STONEVILLE, N.C. — Barefoot and shirtless, Gary Bowman lays a road atlas on his coffee table, next to an ashtray piled high with cheap Bailey's cigarettes. He spreads out maps of Alaska and Canada, and points to towns in the far north he's been to, with such names as Deadhorse and Whitehorse.

"This is my escape," he said — using the atlas to remind himself of places he'll likely never see again. "I'm not locked up, but I am locked up," he said.

He knows that when he goes out in public, there are still people who recognize him and say to themselves, "There's that guy who killed those people."

For nearly two years, the 68-year-old retired carpenter has lived under a cloud of suspicion, ever since a search warrant revealed that police considered him a potential suspect in the triple homicide of a Henry County family. Though he's never been charged with any crimes related to the slayings of Mike, Mary and Jennifer Short, police still call Bowman a "person of interest" in the case.

"I didn't know them," Bowman said. "There is absolutely not one damn shred of evidence" that connects him to the killings. "I've never been in that house. I've never been where they lived."

A tip from Bowman's former landlord, Gary Lemons, turned Bowman into the main focus of the Short case investigation. First the police and then the news media seized on Lemons' statement, blowing it completely out of proportion, Bowman said. "Only the things that made me look guilty made it into the news."

Deported from Canada, arrested on a federal material witness warrant, Bowman spent eight days in October 2002 locked in a cell in the Roanoke City Jail. He called it "solitary confinement" - a narrow cell with no bars to look out through, just "a hatch in the door where food comes in."

He wondered, while in there, when or if he would get out. "Damn right, I was scared," he said. He remembers thinking to himself: "Hey buddy, this ain't going to go away. You could go to the electric chair for something you haven't done."

***

These days, Bowman whiles away the hours smoking and watching satellite television in his sparsely furnished living room. He lives off Social Security and a little extra money earned helping out with an occasional carpentry job for his friend John Beasley. He has no car - another friend, Danny Sizemore, occasionally takes him to buy groceries and cigarettes.

When he speaks of his ordeal, his tone is more resigned than angry. "I've come to accept where I'm at. Nothing's going to change."

For many years, Bowman rented a house from Lemons, a Mayodan, N.C., salvage yard owner. Bowman used the house for a workshop and lived in a small mobile home he kept on the property. Self-employed, he drove a van full of tools to home remodeling jobs throughout the community.

He can't restart his business, he said. His van and all his possessions were seized in Canada and have never been returned. "They've still got everything I owned."

The day after Jennifer Short's parents were found shot to death, Bowman left Mayodan for Canada. He'd been to Alaska and Canada before and intended to return to Canada and stay for good. He'd planned the trip for a long time and made no secret of it, he said. "I wanted to see the caribou herds."

Lemons contacted the Rockingham County, N.C., Sheriff's Office on Aug. 18, 2002, two days after Bowman left for Canada. Lemons told police he talked to Bowman on the phone on Aug. 13, two days before Mike and Mary Short were killed and Jennifer disappeared. According to Lemons' statement, Bowman said he had paid a Virginia man to move his mobile home, and if the man didn't do the job or refund the money, "he would have to kill him." The Shorts ran a mobile-home moving business.

"No. Never happened," Bowman said about the conversation Lemons described. "When you're in the contracting business, you never pay anybody in advance to do something for you." Why look for someone in Henry County to do the job, he asked, "when there's people right around here that I might know?"

Lemons told police that on Aug. 15, the day of the slayings, he went to the rental property. Bowman brandished a pistol and told him to leave.

"I've never owned a pistol," Bowman said. "I've never had one in my possession." He said the only gun he owned was a shotgun, which he gave to Sizemore three weeks before heading to Canada.

Bowman's account of those days echoes accounts made previously by his friends. He and Sizemore worked on dismantling a deck attached to his mobile home so it could be moved onto Beasley's property for storage. Bowman intended to give the mobile home to Loree Butler, a friend and former employee of his who lives in Michigan.

On Aug. 16, a company from North Carolina moved his van to Beasley's farmland, and he left. He visited Butler in Michigan and a sister in Montana. He didn't hear anything more about the Short case until later that month, when he was visiting a relative in the tiny town of New Denver in British Columbia. Butler called him, he said, and told him FBI agents were trying to find him.

He went to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he said, and contacted the FBI to let them know where he was. An FBI agent interviewed him via phone, Bowman said. "He didn't seem to be too excited."

Bowman made sure the FBI agent knew he intended to go to Inuvik in the Northwest Territories, he said. "None of that got in the newspapers."

***

The intense focus on Bowman began after Sept. 25, when Jennifer Short's skeletal remains were found by a bridge within a mile of the place where Bowman's mobile home was stored. Investigators searched his mobile home, seizing bedclothes, carpet samples and hair samples. In the meantime, Bowman had run afoul of the law in Canada. Police arrested him Oct. 3 on an immigration violation. Canadian authorities kept him in custody for 18 days before deporting him.

During that time, detectives from Henry and Rockingham counties made the first of four trips to Canada related to their investigation of Bowman.

Bowman recalls flying from Canada to Raleigh, N.C., in handcuffs. When he disembarked, authorities were waiting for him. About 10 investigators, representing Henry and Rockingham counties and the FBI, interrogated him for 3 1/2 hours. They showed him pictures from the crime scenes.

"They never did come right out and say, 'You did it and we know you did it,'" Bowman said.

After the questioning, authorities brought him to Roanoke. Federal prosecutors released him Oct. 30. Bowman says he still doesn't know the reason why he was finally allowed to go. "Maybe after they did some checking on me, they found out I wasn't a terrible person."

When he was released from the Roanoke City Jail, all he had were his shirt and sweat pants, his wallet, credit card, passport and about $600, he said. What possessions he has now are what he's managed to buy since his release.

Bowman has not allowed police to question him since his deportation. Nor has he testified before the federal grand juries held in relation to the Short case. He believes investigators in the case are determined to pin the crime on him. "They want an arrest and conviction, and they don't give a g--d--- whether you're guilty or not."

As the Short investigation continues, "Gary Bowman is not the only person we're looking at," said Capt. James Keaton with the Henry County Sheriff's Office. "We're looking at any and all leads that we get."

Bowman stayed in Pennsylvania and Michigan for a while before returning to Stoneville. Police kept tabs on his every move, he said.

"This will live with me until the day I die, or until it's solved," he said. "I'll always, in some people's mind, I'll be the guy that got away with it."

In North Carolina, he's around people who know he's not the kind of person who could have done something like what happened to the Short family, he said. He tries not to be angry about the way association with the case has destroyed his life.

"Hatred does not destroy the other person," Bowman said. "It destroys you."

News researcher Belinda Harris contributed to this report.

Triple homicide unsolved

On Aug. 15, 2002, an employee of Michael Wayne Short's mobile-home moving business discovered Short and his wife, Mary Hall Short, shot to death in their home in Oak Level. A national hunt began for the Shorts' missing daughter, 9-year-old Jennifer. That search ended in tragedy Sept. 25, 2002, when a Rockingham County, N.C., resident found her skeletal remains near a bridge by his property. All three of the Shorts died of gunshots to the head. The case remains unsolved.

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