On December 26, 1980, Avery Vernie “Peaches” Shorts left the house with 58 cents in her pocket to buy a soft drink. This is one of Knoxville’s most haunting m*urder cases. In an article from May 22, 2010, here is what reporter Matt Lakin had to say about the mur*der.
That morning after Christmas 1980, she left the house with 58 cents in her pocket to buy her mom a Coke.
When police found her more than a year later, she was buried under a cattle chute with a wire around her broken neck. The ribbons were no longer there.
Last week, Avery Vernie “Peaches” Shorts would have been 36 years old. She di*ed before her sixth birthday and never got home from the store. That day, she may not have even lived past sunset.
Her mother, Hazel Smith, said, “Look how long it’s been and still no one’s come forward.” “I just want to know, why did it happen?”
The Knoxville Police Department narrowed their search to a single suspect within a day of the girl going missing. After each question, he smiled and laughed.
He never broke down and admitted what he did. He never gave the police the chance to make their case.
The investigation was led for years by retired KPD lieutenant Jim Winston. “We tried so hard to get justice for that little girl,” he said. “In all practical ways, we were able to open the case.” We couldn’t do anything to stop him.
Today, that man is lying in a nursing home bed. His body is getting weaker from old age and his mind is foggy from dementia. He denied the crime at that time. He now says it’s not true.
“It wasn’t me,” he promised. “I never k*illed anybody in my life – man, woman or child.”
Police thought Mitchell Arvell Reed, who is also known as Mitchell Arvell Webb, had di*ed a long time ago. This month, they looked into it again after the News Sentinel found him.
Mitch Arvell Reed, 77, was seen smoking on the sidewalk outside of his Knoxville nursing home on Highland Avenue on May 21, 2010. Reed was the only person Knoxville Police thought might have ki*lled Peaches Shorts. Reed was never charged with ki*lling the girl.
The head of the KPD’s Violent Crimes Unit, Lt. Doug Stiles, said, “We’re going to give it one more try.” “It’s not over until we bring it to some type of resolution.”
Before Friday night, when KPD investigators Ryan Flores and Lynn Clemons went to see Reed, they hadn’t asked him about the case in more than 20 years.
Stiles said, “He didn’t have much to say.” “He remembered it pretty well.” He has changed some of his stories, but he still says he had nothing to do with it. He told us we were talking to the wrong person.
They hope to rebuild the case file in the next few days.
“We’re recovering stuff from storage, and we’re trying to make sure we have all the physical evidence together,” said Stiles. “We’re not at a de*ad end.”
Reed doesn’t feel scared. Any threat of being arrested, put on trial, or sent to prison doesn’t mean much right now.
His wife Mary said, “They used to say he’d d*ie an old man in jail.” “But he’ll di*e an old man in a nursing home.”
A trip to the store
Hazel Smith was thirsty after Christmas was over. The divorced mother of three, who was 22 years old, had just finished her last cigarette and was getting ready to make dinner.
She told her 6-year-old daughter Peaches to get a Coke and sent her there. Smith made sure Peaches put on her Mickey Mouse tennis shoes and buttoned up her coat before leaving around 3:30 p.m. because it was very cold outside.
“She was my pride and joy,” the mother said of her children. “When she was born, she had such a round little face she looked just like a little peach.”
Smith still lives in the South Knoxville housing project Montgomery Village. The apartment on Joe Lewis Road where she heard her daughter’s voice for the last time is just around the corner.
The mother remembered that as the daughter left, she said, “Mama, I love you.” “Every day I think about that.” It hurts me to look at that place every time I pass it.
Mitch Reed dropped by the apartment right before Peaches left. He asked Smith one more time to let him live with her.
Reed was 47 years old, fair, and bald. During the week, he lived with his parents in Rockford and with his girlfriends in Montgomery Village. That summer, he met Smith, bought her clothes and a camera, and drove her and her kids around in his brown Cadillac.
Smith told him she needed time to think and asked for money for a Coke. Reed knew she had been with someone else the night before. His answer wasn’t any better than when she told him months before that she had lost the clothes and the camera.
“Something just told me he couldn’t be trusted,” she stated. “I turned down his offer to be his old lady before.” That’s when he said, “I’ll get even.”
Reed threw 58 cents on the counter and walked away. Peaches went to the store.
The store on the corner of Maryville Pike was a 15-minute walk both ways. Peaches played for a while, but she made it to the store by 5 p.m. After about 50 minutes, her mother called the police.
“It never took her that long to get to the store,” said Smith. “When I asked at the store, they said she was already there.” She wouldn’t have gotten lost or gotten into a car with a stranger, I knew that.
A search through the snow
Officers got people to help with a search. After following Peaches’s lead, they searched the woods, walked along the nearby railroad tracks, and knocked on every door in the project.
The search went on past midnight, and more than 100 people volunteered to help. It was on the news that KPD Lt. Jim Winston learned about the search.
It wasn’t until the next day that the police sent a detective. Winston said the time difference still makes him mad.
“It was going on 24 to 36 hours old by the time we got involved,” he shared. “I feel like it might have made a difference if we’d been able to get on it sooner.”
