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CNN Live Event/Special

News Conference for Missing Virginia Girl

Aired August 17, 2002 - 18:01   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: We are now going to go live to Virginia to Henry County, where we're going to hear from Sheriff Cassell on the latest on this missing nine-year-old girl, Jennifer Short.
SHERIFF H. FRANK CASSELL, HENRY COUNTY, VIRGINIA: ... that we're checking on as we speak. But they don't look too promising, quite frankly.

I do have a couple things here. I've got some new pictures that are more current. These were taken in June of this year, and I'm going to pass them out to all of you, and hopefully, you can get them on your camera.

These are also going to - have already been given to the Amber Alert, and they are in the process of getting them out. They may be out even now. They wasn't out a few minute ago.

But this has ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: So, Jennifer no longer has that long hair? Is that what you're showing us?

CASSELL: No, she does not - not as - well, this was June. I don't know what her hair is at this time, but this is a new picture. And we've got one - probably a better picture here that you may want to scan.

And it appears to have been taken about the same time. It's also taken this summer, which, her hair is considerably shorter than the original picture, and she looks a little different in each one of these.

But to get back to the other, here's another one. You all are welcome to copy one of these, and you can scan any of the rest of them that you might want to.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Sheriff, is there any reason why the other family members haven't been more accessible to the media or coming forth asking for help?

CASSELL: I don't know how accessible they've been to you. These people probably are kind of shy, maybe a little private - at least we found them that way. And I don't put any particular emphasis on that.

If that answers your question.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: The fact that you haven't got any substantial leads throughout the country, what does that tell you?

CASSELL: Well, it tells me that - I really don't know what it tells me.

Obviously - obviously, if this child is with someone, and they're moving around, they're not moving around in daylight or very much, because this picture has been saturated all over the country.

We've had calls in - our officers had calls from relatives all over the United States that have seen this, and asking about it. So, the information's out there. I don't really know what that says.

It's not good for us, because it doesn't give us the leads that we need to try to solve this. We're not - we're not getting - we're getting a lot of response, but we're not getting nearly the response we thought we would get from Amber Alert and all this extensive news coverage that we've had.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Are you at a dead end?

CASSELL: No, no. No. We've got a - we've got the FBI's coming back tomorrow. State police coming back tomorrow. We're putting on the same number of officers here tomorrow. We've gone right through this weekend just like it was a week day.

We're a long way from a dead end. We've got a lot of people yet to interview. And a lot of times you'll be interviewing one subject, and that'll give you a lead to someone else.

So, we've got days and days of leads ahead of us. If we don't get any - or contacts to make, maybe not leads - if we didn't get any new ones.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: How many people have you interviewed over the last couple of days?

CASSELL: I have no idea. We've - we've had teams of two going out routinely for the last 2.5 days, probably. We've got probably 15 teams out there at any given time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: How many times have you interviewed the person who found the bodies?

CASSELL: I couldn't answer that. More than twice.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Yesterday, Captain Hester (ph) said that he still felt optimistic that you would be able to find Jennifer. Do you still feel that optimism?



CASSELL: Is what?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Mr. Thompson (ph) (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ruled out as a suspect?

CASSELL: No one has been ruled a suspect, nor has anyone been ruled out as a potential suspect.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: At this time, are you looking for any vehicle?

CASSELL: Not in particular, no. That's the major obstacle here. If we had a vehicle or a tag number. That's one thing that makes Amber Alert successful, and that's one thing that hasn't helped us all that much, because we haven't had that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Anything new with the murder investigation?

CASSELL: It's one and the same. If we solve one of them, we'll solve both of them.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: What about the search effort? Is that going to continue (ph) tomorrow and as (ph) the same ...

CASSELL: No. The search effort was broken off. I talked to Mr. Cox this afternoon. At about 4:20 he said that they'd broken off at 4:15, and they are in a state of suspension at this time. He will reactivate if we give him any reason to.

He feels like he's done about all he can do at this time. And a little further on that, he said that they covered approximately - in his opinion - 100 square miles.

They've had as many as 65 people out at any given time. There's been over 200 people involved in the search effort in one way or another. And he just feels that he's done about all he can do at this point.

And I can't - I can't really argue with that. I don't know what else to tell him to do at this point.

Now, that doesn't mean that the police have relaxed their effort in any manner. We're still looking. We're still - our patrol unit's out there, and the surrounding counties are still looking anywhere that they think that they might need to look.

