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1989 Murder of Betty Shumate

Family, witnesses and residents look back at a 30-year-old murder in Smyth County

  • 7 min to read
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The Shumate Family: Though the glass is broken, Desiree refuses to take the photo down or change the frame for fear of damaging one of the only things she has to remember her mother by.

MARION, Va. — On a wet July night in 1989, 11-year-old Desiree Shumate and her mother’s boyfriend answered the door to their Wolf Avenue home in Marion.

It was the police.

They wanted to know if anyone had seen Desiree’s mother that night.

The now-41-year-old Desiree Trent remembers telling the officers that her mother was at work.

“They said, ‘That’s the problem. We’ve had several calls. The store’s unattended and your mom’s not present.’”

Trent said she remembers grabbing her hair and going to the floor.

“I knew in my heart of hearts that I was never going to see my mom again.”

A few hours later, investigators found her mother’s body in a ditch by a service road near the Adwolf Food Center. The 47-year-old clerk had been raped and stabbed in the throat, in both kidneys and breasts.

To spare the pre-teen Desiree the traumatic details, family members initially told her that Betty Shumate had been shot 30 years ago on July 5, 1989.

It wasn’t until weeks later that Desiree found out what really happened. She wouldn’t know the full extent of the attack on her mother until she reached adulthood.

“I asked for a copy of my mom’s autopsy when I turned of age and a lot of what my mom went through, I didn’t even know until then,” she said.

At the time of Betty Shumate’s slaying, investigators told the Smyth County News & Messenger that rumors of her estranged husband’s involvement weren’t true. A month later, though, the then-53-year-old Mack Shumate, a former Smyth County deputy, was charged with capital murder and held at the Smyth County Jail.

At the time, all the evidence pointed to Mack Shumate, said Commonwealth’s Attorney Roy Evans. Evans had become the county’s prosecutor less than two years prior.

“We had testimony from a clerk that three days before, Mack was complaining to her that Betty had taken everything he had and wasn’t getting another red cent from him,” Evans said in a recent interview.

Mack was behind about $10,000 in support payments to his ex-wife and had previously been sentenced to two 90-day jail terms that were on appeal. With Betty out of the way, the support and the jail sentences would disappear.

Evans said the prosecution also had evidence and an admission from Mack Shumate that he had threatened to kill his estranged wife.

With her mother dead and her father in jail, Desiree moved to South Carolina to stay with her half-sister.

“I was 11 years old, and my mother was ripped away from me, and so was my father for a long time,” she said. “For somebody who pretty much grew up in what I would say was a bubble, that was a rude awakening. I can remember having to go and see my dad in jail and that was awful, having to visit him through that little bitty window. He was in there for 102 days. He spent 57 of those days in a 5-by-7 room in solitary confinement.”

During one visit in particular, Desiree said her father became especially emotional.

“My dad started crying, and he said, ‘Desi, as bad as your mom and I fought, I would have never taken her from you.’ And from that moment on, I knew without a doubt that he didn’t do it.”

A new suspect

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Michael McGay Reeves is led into the Smyth County Courthouse in the early 1990s to be tried in the attempted murder of a U.S. Forestry Service employee. Reeves was convicted of that crime and sentenced to two life sentences plus 100 years.

Mack Shumate’s trial was scheduled to start Dec. 13, 1989, but his court-appointed attorney, Danny Lowe, and a private investigator had other plans.

Just weeks before trial, Lowe met with prosecutors and investigators.

“I told the prosecution that I was coming out with subpoenas for everyone I needed to prove that Michael McGay Reeves was possibly the one who did this [murder and abduct Betty Shumate],” Lowe told the News & Messenger in 1989.

Reeves, then 27 years old, had already been charged with the abduction, rape and attempted murder of a U.S. Forestry Service employee. The employee had been attacked in a similar manner a little more than a month before Mack Shumate’s release. Around the same time, Reeves, a Smyth County native, had also been charged in the abduction and sodomy of another Marion woman.

Reeves would later be convicted and sentenced to two life sentences, plus 100 years in the first case and 10 years on the second.

Before his arrest on those charges, Reeves already had a documented history of violence against women. In March 1988, he was released from a North Carolina prison after pulling three years of a five-year sentence on a rape conviction. According to news reports in that area, both Reeves and the female victim were stationed at Cherry Point Marine Corps Air Station in Craven County, North Carolina.

Lowe said in the 1989 interview that the stab wounds on Betty Shumate and those on the Forestry Service employee were identical.

The defense attorney said the case against Mack Shumate started to unravel when Robert Picklesimer, a private investigator, started looking into it.

By the time Betty Shumate was killed, Picklesimer already suspected Reeves in the slaying of Barbara Jean Hagy earlier that year, Lowe told the paper. Hagy was killed in a similar attack that April.

Reeves was now a suspect in all three cases.

“It was a nightmare,” Evans recalled. “We had three events in the course of less than a year that were remarkably similar — abductions and violent acts to women.”

The two cases Reeves was convicted of in Smyth County had an obvious sexual component, he pointed out.

“It was just something that you don’t think happens in a rural county and there it was my second year of prosecution.”

The night Betty Shumate was killed, Picklesimer was listening to a scanner, according to News & Messenger reports at the time. He heard rescuers called to Reeves’ house for an attempted suicide.

