by Robert A. Waters
On September 25, 2002, Jennifer Short’s sad remains were located beside a stream in Rockingham County, North Carolina. After twelve years, lawmen are still stumped: was her killer someone known to the family, a hit-man, or a pedophile? Or was there some vast conspiracy surrounding the non-descript family?
M. S. Mobile Home Movers operated out of Henry County, Virginia, in the rural community of Oak Level. The “M. S.” stood for Michael Short. His wife, Mary, helped run the business from their home. By all accounts, Michael and Mary scraped out a meager living. The light of their life was a daughter, nine-year-old Jennifer.
At 9:00 a.m., on August 15, 2002, an employee arrived at the Short home and discovered Michael lying dead on a couch inside an attached garage. Investigators soon found Mary Short lifeless in her bed. Each victim had been shot in the head. Jennifer was nowhere to be seen.
After six weeks, Jennifer’s remains were discovered fifty miles from her home. An autopsy revealed that the nine-year-old’s death was caused by a gunshot wound to the head, just like her parents. Her body was too decomposed for lawmen to tell if she’d been sexually assaulted.
An FBI summary of the case reported that “Mary was described as a shy, neat and extremely focused individual, who was actively involved in the family business. Jennifer appeared to be a happy little girl experiencing a normal childhood. She was an excellent student and actively involved in organized sports.”
I noticed that the FBI report contained no description of Michael Short’s characteristics.
That’s a bare-bones synopsis of what has been published about the mysterious murders of the Short family. For more than a decade, the killer (or killers) has walked free. Because of the on-going investigation, little information has been released to the public.
In this blog, I’ll explore several possible explanations for why the family was targeted. (Admittedly, much of this is speculation and certainly doesn’t cover the full spectrum of what may have happened.)
Who could have wanted Michael, Mary, and Jennifer Short dead?
(1) Business associate or employee. Moving mobile homes is a tough way to make a living. Michael Short hired laborers when he needed to move a trailer, and it is thought that he paid them in cash. This could have been dangerous. Some day laborers have criminal backgrounds, addictions, and mental illnesses. The employee who found the bodies was thoroughly investigated as a suspect. It’s likely that he’s been eliminated since he was never charged. Did a worker or former worker snap and murder the entire family? If so, why take Jennifer out of the home and kill her fifty miles away? No evidence has been presented to the public to confirm that a business associate or employee murdered the family.
(2) Neighbor/Friend/Acquaintance. Were the murders due to a grudge someone held against the family, or one of its members? Since we can never really know our neighbors, it’s certainly possible. However, there has been no indication that lawmen suspect a neighbor or friend.
(3) Gary “Storm” Bowman. The first and only known suspect was a retired carpenter from Mayodan, North Carolina. The FBI became suspicious when agents discovered that Gary Bowman had moved to Canada the day after Michael and Mary were killed. Later, Bowman’s landlord claimed to have heard Bowman threaten to “kill a mobile home mover in Virginia.” Then, according to news reports, two men stated that they saw Bowman carrying a young girl from the Short home on the night of the murders. Bowman was deported from Canada and held in custody (without being charged) for a month. Lawmen processed hundreds of items from the home of their suspect in an attempt to link him to the crime, but were unsuccessful in their efforts. Then, Timothy Fennon Sampson and Jerry Riley Mills were indicted for lying to federal officials. Court documents alleged that they had made up the story of Bowman carrying a girl from the Short home in order to obtain the reward money. Eventually, Bowman was released. He has never been officially cleared, but it seems investigators moved on to other leads.
(4) The man in the truck. A witness reported seeing an unusual truck parked near the Short residence on the night of the murder. (See photo above.) It was described as being a 1998-2002 white single-cab flat-bed with wooden rails. The vehicle resembled a 4500 Series International Truck. The man driving it had a “weathered expression,” according to the FBI. The truck should have been easy to find, but lawmen never located it.
(5) Conspiracy of cops? In 2006, four years after the Short family murders, the sheriff of Henry County, Virginia and 12 of his deputies were arrested for drug trafficking. Federal prosecutors called Sheriff Harold Cassell “corrupt to the core.” The lawmen were accused of filling out paperwork attesting that they had destroyed confiscated drugs, but then sold the marijuana, cocaine, and ketamine to dope dealers in the area. Local deputies were also accused of laundering money. Many of the lawmen, including Sheriff Cassell, ended up serving prison terms. Did Federal investigators ever determine whether the corrupt department had any hand in the Short family murders? In his myriad travels across the area, could Michael Short have seen suspicious activity and reported it to police? Could he and his entire family have been eliminated to cover up the sheriff department’s criminal enterprises? Or was Michael Short himself involved in the drug trade in some way? These questions need to be answered.
(6) The Joseph E. Duncan scenario. One of the most pressing questions of this case is why Jennifer was taken from the residence and dumped fifty miles away. It’s not too far-fetched to envision a sexual predator killing Michael and Mary to get to Jennifer. It’s happened before. In 2005, serial killer Joseph E. Duncan stalked a Coeur d’Alene, Idaho family before breaking into their home and murdering Mark McKenzie, his girlfriend, Brenda Groene, and her son, Slade Groene. Duncan then kidnapped pre-teens Dylan and Shasta Groene for the purpose of raping them. The sadistic psychopath tortured his victims for more than a month before shot-gunning Dylan to death. Shasta survived and was eventually rescued. Could a similar crime have occurred in Virginia?
Somewhere, one or more killers are walking free.
For more information, check out the FBI summary of the case: http://www.fbi.gov/wanted/seeking-info/short-case-information/view
If you know anything about this case, please call the FBI at 1-800-225-5324.