But, as far as the ground search and the air search, he feels like that they've done about everything they can do.


CASSELL: That's over for now. If anything comes up, he'll reactivate.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Has the purpose basically changed from, you know, searching the ground within the area locally, to tracking down people who knew the family?

CASSELL: Well, yes and no. That ground search was going on by search and rescue and patrol units at the same time that we were tracking down and interviewing people. That was simultaneous.

The ground search part has ended for the time being. The other continues on. It was going on at the same time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: You've said it expanded. That's kind of what I wanted to get at.

CASSELL: Well, maybe I misspoke.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Can you provide any more information about the people you have questioned? Whether they were former employees? Or ...

CASSELL: We've questioned former employees - and this is repetitious - family members, business associates, neighbors. We've questioned some of all of these, and got some of all of these still to question.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Can you tell us when the bodies of Mary and Michael will be released?

CASSELL: I have no idea. I haven't heard. That'll be up to the medical examiner.


CASSELL: They may have already been released. I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: From the medical examiner with the autopsy report?

CASSELL: Has what?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Has there been anything new with an autopsy ...

CASSELL: I haven't - I haven't seen any - I haven't seen the autopsy report. I've only heard about it. I haven't even seen it, so, I don't anticipate anything more on that for some time.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Have (ph) pinpointed time of death or anything like that, they haven't released any of that information to you at this time?

CASSELL: We have somewhere here, I'm sure we have the autopsy report. I have - personally, I haven't seen it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Have you been able to pinpoint the timetable? I mean, is it still 12 to nine? And ...

CASSELL: I don't know whether he - the M.E. did that or not, in the report. I'll try to - I'll try to find that report tonight and look at it, and maybe be able to answer your questions in the morning. I don't know what's in it beyond the cause of death.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Is there anything that you're looking at questioning, maybe, you know, a few more times in other people? Is there any particular ...

CASSELL: Well, we're going - we're going back. In any investigation - and like I say, if you develop a lead and you go talk to a person, and then you go talk to somebody else, and they'll tell you something, you'll say, well I've got to go back and talk to this guy again.

You go back again and you talk to somebody - you may go back to the same one two or three times. And that might not mean that they're even suspicious. You're just getting additional information.

So, we've talked to several people more than once. But there's an awful lot of people out here yet.

This thing is like a ripple effect. It's - it keeps expanding. It keeps going out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Does that give you hope? I mean, do you feel like somebody's going to lead (ph) ...

CASSELL: Well, it ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: ... you to something (ph)?

CASSELL: ... it just takes time to run these down. I'm an eternal optimist. I hope for the best all the time.

Until we find the worst, I'm hoping for the best.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Has everybody you've approached been cooperative?

CASSELL: To my knowledge, they have. I haven't heard of anyone that's - that hasn't been.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: When you say you've had leads, could you give us some idea of how many leads you've gotten ...

CASSELL: I really don't know, we've had a - we've had a lot of - a lot of different leads have been called in. Unfortunately, all of those so far have proved negative. We've still got a few that we're working on that we haven't brought to conclusion.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: And you're asking, obviously, everybody to call in when they see (ph) something (ph) that (ph) ...

CASSELL: Absolutely. Yes. You never know when you're going to get the right call or the right lead.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: You worried about fatigue being a problem for ...

CASSELL: Well, ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: ... investigators or the searchers? CASSELL: ... you always worry about that in an extensive investigation. We've been in several of these that lasted a week to 10 days. I'm talking about intensive investigation, like this one.

Any time after about the third day, it shows up. It's showing up now, but you have no choice but to go forward.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Has the rain affected the search?

CASSELL: Not really. Fortunately, the - we ran the dog on the ground search prior to the rain on the first day. If - it didn't turn up anything, but if it had rained before the dogs got out there, that would have made a difference.

So, really, the rain hadn't really affected anything.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: The dogs never picked up her scent at all?

CASSELL: No, but you've got to understand, before - the scene was pretty well polluted before the dogs were even - before the dogs even got there. This thing was so critical, at the time that they found the child was missing, and was not with a family member, they immediately started looking around the yard, the curtilage (ph) of the home, if you will.

And then the dog came. Any time you get much of that, the dog's got a hard time, in particular if this child was taken from the home to a vehicle in the yard, say. That was polluted before the dog got there.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Let's talk about these new pictures. What - I mean, you guys have been doing this nationwide Amber Alert. Why did it take so long to put the new pictures out?

