- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 10, 2002

COLLINSVILLE, Va. Thoughts of a trapped, helpless and frightened 10-year-old girl have made for sleepless nights for Henry County investigators in the days following the disappearance of Jennifer Short and the murder of her parents.

Now those vivid images drive officers sifting through mountains of evidence day after day and searching the same places again and again for any clue to her whereabouts.

"You can't rest knowing there's a child out there hoping maybe she's alive and every day wondering if somebody's coming for her," Henry County Sheriff Frank Cassell said on Saturday.

His department, along with state and federal authorities, have been searching for Jennifer since Aug. 15, the day her parents, Michael Short, 50, and Mary Short, 36, were found shot to death in their home near Bassett.

Sheriff Cassell and the other officers and volunteers still hold out hope that she's alive. But they are just as determined to find her if she isn't.

"If she's dead, certainly she deserves a decent resting place. That's just what I personally can't cope with. The men have a lot of problems with that," the sheriff said.

In the days immediately following the crime, Sheriff Cassell's officers worked around the clock on leads coming in from across the country.

"The first week was absolutely awful. No one was sleeping," said the sheriff. "People have settled down now. They're getting some rest. They're getting some days off."

But that doesn't mean they aren't dogged in their investigation.

"Fortunately, we have some very methodical people working on this case," Sheriff Cassell said.

Investigators have spent recent days combing areas for several miles around the Short home, where volunteers and officers searched for days in mid-August. The new round of searching is mostly to satisfy police that nothing has been overlooked, according to Sheriff Cassell.

Michael Short's body was exhumed on Wednesday to collect hair samples, which had not been taken during an autopsy performed by the medical examiner's office Aug. 16.

The exhumation was not the result of a new lead, Sheriff Cassell said, but correcting a mistake that had been made as part of the investigation.

"This was something that should have been done. I'm not sure if it's my fault or the M.E.'s fault. It doesn't really matter," he said.

Sheriff Cassell said it wasn't crucial that the exhumation be done last week. But it had to be done. "We feel like the family could deal with it better now than three months down the road," he said.

The sheriff emphasized that the exhumation was not tied to DNA tests recently done to determine the paternity of Jennifer Short.

He said the tests proved that Mary Short was Jennifer's biological mother. He won't discuss whether Michael Short was the girl's father, but said investigators know and that it's important to the investigation.

Sheriff Cassell said that at this point officers are not always sure what is important and what is not.

"As a case goes on, it often comes down to the process of elimination," the sheriff said Saturday morning. "You have a lot of leads to check out, and as you eliminate them one by one, it causes your focus to center in on a particular person or particular group or particular circumstance."

Investigators have been plagued by a lack of solid leads and little evidence that points to a suspect, which has led them to believe that the perpetrator was methodical, too.

But not methodical enough to go unpunished.

"So far he's been incredibly lucky," Sheriff Cassell said. "Sooner or later he's going to make that mistake, or has already made it. And we're going to get him."

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