The North Carolina man who testified last week before a grand jury investigating the disappearance and death of 9-year-old Jennifer Short remains a "witness of interest" in the case, police said yesterday.

Garrison S. Bowman, 66, testified before a Roanoke grand jury, but the panel was later released without taking any action. A lead investigator in the case said yesterday that the grand jury was for investigative purposes and that it is too early to secure any charges.

"We're trying to fill in the blanks," said Capt. Kimmy Nester of the Henry County, Va., sheriff's office.

On Aug. 15, Michael W. Short, 50, and Mary H. Short, 36, were shot to death in their home in Bassett, Va., and investigators launched a nationwide search for their daughter, Jennifer. On Sept. 25, her remains were found 30 miles away in Stoneville, N.C.

Police began focusing on Bowman, whose mobile home was found about a mile from Jennifer's body. Bowman's landlord told investigators that two days before Michael and Mary Short were found dead, Bowman said he had paid a man in Virginia to move his mobile home and that if he didn't move it or return his money, "he would have to kill him," according to a search warrant affidavit filed in court in North Carolina. Michael Short ran a business that moved mobile homes.

On Aug. 15, the day of the killings, Bowman approached the landlord, Gary Lemons, with a pistol, Lemons said in the affidavit. The next day, Bowman was on his way to Canada and his trailer had been moved, the court papers say.

Bowman was later arrested by Canadian authorities in Inuvik, a town north of the Arctic Circle in Canada's Northwest Territories, and deported on an immigration violation. He was returned to North Carolina last month and arrested on a material witness warrant. He was transferred to a jail in Roanoke, where he was questioned extensively by police. He was released two weeks ago, after prosecutors agreed he was no longer a flight risk.

"We want to make sure we have the very best case we have," Nester said. He said Bowman is "a witness of interest and we still have a desire to communicate and discuss issues with Mr. Bowman."

Since Bowman's name surfaced, his friends have responded with a forceful defense, saying he is a victim of circumstantial evidence. "I've heard him called pedophile, murderer and all these things, and I think that's a crock," said John E. Beasley, a longtime friend. He said Bowman is a kind-hearted soul. Beasley said his friend spent the last few months giving away his possessions in advance of a long-planned move to Canada -- a move that has been portrayed as a suspicious run across the border.

He said Bowman has been tried and convicted by the police, the media and the community. "It seems as if it don't matter who pays for this as long as somebody pays for it," Beasley said.

Since being released, Bowman has been keeping quiet and out of sight.

"The whole situation has been fairly bizarre," said Bowman's attorney, William H. Cleaveland. "I wish I could tell you what his status is. He has contended all along that he is not involved with this."