CASSELL: We only got the new pictures. We couldn't - we've been asking for pictures all along. These pictures came from two different - two or three different places.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Did (ph) the police ...

CASSELL: We put them out as quick, as quickly as we got them.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Sheriff, what's going on at the home right now? Is there still some investigation, some ...

CASSELL: There may - there is no investigation going on that - we may need to get back there one more time for ...


CASSELL: ... to take one last look around, but there's nothing going on there right now.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Do you anticipate filing for any more search warrants? (UNINTELLIGIBLE)? CASSELL: That's - we may. We may file one more, or we may already have. I don't know. But I do think that, as of this morning, we needed to go back one more time.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Has Mr. Thomas' (ph) apartment been searched as part of the investigation.

CASSELL: Everything that's needed to be searched that we're aware of has been searched ...


CASSELL: ... long ago.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Can you tell us what the wife was wearing?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Can you tell us if Jennifer - was her bed unmade? Was she taken from her bed? Do you know ...

CASSELL: We feel she was taken from her bed. The bed was unmade. It was - appeared that someone had gotten out of the bed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Was there any struggle in her bedroom? (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

CASSELL: No indication that I recall whether - the bedclothes were not - I mean, it's obvious someone had been in bed.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Well, one of the local papers reported this morning that Mr. Short was found naked. Was that correct?

CASSELL: I'm - I'm not going to address that.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Frank, does it look to you like this, the slayings and the kidnapping were very carefully planned out beforehand?

CASSELL: I can't say that, Mike. I will say again - and I'll probably get in trouble for this - I feel and I think most of the investigators feel - and we may all be wrong - we feel that this crime was committed by someone that knew this family and knew their way around.

Now, assuming that's right, you wouldn't need near the planning that a stranger would need to successfully carry something like this out.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Do you think that means that maybe that person may still be in the area?

CASSELL: Possibly, yes.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Anything more about their financial troubles? You're looking into that automatically (ph)?

CASSELL: We're looking into it, but I don't know anything more about it.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: What about those - their house was up for sale, and I mean, I know you said you were going to look at real estate records and see if people ...

CASSELL: That is being done, or maybe has been done. I haven't - you've got to understand - and this is something else I want to talk to you guys about.

The last two days, when I should have been in a briefing with my people, I was talking to some of you, by appointment. That's not going to happen anymore. I've missed our only two briefings, in their entirety.

So there's a whole lot going on that it - and once they break up, then I can't call them back in and ask about what you're asking about, or maybe what you're asking about.

If we don't cover that in that briefing, what has been done and what needs to be done, if I miss that, that hampers me in talking to you all as a group. And that's happened the last two mornings.

And that's my fault for allowing it to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: You said you have two teams of at least 15 teams. Could you give us an idea of how many investigators are actually working on this case at any given time?

CASSELL: Probably - no - probably 30 to possibly 40.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: These are not the volunteers doing the search, ...

CASSELL: No, no.


CASSELL: Now, wait. When I say investigator, I'm talking about police officer. When you're talking about search and rescue, that is volunteer altogether.

There is a search and rescue team, which is volunteer, but it's organized. And then you have your unorganized volunteers that works with them and under them. But we're not talking about police officers.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Has the FBI responded to any of the - any of the local tips or the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tips?

CASSELL: Oh, yeah. Constantly. Yeah, they've been - they've had five men here today. State police - I'm talking about agents - state police has had five agents here today. They've been in on this. Some news agency reported the other night that the state - that the FBI had now entered the case. The FBI entered this case before noon on the day of the murder.

They entered it as soon as we called them, as soon as they found out about it. So they've been into it from the start.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: Have most of the calls been local, national? Can you tell us ...

CASSELL: They've ...

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: ... maybe how far? And wide?

CASSELL: A mixture. They've local, statewide and even national.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE REPORTER: How far? I mean, across the country? Or ...

CASSELL: Florida, Missouri is two that comes to mind.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Now, some media have been reporting all day that you're scaling back the investigation. Now, ...

CASSELL: There hasn't ...

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: ... 15 is scaled back, but the investigation ...

CASSELL: The investigation has not been scaled back at all. In fact, it's - in fact, it is - it's full of strengths. We probably got more - had more people out here today, and we'll have more tomorrow than we did the first day, as far as actual investigators.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE REPORTER: Has the mobile home - one of the reasons (ph) that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Short family business ...