Desiree said investigators told her they believed Betty tried to run from her attacker. She got as far as the interstate, where she was unable to climb the fence. It’s there investigators believe she was overtaken and forced into a vehicle.

“I guess he took control of her and got her in the car,” Desiree said. “They do know that he [Reeves] was shot in the shoulder, and if his arm would have been down by his side, it would have went through.”

“My theory is that Betty Shumate and Reeves scuffled in the truck,” Lowe told the News & Messenger in 1989. “We know that Reeves had a pistol earlier that night. Later, when Reeves was found by rescue squad workers, he had blood on his left forearm and right thigh. The bullet went behind the shoulder blade and did not penetrate it, and little blood was found around the wound. There was no gunpowder wound.”

Lowe told the paper that Reeves would have had gunpowder burns had he fired the gun himself at that close range.

According to Betty Shumate’s autopsy report, a cutting wound was found on her right index finger.

“The pistol was sharp inside the hammer and probably cut her finger when she shot Reeves in the struggle,” Lowe said.

The time frame in which the events occurred also pointed to Reeves, Lowe said.

“Five minutes and 49 seconds are between the place from where Shumate’s body was dropped to Reeves’ house traveling 40 mph. He came in shortly before 10:30 and the rescue squad received a call to his house around 10:35 p.m. The last sale at the store where Shumate worked was made at 9:51 that night.”

As evidence in the case continued to develop, Mack Shumate was cleared of having any part in Betty Shumate’s death. But Evans couldn’t quite charge Reeves in Shumate’s or Hagy’s deaths. Any evidence that was previously used against Mack Shumate would now be used in Reeves’ defense.

Legal obstacle course

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Michael McGay Reeves is led to the Smyth County Jail in 1989 after he was taken into custody on charges in the attack of a U.S. Forestry Service Employee.

With Reeves already behind bars on charges in the other two Smyth cases, Evans and investigators would have time to strengthen their case against him in Betty Shumate’s slaying.

Or so they thought.

“During this whole time, Craven County, North Carolina, is contacting us eagerly trying to get him extradited to North Carolina because they think they have made a murder case,” Evans said.

Police in North Carolina believed Reeves was responsible for the slaying of 26-year-old Susan Toler, who was attacked and shot in the head while her 2-year-old child was present.

Evans was in favor of the extradition and helped see to it that Reeves would be tried in North Carolina.

“We wanted to get him there to be tried in North Carolina so their case didn’t get any older,” he explained.

Unbeknownst to Evans at the time, though, the governors of the two states had been making an agreement. Should Reeves get the death penalty in the North Carolina case, he wouldn’t return to stand trial in Virginia.

The governor’s office called Evans and asked for his input.

“I told them that I opposed it because it deprived us of having a day in court in our cases,” Evans said. “But their point was — and it was a valid point — if he got the death penalty, for one thing, you can’t give him any worse if he comes back to Virginia. And secondly, why take the security risk of transporting a capital murderer to Virginia?”

“I understood the governor’s point that there is a security risk to bring somebody back across state lines who has nothing to lose,” Evans said.”When he’s got the death penalty, he has nothing to lose.”

In addition to the Virginia and North Carolina cases, Reeves was also a suspect in the rapes of two Tennessee women.

It wasn’t until 1999 that scientific evidence became available to link Reeves to Betty Shumate’s and Barbara Hagy’s deaths. That evidence was confirmed following a complete reinvestigation of the case by Sheriff’s Office investigators and the Virginia State Police at Evans’ direction.

By that time, however, Reeves had already been convicted of Toler’s murder and was awaiting execution in North Carolina.

No trial, no closure

The death penalty hanging over his head meant that Reeves would never see a Virginia trial.

He was originally scheduled to be executed in 1995, but his execution was stayed to allow him to pursue appeals. The 56-year-old Reeves is now one of 142 inmates awaiting execution in North Carolina. Due to litigation on the death penalty in that state, it has not executed anyone in nearly 13 years. It is unclear whether it will resume.

Evans was OK with the fact that Reeves wouldn’t stand trial in Virginia, since he was already slated to be executed.

“But as the years went on, it’s become somewhat frustrating because you begin to wonder if it’s ever going to happen and you also have your evidence getting staler and staler,” he said.

Over the past 30 years, witnesses in the case have died, an investigating officer died and other officers retired.

Although she believes wholeheartedly that her mother’s killer is sitting on death row in another state for another woman’s murder, Desiree said she still carries a certain level of fear all these years later.

“It’s molded the person that I am today,” she said. “I look at life a whole lot differently than a lot of people do. I don’t go into parking lots by myself; I’m always looking over my shoulder. I work second shift, and I don’t walk outside by myself at night, and I’ve done that since I was a little girl.”

Without a conviction in her mother’s killing, Desiree said she still feels that she lacks closure.

“He’s never going to stand trial for my mom’s murder,” Desiree said. “I just feel like she never got her day in court. He should still have to pay for my mom’s murder, too.”

Evans feels the same way. He’d like to see Reeves prosecuted in both Betty Shumate’s and Barbara Jean Hagy’s killings. He admits, though, that even if North Carolina does abolish the death penalty, getting Reeves back to Virginia would be unlikely.

Although she still harbors resentment for her father’s wrongful imprisonment and for the lack of a trial for Reeves, Desiree tries not to dwell on it too much.

“He’s robbed enough years of my life; he’s not worth five more minutes of my time.”

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