I think we can all agree that he deaths of seven people, especially all from one family, is tragic. Where we differ, may just be if we believe that one of those victims, a fourteen year old child no less, was buried in a grave and believed to be the murderer of the others, only later to be exonerated may be even more tragic. When the collective funeral of Julie Schnick, her brother, Steven Buckner, Steve's wife, Jan and their four children Kirk, Dennis, Timothy and Michael was conducted even the minister commented that Kirk was responsible. The minister stated “In mankind there's a breaking point. Something in Kirk had reached that point, and he just snapped.”
So how did authorities come to this conclusion and how is it that the entire country would come to believe that a fourteen year old boy “snapped”? There are a few opinions on that but few argue that the original story came from James Schnick, Julie's husband. On the morning of September 25, 1987 a 911 call would be placed from the Schnick home in Eckland Missouri. Officers would arrive at the dairy farm at about 6:30 that morning. By most accounts Alfred and Jean Buckner, Julie's parents had gone to the home about 6 and discovered first their son in law, James Schnick, lying on the floor injured from apparent gunshot wounds. They would also see their fourteen year old grandson, Kirk Buckner, laying dead near the doorway. Inside the master bedroom of the home Jean Buckner would find her daughter, with two bullet holes in the head. It appears that it was the elder Buckners who would make the 911 call.
What happened or was discussed between the 911 call and the police arriving is unknown. One thing that has troubled me a bit about this part of the case is that it does not seem as if anyone went to or attempted to contact Steve Buckner until officers went to his home, some five miles down the road about 7:15. The Schnicks had two children at their home that were unharmed. I was a bit confused because the first report I read stated that the Schnicks had two daughters, ages eight and six and names were given, which I do not intend to do here. Later reports were less specific on the gender of the children and one of the last things I looked at was a Topix website in which often spoke of the Schnicks having a son. Looking back at my information I would have to guess that the older child was the boy based on the name that I had seen. With that said it is extremely possible that the older Buckners were not only overcome with grief at their findings but their time between the call and police arriving was spent with the children and likely attempting to preserve James Schnicks' life. The latter however was said later to not necessarily be needed and that despite his complaints his wounds were superficial, but that was not known at the time. In fact, it was said that he was flown lifeline to the hospital.
As I said, around 7:15 that morning two police officers went the five miles down the road to the Buckner farm. Presumably their intention was to go there not only to continue the investigation but to inform the Buckners that their eldest son had died. Upon their arrival the officers were met with even more horror. It is unclear which family members they would come across first but by the time they were finished they had found four more bodies at this location. Thirty-six year old Jan Buckner would be found in the milk barn with a gunshot wound to the head. Her three youngest children would be found inside the house. The two older children, eight year old Dennis and seven year old Timothy would be found in their beds, each had been shot two times in the head. Two year old Michael would be found in the downstairs in a playpen. He had been shot directly in the temple.
So now police had found everyone in two households, minus one person. Steve Buckner had not been found at his home, or at the home of his sister. At this point they had six dead bodies, one person injured and two unharmed survivors out of ten people that lived in the two homes. Initially it was wondered if Steve Buckner had possibly shot seven members of his family and taken off. That opinion was soon changed when Steve Buckner's body was found. Some reports state that he was found near a gravel road between the two home while other reports indicate he was found in a nearby cemetery. Whether both of the claims could be true (i.e. a gravel road by a cemetery) is unclear. Steve too suffered from a gunshot wound to the head and it apparently appeared early on to not be self inflicted, meaning he too had been murdered.
It is not clear if Jim Schnick gave any indication as to what happened prior to him leaving for the hospital or not but by the way things progressed it appears that it was not long until he gave some version of what happened. Police had found a .22 pistol laying next to Kirk so when Jim Schnick told his first story of what happened authorities thought they may have it figured out. At the very least Jim told investigators a story the following day at the hospital. He would claim that he had been outside gathering cattle and had gone back into the house where he found Kirk Buckner armed with a pistol. He claimed that they had struggled and he was almost certain that he had stabbed Kirk with a kitchen knife in self defense but beyond that he was not clear on what happened because he claimed that he had blacked out after he, himself had been shot. Looking for answers as to why this would happen Jim Schnick told investigators Kirk and his father had a long period of hostility between them and he could only assume this was the motivation behind the massacre. It does appear that in this interview Jim Schnick admitted that his own marriage was not on full stable ground and that he had been having an affair.
