Evil in Elkland: The Buckner/Scnick Murders

Elkland, MO is a small rural town in northwest Webster County. In 1987, the population was around 200 people, mostly dairy farmers.

Steve Buckner, son of successful dairy farmer. He married his high school sweetheart, Jan, and they bought their farm in 1979. The couple had four sons. They were known throughout the town as exceptionally good people. Steve’s sister, Julie, lives just of the road with her husband Jim Schnick and their two children on their own dairy farm. The Schnicks are also highly regarded in Elkland. Jim is known to be a very hard worker with the highest moral standards. Jim and Steve both served on the volunteer fire department and were well-known in the little community, though it seems people favored Jim over Steve.

In the mid 1980’s the economy was in trouble and farmers were feeling the effects; many of them were losing farms. Willie Nelson started farm aid and pleaded for help from congress for the struggling farmers. By 1987, Steve is 2 years behind on his mortgage and likely going to lose his farm. The eldest of his sons, 14-year-old Kirk, is doing all he can to keep his family farm going. Kirk slept in the camper shell on the back of a truck outside, and he worked like a man trying to keep things going amid economic turmoil.

Jim Schnick was doing much better. Many would say it was because he was a much harder worker than Steve. He helped his brother in law by lending him farm equipment and money through these difficult times. But then, Steve began taking equipment without asking, and Jim felt he was taking advantage of him. Steve seemed to lean on others to do all the work for him. Tensions rise between the brothers in law, and eventually Jim decided he must cut ties with Steve. He said was not going to allow him to take advantage of him and then cause problems when he stood up for himself.

September 24, 1987. Kirk gets up before dawn to work on the farm. Goes to school and then comes home to work even more. This had become Kirk’s normal. He worked from the time he got up until he went to bed each day, fitting school in between. The boy never stopped, and he seemed to harbor some resentment toward his father for this. Many of his friends say Kirk would call his father lazy talk about how he always wanted everyone else to do the work for him.

On September 25, 1987, at around 6 AM, Jim Schnick calls 911 to report he has been shot. Police find him alive but confused. He has a gunshot in his leg and a stab wound in his stomach. Their two children are asleep in their beds unharmed. Kirk Buckner’s body is lying in the hallway covered in knife and bullet wounds. He has a bullet wound in his neck and most of the stab wounds are to his chest. There is a revolver in his right hand; later it would be determined that it was registered to his mother Jan. Jim’s wife Julie is found in her bed; dead from two gunshots to the head. Jim is barely conscious and unable to answer questions; he is air lifted to the hospital in Springfield. The sheriff is now tasked with the grim task of informing the Buckners of their son, Kirk’s death. When they arrive, the Buckner house is eerily quiet. They receive no response to their knocking and enter the unlocked front door. They are met with a startling gruesome scene, covered in blood. There, still in their beds, are the bodies of the younger three Buckner boys. They have all been shot execution style. Two of them were still in their beds and the 2-year-old is in his playpen. The police search the house, but do not locate Steve and Jan. They spread out to search the property, and they locate Jan’s body just outside the milk barn. She has been shot in the back of the head. After searching the property, Steve is still missing and possible a suspect. With the manhunt underway, they investigate the crime scene at the Schnick home. Jim’s overalls are sent to crime lab, along with the knife beside Jim and the revolver Kirk was clutching in his right hand. Police canvas the area for witnesses and neighbors reporting hearing voices and gunshots around 4:55 AM. Before too long the coroner arrives, followed very shortly by the press. The news of this massacre rocked the small community and those surrounding it. By that afternoon, they locate Steve’s body in the cemetery about halfway between the Buckner and Schnick farms. He is dead from two gunshots to the back of the head. If your keeping count, that means the entire Buckner family is dead, all but Kirk have been shot in the head. The police have only one witness to the crime, Jim Schnick. His wounds were not life threatening, and they need to question him at the hospital. Jim says that he was in a state of shock at this point. He couldn’t really believe that his wife was dead. He kept thinking she would walk in to see him. Jim relays the following story to the police regarding the events of that morning. He got up early to check on a cow that was due to calf. When he came into yard, he saw flashes coming from inside the house. He walked into the home and saw shadowy form near door. There was another flash and he was shot in the leg. He grabbed a knife that was laying nearby and charged the intruder. There was a fight, and he stabbed the figure many times, until the figure went limp and fell to the floor. He realizes the shadow is his nephew, Kirk, and calls police. The evidence to this time seems to point in the direction of Kirk being the killer. They piece together the events likely to have happened. He killed mom and then dad, then loaded his body into the truck. He then killed his little brothers while they slept. Kirk then drove to Schnicks, dumping Steve’s body on the way. He killed Julie and was interrupted before killing the children and attempted to kill Jim. In the days leading up to the murders, some people claim Kirk Buckner was acting strangely. Could it be that the boy caved from all the pressure of taking care of his family? Kirk worked all day and did well in school and reported that his dad was lazy and did not help. He was even said to have told a classmate that he would like to kill his father.

