On August 15, 2002, the bodies of Michael Short and his wife Mary were found, shot “execution-style” while they slept. Of their 9-year-old daughter Jennifer, there was no sign. The discovery helped to kick off the largest criminal investigation the county had ever seen—and yet the case remains unsolved to this day.
On that August morning more than 20 years ago, it was one of Michael Short’s employees who found the bodies. Chris Thompson was also one of the last people to see the Shorts alive. The night before, he had been working with Michael on a vehicle until late, and that morning he was supposed to meet him just before 9 a.m. to head to nearby Christiansburg to pick up a truck for the mobile home moving business that Michael owned and operated.
When he arrived at the house, Chris Thompson found Michael where he expected to find him—on a couch in the garage, where he often slept so that his snoring wouldn’t bother his wife. That morning, however, Michael wasn’t sleeping. The garage door was open, and Michael had been shot once in the head by a small-caliber gun.
Mary’s body was found inside the house. She, too, had been shot in the head with the same gun, lying in her bed. Evidence suggested that both had been killed in their sleep, without ever knowing that their executioner was there. The most chilling discovery wasn’t a body at all—but rather, the absence of one.
The couple’s 9-year-old daughter was nowhere to be found.
The search for 9-year-old Jennifer Short
Chris called the police, who searched the house for two weeks, picking up hundreds of pieces of evidence. At the same time, a massive sweep was underway to try to find Jennifer Short, who authorities hoped had merely escaped the slaying on her own and gotten lost in the surrounding woods. Unfortunately, that did not prove to be the case. Despite volunteers, dogs, ATVs, Amber Alerts, and even a helicopter, as well as a search perimeter that stretched for hundreds of miles, there was no sign of Jennifer Short.
Jennifer's body was finally found
Some six weeks later and about 35 miles south of the Shorts’ home in Oak Level, Virginia, two dogs belonging to Eddie Albert turned up what he thought was simply a piece of a wig. It wasn’t until two days later, when the dogs brought him another grisly trophy, a piece of a skull, that Albert would phone the police.
From his home, authorities began a sweep of the surrounding area, finding teeth and bone fragments, as well as part of a small ribcage dumped under a nearby bridge and along a rural road. Due to the amount of time that had passed and the heavy decomposition of the body, the police were unable to determine much about what had happened to Jennifer Short after her abduction, but one thing was clear from the skull fragments they recovered: she had been killed the same way her parents had, with a single shot to the head from a small-caliber weapon.
“She’s gone now,” Sheriff H. F. Cassell told the press, after the remains had been positively identified as belonging to Jennifer Short, “she’s safe now, and no evil can befall her.”
But who had killed the Short family?
Though the fate of Jennifer Short was now known, authorities were no closer to solving the baffling and heinous crime that had befallen the girl and her parents. Making matters worse, the motive was unclear. Robbery seemed to be out, as nothing of value was taken, but the crime had clearly been premeditated, as the phone lines had been cut. While the abduction of Jennifer Short seemed to be the most likely motive, why she was taken from her home and then shot like her parents was something that could only be a subject of conjecture.
Despite numerous leads from as far away as Missouri, police seemed to grow no closer to a resolution of the case. Early on, much attention was focused on Garrison Bowman, a 66-year-old carpenter with a possible grudge against Michael Short, who had “fled” to Canada the day after the murders. By November, Bowman had been extradited from Canada, where he was being held on charges of drunk driving and violating immigration laws, and appeared in front of a grand jury in Roanoke, Virginia. However, no indictment was forthcoming.
Garrison Bowman cleared as a suspect
By 2007, the police finally admitted that Bowman was no longer a suspect. In the interim, it came out that some of the claims that initially drove police to suspect Bowman had been fabricated by three men looking to claim the reward money that was offered in connection with the crime. All three were eventually convicted of crimes including perjury and providing false information to law enforcement, and sentenced to several years in prison.
The damage had already been done, however, and thousands of hours had been spent investigating Bowman, to no avail. Would the authorities have had better luck if they hadn’t been led astray early on? It’s impossible to say. What we do know is that, more than 20 years later, the identity of the assassin who so cruelly ended the lives of the Short family remains unknown.
The mystery continues to this day
Every year since, neighbors and friends of the family have organized a motorcycle ride to raise awareness and help to keep the crime in the public spotlight. The ride crosses the bridge beneath which some of Jennifer Short’s remains were discovered, which has since been renamed the Jennifer Renee Short Memorial Bridge. According to the sheriff’s office, each time the ride takes place, they receive new information about the case, though so far it has not led to any arrests.
Only a few months after the Short family was gunned down, their house was sold at auction, yet it stood vacant for most of the years since. Then, in 2019, it burned down under mysterious circumstances. Was the fire set by the killer, returning to clear up any evidence that might have been left behind nearly twenty years earlier? It seems unlikely but, like so much else about the case, the answers may never be known for sure.