Just how this story was passed onto the media is in a bit of a dispute. The sheriff would later claim that due to media pressure and them wanting answers that he had told them early on that it was “possible” that Kirk Buckner was the perpetrator of all the murders. He would say that he was certain that he had used this word and that the media conveniently left it out in their report to indicate he had definitely said Kirk was the perpetrator. However a reporter who claims he was the first reporter on the scene at the Buckner home says that Sheriff Fraker did not use those words and quoted him as saying “It appears we have a teenager who got up this morning and killed his entire family.” In the same respect Sheriff Fraker would also later say that he was also suspicious of Jim Schnick's story, even from the beginning. In my opinion Fraker was simply covering his own behind at that point. Eckland is an extremely small town about twenty miles northeast of Springfield Missouri. It was said there were only a few hundred people living there in 1987 and much of it was farm land spread out. There had been a few murders in the county recently, at least one attributed to a hitchhiker, but nothing like this had been seen before. And yet the story of seven members of one family being murdered made its way into the papers all over the country. It was said that one resident received a phone call from a child that lived in New York and had read about the crime. In fact, I found many articles in my research that talked to another officer (from either another county or the state police) that was friends with the sheriff who said he expected to hear from Fraker almost immediately asking for help but that call did not come for a couple of days.
Despite anyone in an official capacity saying they were suspicious of Jim Schnicks story much later it does appear that not everyone in the small town agreed with the official statement that indicated Kirk Buckner had killed his family. Of course not everyone disagreed that what was said to have happened was impossible but many who knew the family and Kirk in particular seemed to be outraged. Let me just say I have lived in small towns before and while it can be true that everyone seems to be in the business of others, the other reality about small towns is that many of the “rumors” you hear are based on fact and are true. So when it was said that not only was a .22 pistol found next to Kirk's body in the Schnick home but next to his right hand, people began making phone calls to the police department. One particular call came from a teacher at Kirk's school. It appears no one there believed that Kirk would have ever done what he was accused of doing but this particular call informed the police that Kirk was left handed. Authorities would later say that this was the first real sign that maybe their first conclusion was the wrong conclusion. In fairness, others have said along the way that just because he was left handed did not mean he could not have shot the gun with his right hand.
Allegedly, according to one officer, the morning the family was being buried, September 28th, was when more serious doubt had come to the forefront. According to this officer there were questions on whether they should have prevented the funeral but instead it was decided that they would allow the burial to happen and an exhumation would take place. This is another thing that I have a huge issue with. First we are supposed to believe that “serious” doubt in Jim Schnicks story was almost immediate and yet apparently they had not told the medical examiner or asked that more things be checked? The bodies were found on the morning of September 25th and three days later not only had the bodies of all seven victims been released after alleged medical examinations but they were being buried. That is how long it takes when your grandma, who was ninety years old died alone in her bed of natural causes. Now, to be fair we can probably assume that there were not open caskets considering the fact that six of the victims had been shot in the head. Kirk was the only one who had been shot elsewhere but to be fair it almost appeared that they had not even known this until the bodies were later exhumed. He was shot three times, one time each in the chest, neck and back along with suffering stab wounds. My point in this is that the bodies were released in a manner in which it appeared the crime had been solved and the only answer at that point was that Kirk Buckner had killed his family and his uncle had killed him in self defense.
To be fair here while there were people saying there was no way Kirk Buckner had committed this crime, there were just as likely as many people saying that Jim Schnick's story had to be true because it was just as likely out of character for him to have committed the crime. In reality those were the two choices. Either you believed Jim's story that he had been attacked by Kirk and had killed him in self defense and looked around at all the other bodies scattered between the two homes. Or, you did not believe Jim, which meant that Kirk had not attacked him and if that was not true then how could you expect that he had killed all the others. If Jim's story was not true, yet he killed Kirk, it was only reasonable to believe he had also killed the others. Now of course in my research I came across a third theory. I will tell it here, but I want to state that a) it is only a theory, b) there seems to be absolutely nothing to support it and c) I do not believe this to be the case. So the theory that I found people that commented on the Internet was that Steve had actually killed his wife, his children and even his sister and that instead of Kirk being the one that Jim killed in self defense it was actually Steve. This theory apparently took hold because it was one of the stories that Jim told.
