Mother of 2 arrested in fetus abduction

The killing of a pregnant woman is just the newest notorious case in Skidmore.
Sunday, December 19, 2004 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 9:17 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

SKIDMORE — This tiny town in northwest Missouri was acquainted with violence well before someone strangled Bobbie Jo Stinnett on Thursday and cut open her belly to steal her unborn child.

The town, 101 miles northwest of Kansas City, made national headlines in 1981 when someone shot 47-year-old Ken Rex McElroy, a man with a violent history, in broad daylight. No one admitted seeing anything and the case has never been solved.

Four years ago, Wendy Gillenwater’s boyfriend stomped her to death. In 2001, a 20-year-old man disappeared, and many believe he was murdered.

Now, residents see their town in the headlines again. Lisa M. Montgomery, 36, of Melvern, Kan., has been charged with killing Stinnett and taking the baby to pass off as her own.

According to a federal criminal complaint, Montgomery admitted she strangled Stinnett, who was eight months pregnant, and took her baby from her womb. The complaint also said Montgomery lied to her husband about giving birth, although U.S. Attorney Todd Graves declined to give a motive for the crime.

Stinnett’s mother found the 23-year-old nearly dead Thursday in her northwest Missouri home. Paramedics tried to revive her, but she was pronounced dead at a hospital.

The baby was found Friday in an eastern Kansas home; a red Toyota similar to a description offered earlier by police was in the driveway.

Although DNA tests were pending to confirm the baby’s identity, authorities called off the Amber Alert issued for the child. The baby girl was in good condition Saturday at Stormont-Vail Regional Health Center.

“We’re confident we have the little girl that was taken from Skidmore,” Nodaway County Sheriff Ben Espey said during a news conference in Maryville.

Montgomery was charged with kidnapping resulting in death, Graves said. Montgomery, a mother of two, had been pregnant but lost a child, he said, although it was unclear when or under what circumstances.

Stinnett was married for little more than a year and expecting her first child. She worked at an engine factory in nearby Maryville. Her husband was at work at the time she was killed, authorities said.

“Why do they all come to Skidmore to do this?” asked Pauline Dragoo, 91, who has lived in Skidmore for 10 years. “I’m going to move out of this town.”

Skidmore, population 342, is no magnet for criminals. Last year, the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Department recorded 23 violent offenses for the entire county, a crime rate that is half the state average.

The town has suffered like many rural communities, losing a quarter of its population the past two decades and many of its businesses. The town’s elementary school has closed, and a lack of participation forced organizers to call off the annual Pumpkin Show this fall for the first time in memory.

Residents, however, said they like the small-town life.

“This is a really great little town,” said Carla Wetzel, the mother of two school-age girls. “We moved back here because it was a safe place. And it is a safe place.”

Colorado writer Harry MacLean, who wrote a book on the McElroy case and briefly lived in the area while doing research in the mid-1980s, said: “They’re quiet people, mostly farmers who all knew each other since kindergarten. Even then, they had sort of an ‘us versus the world’ approach to outsiders.”

McElroy, a large man with a taste for alcohol, was free on bond after being convicted of second-degree assault when he was shot while sitting in his truck outside of the town’s only bank.

When witnesses remained silent, national media outlets angered residents by calling them “vigilantes.” A made-for-TV movie came soon after. Earlier this year, the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival gave its top prize to “Without Mercy,” a dramatization of the killing.

“What’s happened now is going to be a shock for them all over again,” said MacLean, whose book, “Broad Daylight,” reached number two on the New York Times’ best seller list.

Gillenwater’s murder wasn’t noticed far outside Missouri, although her killer is now serving life in prison.

Authorities are still looking into the disappearance of Branson Perry.

No charges were filed, but authorities found a claw necklace belonging to Perry in Jack Wayne Rogers’ possession. Earlier this year, prosecutors told a federal judge that they discovered the transcript of a computer chat in which Rogers purportedly discussed Perry’s abduction and mutilation.

Rogers in April was sentenced to 30 years in prison for a separate child pornography and obscenity case.

Skidmore residents reject the idea that the town somehow brings the violence upon itself or that there’s “something in the water,” as one Kansas City radio talk show host has said in recent days.

“It’s not a matter of where they lived,” said JoAnn Stinnett, Branson Perry’s grandmother and a distant relation to Bobbie Stinnett. “All this just happened to hit here. It could have happened anywhere.”

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