Desolate, lonely, unlucky - just a few words to describe Skidmore, Missouri. Photographs portray a town that could once have been the picture of quintessential “small town America”, but if that image ever did exist, it is now long gone.
Nowadays, residents drive their trucks down the mostly empty streets, their destinations either church or the gas station. Good Time Charlie’s, one of Skidmore’s few restaurants which boasts a traditional, all-American menu, does look pretty good though; the tenderloin appears to be their specialty.
From the early 20th Century to present day, Skidmore’s population has fallen by half. Residents began to break free from the small, quiet farm town, which offered them little chance to prosper, in search of the kind of opportunities available in bigger cities such as Omaha to the north or Kansas City to the south.
As of 2016, around 270 people still lived in Skidmore, mainly making ends meet by farming and working in nearby factories.
23-year-old Bobbie Jo Stinnett’s work was more enjoyable than that of the average Skidmore resident. She and her husband, Zeb, bred rat terrier dogs out of their home. To supplement their income, they also worked at Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing Co. in nearby Maryville.
The couple had been married for about a year. As of December 2004, Bobbie Jo was 8 months pregnant with their first child.
As part of her dog breeding business, Bobbie Jo regularly contributed to a forum with a group of fellow rat terrier breeders. The name of the forum was “Ratter Chatter”, and members discussed the ins and outs of breeding, showing and caring for the dogs.
Bobbie Jo was known for her sweet and caring nature amongst other members of the group. As well as discussing their passion for rat terriers, members also shared details of their lives outside of dog breeding. Bobbie Jo announced to the group that she was pregnant and was expecting her new arrival in January 2005.
Lisa Montgomery, another breeder and dog show participant from Melvern, Kansas, also announced her pregnancy on the site. Lisa posted that she had been pregnant with twins, but one had died, and that she was due to give birth to the surviving baby in December. Fellow breeders were suspicious of Lisa’s claims of pregnancy after seeing photos of her at dog shows, as she never appeared to gain any weight, despite her supposed due date getting closer and closer.
Bobbie Jo, however, had no reason to be distrusting of Lisa. The two exchanged messages about the ups and downs of pregnancy, baby names and supplies they planned to buy. In April 2004, Bobbie Jo and Lisa met at a dog show in Abilene, Kansas. Everything seemed normal.
In late 2004, Jason Dawson received an email from a woman named Darlene Fischer. Dawson was a breeder of rat terriers and friend of Bobbie Jo, whom he had gotten to know through dog shows. He was also a member of Ratter Chatter, on which he had gotten to know Lisa Montgomery. Dawson had never met Darlene Fischer before, but it wasn’t uncommon for him to receive emails from strangers enquiring about adopting puppies.
Fischer asked Dawson if he knew of anyone in Northern Missouri who had puppies up for adoption, as she wanted to buy one for her kids for Christmas. Dawson knew Bobbie Jo’s female dog had had a litter recently, and the puppies would be ready to go to new homes in time for Christmas. He gave Fischer Bobbie Jo’s name and her website address, www.happyhavenfarms.com.
Fischer emailed Bobbie Jo, and got in contact with her via the Ratter Chatter message board. Her username displayed on the forum was “fischer4kids” and she told members of the group she lived in Fairfax, Missouri, about a 25-minute drive from Skidmore.
A message from Fischer to Bobbie Jo on December 15, 2004 read:
"I was recommended to you by Jason Dawson and have been unable to reach you by either phone or email. Please get in touch with me soon as we are considering the purchase of one of your puppies and would like to ask you a few questions."
Bobbie Jo replied to Fischer later that evening. She wrote:
“Darlene, I've emailed you with the directions so we can meet. I do so hope that the email reaches you. Great chatting with you on messenger, and do look forward to chatting with you tomorrow am. Thanks, talk to you soon, Darlene! Have a great evening. Bobbie."
December 16, 2004
Zeb Stinnett went to work at Kawasaki Motors that day, leaving Bobbie Jo home alone with their dogs, waiting for the arrival of Darlene Fischer. Nothing felt out of the ordinary to Bobbie Jo; Fischer had come across as perfectly friendly when they talked on the forum the previous evening.
At around 2:15pm, Bobbie Jo was talking on the phone with her mother, Becky Harper, telling her about the woman who was coming by to look at her puppies. When Bobbie Jo heard a knock on the door at around 2:30pm, she told her mother that her visitor had arrived and she had to go. This would be the last time Harper would speak to her daughter.
Bobbie Jo answered the door to a familiar woman: Lisa Montgomery. But before she could invite her inside, Montgomery barged in and overpowered the heavily pregnant Bobbie Jo. Lisa produced a cord, wrapped it around Bobbie Jo’s neck, and began strangling her from behind until she stopped struggling.
