A quarter century has passed since the small community of Elkland became the site of a stunning morning of murder. Seven family members were killed in or near their homes on Sept. 25, 1987.
Jim Schnick will spend the rest of his days in prison for the 1987 killings, originally convicted of first-degree murder in 1988. An overturned conviction in 1991 by the Missouri Supreme Court set the stage for a second trial for Schnick — a proceeding that never took place, as the Elkland man pleaded guilty the following year, and was sentenced to three consecutive life sentences without the possibility of parole. He is currently incarcerated in the South Central Correctional Center in Licking.
Twenty-five years is a long time, but the Schnick murders are something you don’t forget too easy, said Tom Martin, retired Missouri State Highway Patrol troop lieutenant. Martin, a 33-year veteran with the MSHP, spent more than half of his career with the department’s criminal investigation unit, Division of Drug and Crime Control. He was brought into the Schnick case by then-Webster County Sheriff Eugene Fraker.
Martin explained the Highway Patrol regularly assisted counties with major crime cases, as many sheriff’s offices dealt with manpower issues.
“A lot of sheriffs at that time, and I’m sure still are, strapped for help,” he said. “We didn’t respond to cases unless we were asked by the sheriff.”
The phone didn’t ring on Sept. 25, the day of the murders, Martin said. “I remember the day very well,” he said, adding it was his wife’s birthday and he took the day off. He found out about the killings later that day from news on television. But while he wondered why Fraker, who he considered a good friend, hadn’t called, he figured the case as initially portrayed in the media must be close to being solved. Martin said Fraker later revealed to him his office thought it had it figured out.
However, two days later, Martin’s phone rang.
The crime, as initially described by Schnick, involved 14-year-old Kirk Buckner, Schnick's nephew, injuring Schnick in a struggle at his home near Timber Ridge Baptist Church. Kirk was killed in the process, Schnick told authorities, and was found near the front door with a .22 caliber revolver in his right hand.
He further said Kirk had killed Schnick’s wife, Julie, 30, after coming from the Buckner family’s house on Route EE, just east of Elkland. At the Buckner home, his parents, Steven, 35, and Jan, 36, and siblings Dennis, 8, Timothy, 7, and Michael, 2, were killed. Only the Schnicks’ two children survived.
Schnick was airlifted to St. John’s Hospital in Springfield that morning, with what was believed to be serious injuries, and was questioned by authorities while there. Schnick received bullet wounds to his left leg and lower left abdomen, injuries that were later determined to be superficial and, in Martin’s mind, self-inflicted.
Martin said he received Fraker’s phone call on Sunday, with the sheriff asking him to come to Marshfield and look over the case file.
“Something in the case is bothering me,” he said Fraker told him.
“At that point I didn’t know anything about the case besides what I heard on the news,” Martin continued.
There was no hesitation to get involved in the case, Martin said. “I loved Sheriff Fraker like a brother. He was one of the nicest men I ever had to work with.”
And working a case in Webster County was a natural for Martin, who started his career in Marshfield as a road trooper in 1965.
“Webster County has always been kind of like home for me,” he said, adding he still has family and friends there.
CHANGE OF DIRECTION
Going over the reports with Fraker, Martin quickly became skeptical about Schnick’s explanation of the sequence of events.
“Within just a few minutes, I felt it couldn’t have happened like they said it happened. ... Things just didn’t add up right,” he said.
The two discussed the next step in the case, realizing that if the murders happened differently than originally portrayed, autopsies on the bodies would need to be conducted. All the deceased were to be buried that same morning in Elkland.
“That was a dilemma, should we go out and stop the funeral,” he said.
Deciding against it, they decided to instead get a court order to exhume the bodies and examined them in Springfield at Cox South Hospital. “That was a tough thing to do,” Martin added.
In the meantime, interviews were conducted, with Schnick becoming the primary focus.
“He came across as just a good old country boy,” Martin said of Schnick. “Hard-working. He wasn’t arrogant or cocky or anything like that. The kind of guy you’d like to believe. But it was pretty obvious he was lying. Most of his statements were pretty self-serving.”
