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You crossed Amy Bishop at your peril. At an International House of Pancakes in Peabody, Mass., in 2002, she punched a woman who snagged the last booster seat. When dogs barked too loudly or streetlights shone in her window or kids rode bikes too close to her home in Ipswich, Mass., or, later, Huntsville, Ala., she would scream at the offenders and call the cops. As a young biologist in Boston in 1995, she erupted with rage when told she wouldn't be the lead writer on a scientific paper. "She was screaming, she was shouting," recalls Dr. Hugo Gonzalez-Serratos, a leader of the project at a Boston hospital. "I never saw an explosion like that."

The red flags are all so obvious now. But tragically, no one connected the dots until it was too late. Humiliated after being denied tenure at the University of Alabama in Huntsville last March and facing possible unemployment, Bishop, 45—a biology professor and Harvard Ph.D. who trumpeted her Ivy League pedigree—opened fire at a biology faculty meeting on Feb. 12 with a 9mm pistol, killing three colleagues and wounding three others. (Bishop, charged with capital murder and attempted murder, hasn't entered a plea, but her court-appointed attorney Roy Miller says "she's whacko" and will request a psychiatric evaluation.) Since the shootings, disturbing details have emerged about Bishop's life—including the fatal shooting of her brother Seth when she was 21 (see box), and her possible role in a 1993 pipe-bomb incident—that paint a portrait of a woman seething over imagined slights and intent on exacting revenge. "My feeling," says chemical engineering professor Krishnan Chittur, "is that sooner or later she would have snapped even if she'd had tenure."

Still, it was her failed tenure battle that seemed to push her over the edge. As her family's prime breadwinner—her husband, Jim Anderson, 45, stayed home to take care of their four kids, ages 8 to 18—the Braintree, Mass., native sent letters and harangued colleagues in her attempt to get the university to reverse the tenure denial that would spell the end of her $63,000-a-year job come June. (A university spokesman says only that Bishop's work was "not sufficient"; Lynn Boyd, an assistant professor of biology, says Bishop's publication record and mentoring of students fell short.) For Bishop, says her father-in-law Jimmy, losing tenure "was the end of the world."

Standing by Bishop is Anderson, her husband of 21 years. He met her at a science-fiction convention while they were undergraduates at Northeastern University. "They were hardcore Trekkies," says Rob Dinsmoor, a former member of a writing group Bishop attended. "They were a really adorable nerd couple." Anderson told reporters he and Bishop had recently visited a shooting range but now tells PEOPLE, "There was never any fascination with guns." He also dismissed the pipe-bomb incident. He and Bishop were investigated but never charged after a Harvard supervisor, who criticized her work, discovered the bomb. "It was five years of craziness," he says of the inquiry.

Top of mind for both Bishop—who, her lawyer says, doesn't recall the shooting—and Anderson are their kids, the oldest of whom is a sophomore biology student at the university. Yet now Bishop, who could face the death penalty, might never again see her family as a free woman—a bitter pill for someone who saw herself as having unlimited potential. "I feel only sorry about what she's done with her life and what she's done to all those people," says Lenny Cavallaro, who worked with Bishop on a novel. "She has destroyed herself and so many others."

  • Contributors:
  • Judy Rakowsky/Braintree,
  • Jeff Truesdell/Huntsville,
  • Eileen Finan/Huntsville.