Teen Suicide Pilot Wanted 'Publicity'

Charles Bishop was no Osama bin Laden supporter, but a young man striving for fame, says the teenage suicide pilot's best friend. Emerson Favreau, a 10th-grader at the East Lake High School, told NEWSWEEK that two days before Bishop flew a stolen plane into a Tampa high-rise, he e-mailed his friend to tell him to watch for him on the news. "I don't think he supported bin Laden at all," says Favreau. "He wrote a journalism paper about how he felt sorry for all the people who were killed [on Sept. 11] and how he hated bin Laden. I think he wrote that in the [suicide] note just to get publicity."

Favreau's comments came as investigators tried to make sense of the unanswered questions left by the 15-year-old who crashed a light plane into the 28th floor of the Bank of America Plaza on Saturday evening. Rescue workers found a note in his pocket expressing support for bin Laden and the hijackers who brought down the World Trade Center.

According to Favreau, there was nothing to indicate that his friend was depressed, much less suicidal. "He seemed perfectly happy. He was fine. He seemed to like his family. I never heard him say anything bad about his mom." Bishop also talked about wanting to work as a pilot in two years. "Usually if someone is going to kill himself he wouldn't talk about the future," says Favreau. Nor did Favreau take Bishop's e-mail about being on the news seriously. Bishop, he said, had said similar things before--and then claimed he was joking. Once he told Favreau to watch Bay News 9, a local 24-hour news channel, because the local news station had filmed him flying his plane past the runway. It wasn't true, and the next day, Favreau says, Bishop laughed about it.

Bishop's teachers, too, say they saw nothing to indicate that the honor student was troubled. "I just don't think you would have been able to spot it in Charles," says Andre Panarelli, Bishop's honors English teacher. Yet some acquaintances say they did notice something amiss about the teen. "He wasn't rude or anything. He just seemed kind of off," says a 15-year-old acquaintance who was introduced to Bishop at a Dairy Queen several weeks ago. "It was just a vibe."

Though the FBI continues to investigate Bishop's suicide flight, so far there appears to be no connection to the Sept. 11 attacks. "According to the note, Bishop clearly stated that he has acted alone without any help from anyone else," says Tampa Police Chief Benny Holder.

Still, the similarities to the events of Sept. 11 were enough to send shockwaves through Tampa. The crisis began around 5 p.m. Saturday when Bishop stole a plane at a flight school where he was taking lessons. Bishop's grandmother, Karen Johnson, told local police that she didn't notice anything unusual about her grandson during dinner or when she dropped him off for flight lessons at the St. Petersburg-Clearwater Airport. Bishop had been taking his lessons at National Aviation Holdings Inc. for about 10 months, and had logged about six hours of flight time with an instructor.

The ninth-grader was obsessed with the flying, doing chores at the flight school in exchange for flight time. When he arrived at the airport for his lesson on Saturday, his instructor gave him the plane keys and asked him to do the routine preflight inspection. But instead of inspecting the plane, Bishop started it up and flew off.

The instructor immediately called the air-traffic control tower, which in turn notified MacDill Air Force, just across the bay. A Coast Guard helicopter on a routine patrol intercepted the Cessna 172R as it flew into MacDill air space and came within 1,000 feet of a commercial airliner. A Coast Guard flight crewman opened the helicopter door, lay down and signaled with his hands and arms that Bishop must land at a small Tampa airport. Instead, Bishop's plane dropped and flew straight into a 42-story Bank of America building lining the waterfront in downtown Tampa. There were only about 40 people inside the building, and no one else was injured.

Bishop and his mother, Julia Bishop, live in East Lake, a modern suburb across the Bay from Tampa. Not much is known about the teen, who investigators and some fellow students tagged a loner and who teachers say was kind and sweet.

Bishop, born in Massachusetts, relocated frequently with his mother, a freelance graphic artist. Bishop's parents split up when he was only a year old, and Julia Bishop told police she didn't know where her ex-husband lives. Before moving to Tampa in 1998, the Bishop mother and son spent two years in the Westchase area of Atlanta from 1996 to 1998.

Bishop attended a private school, Dunedin Academy, during his first year in East Lake. Headmaster Dale Porter remembers the boy fondly, describing him as a bright student who played basketball and tag football and dressed preppy even on casual days. "He was a very nice kid," Porter recalls. "I don't know what went wrong with him. He was an excellent student and everybody liked him. I can only think that maybe his mind snapped or something. Maybe he was an obsessive personality and got caught up in Sept. 11 on the Internet and got brain washed."

Porter says he spoke with Bishop on a daily basis while he attended the private school. He said Bishop talked of wanting to be a pilot, his dogs, and his love of animals. Bishop switched to East Lake High School the next year as a ninth grader. Porter says Bishop's mother wrote him a note saying the move was due to a family illness. Bishop told one of his teachers it was a transportation issue. East Lake was closer to his home. Bishop's classes were larger at his new school, but his grades and enthusiasm appeared consistent. Bishop's journalism teacher, Gabriella Terry, says that Bishop actively participated in class discussions and voiced his opposition to bin Laden strongly following Sept. 11. "He was very upset by the very tragic events," Terry says. "He was actually angered."

Bishop also mentioned his love of flying and told Terry that "he wanted to join the U.S. Air Force so things like this wouldn't happen again. He said he wanted to do something good for the country." Terry, like Bishop's other teachers, says she's amazed by the turn of events. "He was a good boy. He was one of two students who gave me a Christmas present--a coffee mug and coffee."

What happened to Bishop to make him apparently change his attitude toward bin Laden is something that the FBI hopes may be uncovered in Bishop's computer. Greg Tita, a spokesman for the Pinellas County Sheriff's office, says investigators know that Bishop used e-mail frequently. Authorities are exploring whether Bishop conversed in chat rooms about terrorist activities.

Favreau says he was one of Bishop's e-mail buddies and says that they were best friends. The pair became close friends after Sept. 11, when they learned of each other's desire to fly airplanes. Bishop was taking flying lessons. Favreau, who wasn't, experienced flying vicariously through Bishop's tales. The two teens had two classes together, talked and e-mailed each other constantly. Now Favreau says he wonders whether his friend genuinely wanted to die, or just wanted the attention. "He's a pretty good flyer. That's why from the beginning I knew he did it intentionally."