In February 2019, a house on U.S. 220 right outside of Bassett, Virginia, burned to the ground. It’s not every day that an entire home burns to a crisp. It’s even rarer that the home that burned down was the very same home that had been the scene of an unsolved double homicide and kidnapping in 2002.
Although the home was vacant when it caught on fire in 2019, it was nonetheless very suspicious. What exactly happened here? Was someone trying to destroy evidence? Did the perpetrator of the original 2002 crime return to mock the community? Was this possibly a hit gone wrong? It’s not like the neighborhood could forget the day they heard about Michael and Mary Short being killed and their 9-year-old daughter Jennifer going missing.
50-year-old Michael and 36-year-old Mary were found dead on August 15, 2002. They were both shot in the head and left in separate spots in their home. Michael was on a couch in the garage, and Mary was in the bedroom. The phone line to the house had been cut. Most importantly, their 9-year-old daughter Jennifer, was nowhere to be found.
On August 14, 2002, at 11 p.m., the Shorts were seen buying a late dinner at a local Burger King. Michael, who ran a mobile home moving business, was known in the area. But all in all, the three-membered private family tended to keep to themselves.
The nine-year-old was described by a neighbor who saw her and her father buying candy in a gas station. Jennifer was a “bottle of joy,” the neighbor recalled. Valerie Spradlin, who knew the family for over ten years, recounted: “They were just plain, ordinary people. I don’t know why anyone would want to kill them.”
“You have an entire family, and nothing appears to be wrong,” said Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry. “A normal life, and they’re wiped out.” The small family was apparently preparing to move in August of that year to South Carolina.
They may have been quiet, but no one had a bad word to say about them, which only makes the entire story even more baffling. Who would want to take out such a seemingly pleasant family? It begs the question: Were the Shorts hiding something?
The following morning, on August 15, one of Michael’s employees drove by their ranch-style home on the U.S. 220 and pulled into their driveway. The garage door was already open, so he headed over to say good morning to whoever was in there. But he didn’t find Michael setting up as he normally would on a weekday morning…
Well, this employee found Michael; he just wasn’t alive. Michael was lying lifeless on a couch with a clean gunshot wound in his head. Once the authorities arrived, they discovered Mary’s body in their bedroom. The “red brick home surrounded by motels and gas stations on U.S. 220, a busy north-south highway” was now the scene of a tragic crime.
It was also the last place the little girl was seen alive. Immediately, an Amber Alert was issued for Jennifer. The most prevailing question now was, where was Jennifer? She wasn’t in the home; her bed was empty, and the sheets were pulled back.
When Lt. Curtis Spence got to the house, he saw that the garage had been left open. When he entered, he said that it looked as if Michael had been shot while sleeping. He then found Mary face down on their bed. Here, too, Spence noted that there was no sign of a struggle.
Most disturbing was Jennifer’s bedroom. With her sheets pulled back, it seemed as though she had gotten out of bed. But where did she go? Who took her? And did she know the killer? There were too many unanswered questions.
Not long after the incident, the police revealed that they removed 64 items from the home during their investigation, including “two .22-caliber shell casings found near the Shorts’ bodies.” A few days later, Michael and Mary Short’s funeral was held.
Investigators filmed the church service in case of any odd behavior, but no red flags were noted. Although the parents’ murders were unexplained, the most pressing thing was finding Jennifer. A large group of professionals and volunteers started searching the surroundings as soon as the Amber Alert was issued.
Everyone’s hope was that the young girl ran off willingly, albeit scared, into the night. The problem was that on such a main road, the area around the home stretched out into the vast Virginia wilderness. There was every chance she was far enough away not to have seen the police arrive.
Meanwhile, Michael’s body was exhumed for “forensic purposes.” Many people saw this move as investigators’ attempt at determining Jennifer’s paternity. But the police denied these claims – they stated that the exhumation was to obtain “hair samples that had not been taken during an autopsy.”
Sheriff H. Frank Cassell (of Henry County, Virginia) created more rumors when he declared that even though the police know Jennifer’s paternity, “That is one of the last things they would release.” The police were also looking into Mary, speaking to her former co-workers.
The police even released old photos of Mary, which could possibly “jar someone’s memory of her.” They specifically mentioned “an incident that occurred in 1992 or 1993, when a man apparently harassed Mary Short at the Pluma plant,” which is where she worked.
In fact, the man was asked to leave the parking lot in Bowles Industrial Park “on several occasions.” This predated incident initiated a popular theory – one that the police initially pursued – that this unidentified stalker was Jennifer Short’s biological father.