The only theory that anyone could come up with as to why Kirk Buckner would have killed his family was that he had “snapped” under pressure. It was pretty well documented that the Buckner's were having financial difficulty. They were behind on payments and bank loans for the 99 acres of land they owned and farmed. It was said that Kirk, aside from going to school worked before and after school doing chores and helping on the farm. Those who knew Kirk did not buy this theory for many reasons. It was said that Kirk never complained of working hard on the farm and he was very close to his mother and his brother, often helping in their care. Others in the community thought the theory of finances was almost absurd. If you remember the 1980's you remember the farm crisis that went on. If you do not remember that time, let me fill you in. Farms across the country were struggling. It was not uncommon for them to be very far behind in payments and while yes, many in this period lost their farms, it was also just as common for them to jump back. Steve Buckner's farm and financial situation was not any different than other area farm, including the one owned by Jim Schnick.
So there it was. Kirk Buckner had “snapped” and killed his family, at least that was the official story for about ten days. Now, that is not to say that the investigators did not believe that was the story those full ten days but from an official standpoint it was not until October 5th that Kirk Buckner would be exonerated and no longer branded a killer. So, what changed? Well in the end it was a confession but it is unlikely that the confession would have come had there not been pressure placed on Jim Schnick or at least a little more investigating done. Most believe that the phone call about the fact that Kirk was left handed and the gun had been found in or near his right hand is what had investigators checking their “notes” again. Later they would say that they had nagging doubts about some things. I would have to agree with them. Their subsequent investigation would clear all of my doubts up, save one or two that I am unsure will ever be answered.
Investigators would say that behind the placement of the gun more things did not add up. One was the fact that they said no shell casings had been found at all. Now, while my research indicated none were found... anywhere... I have wondered if that was true or if the statement simply meant none were found at the Buckner farm. It had been apparently determined that the gun found, was the murder weapon of all the victims but I never heard just where this gun had come from and who it was registered to. Of course the fact that the victims not only all knew each other but were related may or may not have made a difference when it came to gun ownership. But as investigators would later say they found it odd that if Kirk had “snapped” as was thought to have happened that he would have been coherent enough to pick up all of the shells. The next big issues that had investigators shaking their heads was the fact that Kirk had a slim build and only weighed about 130 pounds (some reports say he weighed as little as ninety but I think that was said honestly for exaggeration) and they could not figure out how he could have moved his 250 pound father. It was never thought that Steve was killed where he was found which means he was either drug to that place or his body was placed in a vehicle and taken there. It seemed to be an impossible feat for Kirk to do.
At the scene when investigators had arrived they believed that Jim Schnick was severely injured. It has been indicated that this was less from the visible look of his injuries as it was the “moaning and wailing.” Once at the hospital it was discovered that Jim's injuries were very superficial and there was some indication that they were possibly or probably self inflicted and little more than a gracing. I never found this in my research but I recently saw yet another television show on this case the other day and if it is true, as they reported there, that the firing pin to the gun had been found in the pants that Jim was wearing I believe this would have maybe settled it for me. This would mean that the gun had to have been placed in Kirk's hand and that he had not been able to fire the gun. Jim's initial story to investigators did not mention Kirk being shot at all, only that he had stabbed him. The position of his body, with the gun in his hand indicated that when he died and fell to the ground he had the gun in his hand. And yet the firing pin was in Jim Schnick's pants. I guess the big question is why would he have done this? Is it because Jim's two children were in the house? Nothing ever said if the children heard or saw anything throughout all this.
When Jim Schnick was interviewed again on October 1st he gave much of the same story as he had the day of and the day after the murders. Something that I find interesting are there are those who have argued that on the day of the murders Jim was suffering in pain while investigators spoke with him and the following day he was on pain medications in the hospital when they went and interviewed him. Both of these statements are true on the surface but the argument makes no sense by the time October 5th came along. On that day he gave at least two new accounts before he would completely change his story. First he told investigators that both Kirk and Steve had kidnapped him. I cannot say where he claims he was kidnapped from, or where he ended up in this story but we all know that in the end he eventually ended up back at his own home. In the second version he stated that Kirk had kidnapped him alone. Jim had agreed to take a lie detector tests. Information is conflicting on whether he was already hooked up to the machine and the first few questions had been asked or if he had not even started the test when he began confessing to the crime. He first confessed to Deputy Sheriff Roe and then he gave a video confession. To be fair although the video tape would be shown to a jury I did not see the video, nor can I say exactly how Jim claims things happened on the morning of September 25th. Jim Schnick would ultimately be charged with seven counts of first degree murder. The prosecutors were looking at the death penalty.
