing that caught Randolph’s attention was a picture of the Gwaltney’s patrol car. The picture displayed the contents of the car’s trunk on the night of Bishop’s murder, among which was a small box of ammunition. Randolph got the picture enlarged and it was clear that it was the box of .357 Magnum bullets, which Gwaltney had testified he did not carry around and was not carrying on the night of Bishop’s murder. The evidence now belied Gwaltney’s testimony. It was, in all probability, the same box that was later recovered from Gwaltney’s house by the investigators.

The local investigators had not been able to conclusively establish that the pipe vice recovered from Gwaltney’s home had the metal marks from the gun frame recovered from Gwaltney’s truck. Special Agent Randolph sent the vice and the frame of the gun for analysis to The Firearms/Toolmarks Unit (FTU) of the FBI in Washington. The FTU’s laboratory, with its extensive collection of over 2,000 guns from John Dillinger’s pistol to the modern day military grade weapons, is unique in the world in terms of its resourcefulness and competence in forensic analysis of tool marks and firearms. The pipe wrench used to take the barrel of the gun off had a minor but distinguishable defect in one of its teeth, which left a distinctive mark on any object to which the tool was applied. After several tests on the pipe wrench recovered from Gwaltney’s possession, it could be scientifically and conclusively ascertained that the same tool had been used to dismantle the gun, the frame of which had been found in Gwaltney’s truck because the wrench had the same defect as the one that had been used to dismantle the gun. So, the frame was not planted, but had been taken apart from the rest of the gun by Gwaltney’s tools, and the pipe wrench and other tools had been in Gwaltney’s possession at all times before being seized by the investigators.

Absence of the barrel made the ballistics test impossible, but FBI’s Firearms/Toolmarks Unit conducted extensive scientific tests on the bullets found in Gwaltney’s home to unearth the truth. A new scientific test based on the compositional uniqueness of bullet lead, which had never before been used for forensic purposes, was put to use by the FTU to ascertain whether the bullet that killed Bishop had come from the same batch of bullets as the 27 bullets found in Gwaltney’s possession. After testing the chemical composition of the lead from the bullets recovered from Gwaltney’s house and matching it against that of the bullet that killed Bishop, the FTU laboratory arrived at the finding that they most likely came from the same manufacturer’s source (melt) of lead. Therefore, it had been scientifically established that there was a probability that the lethal bullet in this case came from the box recovered from Gwaltney’s possession. And it was the kind of ammunition that Gwaltney had actually testified he never carried on him. Clearly, the man was not being completely honest.

The FBI then went around digging into Gwaltney’s past conduct because he was seen as a model policeman and a gentleman by nearly everybody who knew him from work or from social gatherings, but it was unlikely that he turned from an ideal gentleman into a killer all of a sudden. Finally, the FBI found a woman who admittedly had had an affair with Gwaltney. She told that she often met him at an isolated spot along the highway for sex. The spot was in the same area where Robin Bishop’s body had been found. The FBI contacted everyone who had been summoned by Gwaltney in the past two years for violations, and it did not take long for a pattern of Gwaltney’s behaviour around women to emerge. Almost a dozen women told the FBI that Gwaltney had either asked them to have sex with him or had touched them inappropriately under the pretext of searching them or otherwise. The FBI now had sufficient reason to believe that this was not a one-off incident of sexually deviant behaviour on part of Gwaltney though it was quite certainly his first and only murder.

There was one key area of investigation in which the local law enforcement authorities had failed but the FBI succeeded – finding if Gwaltney had tried to get the barrel of his gun replaced. None of the gun shopowners had admitted that Gwaltney contacted them for the replacement of his gun barrel, but one of the gun shopowners was caught lying when the FBI did a thorough check on him and found that the day after Bishop’s murder, which was the day the officers were asked by the investigators to turn in their weapons for elimination by ballistics tests, this particular gun shopowner had made a call to order a barrel of the kind of weapon that Gwaltney carried, which was also the kind of weapon that killed Robin Bishop. Confronted with the newfound evidence, the shopowner admitted that Gwaltney had indeed come to his store looking for the barrel for his gun, but since the barrel was not in stock then, the shopowner had placed an order for the barrel. He admitted to lying earlier for the fear of getting involved in the investigation, but faced with the possibility of being charged with felony of lying to the federal agents, now that he had been caught lying, he decided to come clean.

However, the most significant aspect of Gwaltney’s alibi was the testimony of Preston Olson, who had been picked up by Gwaltney on the day of Bishop’s murder and had been dropped home when Gwaltney found him walking down home alone. Between the time Gwaltney picked and dropped Olson and the time when he made the call to report an abandoned car, there were around fifteen minutes and he could not have done all he was accused of in that short span of time. It was time for the FBI to look into it. The problem had been that none of the investigators during the original investigation had sat down with Olson and had him walk through the all too critical timeline that created sufficient doubt in the mind of the jury to let go of Gwaltney in both of the earlier trials because going by that timeline Gwaltney had a mere fifteen minutes to rape, kill and report the matter to the control room. There was something clearly wrong with this part of the story. When the FBI detectives conducted their interview with Olson and his mother and went through the events of the night of the crime minute by minute, they realized that Gwaltney had actually left Olson’s house after dropping him a good half an hour earlier than he had testified having left, which gave him a good 20 to 40 minutes to assault Bishop and report the abandoned car.

