The gate on Jim Schnick’s neat little dairy farm is padlocked. The killings happened here and over at the Buckner place.
At first, everyone thought that 14-year-old Kirk Buckner had just gone berserk and killed his parents, his three younger brothers and Jim Schnick’s wife. They had found the gun in Kirk’s hand as he lay dead on the floor of the Schnick home. Schnick said he had to kill the boy, his wife’s nephew, to stop the rampage.
But now, Jim Schnick is in jail in Marshfield, the county seat, accused of all seven killings on that Sept. 25 morning.
Having Schnick accused of the murders does not make for a tidy ending. True, Kirk Buckner’s name has been cleared. But Schnick was part of this community of 250 for a lot of years. He worked hard for the volunteer fire department, and Postmaster Jim Jacobs seemed to recall that he once had been a member of the Lions Club.
“In a little town like this, everyone is sort of like a relative,” Jacobs said. “Everybody was kind of relieved to find out the boy didn’t do it. Nobody really wanted to find out about Mr. Schnick, because he had a lot of friends, too.”
The rolling country around Elkland is part of the Ozark foothills. At this time of year, the trees are beginning to turn and, at night, the thermometer dips to near freezing. Those who still work the land full time for a living, as the Schnicks and the Buckners did, mostly do so as dairy farmers. The Buckners, with four children, did not have much money left over after paying for the necessities.
When Webster County Sheriff Eugene Fraker drove down the gravel road to the Schnick farm that early morning, he saw two ambulances that had got there before him. Young Kirk Buckner was dead, and so was Schnick’s wife, Julie. Schnick was bleeding from what appeared to be shots to the leg and abdomen.
Fraker noticed a couple of things, seemingly unimportant at the time, but relevant later.
“He was overacting,” Fraker said.
For one thing, he said, Schnick was thrashing about wildly, as if delirious from grief and his wounds. Two men had to pin his arms to the floor while a paramedic worked on him. And, when they both let go, Schnick continued to writhe but did not try to get up.
“He was thrashing about, but it was like a little bantam rooster wanting to be held back from a fight,” the sheriff said.
Suffered Flesh Wound
Another thing, Fraker said, was that Schnick’s voice was very weak. That did not seem unusual then, but it did when the medical report came in. The shot to the abdomen was only a flesh wound.
“A bullet in the leg doesn’t make you lose your voice,” Fraker said.
Of course, in all the excitement, he was not thinking about that at the time. After the other bodies at the Buckner home were discovered, the news media arrived in a swarm. It fell to the sheriff to comfort the senior Buckners, also dairy farmers here, who had lost a son, a daughter and four grandchildren.
It was not until Sunday, two days after the murders, that Fraker began to believe things were not as they appeared, when the evidence did not seem to fit together. Schnick, meanwhile, had done another unusual thing: His wounds had only been severe enough to warrant an overnight hospital stay, but he had told doctors he did not want to be released.
The sheriff called Sgt. Tom Martin of the Missouri Highway Patrol criminal division and asked for help.
“I wondered when you were going to call,” Martin said.
The initial explanation that Fraker had put together and given to the press had seemed plausible. The boy, for whatever reason, had snapped. He had killed his mother, Jan, 36; brothers Dennis, 8, Timothy, 7, and Michael, 2; and his father, Steve, 35, whose 250-pound body he somehow moved three miles away to the Pleasant View Church cemetery. Then he had driven to the Schnick farm and killed his aunt before he was himself killed in a struggle with his uncle.
“It was easy to believe the story that Kirk Buckner might have done it,” said Gordon Nordquist, the editor and publisher of the weekly Marshfield Mail. “I couldn’t put it together any other way. It seemed like a believable tale.”
Audie DeHart, principal of Marshfield Junior High, which Kirk had attended, said much the same thing: “It looked like the boy did it. It looked pretty conclusive.”
Shot and Stabbed
But Fraker was not so sure. For one thing, the autopsy report on Kirk showed that the boy had not only been shot through the heart but had been stabbed there as well. Either wound, the coroner told the sheriff, would have been almost instantly fatal.
As Fraker and Martin questioned Kirk’s friends and relatives, many stated adamantly that the boy could not have committed the murders. Some of his classmates said he had been acting strangely before the killing spree, but his closest friends said Kirk had been his usual self.
Then there was the question of finding the gun in his right hand, when Kirk was left-handed. And the problem of how a 90-pound boy managed to load his 250-pound father into a pickup truck and then dump him near the cemetery.
Neither police officer said anything to Schnick about all this. And the dairy farmer, having been released from the hospital, went to be looked after by the senior Buckners, who on the night of the killings had been taking care of the two Schnick daughters. Only after all the funerals had been held did Martin ask Schnick if he would take a polygraph test. Schnick agreed to take one the next Monday.
Got a Confession
Highway Patrol Sgt. Donny Smith came in from Poplar Bluff to administer the test. He got a confession from Schnick instead.
The question of motive is still something neither Fraker nor county prosecutor Don Cheever will discuss in detail. They will say only that it seems to involve a mix of things. For one, there was bad blood between Schnick and Steve Buckner. For another, there was a $50,000 insurance policy on Julie Schnick’s life.
“Love’s a funny thing,” Fraker said cryptically.
Cheever said that the working theory is that Buckner went to the Schnick house at about 4 a.m., armed with the .22-caliber pistol used in all the killings. There was a struggle. Buckner was killed and then dumped at the cemetery. Then the rest of the Buckner family was killed, the three younger boys apparently shot as they slept. Kirk Buckner was the only one dressed, probably doing chores, and police now say he may have died trying to save his family.
Julie Schnick is now presumed to be the last one to die, Cheever said.
Still, there is a cloud over this case, and answers may be hard to come by. Schnick confessed to the killings, Cheever said, but “he really didn’t explain why it happened.”
“I don’t know if we will ever know exactly why it happened,” he added.
Martin, though, still thinks it most important that the boy who was killed will not be branded a killer.
“The most tragic thing would have been if we didn’t clear Kirk Buckner’s name,” he said.