Before his trial would begin on April 11, 1988 prosecutors would drop four of the charges. It was said that they did so in the event that they did not obtain a guilty verdict. If that was the case then they still had those charges to try again without violating the Double Jeopardy rule. Prosecutors proceeded with the charges relating to the murders of Julie, his wife, fourteen year old Kirk and two year old Michael. I can understand the decision the prosecutor made not only in dropping some charges but also in picking the charges that they did. While I am unsure there was any more than his confession, and the things mentioned here, he obviously had a motive to kill his wife. First, he had life insurance on her. Secondly it was said that Jim's mistress of two years, Nancy Bruner had at some point contacted Julie and told her of their affair, so the marriage was in trouble. Then there were the charges for Kirk's murder. I would gander to guess that after trying to pin the murder on the innocent fourteen year old who was buried in the ground while all of those around believed he had murdered his family, charging Jim for his murder was the only sort of justice for Kirk he could get. The last charge was all but a given. What in the world could this absolutely innocent two year old ever could have done to this man to deserve this. The child was barely old enough to speak let alone threaten him in any way.
Throughout the trial the other murders were obviously mentioned. I mean you could not tell the story without it. Besides, the prosecutors had to have a theory as to why Jim would take out the entire Buckner family. He could hardly say that he and Steve had an argument and there had been an accident; he had already tried to say Kirk had attacked him and that failed. Aside from the issue of life insurance on Julie, prosecutors had two other theories that would explain why the Buckners were killed also. One revolved around the fact that Jim had co-signed on a bank note for Steve for his farm. The thought was that if Steve, and in reality, his entire family was dead the farm would go to him, debt free. This of course was based on the probable theory that there was insurance with this provision attached to the loan. The other theory of motive involved his in-laws. Alfred and Jean Buckner apparently had a 250 acre farm. Their wills were to leave it to their two children and six grandchildren. When Jim Schnick had finished his act of violence the only heirs to that inheritance were his eight and six year old children.
Very little information seemed available about the trial from the defense standpoint so it is no surprise that the jury found him guilty. On April 16, 1988 Jim Schnick was sentenced to death. But that is far from the end of the story. In 1991 an appeals court overturned Jim's conviction for a reason that not only I had never heard of before, but for a reason in which had no affect what so ever on the outcome of the trial. A new trial was ordered. When I first came across the fact that his conviction had been overturned it simply stated that it was due to issues in jury selection. Silly me thought this mean that there had been a juror that should not have been on the panel. So of course I dug a little deeper. The next time I came across this issue and read on there was more information but I was left perplexed. The appeal stated that “a juror who indicated he might not be completely impartial to testimony given by Sheriff Fraker or Dept. Sheriff Don Roe was not stricken from the list of potential jurors.” It went on to say that that particular juror did not serve on the jury but the court said it “resulted in an insufficient number of quality jurors for purpose of making peremptory strikes.” Later I learned a bit more, and while I see the issue that was made, I have to completely disagree with the court in reversing the conviction. What had happened was that each time a potential juror was questioned they were told the list of witnesses that would likely be called and asked if they knew any of them. The particular juror at issue was named Charles George. When he was asked about knowing the witnesses he said yes, he knew the sheriff and the deputy sheriff. There was no indication made that he was best friends with these men in any way but only that he knew them. He was then asked if he would believed that those in law enforcement are more believable than any other witness. While he said in essence he was not sure, he did say knowing their job and what they do he would likely believe them over a stranger. The defense asked to strike him for “cause” (which means they did not want him because of this answer) and the judge disagreed. Later when a panel of twenty-three jurors were picked the defense and the prosecution had a particular amount of “strikes” that I call “just because strikes.” This means they have twenty-three but they did not need that many. They needed the twelve for the jury and then depending on what had been decided they would need another two to four as alternates. This means that the remaining jurors could be dismissed for any reason by any side. Lets say juror number three has florescent green hair and the defense thinks it makes them too distracting or is scared they are too liberal for their conservative client. Then all they have to do is strike them. Or lets say the prosecutor asked each juror early on if they would have issue handing out the death penalty and juror number five said no, but then the prosecutor saw a look on his face that made him think he was lying and his case would be in trouble... out he can go. Well, when they got down to the twenty-three remaining, the defense dismissed Charles George, preventing him from being on the jury. So the defense no longer had to worry that this man may be sitting on the jury and could have been impartial. One would think that would be the end of it.... nope. So despite that Charles George, who was the juror at issue did not in fact sit on the jury the courts decided that he should have never been in the twenty-three to begin with and should have been dismissed when the defense asked him to be prior. The courts argument was that by using this strike after the twenty-three had been picked they in essence “wasted” a strike and could have used that strike on someone else instead. I would like to say … Yeah... I did not agree either, but there may be some of you who do agree with that decision.