The FBI then turned to the semen traces found in Gwaltney’s vehicle and in Bishop’s jeans. Before the DNA revolutionized the forensic methodology for matching semen, traces of seminal fluids were not of much help in crime investigation, and DNA breakthrough was still close to a decade in future. However, the FBI had found that Gwaltney had had a vasectomy and had also got it reversed a few years earlier. The FBI got in touch with Dr. Edward Blake, a forensic serologist, for the purpose of having the semen samples re-examined for forensic purposes. It was found that in some cases reversal of vasectomy caused the production of anti-sperm antibodies, which made the body react aggressively to the sperms entering the blood stream in the same way as it would react to the germs. But this is a rare phenomenon, which makes its occurrence quite an identifier. Gwaltney’s semen samples were sent to the laboratory, and it was found that not only were the anti-sperm antibodies present, but were also there in a high level of concentration. When the traces of semen from Gwaltney’s car and those found in Bishop’s clothes were matched with the semen samples taken from Gwaltney in terms of the presence of the anti-sperm antibodies, it was found that all three sets of seminal fluid carried the anti-sperm antibodies in pretty much identical concentration indicating that they came from the same human source. Since such evidence had never been produced before a jury before, Dr. Blake video-recorded the test for an informed reception by the jury.

After six months of investigation by the FBI, George Michael Gwaltney was arrested and was taken to a federal court for violating the civil rights of Robin Bishop. He pleaded not-guilty once again, but this time the FBI had a mountain of unimpeachable evidence against Gwaltney. The federal trial commenced on January 17, 1984 before the US District Court in Los Angeles, where Gwaltney was represented by public defender Carol Douglas, who chose to not have Gwaltney testify as Gwaltney had done in both of his earlier trials.

The FBI tore apart Gwaltney’s earlier defence brick by brick. The story that emerged was that Gwaltney had spotted Robin Bishop at the joint she got her coffee from on her way to Las Vegas, and chose to pursue her down the highway only to get her out of her car under the pretext of a traffic violation, handcuffed her, took her to a secluded spot and raped her. The testimonies of the women who had been sexually harassed by Gwaltney on similar pretexts was sufficient to prove that Gwaltney was no model police officer and was perfectly capable of doing that. When Deputy Sheriff Kauffman passed by, Gwaltney knew that he had been spotted on the access road away from the abandoned car with Bishop, and if Bishop chose to press charges, which she had perhaps threatened to do, Gwaltney could be in serious trouble because her case could find concrete support in Kauffman’s corroboration of her account. In that moment of nervousness, Gwaltney took the irrevocable step of shooting Robin dead to protect himself. Thereafter Gwaltney called the dispatch and reported a possible suicide. The autopsy and the pictures of the crime scene revealed that the head of the victim had been moved a little too vigorously for Gwaltney to have been merely checking for the pulse, as he had claimed. He was, in fact, looking for the lethal bullet because, being a police officer, he knew well that the ballistics tests on the bullet could connect him to the murder through the service weapon he had used to kill Bishop. Gwaltney went home and took the barrel of his service weapon, which was also the murder weapon, off the gun by using the tools he had at home, which left the metal marks on the tools and also left the marks of the tools on the gun frame, and the same were later matched by the FBI’s forensics laboratory.

The jury was shown the video made by Dr. Blake to demonstrate the distinctive behaviour of the antibodies in the sperm stains lifted from Gwaltney’s car and Bishop’s clothing, and the behaviour mirrored the behaviour of the antibodies in the semen samples taken from Gwaltney, thereby connecting Gwaltney to the crime. Dr. Blake testified that Gwaltney’s blood type was shared by 12% of the population, and of that 12% only 5% could have the anti-sperm antibodies present in Gwaltney’s semen, which meant that only a mere 0.6% of the total population could have the anti-sperm antibodies. Furthermore, statistically speaking, less than 1% of the population of the area could have had sex with Robin Bishop that night. Of course, the number could be smaller if one took into account the fact that Bishop had been raped within a few hours before her death. So by mathematical probability it was very improbable that someone other than Gwaltney had raped and killed Bishop. The overwhelming scientific evidence made a water-tight case against Gwaltney. The verdict was swift. Gwaltney was found guilty, and was awarded the maximum sentence under the law – a 90-year prison term, and a minimum 30 years of imprisonment before being eligible for parole. Twelve years later, Gwaltney died in prison of a heart attack.

Concluded

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