This theory was later eliminated after Jennifer’s body was discovered…
For 41 days, the Shorts’ relatives waited agonizingly for the news they dreaded would come. And then it did: On September 26, 2002, human remains were found in Rockingham County, NC, about 50 miles away from the Short family home.
The remains, found by a man’s dogs, were later confirmed to be Jennifer’s. Dreadfully, she was also shot in the head. The girl had been shot and then tossed over a bridge into the creek below. Since it had been well over a month since she died, wild animals had scattered parts of the skeleton.
The search team went so far as to drain the creek, but they didn’t succeed in finding every part of the girl’s body. It was unclear if she had been sexually assaulted. The bridge she was tossed from in Rockingham County has since been renamed in her memory, and people still leave flowers and gifts in her honor.
Since no suspect had been named by that point, the family’s loved ones were left to mourn the Shorts without any closure – no answers. Authorities were wavering between theories, unsure of what the killer’s motive was. After her remains were recovered, Sheriff H. Frank Cassell publicly confirmed that Michael was indeed Jennifer’s biological father.
Cassell made a public apology to Short’s relatives for the now-squashed theory. Cassell explained that authorities didn’t confirm her paternity because they “were afraid her abductor would dispose of her” if the motive was due to mistaken parentage.
“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,” Cassell stated.
The only piece of physical evidence found at the scene was one .22 shell found in each parent’s body. The fact that the phone line was cut indicates that it wasn’t just a chance robbery gone wrong.
The question will always remain: Did police corruption hinder the investigation? Or were the Shorts mixed up in the above-mentioned illegal activities, only to be erased from history by some or all of the corrupt deputies? But the case was going cold…
A man by the name of Garrison S. Bowman became a likely suspect when the police looked into the 60-year-old from Mayodan, NC, who had a dispute with Michael Short. Michael’s allegedly disgruntled customer became a suspect when the police learned that he had leased a mobile home and was living near to where Jennifer’s body was found.
According to Bowman’s landlord, Bowman had threatened Michael’s life after a home-moving deal gone bad. Bowman had a map of U.S. 220 with the Short’s home marked on it.
According to the landlord, Bowman complained that “he had paid a man in Virginia to move his mobile home and that if he didn’t move it or return his money, ‘he would have to kill him.’” Even more suspicious, Bowman moved to Canada a day after the murders. He was then extradited back to America on unrelated charges (he didn’t declare a DUI conviction).
Despite his suspicious behavior, he was never charged. It was also alleged that Bowman pulled a gun on his landlord on the day of the murders and even installed a “false floor” in his van. But it’s important to note that all circumstantial evidence against Bowman was provided by this unnamed landlord.
As for Bowman, he insisted that he never met Michael Short. Bowman’s mobile home and possessions were searched extensively, and police didn’t find any solid evidence linking him to the murders or the family. By 2007, the FBI confirmed that Bowman was no longer a suspect.
A few years later, another suspect was put on the list. By 2009, the FBI got their hands on a sketch of a man and his truck, which were seen on U.S. 220 near the Short home on the day of the murders. It was reported that this unknown man had been parked there, along the highway, on the early morning of August 15, 2002.
The FBI released the sketch of the man along with a memo seeking information and describing him as “having a ‘weathered’ complexion and an age consistent with someone in his forties.” The mysterious man was reported to have been in a “1998-2002, white, single-cab, two-ton flatbed stake body truck with wooden rails.”
Many people who saw the sketch of the truck said it was an unusual vehicle for driving to a premeditated double homicide and child abduction. The authorities were never able to identify the man or find his truck.
If this man wasn’t the killer, could he have witnessed something that may have provided vital information? And, if he was the murderer, does it mean he was from out of town? Since the population of the area was just a few thousand, it’s unlikely that this man was a local as he wasn’t identified by anyone.
By all accounts, the Shorts had no real enemies and didn’t seem to owe any debts. Police were unable to find anyone with the desire to destroy this quiet family. It led the FBI to look in one direction: Jennifer.
The way the FBI saw it, the fact that the parents were killed so mechanically implies that revenge was not a motive – they were simply an obstacle that needed to be removed. But why the Shorts? It’s (unfortunately) natural to wonder if a pedophile was responsible for the crimes, but one problem with such a theory is that these individuals rarely engage with adults in their hunt for children.
Several years after the murders, a dark cloud grew over the investigation with questions of potential police corruption. Although it didn’t necessarily involve this case directly, in 2006, the county sheriff and 12 deputies were being investigated by the FBI.
They were found guilty of dealing drugs and money laundering. Remember Sheriff Cassell? Well, he ended up pleading guilty to “knowingly and willfully [making] a false material statement and representation to a Federal Bureau of Investigations special agent.”