Lisa then pushed Bobbie Jo onto her back, and with a kitchen knife, began cutting open her womb. Once the cut was large enough, she extracted the fetus. Wrapping the infant, which turned out to be a girl, up in a blanket, Lisa went back out to her car and drove away.
A Horrifying Discovery
At 3:30pm, Becky Harper came by to see her daughter. She entered the home, only to find a scene that could only be described as something out of a horror movie. Blood was everywhere. Bobbie Jo lay on the ground unconscious. In her fists she clenched strands of long blond hair.
Harper ran to the phone and dialled 911. She explained to the operator that it looked as thought her daughter’s stomach “had exploded”. There was no sign of an infant anywhere.
Paramedics arrived almost immediately, but were unable to revive Bobbie Jo. She was pronounced dead at 4:27pm.
It was concluded that the infant was likely alive, given that he or she had been carried almost full term, but would likely be small. The baby could be in distress after enduring such a violent birth.
Tracking Down “Darlene”
The investigation into who murdered Bobbie Jo and kidnapped her baby began immediately. Authorities knocked on doors, asking neighbors if they had seen anything suspicious that afternoon. One resident said they had seen a dirty, old, red car parked in the Stinnett’s driveway sometime between around 2:30pm. They had never seen the car before.
Nodaway County Sheriff Ben Espey was determined that an AMBER Alert be put out for the missing baby. It proved difficult at first to convince his colleagues of this, given that very little was known about the baby; usually information on the most basic details like eye and hair color are required, which they did not have. However, around 12:30am on December 17, an alert was distributed.
As the sun rose the next day, news of the murdered young mother whose baby had literally been pulled from her womb spread like wildfire.
North Carolina rat terrier breeder Dyanne Siktar saw the news that morning and recognised the young pregnant woman as fellow breeder Bobbie Jo Stinnett from Missouri. Sitkar was shocked and saddened by the murder; she had come to think of Bobbie Jo as a friend, having had many conversations with her on Ratter Chatter.
Sitkar logged onto the forum; of course, Bobbie Jo’s tragic murder was on everybody’s minds. Scrolling through posts from the last couple days, Sitkar looked for any clues on the message board as to what might have happened to Bobbie Jo. She read the back and forth that had gone on between Bobbie Jo and Darlene Fischer on December 15, in which Bobbie Jo had told Fischer she had emailed her address and directions to her house. Fischer was to be meeting Bobbie Jo at her home on the 16th. Sitkar looked at Fischer’s account name, “fischer4kids”. It struck her as creepy. She called the FBI and notified them of her discovery.
FBI agents began going through Bobbie Jo’s emails from December 15. Sure enough, emails from a Darlene Fischer were in her inbox. Their attempts to track down a woman with this name in Fairfax, Missouri were in vain. It appeared that Darlene Fischer never existed.
The FBI employed computer forensic analysis to trace where the emails from Darlene Fischer had come from; it led them to a modem hooked up to a telephone line at the home of Kevin Montgomery on South Adams Road in Melvern, Kansas.
Our New Baby
On December 17, at the Whistle Stop Café in Melvern, Lisa and Kevin Montgomery showed off the newest addition to their family, a baby girl they had named Abigail. Lisa told friends that she had been shopping the previous day in Topeka, Kansas, when she had gone into labor in a store.
She was taken to the Birth and Women's Center in Topeka, where she gave birth to the baby girl. Montgomery called her husband, telling him what had happened and that she needed to be picked up.
Kevin and two of his teenage children got in his truck and drove to Topeka to pick up Lisa and the new baby.
The couple’s friends and family said that the baby was small, but otherwise looked healthy. They had no idea of the terrible ordeal the baby had just endured.
Meanwhile, FBI agents sat waiting on South Adams Road in Melvern outside the Montgomery farmhouse, waiting for the arrival of an old red car. Eventually a dirty red Toyota Corolla pulled up and a man and woman emerged, the woman carrying a newborn baby.
The agents approached the couple, asking if they were Kevin and Lisa Montgomery. They confirmed they were. Kevin and Lisa went inside, followed by the agents, who proceeded to ask them questions about the baby. Lisa told the same story she had told her friends. It wasn’t difficult for the agents to catch her out. On telling them that she had given birth at the Birth and Women's Center in Topeka, the agents told her that they had checked with the staff there, and there was no record of her having given birth the previous day. Lisa Montgomery broke down, confessing to strangling the baby’s mother, cutting her from the womb, and kidnapping her.
Kevin Montgomery was shocked at his wife’s confession, believing that Lisa had really been pregnant.
Lisa was arrested and charged with kidnapping leading to death. It was established that Kevin was not involved in the murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett or the kidnapping of her baby, and no charges were brought against him.
Lisa Montgomery’s Lies Exposed
During her trial, Lisa Montgomery’s years of lying and deceit became evident.
