The bedroom of Victor Dwight Shoemaker Jr. is frozen in time. For when Victor – known affectionately as J.R. by his loved ones – was just 5-years-old, he vanished without a trace.
It was a brisk spring morning in Kirby, West Virginia, on the 1st of May, 1994. J.R. and his family were attending a family reunion at his grandfather’s mobile home, situated on the outskirts of Short Mountain, which is a long, relatively low mountain of 8,000 acres. The area is rugged and a popular spot for hunting. Once they arrived, J.R. and his two older cousins – 8-year-old Lloyd Wolford and 9-year-old Tommy Martin – went outside to play in the wooded area of the mountainside, armed with their BB guns. “They went a-huntin’” said their grandfather, Oscar Wolford. “That was their hobby. They’ve come back and say, ‘Oh, I killed a big buck.’”1 J.R. loved exploring the woods, presumably more so because he lived in the confines of a Leesburg apartment where he spent his days building houses out of cardboard boxes and drawing pictures of animals and snowmen. When visiting his grandfather – in the great outdoors – J.R. loved playing in the creeks and climbing the trees.
The area the boys played in was the only area that J.R.’s parents, Victor Shoemaker Sr. and Nettie Shoemaker, allowed their son to play out of their sight; the older couple had tried for years to have a baby before finally conceiving J.R. so they were remarkably protective of him. All three boys had played in the woods countless times and it was no different on this particular Sunday. On that morning, J.R. was wearing a red Bugs Bunny t-shirt, red shorts and white X-Men trainers. Like most children of his age, J.R. loved cartoons and his outfit demonstrated this.
According to J.R.’s cousins, it was around 8:30AM when J.R. stated that he was hungry. With his stomach growling, J.R. decided he would walk back to the mobile home to ask his grandfather to fix him something to eat. J.R.’s cousins said that as he sauntered off through the woodland, they lost sight of him. Tragically, J.R. never made it back to his grandfather’s home.2 Within an hour, a search party was assembled.
The subsequent search for the young boy was swift with hundreds of people from West Virginia, Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Washington D.C., and North Carolina, joining in on the search. They trudged through the rugged terrain in southwest Hampshire County in foggy and rainy weather and temperatures that dipped below zero. “Some of the brush is pretty heavy and there are areas where you can’t see 10 feet in front of you,” said Reggie Pressutti, an Augusta volunteer firefighter.3 The search was strenuous; the woods of the mountain were deep and replete with brier bushes, ponds and towering oak trees. As the area is popular amongst hunters, one theory early on in the search was that J.R. had been the victim of a careless hunter. However, this was soon ruled out when no body was discovered in the area where J.R. disappeared. Moreover, Sunday hunting is prohibited in West Virginia.
While searching, some people came across a spot where they believed J.R. may have slept, according to his adult cousin, Valeria Cooper. There were three rocks arranged in a triangle, with a stick in the middle, three logs on the side, and freshly disturbed dirt. “It looks like somebody trying to build a house,” she said. A Maryland State Police helicopter equipped with infrared equipment used to detect heat swooped over the terrain and divers plunged into ponds and creeks. The search for J.R. was comprehensive but fruitless; there was no tangible evidence uncovered that could indicate where he was or what happened to him. After five days, the search was called off. The already disheartened mood of the volunteers was exacerbated when a volunteer with the Appalachian Search and Rescue team fell asleep at the wheel after a restless night of searching and crashed into a tree and died. Over the forthcoming five months, National Guard and Army Reserve units used their weekend training time to continue searching for J.R. but to no avail. By all appearances, he vanished without a trace.
In 1994, authorities stated that they didn’t suspect foul play. They surmised that the possibility of a stranger abduction in the remote area was “one in a million” because only one main road passed through the area and the road was seldom used.4 They presumed that J.R. had tragically gotten lost and died from exposure. Despite claiming this, it should be noted that FBI was called in to assist in the case, suggesting that authorities at least considered foul play and may have even suspected that J.R. may have been taken across the state line.
J.R.’s parents refuted the theory that he had simply gotten lost, stating that their son was extremely familiar with the area. Even so, the rugged mountainside terrain was no place for a young boy on his own; even if he did know the area, he was always accompanied by his cousins. Nettie and Victor Sr. – as well as a vast majority of the locals – speculated that somebody abducted J.R. “Somebody had to have taken him off the hill,” said Nettie. “I know the woods pretty well. If he was in the woods, they would have found him,” said John Pindell, a hunter with a cabin in Short Mountain. “There’s something phoney.”5 Investigators would report that they found no evidence to support the theory that somebody kidnapped J.R. However, there was one particular incident during the search which could indicate that something much more sinister could have plausibly happened to J.R.. When a sniffer dog was called in to assist in the search, he kept his nose stuck up in the air as opposed to the ground. The dog led searchers to a field before abruptly stopping at the only road leading in and out of the area; this led some to believe that somebody could have abducted J.R. and carried him through the field near where he vanished to an awaiting car.
Victor Sr. has also relayed his suspicions of how the two cousins acted when they returned to say that J.R. was missing. “I think they know what happened, but I don’t think the boys hurt him,” he said. The two older cousins were entrusted to keep an eye on J.R. so their sheepish behaviour upon their return could quite simply have been fear of getting into trouble for losing sight of him. Since the disappearance, Lloyd and Tommy’s parents have stopped talking to the Shoemakers and have refused to talk about the disappearance with the media. “I think there should be a lot more done about it,” said Nettie. “I think the boys really need to be talked to by FBI agents.” Despite their suspicions, the two cousins were questioned and passed lie detector tests. When asked what they thought happened to J.R. during the initial search, one chillingly replied: “Somebody hiding behind a tree got up and grabbed him. Or shot him.”6
In 1997, the FBI informed the public of a dark blue pickup truck in the area that J.R. vanished. Unfortunately this tip never panned out when the driver of the truck never made contact with investigators to identify themselves. While they were never declared a suspect, they were a person of interest and a person that could have come forward to share what they may have – or may not have – seen on that morning. In 2004, the Charley Project enlightened the public about the still-unsolved case and shared details surrounding the disappearance in the hopes that it would refresh the public’s memories and lead to some tips being generated. In 2014, FBI supervisory special agent Greg Hebb announced that “all investigative leads have been exhausted.”
Over 24 years have passed and no trace of J.R. has ever been found. There have been no arrests and there have been no suspects. There has, however, been no shortage of rumours: from a tragic accident or abduction to family involvement, speculation has been bountiful. Today, J.R.’s parents are left to wonder what happened to their son over 24 years ago. They still hold out hope that one day, he will come home or one day, his body will be recovered and they can gain some semblance of closure. “We’re hanging in there,” said Victor Sr. in 2014. “But we sure would love to hear something.”
- The Washington Post, 5 May, 1994 – “Lost in a Forbidding Forest”
- News & Politics, 30 April, 2014 – “Cold Case Investigators Seeking Public Help”
- Richmond Times-Dispatch, 4 May, 1994 – “Searchers Seek Lost 5-Year-Old Boy”
- Daily Press, 1 May, 1995 – “A Year Later, Virginia Boy’s Whereabouts Still a Mystery”
- The Roanoke Times, 19 December, 1994 – “Child’s Disappearance Still Baffles Authorities”
- Daily News-Record, 16 May, 1994 – “They Call Him J.R. – Short for Junior”