The town gathered for the funeral of the Buckner family on September 28, 1987. There were over 500 in attendance, with 34 pallbearers. The reverend directing the services said this: “If there’s anything to be learned from all this, it’s to learn to seek someone to talk to if we’re in trouble, and to have the ears to hear when someone cries out. Everything man makes has a breaking point. In mankind, there’s a point of breaking, too. Something in Kirk had reached that point, and he just snapped. Be sure of this, Kirk is loved by all his family and friends. If there’s a weakness here, a failure here, it is on you and I as a society.” Five hearses carried the family to the cemetery where the family caskets were lined up next to each other. Jim was unable to walk to the graveside but watched from the truck. People that tried to speak with him to offer condolences said he just sat there with his head down and never spoke to anyone. He remained long after others had gone and says at this time he just felt numb and in denial. Neighbors offer their help in cleaning family homes. They did not want other family to come into the blood-soaked crime scene, so they scrubbed it clean. The little town of Elkland was ready to try to move on and heal from this tragedy.

Then the sheriff received a phone call from one of Kirk’s teachers. Teachers and friends all had serious doubts about Kirk’s guilt. He was a good kid, and he never showed any signs of violence. Also, she had seen reports about the crime scene, and something stuck out to her. The gun was said to have been found in Kirk’s right hand… But he was left-handed. That would not have made sense if he were actively shooting. Police decide to take a second look. There was one part that never seemed plausible for investigators. Kirk was about 90 pounds, a small boy. His father, Steve was a big man at about 250 pounds. How would Kirk have loaded his father at dead weight into the truck to dump his body? My thought about this is that it didn’t make sense anyway. Why would you remove one body and leave all the rest? The biggest body at that. Then there is the matter of the retaining pin in the gun, or should I say not in the gun. The gun held six shots and there were 17 shots fired that morning, which meant the killer had to reload. In order to reload, the retaining pin would be removed and then reinserted for the weapon to fire. The gun Kirk was holding was missing the retaining pin. It would not have fired without it. Okay, I said it was missing but maybe I lied a little bit. It was not actually missing, because it had been found but in a surprising spot: the pocket of the pants removed from Jim Schnick. The pants hold more evidence against Jim. All the gunshot residue on the pants was on the inside of the pant leg. Someone explain this because I don’t understand that at all. Kirk’s body also does not fit the story. The gunshot to his chest was a dud; it only left an indention. The fatal shot entered his back and struck his heart, while the shot in his neck was likely after he was on the ground. And he was already dead before he was stabbed. Investigators need to reexamine the evidence, but remember that crime scene? Those nice neighbors cleaned it all up for the family. These sweet people were trying to help, and they ended up contaminating the crime scene and washing away any evidence at all. At this point, all the physical evidence is pointing toward the survivor, Jim Schnick, but none of it is particularly earth-shattering. Investigators needed more. Why would this well-liked man kill his in-laws, nephews and wife?

Police learn of a rumor about Jim Schnick having an affair. To most it is just that, a rumor. Jim is very respected in town and many people simply don’t believe in the gossip going around about him. Sadly, it was more than just a strong small-town rumor mill; it was true. Two years prior to the murders, Jim got a serious chest injury and ended up in the office of NP Nancy Bruner. Nancy Bruner was a divorced mother of two. What should have been a 15-minute meeting, turned into 4 hours of pleasant conversation. Is that why I have to wait so long at the doc’s office?? The two struck up a friendly relationship that quickly became an affair. Julie had no idea, but she could tell that there was a distance growing between her and Jim.

The police bring Nancy in for an interview. She tells them that she and Jim became good friends. He would travel to Springfield to see her often. She does not have any information about the shootings. A few days after her interview, she calls back to say she was not completely truthful. She then tells police that she was involved in a serious relationship with Jim Schnick. He told her he was going to divorce his wife and they could get custody of the children, then get married and live happily ever after. Of course, that is not how it went. When Jim is with Julie, he is working on their marriage. The couple began going to marriage counselling and trying to make it work. By summertime in 1987, Nancy has had enough. She decided she was going to just go have a talk with Julie and tell her to just let Jim go. Basically, she was ready to start her life with her lover, and his wife just wouldn’t let him go to be happy. The two women spoke at the Schnick house, and they both discovered they had been lied to. Jim had been making them both promises instead of choosing a path and taking it. After this talk, Nancy was furious, and Julie was ready for a divorce.

