Open Case Virginia: Fire fuels fresh suspicion about Short family murders
There's virtually nothing left. No landmark for drivers on Route 220 to know they're passing by the scene of an infamous, unsolved murder.
A fire in February of this year destroyed the house where Michael and Mary Short were found shot to death in 2002. The plot of land where the home once stood is now an empty field, covered in tall grass. A mailbox and fragments of pavement are all that remain.
"It brought back a lot of memories of what happened," said Michael's sister, Carolyn Short.
The Short family case captured widespread attention when the murders were first discovered August 15, 2002. As investigators worked to process the scene in Henry County where Michael and Mary were killed, an extensive search commenced to find the couple's nine-year-old daughter, Jennifer.
"It was a complete, exhaustive effort to try and hopefully find Jennifer alive," said Henry County Sheriff Lane Perry, who was a field deputy when the murders happened.
Nearly six weeks after her parents were discovered murdered, Jennifer's remains were found about 30 miles away in North Carolina. She, too, had been shot to death.
"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 brother when the murders happened.
Sink and Jennifer's aunt, Carolyn, can't help but wonder what Jennifer would be like today. If she were still alive, she would now be 26.
"I think about that every day," said Short. "I wonder if she would have a boyfriend. Would she be married?"
Carolyn remembers her niece being a combination of her parents.
"She was kind of shy until she got to know you, like her mom, but once she got to know you she was just like Mike. A lot of mouth! (laughter) A lot of mouth."
Carolyn said Jennifer, Michael, and Mary were kind people who mostly stayed to themselves, which has made the question of why anyone would want them dead so puzzling to investigators.
"You have an entire family and nothing appears to be wrong," said Perry. "A normal life and they're wiped out."
At the time of the murders, Michael made a living moving mobile homes. Mary had worked factory jobs. Detectives looked into tips that someone at work had stalked her years before, but those leads didn't go anywhere. Jennifer was known to show up at a convenience store near her home from time to time.
The three were preparing to move in August of 2002. Hours before the murder, Michael, Mary, and Jennifer were seen eating at a Burger King restaurant in Collinsville. Perry believes someone out there knows what happened not long after that meal.
"It's probably very limited, the number of people who have information or know something suspicious, but I do believe there's a person or two out there and we hope they would want to do the right thing, for the right reason, and see a murderer brought to justice," Perry said.
"You sit there and think, is that person still out there?" said Sink. "Is that person close to you?"
Sink and Short say they think of the case often, especially every August on the anniversary of the crime when a memorial bike ride is held to raise awareness.
Could the killer, they wonder, be lurking nearby?
"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?" Sink said.
Nothing has raised their suspicions like the fire that destroyed Michael, Mary, and Jennifer's home.
"How does a house catch on fire? We didn't have a storm. There was no electricity in the house for months," Short remarked of the fire. She said it's unsettling to drive through Oak Level now and see an empty lot where her brother's home once sat.
"They've cleaned it up quickly, so it seems to me that something is trying to be hid," Short said.
Short and Sink say they hope clues to the crime haven't been wiped away. As much as the answers to their loved one's murders might be painful to learn, they desperately want the whole story.
"I want to know. Definitely want to know," said Sink. "It would be nice to know why."