CASSELL: To my knowledge.


CASSELL: No, I don't. I think that's kind of a hit-and-miss business. I don't - it's not like you have three full-time state employees who - you get a lot of turnover in that kind of business, so ...

LIN: All right. You're listening to Sheriff H. F. Cassell out there in - near Bassett, Virginia in Henry County, where the search continues for nine-year-old Jennifer Short.

The Sheriff's Department still believes that she was kidnapped by the suspect or suspects who murdered her parents, Michael and Mary Short, sometime early on Thursday. The little nine-year-old, they believe was snatched out of her bed, and has been taken, though they say that they have searched very thoroughly the rolling hills around Bassett, Virginia. They have so far found no real leads.

The nationwide Amber Alert system also was activated. No new leads there.

Our Jeanne Meserve is standing by live in Collinsville, Virginia, where the news conference is taking place.

Jeanne, it really sounds like investigators are hitting a dead end in this case.

JEANNE MESERVE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, they won't say that. What they say is that they have plenty of leads they need to run down, people who they need to interview, people who they need to re- interview. Those would be folks who were relatives or who were friends, or who were business acquaintances of the Short family.

So the investigation, we're told, is going full bore ahead, about 30 or 40 different investigators working on it at any given time.

I do want to show you some videotape. This is tape that CNN has obtained exclusively of nine-year-old Jennifer Short. It shows her with some friends. It was shot last April. You see these children jumping on a trampoline, and then they fall down and are hamming around for the camera.

This videotape gives you a much better sense of what this little girl looks like than any of the still photographs you've seen. You see her face moving. You see her expressions. You get a little bit of sense of her personality.

So, once again, an exclusive for CNN, this videotape shot back in April.

Now, her hair has been cut since then. Today authorities did release some new still pictures of her with her shorter haircut. The authorities were asked, how come this is coming so late? Why didn't we see these current photographs earlier in this investigation?

They say they have been asking for these photos. Only now did they come to light. So this is this little girl with the shorter hair, still nine years old, four feet three inches tall, about 58 pounds, described as quite a shy little kid. Although the videotape shows her having a lot of oomph and a lot of personality - Carol.

LIN: Jeanne, have they come up with any theory about a motive? Was the intent to murder the parents? Was the intent to kidnap the child?

MESERVE: They - we have asked repeatedly about motive. They said they have not established a motive in this case.

A couple of things appear to be low on the list. One is robbery. We were told this morning that as far as investigators can tell, nothing was taken from the home. This would indicate that a robbery or theft was not a motive here.

The second thing they seem to be discounting is the possibility that young Jennifer could have herself murdered her parents. They say this is a tiny child, only four feet three inches tall. In addition to that, everyone I've spoken to who knew this family said they were extraordinarily close, that she spent a lot of time with both her mother and her father.

Her dad was so proud of her baseball exploits, that he would leave work in order to go see her play. There was nothing that indicated any sort of discord within that family.

And so, it would appear that those two things are low on the list. Investigators say, though, that nothing has been completely crossed off. Likewise, they say, there is no suspect, but nobody has been crossed off the list of possible suspects - Carol.

LIN: What is it about this family, though, do you think that might have drawn attention to them?

MESERVE: That's a big puzzle. Nobody has been able to figure it out. They've been described as quiet, as keeping pretty much to themselves, as being perfectly affable by people who had dealings with them.

I think investigators are looking a bit more carefully at the business side of things.

Michael Short had a business towing mobile homes. They are talking to business acquaintances of his. Also, to former employees, to try and see if anybody had a grudge against this man.

We were told at one point that he had a lot of low-wage, transient employees. Some of those are migrants. They're going to be hard to track down. But they're doing the best to find them all and talk to them, and figure out if the business connection could possibly explain what happened here.

There also were some subtle hints that there may have been some sort of financial difficulties. As you heard mentioned at the press conference, the house was on the market.

I've heard varying reports from different people about why they were selling it. The real estate agent has told CNN that, in fact, they wanted to downsize, they wanted to live a little bit more modestly. But other people have indicated to me that they thought they were fairly comfortable financially.

Clearly, the sheriff saying today, this is still something that investigators are taking a look at - Carol?

LIN: A lot more to learn about the Short family and what happened to Jennifer. All right. Thank you very much, Jeanne Meserve, reporting live from Collinsville, Virginia.