Jim Schnick was arrested on Oct 1st. He gave a full confession, which was filmed. He still didn’t tell the whole truth; you will see what I mean about the story. Here is what he said happened. On the morning of the murders, Julie was angry about the affair and she called her brother. There was already animosity between Jim and Steve, and this was when it would reach its boiling point. Steve grabbed his wife’s gun and rushed down the road to his sister’s house. Jim was already out working and met him in the driveway. The men got into an argument and Steve pulled out the pistol. He told Jim he would just get rid of him and clean this whole mess up right now. He would get him out of the picture and out of their family for good. The two men fought over the gun and in the struggle, it went off; Steve went limp. The problem: Steve was shot twice square in the back of the head. That is inconsistent with struggling for control of a weapon. He was executed. Jim realizes that Jan would know Steve came to his home, so he loads Steve’s body into his truck and drives it back to the Buckner house, dumping Steve’s body in the cemetery on the way. He finds Jan outside the milking barn with her back to him. He shoots her in the head without her even knowing he was there. Kirk, who sleeps outside in the camper, is awoken by the sound. He tries to make his escape and is shot in the back while he is running away. Then he said that he went into the home and “destroyed the other three children.” Two-year-old Michael was shot once, and the gun was pressed to his head; evident from the power burns around the wound. Timmy, the 7-year-old was shot twice in the head, and Dennis, 8 years old, was shot in the head three times. When he is leaving the house, he notices that Kirk is still alive and loads him up to drive back to his house. He claims that he carried Kirk over his shoulder into his bedroom where his wife was sleeping to tell her what he had done. He says that Kirk’s body slipped, and he tried to catch it and the gun went off and killed Julie. Again, Julie was shot twice in the head and forensics show the gun was fired within three feet of her forehead. He then stages the scene with Kirk’s body and shoots himself in the leg before calling 911. There was a third story that I found that Jim had told at one point. This story involved Steve and Kirk abducting him and he killed them in self-defense to get away. I’m not sure of the particulars or even if it’s true that he told it but thought I would mention it.

On April 11, 1988, Jim Schinck’s murder trail began. He was brought up on three counts of 1st degree murder. Three??? He was charged for the murders of his wife, Julie, and his nephews, Kirk and Michael. The other four were dismissed without prejudice so that they could be refiled if necessary. Leading up to trial there was a story that had come out from Jim’s confession. He claimed that Steve Buckner had sexually molested his sister, Julie, when they were growing up and that this was the root cause of the problems between the two families. If I read it right, and I think I did, the prosecution didn’t dispute this at all. They actually provided it as another motive. The molestation was the problem that first caused problems between the Schnicks and Buckners. On of Julie’s close friends testified that Julie had confided in her about the molestation and she had recommended she seek counseling. Many people testified on behalf of Jim, sharing stories of his caring and giving nature. They were all asked the same question by his defense attorney: “Do you still consider Jim Schnick one of your friends.” They all said yes, even the wife of the arresting officer answered yes, and many of these people exchanged kind words and smiles with Jim as they walked past him to the stand. On April 13th the videotaped confession was played for the jury. In preliminary hearings the defense had tried to get it thrown out, saying Schnick was on pain killers and his rights were violated in taking a statement while he was under the influence. On April 14th, the jury deliberated only two hours before returning a verdict of guilty on all three counts. The court reconvened for the sentencing the next day. A psychologist testified that Jim Schnick would likely never kill again. He said that animosity between him and the Buckners was something built over years, and with his high moral standards, the incest was something he could not get past. He believed he would be a role model for other prisoners. The jury was out only three hours this time. When they returned they recommended execution for Jim Schnick. On May 24, 1988, Judge John Parish followed the recommendation and sentenced Schnick to die for the killings of his wife and nephews. He was sent to sit on death row at Potosi Correctional Center.

In November of 1991, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the conviction! Why?? During jury selection, one man selected had said that he personally knew the sheriff and others working with the prosecution and would believe them over others because of their relationship. He should not have been allowed in the jury pool, and this little misstep here is what lead to the SC decision. There was a write up in the paper by a citizen of Lebanon saying how outraged he was at the decision because of the amount of money it would cost taxpayers to retry the case. The case was not retried, though. Schnick offered to plea guilty if they would take death off the table and recommend life in prison instead. They agreed and Jim Schnick is still serving his sentence at Potosi Correctional Center.

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