Bulletin that Shook D.C. Prompts System Review
by Eric M. Weiss, Washington Post
BASSETT, Va., -- Henry County Sheriff Frank Cassell
a phone call from anybody if it will help find Jennifer
Renee Short, the
9-year-old missing after her parents were found
shot to death in their
But he is doubtful that the calls from California psychics and
from as far away as Florida and Kansas will help track down
toothy smile and sweet face have been framed,
taped and stapled all across
this rural county on the North
Some of the calls resulted from publicity generated by an Amber
issued Thursday Henry County and Roanoke area and in the
Washington area. The alert system uses the same
emergency broadcast network
that radio and TV stations use to warn
of dangerous weather and other situations.
"We've acted on all these calls immediately," Cassell said.
of them look terribly productive, and a lot of them have
pretty quickly. This is someone who knows this
family and knows the surroundings.
That's usually the case and is
the case in this one."
Mindful not to be ungrateful for any help in a case where
few clues, Cassell quickly added, "I'm not discounting
-- I'm discounting most of those that we've
The Amber Alert system is being used more frequently to alert
to child abductions in the first hours, when experts
say keen eyes are
most likely to foil an abductor.
Jennifer's disappearance marked the first time that the
was activated, and it will surely be scrutinized
as a case study in its
usefulness and its limitations. With little
more than a photograph and
a name, and on at least one TV station
only an emergency alert, Thursday's
activation set an already
jittery capital further on edge. Vague warnings
Oprah Winfrey Show." Commuters on Interstate 66 were advised
message board to tune into "the media" to learn about an event
occurred a gas tank away.
"I don't want to say it was a mistake, but before they put it
should have been cleared by one of the law enforcement
agencies in the
Amber plan," said Joann Donnellan, a coordinator
of the alert system for
the Center for Missing and Exploited
Children in Alexandria. "These alerts
are supposed to be regional
or local. We're five hours away from Henry
A meeting of law enforcement, government and media officials
for Thursday will look at how the alert was handled, she
Donnellan said the system has led to 25 recoveries across the
in the past six years. There are 46 programs, including 15
Three years ago, a man who abducted a
9-year-old girl in Texas pulled his
truck over and ordered her out
after he heard an Amber Alert that included
his description. This
month in California, two teenage girls were rescued
description of the vehicle they were in was released. It was the
first time that California authorities had used their system,
Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl who was
abducted in 1996 and later
The alert system is at least partially responsible for
attention to abducted children, even though the
number of missing children
has remained the same or decreased,
Henry County officials said the system should not be judged on
of their investigation. "For Amber Alert to be most
effective, you need
a plate number or vehicle description, and we
had absolutely nothing to
put out other than this little girl's
picture," Cassell said. "We've had
calls from people at a rest
stop who had seen a child jerked and kind of
stuck in a car. We
got the plate, ran it down, and it turns out to be a
the child is cranky."
In the hills and hollows of Henry County, the case is a
whodunit. With Jennifer gone for four days, and the
suspended since Saturday afternoon, some were
bracing for what they fear
is the next plot twist.
"We are praying for Jennifer and asking God to send an angel to
her," said Laurie Young, a teacher at Figsboro Elementary
School who had
Jennifer in her science class last year and is
scheduled to be her fourth-grade
teacher when school starts next
"In the back of my mind is that [I'm thinking] I'll have to
other 16 children cope," Young said, referring to the
"But I'm not going there yet."
The bodies of Jennifer's parents, Michael W. Short, 50, and
Short, 36, were found Thursday morning by one of Michael
police said. Each had been shot once in the
head. They were found in different
parts of the house, which sits
on a busy road next to an abandoned produce
stand and across from
a flea market. Jennifer's bed was empty, the sheets
Police have declined to say whether there were signs of forced
entry or to give details on any forensic evidence.
Police say there are no suspects. But there are many people to
to. The employee who found the couple, Chris Thompson, who
had been staying
in a motel next to the produce stand, was the
last person to see the family,
the previous night. Police say they
have interviewed Thompson several times
and may again.
Investigators also have interviewed at least two of Michael
three adult sons from his previous marriages. Police are
down other former employees of Michael Short, who
moved mobile homes for
a living. Cassell said the work wasn't
steady, and neither were the employees.
Soon after the discovery of the couple's bodies, police
the assumption that Jennifer escaped during the
violence and hid in the
large pasture behind the house. But police
believe that she would have
contacted somebody by now. Officials,
along with about 200 other residents,
combed a large area around
the house, peeking into abandoned cars and behind
Police have yet to look in the Beaver Creek reservoir, which
served as an unofficial repository of Henry County's
The Virginia State Police and FBI are also working on the case.
state crime lab has been processing evidence, and the first
be available Monday.
Jennifer's absence is yet another in a string of losses for
The area's textile industry has practically gone,
and its furniture factories
may soon be ghosts. The county's
former top administrator was accused of
making more than $200,000
of government money disappear.
Steady jobs and hope have too often been replaced by drugs and
The county deals with more than a dozen homicides a
year. On Thursday,
several officers had to be pulled off the
search for Jennifer to respond
to a double shooting, police
"We're in a depressed area," said Cassell, a state police
has been sheriff for 11 years. "People do things when
they get desperate
that they wouldn't do otherwise."
Glenwood Campbell, who lives in the Oak Level neighborhood near
Shorts' home, said families are increasingly concerned about
"Handgun sales will shoot up around here, that's
what you'll see," he said,
adding that the Ruger handgun he keeps
nearby provides a measure of comfort.
Other residents suspect that Cassell knows a lot more than he
"With him, it's either he doesn't know anything -- or
he really is smart,"
Lynwood Merricks of Figsboro said after he
finished a country breakfast
at Mackies Restaurant, which promises
"good home cooking."
At Pleasant Grove United Methodist Church in Figsboro, near
school, the congregation hoped that the answer lay in
prayer. The church
organized a prayer vigil last week, and during
today's service, that same
smiling photograph of Jennifer was
placed on the church's altar.
"When you are alone, or scared and afraid, one of the best
can do is pray," Pastor Morris V. Fleisher said. "We
need to hold Jennifer
close to our hearts and ask God to protect
her and bring her home."
With that, one young boy in front row prayed so hard his
together, his eyes squeezed shut.