Three years ago Monday, Jason Lee “Jay” Shifflett answered a knock at the door of his Carlton Avenue trailer and came face-to-face with three masked men who pushed their way in and demanded money.
The only thing they took was Shifflett’s life and, in so doing, broke the heart of Robin Bryant, his mother.
“It’s been three years, but it seems like a lot longer than that. And it seems like yesterday all at the same time. You know what I mean?” Bryant said in a recent interview. “My daughter died years ago from crib death, and that hurt, but I had Jay in my life for 31 years. God took her and I have accepted that, but God didn’t take him. Bullets took him and I can’t accept that.”
Bryant has spent the last three years mourning. She’s also spent it prodding and protesting Charlottesville police, compiling what she believes is evidence in her son’s killing that should help them to make an arrest.
She’s also beleaguered the police about bringing the FBI in to help in the case.
“It’s like [city police] are just waiting for someone to come to their office and say, ‘here’s some evidence.’ People aren’t going to do that,” Bryant said. “I’ve given them evidence, but they still haven’t made an arrest. I want to put this behind me, but I can’t.”
Bryant has met with each of the five police chiefs or interim chiefs the city has had since her son’s death, including current Chief RaShall Brackney.
“I met with Robin on July 12 with a team of prosecutors, detectives and support personnel regarding the status of Jay’s case,” Brackney said. “The case is still open. It has not been closed or classified as a cold case.”
Brackney said she understands Bryant’s efforts but said the Shifflett case does not lend itself to FBI involvement.
“Mrs. Bryant would like the FBI to investigate the case. However, federal engagement must meet certain criteria. Unfortunately, Jay’s case does not meet that criterion, and that information was relayed to [her],” the chief said.
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Jay Shifflett was a complex man. He was no stranger to the city courts and was charged and convicted of a variety of misdemeanors and minor felonies, such as assault, destruction of property and larceny.
He was also a kind man. His friends and mother remember a loyal and supportive father of a young son who was always there for others. Some have recalled publicly how Shifflett visited them while they were incarcerated, brought them food, lent them money or did personal favors for them when they were in need.
Police have not divulged a lot of information on how Shifflett came to die, but the narrative that has been released is that Shifflett answered the door shortly before 1 a.m. Sept. 3, 2015, and found the three masked men standing on the steps. They pushed their way in, demanded money, said something about a safe and then one intruder shot Shifflett several times with a handgun.
The intruders beat a hasty retreat, and police found Shifflett dead at the scene shortly after being called about shots being fired at the address.
Bryant said she believes several different people were indirectly involved in her son’s death and repeated an oft-heard rumor that the break-in was a “hit” arranged by some people in Charlottesville’s shadowy drug world.
She said she has provided names and audio recordings of some conversations but that police have not acted on that information.
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Bryant noted that there have been other unsolved cases in Charlottesville in the past several years. Most recently, Samuel Lee Houchens, 53, disappeared June 20 from his home on Meridian Street.
Houchens’ family called his disappearance alarming and said the battery of his cellphone and the back of the phone were found in the backyard, but the phone itself was missing.
The family noted that the scooter used by Houchens, who had mobility issues, to get around was left at home.
Police and search and rescue crews combed Moores Creek near his home for several days, noting that heavy rains the day he was reported missing had swollen the creek. Houchens still has not been found and his disappearance is still being investigated by city police.
On July 6, 2014, shortly after 2 a.m., Otis Edward Scott, 27, was shot on Prospect Avenue and taken by friends to the University of Virginia Medical Center, where he died. No arrests have been made.
Pherbia Tinsley was shot July 14, 2012, while sitting in her car on Prospect Avenue. Her purse and wallet were missing and police suspect robbery as a possible motive. No arrests have been made.
Sage Smith, a 19-year-old transgender woman who was last seen in November 2012 near the Amtrak station on West Main Street, has never been located. The case was revived in May. Smith has not been found, no one has been arrested and police have been unable to locate Eric McFadden, a person of interest in the case.
Brackney said that although no arrests have been made, police are working the cases.
“Each case assigned to our investigations branch is given individualized time, attention and care. As information develops and leads are pursued, we employ local, state and possibly federal resources that can assist us throughout the investigative and prosecutorial processes,” she said.
“Our approach is not a ‘one-size-fits-all,’ but tailored to address the unique circumstances of each case,” Brackney said. “Although loved ones are always kept abreast of our investigative efforts, understandably those updates may not bring them comfort or their desired outcomes.”
For Bryant, the frustration and grief of her son’s death and lack of arrests sometimes are overwhelming.
“I can’t deal with it. I see my son’s face like the day I gave birth to him. Then I see his face the last time I saw him,” she said. “I want to go down to the [cemetery] and dig my son up and bring him home and put him back in his bedroom, where he belongs, but I can’t do that. He’s dead, and he shouldn’t be dead.”