He was being charged with corruption 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.” He was also confirmed to have been an integral part of the “drug distribution and money laundering ring” in Henry County, VA.
The Washington Post described the whole ordeal as an “Appalachian version of an HBO drama” marred by “disgraceful corruption.” So, did these crooked cops have anything to do with the mystery surrounding the Shorts’ deaths?
One recurring theme throughout those corruption trials was the swiftness with which the sheriff and the deputies agreed to protect criminals (their “friends”) from the FBI. Does this mean that one of them was involved and the rest kept it hush-hush? Maybe this is why legitimate evidence was never found. At the very least, corruption could have potentially facilitated a flawed and ineffective investigation.
Some of the Shorts’ relatives were critical of the police during the investigation in 2003. Michael’s uncle cried to news reporters, claiming 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.”
It should be stated that Lt. Curtis Spence, who was on the case from the beginning, was not involved in any of the wrongdoings. Now, you may have forgotten by this point, but let me remind you that the Short home was burned down in 2019 in mysterious circumstances.
The home was fully engulfed in flames when firefighters arrived at the scene. It took several hours to put it out. Officials said at the time that there was no way of saying if the fire was suspicious. Initially, they made no connection between the murders and the fire.
The fire in February “brought back a lot of memories of what happened,” said Michael’s sister, Carolyn Short. “They killed her and threw her out in the woods like a piece of trash, and she was just a child,” said Linda Sink, who was married to Jennifer’s older half-brother (from Michael’s previous relationship) when the murders happened.
Linda and Carolyn can’t help but wonder what Jennifer would have been like today if she were alive (she would be in her late 20s). “I think about that every day,” said Carolyn. “I wonder if she would have a boyfriend. Would she be married?”
Carolyn remembers her niece being a true combination of her parents. The Shorts were described as “a private family that enjoyed being together.” Michael was caring and helpful to others – a “happy go lucky” trickster who would have fun disguising his voice in phone calls to his sister.
The father and daughter were especially close – he would take time off of work to watch Jennifer’s softball games. She was described as a “shy and polite” girl who “stuck close to her parents when she wasn’t in school or playing softball on a local parks and recreation team.”
Linda and Carolyn say they think of the case often, especially in August on the anniversary of the murders when a memorial bike ride is held. “Every time I go to that bike ride, I wonder if that person is out there? I’m looking around thinking, could that person be here?” Linda said.
Once the fire was reported, they felt a renewed suspicion. “How does a house catch on fire? We didn’t have a storm. There was no electricity in the house for months,” Carolyn remarked. She said it’s unsettling to drive by there and see an empty lot where her brother’s home once sat.
Carolyn also pointed out that they “cleaned it up quickly,” which to her means that they’re probably trying to hide something. Both women hope clues to the crime haven’t yet been wiped away. They, like everyone else, desperately want the whole story. “I want to know. Definitely want to know,” Linda said. “It would be nice to know why.”
An old neighbor of the Shorts, Ray Reynolds, also said the fire brought back a flood of memories. “For years, they were my neighbors; I’d see the little girl every evening when I came home from work,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds is the one who organizes the annual memorial ride in their honor. He said the rides’ attendance has gone down over the years, and he hopes it will pick back up. “I just thought that this is so much history that’s gone, and a lot of people are not going to realize what that house stood for,” he said.
“We lost something in this community that everybody knows; that’s where the Short family lived.” The Reverend who conducted the memorial service for the family in 2003 put it aptly: “The case is open. It’s still an infected wound that can’t heal.”
The police are still accepting information related to the murders, but it looks as though the search for the killer has gone completely cold. According to darkideas.net, there might be another potential suspect that the police never reported looking into…
Joseph Edward Duncan III was the culprit in the Groene family murders that took place in 2005 in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. There, too, a little girl was taken. Shasta Groene was eight when Duncan entered her home with a shotgun.
After killing the parents and the eldest brother, Shasta and her other brother, Dylan, were abducted. Eventually, Duncan shot the boy in the head. Shasta was spared, and one day Duncan took her to a diner, where a waitress recognized the girl and called the police. In the years following his arrest, Duncan was linked to more crimes and even confessed to at least two other murders.
He had already served time for rape in the 1990s, but between 2002 and 2005, he was a free man. He has not been linked to Virginia, but he did have places to stay in Minnesota and North Dakota, which are between Coeur d’Alene, Idaho and Bassett, Virginia.
What also stands out is a possible connection between Duncan and the Shorts’ murders is that the houses are pretty similar. Also, when he was caught with Shasta, he was pictured wearing a cap similar to the composite sketch in the Short case.
Could he have been the one who killed the Shorts? I guess we’ll never know…