It was a promise made long ago that Tonya Bonner had clung to over the years.
Her younger sister, Tami King, had been found dead Feb. 28, 1999, under a bridge on the bank of Village Creek in Arlington. The mother of three, who had disappeared from Fort Worth two days earlier, had been sexually assaulted and stabbed.
“I’ll never forget the words that Detective [Danny] Nutt and Detective [Jim] Ford said to us,” Bonner said. “They made a promise to me, my family and my nephew. They said they would never forget my sister and … that they’re going to solve the case.”
Both detectives later left the Arlington Police Department and became investigators with the Tarrant County district attorney’s office. Ford has since died, but late this summer, Bonner answered a knock on the door to see a familiar face.
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“When I saw Detective Nutt, my heart was jumping, my hands sweaty,” Bonner recalled.
Nutt said he’d been asked by Arlington Detectives Caleb Blank and Ben Lopez to join them as they shared with Bonner the news that she’d been waiting 16 years to hear.
A DNA database had linked biological evidence from King’s body to a possible suspect.
“I never gave up hope,” Bonner said. “I said before I leave this earth, I’m going to know what happened to my sister and who did this.”
But the relief Bonner felt was tempered days later with news that the suspect, Jerry Shorts, 48, of Fort Worth, had killed himself Sept. 3, not long after Arlington police interviewed him.
“It crushed me,” Bonner said. “I cried because now I won’t be able to look at him in his eyes. I won’t be able to say the things that I want to say to him and ask him why did you have to take her life.”
Tarrant County records show Shorts had previously been arrested on allegations of sexually assaulting two others, including a 14-year-old girl in 2002.
He was no-billed in one of the cases and pleaded guilty to a lesser misdemeanor charge, public lewdness, in the other.
King, 27, a former model and beautician, was last seen on Feb. 26, 1999, when she left her parents’ Fort Worth home to get her nails done.
When she didn’t return, family members first thought she had decided to stay with a friend.
But two days later, while scooping bait from Village Creek along west Pioneer Parkway, a man spotted a young woman lying near the bank. He thought she was sleeping in the shade of the bridge until he walked closer.
King’s clothes had been partly removed and she had stab wounds in the neck, back and chest. A slip of paper in her bluejeans pocket had a Social Security number on it, which helped identify her.
King left behind three children. Less than a month before her death, she threw a birthday party for her youngest, Jayla Carson, 4.
Bonner said that only after her sister’s death did she learn from detectives that the autopsy had revealed King had been pregnant with twins when she died.
“Not only did he take one life that night,” Bonner said. “He took two more.”
Bonner said she and her parents worked together raising Jayla and King’s two other children, son Jesstin King and daughter Patricia King, after their mother’s death. All three are now in their 20s.
“Her oldest daughter has a little girl. She’s 7 years old,” Bonner said. “We always talk about my sister because I want her to know who she was. … I continue to talk about her. I don’t want her to ever be forgotten. Never forgotten.”
A sordid history
How Shorts’ and King’s paths crossed is unclear.
Bonner said Shorts looked familiar to her when she saw his picture, but she couldn’t place where she had seen him.
She said she’s been told that detectives’ interviews with his family indicate they had been members at the church King and her family attended.
Short’s obituary listed him as a war veteran (he had Desert Storm tattooed on his arms) and a father of five.
Tarrant County court records show a handful of convictions for such misdemeanors as unlawfully carrying a weapon, driving with a suspended license, and assaulting a family member in 2000.
In November 1999 — nine months after King was found dead — Shorts was arrested by Fort Worth police on allegations that he sexually assaulted a woman.
I don’t know much about the laws as you, but I do know when I’ve broken one and at this time I can say that I only broke God’s law.
Jerry Shorts in a letter to a judge in which he denies committing a sexual assault the same year as King’s death
The next month, while still in the Tarrant County Jail, he wrote a letter to then-State District Judge Sharen Wilson, asking if she would reduce his $25,000 bail or release him on his own recognizance.
In the letter, a copy of which is in the case file, Shorts said he had a wife and two sons and his father is a pastor in the Dallas area.
“I must admit I made a very bad choise a few months ago. I went outside of my marriage to be with another woman. Yes, I’m guilty of that. Did I forcefully take anything sexually or anything from the young lady who has said that I did? No, mam,” he wrote.
“… Mam I don’t know much about the laws as you, but I do know when I’ve broken one and at this time I can say that I only broke God’s law,” he later added.
Court records show Shorts was released from jail the next month after a Tarrant County grand jury declined to indict him.
In August 2002, Shorts was again arrested by Fort Worth police.
According to police spokeswoman Tamara Pena, patrol officers had found Shorts in the back seat of a car with a 14-year-old girl whom he had allegedly picked up on the street.
“He drove to a parking lot where he was attempting to have sex with her, when the officers arrived and foiled his plan,” Pena said.
Court records show that Shorts was indicted that December on counts of attempted sexual assault of a child under age 17, sexual performance by a child and public lewdness.
He pleaded guilty to public lewdness, a misdemeanor, in the case on March 12, 2004, and was sentenced to 180 days in jail.
‘That’s a coward’
After telling Bonner about the possible DNA link to Shorts, Arlington police went to interview him.
The detectives asked Shorts for a DNA sample to confirm or refute the possible link but he refused, police say.
Arlington investigators were working to secure a search warrant for the DNA when they learned that Shorts had killed himself.
According to a Fort Worth police report, Shorts’s wife found him dead in the bathroom of their Fort Worth home on Sept. 3.
He had shot himself in the chest but left no suicide note.
Shorts’ DNA was taken during his autopsy and, this week, Arlington police learned that follow-up tests matched his profile to the DNA evidence in King’s case.
It does bring us some comfort to know that before I leave this world, I have a face and a name.
Tonya Bonner, sister of Tami King
Bonner called Shorts a “no-good coward.”
“Preying on women who were helpless, who are weak, that’s a coward,” she said.
Bonner said she is grateful to Nutt, Ford, Blank and the other detectives who continued to work the case over the years and kept their promise never to forget her sister.
“You hear so much things about bad police officers,” Bonner said. “It shows the good ones are still out there. They’re just not being recognized.”
She said that though Shorts cannot stand trial for her sister’s case, she is grateful that police now consider the case solved.
“It does bring us some comfort to know that before I leave this world, I have a face and a name,” Bonner said. “My mother passed away. My mother tried so hard to hang on. She always said she wanted to know who took her baby away and why did they take her.”