Rows of headstones give way to fields of corn at the small, windswept cemetery where Bobbie Jo Stinnett is laid to rest. It’s possible to feel a sense of peace here that contradicts what happened nearly 16 years ago just a mile or so north, in Skidmore, Missouri.
On Dec. 16, 2004, Stinnett was eight months pregnant when she met with a woman, who went by the name of Darlene Fischer, about a litter of rat terrier puppies. The two women played with the puppies outside of Stinnett’s house in Skidmore, but the visitor carried a kitchen knife and a white cord inside her jacket. A few hours later, the woman was gone, the baby was gone and Stinnett’s mother walked into a scene of sheer horror.
“This is one of the cases that you’ll never forget,” said Nodaway County Sheriff Randy Strong, who worked the case as a Maryville Public Safety investigator. “I’m constantly reminded of it.”
Another reminder came Oct. 16 when Lisa Montgomery — the woman who called herself Darlene Fischer on that day — was given a Dec. 8 execution date for the death of Stinnett and the kidnapping of the baby she cut from the 23-year-old mother’s abdomen. It will mark the first federal execution of a woman since Bonnie Heady in 1953, another case that featured a Northwest Missouri connection. Heady and Carl Hall were executed for the kidnapping and murder of Bobby Greenlease, a 6-year-old boy whose body was buried in St. Joseph.
Strong, who was part of a massive law enforcement response after Stinnett’s body was discovered, helped locate Montgomery and the baby in Melvern, Kansas. Years after he helped extract a confession, he plans to witness the execution at the federal penitentiary in Terre Haute, Indiana.
“It’s a finality for me,” he said, “Something I want to see through to the end.”
The case brings not just finality. It also stirs up painful memories for those involved, as well as the wider community of Skidmore. The small Nodaway County town became the subject of news stories and documentaries about the 2004 murder/kidnapping as well as two unsolved cases: the shooting death of town bully Ken Rex McElroy in 1981 and the disappearance of 20-year-old Branson Perry in 2001.
“Of course it weighs on the people in Skidmore,” said Sandy Wright, the town’s mayor. “I think Skidmore has gotten a bad rap for some of the things that have happened here. Sometimes bad things happen in good places.”
Last week, even U.K. newspapers contained stories on the scheduled execution and recounted details of the crime. When Montgomery’s death sentence was appealed, federal court documents described the case this way: “Defendant incapacitated a pregnant woman so that she could extract the fetus and kidnap the baby.”
That doesn’t reflect all that happened. Those same court documents reveal that Montgomery strangled Stinnett until she passed out, but the young mother may have regained consciousness as Montgomery began to cut her. A struggle ensued, forcing Montgomery to use the cord a second time to kill Stinnett and then remove the fetus.
“We all dealt with terrible cases before,” said Don Fritz, a retired Cameron police officer who worked with Strong on the investigation. “But this one was just kind of extreme.”
The day after the murder, Strong remembers driving up to the house in Melvern and noticing rat terriers running around his feet as he prepared to enter. During her initial interrogation, Montgomery denied everything to Fritz and Strong. Fritz recalls pulling his chair up, patting Montgomery’s hand and telling her, “We’ve got to have the truth.” Then he looked down.
“I saw what I believed to be blood under her fingernails,” he said. “She dropped her head and said, ‘You’ve got the correct one. You’ve got the right baby.’”
During the penalty phase of the trial, a prosecutor asked Montgomery’s oldest daughter whether she had ever apologized. Montgomery replied that she did not remember committing the crime, according to court documents.
Strong has never wavered in his belief that the murder and kidnapping were meticulously planned. Montgomery brought a hospital-grade clamp for the umbilical cord. Gas station records indicate she conducted a dry run before the day of the attack. Court documents show that she was unable to get pregnant because of a medical procedure but may have wanted to fake it because of a custody dispute.
“It was one of the most well-planned murders I’ve ever seen,” Strong said.
The only source of joy is that Victoria Jo, the baby, was saved and reunited with her father. In those frenzied hours after the grisly discovery, investigators weren’t just trying to solve a murder. Strong remembers thinking how he had to get that baby out of Montgomery’s arms as soon as possible when he first saw them.
“You’ve got to get to the bottom of it,” Fritz told Strong on the drive to the house in Melvern. “You’ve got to recover the child.”
Today, that girl is old enough for high school and still lives in Nodaway County, surrounded by a family that values its privacy. Strong said he doesn’t know if it’s possible to have closure, for the family, for law enforcement and for the community at large.
“I think people want to see it over and move on,” he said. “I think that’s a stigma that floats over Skidmore. The people there still don’t like to talk about it.”
Wright said Skidmore is trying to move forward. “I don’t like dwelling on things that have happened in the past,” she said. “We’ve got a good town here.”