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Five dead, including 2-year-old heart transplant recipient, in family murder-suicide

A murder-suicide note was discovered near where two adults and three children were found dead at their home in Sinking Spring, Pa., August 6. (Video: Video: Reuters/Photo: AP)

Willow Short was never supposed to survive. According to doctors, she wasn’t even supposed to be born alive.

While still in her mother’s womb, doctors discovered a devastating heart defect. They said she’d likely be delivered stillborn.

But when she arrived, the newborn cried. She was alive. Six days later, she received a heart transplant, and with the help of a stringent course of daily medication, Willow thrived.

Her inspiring story filled the local newspapers, not to mention the New York Times. The Short family legacy, it seemed, was one of perseverance, faith and strength.

That changed Saturday.

Two years after defying death, police found the toddler and her two older siblings, Liana, 8, and Mark Jr., 5, dead in the living room of their Pennsylvania home. Nearby were their parents, Megan and Mark Short, also dead, authorities said.

All had been shot. So had the dog.

Officers with the Sinking Spring Borough and Spring Township police departments found a handgun beside one of the deceased adults, though they didn’t specify which, and a handwritten “murder/suicide note” somewhere in the home, according to a statement from the Berks County District Attorney Office.

Authorities have not released a motive, but said the investigation thus far revealed there had been “domestic issues” between Megan Short, 33, and her husband, Mark, 40.

Online, Megan was not shy about those issues, a neighbor told the Reading Eagle.

On July 23, during an exchange on Facebook, Megan Short told Angie Burke, who lives down the street, that she planned to leave her husband.

The two were commenting back and forth on a link Burke had posted to an opinion article published in The Washington Post titled “He didn’t hit me. It was still abuse,” Burke told the Eagle.

In it, author Leigh Stein previewed her forthcoming memoir, where she describes the humiliation, manipulation and psychological abuse she suffered while dating her ex-boyfriend. Burke provided the newspaper with images of their exchange, recounted here.

“It really does a number on your mental health for sure,” Short commented.

Later, she added: “This is why I am leaving my marriage Angie. 16 years.”

Throughout the conversation, Megan Short said she had found a rental property and was waiting to be approved. She hoped to move to Yardley, she wrote, about an hour and a half from the family’s Sinking Spring home.

Then last week, Burke saw another Facebook post from Megan, the Eagle reported, soliciting friends to help her move. She would need their assistance, Burke said, on Aug. 6.

When that day arrived, Burke told the newspaper she was on her way home from the bakery, where she’d picked up a birthday cake for her husband, when she saw not moving trucks, but police.

“I just got sick,” Burke told the Eagle.

Police discovered the bodies when a family member called, concerned that Megan had not shown up for a scheduled lunch date, officials said.

Neighbors often saw the family on walks, towing their three blonde-haired children in a wagon. Photos on both Megan and Mark Short’s Facebook pages show the five of them together on vacation at Disney World and in professionally taken portraits.

But in stories in local media, the feature in the New York Times and posts on various support blogs, it was clear the Short family had endured great struggle. The Times story documented their frustrations and anxiety trying to obtain the critical medication keeping Willow alive. In a blog post for Philly at Heart, headlined “Learning to Heal: My Experience with PTSD,” Megan chronicled her battle with post-traumatic stress disorder, brought on by her experiences with Willow’s tenuous health.

She wrote:

“There are very few moments when you can clearly see your life as separated into the before and after. Having a child born with a severe congenital heart defect has been the most significant shift of my life. Like many moms, I have always put my family’s needs ahead of my own and forgotten to make time to take care of myself. Having a child with a life-threatening illness intensified that. I was so focused on learning everything I could to keep my child alive and to minimize the impact on my other children that I didn’t see the full impact that it had on me.”

Also an advocate for organ donation, Megan spoke often about her gratitude toward the family who made Willow’s survival possible.

“Someone else’s child died so that my child could live,” Megan told the Eagle in a profile about Willow’s recovery after her transplant. “I know they’re in so much pain. I am so thankful.”

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