When then 84-year-old Donald Short shot his mentally ill son to death last November, he said he was defending himself and his family.
The former University of Virginia cop entered an Alford plea to involuntary manslaughter in Albemarle Circuit Court on August 25, which is not an admission of guilt, but means he believed the prosecution had a strong enough case against him to convict him of the crime.
“I don’t feel like I’m guilty,” Short told Judge Cheryl Higgins when she asked if he was pleading guilty because he was actually guilty. A row of seven family members and friends sat behind him in the courtroom.
On November 9, 2016, the elder Short shot his 47-year-old son, Matthew, in the leg and abdomen after Matthew started a violent fight with his other son, Edward.
Short told a detective that Matthew, a drug addict, had been acting strange lately, so the former cop had started carrying a handgun with him to protect himself. Matthew had also tried to kill his brother before, Short said, so when the two were fighting and Edward was struggling to wrestle Matthew to the ground, he shot Matthew to immobilize him.
Matthew died three days later, and a medical examiner determined the gunshot wound to the abdomen was the culprit.
“All I was thinking of was that state senator,” Short told police during the interrogation, according to a statement of facts produced by the commonwealth’s attorney’s office. “He tried to get his son a bed in the hospital and there were no beds available over in Augusta or Highland and as soon as he got home, [the son] went and got a rifle out and killed himself.”
Short refers to Bath County state Senator Creigh Deeds, who was stabbed in the face several times by his mentally ill son, Gus, before Gus shot himself to death in 2013.
Short also told police he felt “destroyed and shattered” after shooting Matthew. He declined to comment after his hearing.
Entries in Matthew’s diary from 2015 and 2016 included phrases such as “my brother, I will kill him,” “I long for the taste of combat and blood,” “breaking things, extreme anger, verbal outbursts, constant thoughts of homicide” and “continued loops of murder rage through my mind,” according to the statement of facts.
Police were called to the Short residence three other times because Matthew was being violent, according to the statement, and a fourth time they were called to a health care provider’s office on Route 29 because Matthew had threatened staff and made suicidal statements.
The day of the shooting, residents of an apartment on Burgoyne Road called for police at 5:46pm while hiding in the bathroom after a group of people allegedly attempted to break into their apartment with weapons.
A female resident of the apartment later picked Matthew Short, or “Crazy Matt,” as she called him, out of a lineup during a follow-up investigation. She said he had gotten into an argument with her about drugs on November 7, and threatened her with an ax and said he’d “be back.”
The woman told police she had heard a noise outside her door November 9 and she could see a group of people waiting. She saw Matthew charge at the door and say, “We’re coming in by the hair of my chinny chin chin. I told you we’re coming back,” while holding a yellow and black ax and some rope. She told police she was familiar with Matthew, because he’d been in her apartment before, and they called him Crazy Matt because he “talked about killing people, talked to the lord, could see the devil and would go into a corner of a room, look up and say, ‘Do y’all see that?’ when nothing was there,” according to the statement of facts.
“He always carries weapons around—big hunting knives, axes and hatchets and stuff,” Short told police during the investigation, before Matthew died. “That scares the hell out of me too. I’m always afraid to go near him unless he’s in a real quiet, calm mood. …I worry about him when he starts to act out like that. I got to watch out what he’s got in his back pocket, so to speak, so that’s why I keep the gun in my pocket just in case.”
He also discussed how Matthew’s mental illness and constant violence affected him. “It’s terrible because you love somebody, but you dislike the person they’ve become and you’re afraid of him at the same time.”
Short’s sentencing is scheduled for December 5.