Amongst those who testified were Lisa’s ex-husband, Carl Bowman, Kevin Montgomery, Kevin Montgomery’s ex-wife Lori Colwell and Jason Dawson, who had originally referred Lisa to Bobbie Jo, when she identified herself as Darlene Fisher.
Bowman, whom Lisa was in a custody battle over their four children with at the time of the murder, testified that his ex-wife could not have been pregnant because she had undergone tubal litigation in 1990 after the birth of their fourth child. Her doctor recommended the procedure due to his belief that Lisa would no longer be able to carry another pregnancy to term, after the child was born two months premature.
After her procedure, however, Lisa would fake five more pregnancies, two while she was still married to Bowman. He mentioned that the day before Bobbie Jo’s murder, Lisa had called him, telling him she was “going to prove him wrong” in reference to him previously saying he would expose her lies about being pregnant and would use her deception against her during their upcoming custody hearing.
Bowman said to the press shortly after Lisa was arrested: "She never was pregnant. Anything they're buying about a lost baby, a miscarriage, all of it's a lie."
Kevin Montgomery testified that his wife had claimed to be pregnant three times since they had been married. Each time, he believed her. The first two supposed pregnancies of their marriage had ended with Lisa telling Kevin that there was something wrong with the fetus and she had to get abortions. The third time was different however, and when he saw Lisa carrying an infant when collecting her in Topeka, he genuinely believed it was their baby.
Although one of Lisa’s relatives told Kevin that Lisa was unable to get pregnant because she had had her tubes tied, Kevin said he did not know what this meant. Kevin’s ex-wife, Lori Colwell, testified that she believed Lisa had been tricking Kevin into believing she was pregnant. She explained that Kevin lacked social skills and was very easily manipulated.
In Lisa’s Defence
Lisa Montgomery pled not guilty to kidnapping leading to murder. Her defence attorney, Fred Duchardt, made the decision to pursue an insanity defence in an attempt to avoid the death penalty for his client.
Duchardt argued that Lisa had suffered a lifetime of mental illness due to the relentless sexual abuse and beatings she had received as a child at the hands of her stepfather and mother. She became dependent on alcohol from a young age in an attempt to relieve her pain.
Duchardt also claimed his client suffered from the delusional disorder pseudocyesis, a condition in which a woman’s body mimics all the signs and symptoms of being pregnant, but she isn’t actually carrying a fetus. Renowned neuroscientists V. D. Ramachandran and William Logan MD, supported Duchardt’s defence as expert witnesses during the trial. They confirmed claims that Lisa was delusional and likely did have pseudocyesis, as well as depression, borderline personality disorder and PTSD.
Federal prosecutor Roseann Ketchmark and expert witness for the prosecution, forensic psychiatrist Dr Park Dietz, strongly disputed the defence’s argument that Lisa had pseudocyesis; Ketchmark claimed the defence trying to link the murder and kidnapping to pseudocyesis was some kind of “voodoo science”.
Ketchmark argued that although Lisa had suffered this terrible abuse in childhood, this did not take away from the fact that the murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett was carefully planned by Lisa Montgomery, and therefore was premeditated. Ketchmark speculated that Lisa kidnapped the baby because she was worried her ex-husband would use her fake pregnancy claims against her in their custody hearing.
On October 22 2007, after just five hours of deliberation, the jury found Lisa guilty of kidnapping leading to death. Four days later, they recommended that she be put to death. On April 4, 2008, U.S. District Judge Gary A. Fenner officially sentenced Lisa to death.
Lisa Montgomery, now 51-years-old, currently sits on death row at Federal Medical Center, Carswell in Fort Worth, Texas. She is one of just three women scheduled for execution in the federal system.
Victoria Jo Stinnett
Once Lisa Montgomery had confessed to murdering Bobbie Jo and kidnapping her baby, authorities took the baby to hospital in Topeka, where she was reunited with her father. Zeb Stinnett named the baby Victoria Jo, referring to her as “a miracle.” After a short stay in the hospital, Zeb was allowed to take Victoria Jo home. Despite the trauma that she had experienced at the hands of Lisa Montgomery, she was doing extremely well.
On that horrible day in December 2004, Bobbie Jo Stinnett’s family were robbed of a loving daughter, wife and sister. “Bobbie Jo would have been a wonderful mother,” Becky Harper, Bobbie Jo’s mother, expressed tearfully.
Bobbie Jo was laid to rest at Hillcrest Cemetery in Skidmore. Despite the bitter cold, over 400 mourners attended the memorial service. They sobbed and embraced one another as they remembered the sweet, kind-hearted young woman who once smiled and waved at them as she walked her dogs down the streets of the small town. The day Bobbie Jo was ripped from this Earth, Skidmore lost one of the few lights it still had left.