The Short Family Murders

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Jennifer Short

Parents, Michael (50) and Mary (36) Short, of Bassett, Virginia were found dead on Thursday, August 15, 2002.  They had both been cleanly shot in the head and left in separate locations of their home: Michael, on a couch, in the attached garage and Mary in the bedroom.  The home phone line to the Short house had been cut. And, most importantly, their missing 9-year-old daughter, Jennifer was quickly determined to be missing.

Tragically, after nationwide media coverage, an Amber Alert, and around a month of intensive searching, Jennifer Short’s remains were found by a man’s dogs in the neighboring state of North Carolina.  She, too, had been shot in the head, and then appeared to have been dumped in Rockingham County, around 50 miles south of the Short Family home.

No one has ever been arrested for the murders of the entire Short family.  Why would such a seemingly normal family have been murdered in such cold blood- attacked, calculatedly, in the night or early morning with the home phone lines cut, and then shot execution style?  How did the murderer leave no evidence behind whatsoever?  And, why was Jennifer removed from the house?  Authorities have waffled between theories, unsure of whether the killer’s primary motive was the abduction of Jennifer or the murder her parents.


TIMELINE

August 15, 2002:

Michael and Mary Short are found dead in their home, which is described as “a red brick home surrounded by motels and gas stations on U.S. 220, a busy north-south highway.”  They were discovered by one of Michael’s employees who dropped by and saw Michael’s body in the enclosed carport.  (Michael and Mary owned a mobile home moving business to support their family.)

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The Short Family: Mary, Jennifer, and Michael

An Amber Alert is issued for 9-year-old Jennifer. It was later reported that, “Jennifer’s bed was empty, the sheets pulled back.”

August 19, 2002:

Police reveal that they have removed 64 items from the Short home during their investigation, including “two .22-caliber shell casings found near the Shorts’ bodies.”

August 22, 2002:

A funeral is held for Michael and Mary Short.

September 4, 2002:

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Jennifer and Michael Short

Michael Short’s remains are exhumed for “forensic purposes.”  The exhumation fueled heavy speculation that police were attempting to determine the paternity of Jennifer Short; however, police denied these claims by claiming the exhumation was to obtain “hair samples that had not been taken during an autopsy.”

Henry County, Virginia, Sheriff H. Frank Cassell incited further communal rumors by declaring that though police knew the paternity of Jennifer Short, “That is one of the last things [they] would release.”

 

September 19, 2002:

Police request information from Mary Short’s former co-workers, and release old photos of her in an attempt to possibly “[jar] someone’s memory of her.”  Authorities specifically mentioned “an incident that occurred in 1992 or 1993, when a man apparently harassed Mary Short at the Pluma plant” where she worked and how this individual was “asked to leave the parking lot of the Pluma plant in Bowles Industrial Park on several occasions.”

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An older photo of Mary Short

September 26, 2002:

Remains are found about 50 miles away from the Short family home in Rockingham County, NC by a man’s dogs.

October 4, 2002:

The remains are confirmed to be Jennifer Short.  She had also been shot in the head.


THE MAN IN THE TRUCK

It was relayed to authorities that an unknown male had been parked along U.S. Highway 220 near the Short home during the early morning hours of August 15, 2002.  The FBI released a memo seeking information and describing this individual as “having a ‘weathered’ complexion and an age consistent with someone in his forties.”  short_j2age_enhanced_sketch

The man was reported to have been in a “1998-2002, white, single-cab, two-ton flatbed stake body truck with wooden rails.” The truck, shown below, was considered by many to be an unusual vehicle to drive to a premeditated double homicide and child abduction.

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A sketch of the truck, along with a picture of a similar-looking truck cab

Authorities were never able to identify the man or find a vehicle like this in the immediate area. If this man wasn’t the murderer, could he have potentially witnessed anything that may have provided vital information?  And, if this individual was the murderer, does the absence of any community recognition indicate that he was from out of town?


THEORIES ABOUND

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Garrison S. Bowman

Initially, authorities showed interest in Garrison S. Bowman, a 60-year-old man from Mayodan, NC who had allegedly had a dispute with Michael Short.  According to Bowman’s landlord, Bowman had complained that “he had paid a man in Virginia to move his mobile home and that if [the man] didn’t move it or return his money, ‘he would have to kill him.’”  Bowman also lived near where Jennifer’s body was found and moved to Canada a day after the murders.

