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Alert on Girl Yields Calls But No Clues

by Eric M. Weiss, Washington Post

BASSETT, Va., -- Henry County Sheriff Frank Cassell will take 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 home Thursday.

But he is doubtful that the calls from California psychics and tips from as far away as Florida and Kansas will help track down Jennifer, whose toothy smile and sweet face have been framed, taped and stapled all across this rural county on the North Carolina border.

Some of the calls resulted from publicity generated by an Amber Alert issued Thursday Henry County and Roanoke area and in the media-saturated 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. "But none of them look terribly productive, and a lot of them have been eliminated 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 police have few clues, Cassell quickly added, "I'm not discounting psychics outright -- I'm discounting most of those that we've talked to."

The Amber Alert system is being used more frequently to alert the public 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 Washington system 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 interrupted "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Commuters on Interstate 66 were advised by a message board to tune into "the media" to learn about an event that occurred a gas tank away.

"I don't want to say it was a mistake, but before they put it out, 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 County."

A meeting of law enforcement, government and media officials scheduled for Thursday will look at how the alert was handled, she added.

Donnellan said the system has led to 25 recoveries across the country in the past six years. There are 46 programs, including 15 statewide systems. 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 when a description of the vehicle they were in was released. It was the first time that California authorities had used their system, named after Amber Hagerman, a 9-year-old Texas girl who was abducted in 1996 and later found dead.

The alert system is at least partially responsible for heightened media attention to abducted children, even though the number of missing children has remained the same or decreased, Donnellan said.

Henry County officials said the system should not be judged on the results 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 family where the child is cranky."

In the hills and hollows of Henry County, the case is a high-profile whodunit. With Jennifer gone for four days, and the large-scale search 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 be with 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 week.

"In the back of my mind is that [I'm thinking] I'll have to help those other 16 children cope," Young said, referring to the girl's classmates. "But I'm not going there yet."

The bodies of Jennifer's parents, Michael W. Short, 50, and Mary H. Short, 36, were found Thursday morning by one of Michael Short's employees, 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 pulled back. 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 talk 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 Short's three adult sons from his previous marriages. Police are also tracking 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 operated on 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 bushes. They found nothing.

Police have yet to look in the Beaver Creek reservoir, which has long served as an unofficial repository of Henry County's secrets.

The Virginia State Police and FBI are also working on the case. The state crime lab has been processing evidence, and the first results may be available Monday.

Jennifer's absence is yet another in a string of losses for Henry County. 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 violence. 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 said.

"We're in a depressed area," said Cassell, a state police retiree who 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 the Shorts' home, said families are increasingly concerned about their children. "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 is saying. "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 Jennifer's 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 things we 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 shoulders hunched together, his eyes squeezed shut.

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