Authorities also interviewed Nancy Bruner, who had been involved with Schnick in an extramarital affair for two years. Bruner reportedly had told Julie Schnick about their relationship, causing friction in the marriage.
“You immediately look for a motive,” Martin said. “We pretty quickly found out Mr. Schnick had more than one motive, one being money, the other being the girlfriend he had.”
Asked to take a polygraph test Oct. 5, nine days after the murders, Schnick initially agreed and went to the MSHP headquarters in Springfield. But while there, he changed his mind, and instead confessed to the murders in a videotaped interview.
Then-Associate Circuit Judge Daniel Knust presided over the Schnick case up until he waived his preliminary hearing.
“Many cases have had an impact on me personally,” Knust said. “The Schnick case was not number one or two, but it was in the top five.”
Knust said he knew the Schnicks and Buckners, adding they “seemed to be quite normal.”
Marshfield resident Mitzi Hosmer, who worked full-time in the courthouse from 1979-2000, remembers the case as it proceeded to trial in April 1988. She worked for probate court, and she and the rest of the staff got to rotate into the courtroom to watch a half-day of the trial.
“I just remember (Schnick) sat there completely straight, listening, of course,” she said. “You wondered how he could have done this.
“It was a terrible, terrible tragedy.”
Knust remembers that was a particularly violent period of time with cases in the courthouse, as a trio of murders took place the week prior to the Schnick killings. A murder of a 5-year-old would take place around the time Schnick was arraigned in court, equating to 11 murders in less than a month’s time. But he said the courthouse atmosphere didn’t seem that different to him than it did prior to the Schnick case.
“We had other very tragic cases near the same time,” Knust said. “Frankly, we were working very hard to keep our docket current.”
However, the Schnick case picked up national and even international interest, as Hosmer recalled. Her son, Stephen, was living in New York at the time of the murders, and called his mother after seeing the crime reported on the front page of The New York Times.
“Boy, that was a day that changed everybody’s lives, to think that could happen,” Hosmer said.
Former Webster County Prosecutor Don Cheever pursued three first-degree murder charges against Schnick, holding back the other four charges in case Schnick was found not guilty in the trial.
However, after a four-day trial involving 46 witnesses and 85 exhibits, Schnick was found guilty of all three charges, with the jury recommending a death sentence — a decision upheld by Judge John E. Parrish.
In November 1991, the Missouri Supreme Court overturned the Schnick conviction on a technicality related to jury selection and ordered a new trial.
A juror who indicated he might not be completely impartial to testimony given by Fraker or deputy sheriff Don Roe was not immediately stricken from a list of potential jurors. The court ruled the inclusion of the juror, who did not serve on the jury, resulted in an insufficient number of qualified jurors for the purpose of making peremptory strikes, according to a April 21, 1988 issue of The Mail.
But by May 1992, a plea bargain was struck, with Schnick avoiding the death penalty in exchange for pleading guilty to the three first-degree murder charges. In addition, he was to serve three consecutive life sentence without a chance for parole and waived his right to further appeals.
As one of the witnesses who testified in the 1988 trial, Martin said he “was happy to do so.” The trial provided an ideal opportunity to definitively clear the name of Kirk Buckner, whose innocence in the murders was proven through the criminal investigation.
If Schnick’s original story was believed, the teenager could have been permanently labeled a murderer — a tragedy on top of a tragedy, Martin said.
“He was just a really good kid,” Martin said. “It could have been a horrible tragedy of justice.”
As the years move on, the tragedy associated with the case continues to subsist, so much so that a number of people contacted for this story declined to participate. To many of them, there’s a prevailing feeling of letting the pain from the past remain in the past.
Martin said he never knew the Schnick or Buckner families on a personal level. But he heard plenty of good said about them during the time of the investigation. From those he heard from, Schnick wasn’t someone you would expect to do something as shocking and horrific as killing family members. But with more than three decades of law enforcement under his belt, Martin said you learn to set aside preconceived notions about people during investigations.
“I learned a long time ago, you don’t know what people are capable of in the right circumstances.”