Deputies, members of the rescue squad, and dogs all helped. Chief of Police Bob Marshall put together a 12-person task force, with Winston in charge, to bring Peaches home.
People in East Tennessee and across the country hugged their kids a little tighter as the news spread. The mu*rder of Adam Walsh and the unsolved m*urders of children in Atlanta were both in the news at the same time, which caused a panic across the country about kidnappings by strangers.
The search for missing six-year-old Avery (Peaches) Shorts began at Montgomery Village on December 31, 1980. Psychic Bobby Drinnon from Morristown is in the middle, with private detective Raymond Anderson on the left and Detective Jim Winston from the Knoxville Police Department on the right. Michael Patrick for the News Sentinel
People were looking all the time, even into the new year. As the temperature dropped below 0, snow fell. The spirits also fell.
“We knew we would have a body eventually, but we didn’t know where,” Winston stated.
Winter ended and spring began. Christmas and another New Year’s Day went by.
They were unable to find any information about me. That’s why I scolded them. Anything to get you to talk to the police. Let them test me if they say I did it.
Then, on January 23, 1982, a father and son who were out hunting rabbits came across a skull near a garbage dump on the University of Tennessee Extension Farm, which is located off of Singleton Station Road in Blount County. A pair of Mickey Mouse shoes was lying next to a cattle chute that had been turned over.
Investigator Randy York from the KPD, who is now retired, remembers what was below.
“We pushed up on it, and sure enough, there lay her little body with that wire wrapped around her neck,” said York. “Her hair still had ribbons in it, and her pigtails were where her head should have been.” She was wearing underwear and a small coat that was buttoned all the way up.
Bill Bass, a forensic anthropologist, said that the bones were Peaches’. A grave was given to her parents for burial six days after she di*ed.
A familiar face
The case got a new start when Peaches’ body was found. At this point, the police had talked to more than 100 people, but Mitch Reed kept coming up.
The body was found about a mile from Reed’s parents’ house in Rockford, which is about a 15-minute drive from Montgomery Village. It was in bad shape, with only a skeleton and a rusty 9-gauge wire to work with.
The wire was made in the 1940s by the UT farm. Winston thinks the person who ki*lled Peaches strangled her by hand in a car, then drove to the farm and wrapped the wire around her throat to be sure she was de*ad.
There were no fingerprints on the wire. There was no more blood for a long time. Winston doesn’t think that even modern forensics could do much more with evidence that has been out for so long.
It was a long time ago that the police knew Reed’s name. As early as age 15, he had been in and out of jail many times for thefts and break-ins. Police had questioned him about the de*ath of 62-year-old Emma Brewer in her Western Avenue apartment a year before, but they never brought charges.
Reed wasn’t afraid to talk to the police.
Winston said, “He liked being the center of attention.” It was so rude of him to always smoke and smile. For him, life was all a big trick. The look in his eye told you. We could talk to him for hours about his life, his job, and his past crimes. He would never say he hurt a child, though.
The scent of Peaches was found in the Cadillac that Reed drove for Smith and her kids. Reed said he had been to the store right after his fight with Peaches’ mom. He said he drank coffee outside but didn’t see Peaches.
He said no to a polygraph, just like he did in the Emma Brewer case.
KPD Sgt. Ray Perry, who is now retired, said, “He said he just didn’t believe in being hooked up to machines.” “He told us, ‘If I was laying in the hospital dying, I wouldn’t let them hook no machine to me.'”
Winston thought he had a break at one point. A boy told the police that he saw Peaches outside the store talking to a man in a brown car who looked like Reed.
Winston said, “We almost had enough, but he changed his mind.” “He was just a kid, and we always thought his parents might have pressured him to change his story.”
A fading memory
Knoxville police never caught anyone guilty of k*illing Peaches Shorts. Later that year, Jim Winston was taken off the case by the police.
Mitch Reed went back to jail in 1983 because he broke into a rental store. Because he was found guilty in 1985, he spent the next fifteen years in prison. He went before a judge for the last time in 2002, when he admitted to assaulting a child, which is a state crime.
The NHC Healthcare of Fort Sanders nursing home is where Reed now spends his days, sometimes on a breathing machine and sometimes in bed. He is so weak that he can barely stand up straight or even hold a cigarette.
He makes jokes with the nurses and waits for his wife to come see him. He forgot that he is 77 years old. He has forgotten his birthday.
He does remember a name, though: Peaches.
He said, “I knew Peaches.” “I did it, so I can’t say I didn’t. “Where did she go?”
The name Emma Brewer doesn’t get a response, at least not at first.
“I’ve been there,” he shared. “I’ve been in that house, but I ain’t k*illed nobody.”
When you say Winston’s name, memories start to flood back.
“They couldn’t get nothing on me,” he told me. “That’s why I scolded them. Anything to get you to talk to the police. They should put me on trial if they say I did it.
Mary, his wife, loves Peaches too. The girl lived right next door to her. Reed often stayed with her there.
She talked to police then and passed a polygraph. Ask about her husband today, and she hesitates.
“I won’t say he didn’t do it,” she said. “He never talked to me about it. If he did it, he knows.
“God knows who did it. God knows, and he knows.”