Bowman had allegedly pulled a gun on the landlord on the day of the murders and installed a “false floor” in his van.  It was also reported that Bowman’s “landlord had found a Virginia map in the house Mr. Bowman rented that was marked with the location of the Shorts’ house.” However, it is difficult to ascertain whether Bowman could have been potentially culpable for the murders, or if the allegations were the product of a dispute between a landlord and a tenant, as almost all of the circumstantial evidence against Bowman was provided by his landlord.

Garrison S. Bowman maintained that he had never met Michael, or any of the Shorts, and though his home and possessions were extensively searched, police did not find solid evidence linking him to either the murders or the family.  In 2007, the FBI confirmed that Bowman was no longer considered a suspect.

Another popular theory, and one that police were also initially pursuing was whether the unidentified stalker, who was reported by co-workers to have harassed Mary Short during her 20’s at the Pluma Factory, thought he was the biological father of Jennifer Short.  This theory seemed to be eliminated as a focus by authorities after Jennifer’s body was discovered.

After Jennifer’s remains were recovered, Sheriff H. Frank Cassell confirmed that Michael Short was the biological father of Jennifer Short.  Cassell apologized to the relatives of the Shorts, and explained that authorities did not publicly confirm her paternity because they “were afraid [her abductor] would dispose of her” if the motive was due to mistaken parentage.  He went on to elaborate the following:

“We did what we did. I would risk anything to save a little girl’s life. But she’s gone now, and she’s safe now. No evil can befall her.” 

However, in a seemingly unrelated twist, Sheriff H. Frank Cassell would plea guilty in 2007, just five years later, to “knowingly and willfully [making] a false material statement and representation to a Federal Bureau of Investigations special agent” in relation to corruption charges spanning back as far as 1998.  Following a five year DEA investigation, “Cassell and 12 of his deputies were charged with dealing crack-cocaine, marijuana, and ketamine” and he was determined to have been an integral part of the “drug distribution and money laundering ring” in Henry County, VA.  The entire affair was described as an “Appalachian version of an HBO drama” by The Washington Post, and “disgraceful corruption” by the prosecutor in the case.

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Sheriff H. Frank Cassell during a news conference regarding the Short Family

Could the depth of police corruption in Henry County, VA during the time of the Short murders have had anything to do with the mystery surrounding these deaths?  One of the recurring themes throughout the corruption trials was the quickness with which the sheriff, and other deputies, agreed to protect criminals (who they considered friends) from the FBI and further investigation– could someone in the department have had something to do with this crime?  Is this why legitimate evidence was never found and the crime went completely unsolved?  At the very least, did the rampant corruption throughout the police department facilitate a flawed and ineffective investigation?

Some of the relatives of the Shorts were critical of the police during the investigation in 2003.  Michael Short’s uncle lamented to news reporter that “he believes police might have destroyed crucial evidence by allowing too many people in and around the Shorts’ house after the bodies were found.”


 

A Family Gone, But Not Forgotten

Jennifer ShortThe Shorts were remembered as “as a private family that enjoyed being together.”  Michael was described as caring and helpful to others, and a “happy go lucky” trickster who would disguise his voice in phone calls to his sister.  He and his daughter were especially close, and friends remembered him as quick to take time off of work to watch his daughter’s softball games.

Jennifer was “shy and polite” and she “stuck close to her parents when she wasn’t in school or playing softball on a local parks and recreation team.” Jennifer was described by a neighbor who witnessed her, the night before the murders, buying candy with her father in a gas station as a “bottle of joy.”

Valerie Spradlin, who knew the family for ten years, echoed community sentiments when she recounted the following:

“They were just plain, ordinary people. I don’t know why anyone would want to kill them.”

Though police are still accepting information related to the murders, it seems as though the search for the killer has gone completely cold.  The community of Henry County was especially effected by the killings.  A resident of the area recalled that, during the search for Jennifer, “Everywhere I went through Martinsville, I heard people worrying and wondering about where Jennifer was and if she was still alive.”  The concern for Jennifer’s safe return was described as “[transcending] the woes of a county suffering from thousands of layoffs and divisive political squabbles.”

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Reverend Morris Fleischer, who conducted a memorial service for the family in 2003, described the murders accordingly:

“The case is open. . . . It’s still an infected wound that can’t heal.”

If you have any information regarding the murders of Michael, Mary, and Jennifer Short, please contact the FBI Tip Line at 1-800-225-5324 or submit an online tip.

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