So now the prosecution was headed back to square one and were going to have to prepare for a new trial. It is doubtful that they had any fears of losing, the case was not overturned on merit and the jury had been fairly quick in their judgment but there was the issue of time and taxpayer money going into another capital trial Those are always more expensive and while the prosecution case would likely just be the same case as the first time, the defense likely would not. I mean, they lost the first time and I cannot even say if the same lawyers were now involved. Add to this that special provisions are given to defendants in capital cases many times. It is unlikely after all the years in prison that Schnick could have afforded his own lawyer and by the information I gathered about his family it is unlikely they could afford a lawyer, nor does it sound that they would have paid for one even if they could. So the county would have those costs as well as any expenses such as investigators and what not would also be added. The prosecution decided to make a deal with Jim Schnick and by the looks of things it seems to be pretty iron clad. If Jim Schnick agreed to plead guilty for the three murders that he had been tried for he would receive three life sentences (serves consecutively, so one right after another) without the possibility of parole. There were other stipulations such as the state agreed to never pursue the charges in the other four murders and Jim got to live but he could never file an appeal against the deal.
One would think that with the fact that Jim Schnick has confessed to committing this crime at least three times and then ultimately pleading guilty that questions of his guilt would be nil, but you would be wrong. Yes, I was surprised too. There are those who still believe that Jim was not guilty. In fact there was apparently a book written that proclaims his innocence that looks as if only about ten (I cannot be certain) copies were made and is available at a few libraries but even some of them do not allow you to literally check the book out. For those wondering, the book is said to be called No Justice: The Jim Schnick Story by Bill Blevins. There is another book on the subject, that apparently agrees with his guilt by Michael Cuneo but I failed to get the name of that one. If you look hard enough on the Internet you can find your way to some of the arguments among those commenting. Jim himself however was on a recent episode of the television show The 80's The Deadliest Decade and while he did not give complete details and did mention his “blackout” he never protested his innocence. It seems that those who believe in his innocence most notably point to Steve as the murderer of his family.
I have an issue painting Steve, or even Kirk as the killer. In either case, what would be the motive to also kill Julie Schnick? Let's start by looking at Steve. We can say ok, he was in financial straits and was stressed or depressed or any of the other things that are often associated with those who kill their families. So he kills his wife and at least his three younger children. There's still Kirk left. While I am unsettled in not knowing how or why for sure Kirk was at the Schnick home it is just as likely he may have been asked to come help at the farm that morning. Neighbors have said he would do such things. So lets say that Kirk is helping at the Schnick farm that morning. If Steve was going to kill his family and still had the one child left he would have just waited at home for him. He would not have gone to the Schnick house and risk having to deal with two more adults. But then lets say that Steve did have a motive to kill the Schnicks, just as was theorized Jim Schnick had a motive to kill the families... inheritance. If that was the case why were the Schnick children left alive but yet his own children dead? And where was Jim Schnick when Steve, or Kirk for that matter was killing his wife? And realistically, are we supposed to believe that Steve would have killed all these people and thought he could get away with it. Well I suppose that he could have done as Jim did and blame one of the innocent victims but then again it still would not explain why not everyone at the Schnick house was murdered and Steve was not still there.
Then there is Kirk. It would seem he would have less motive to kill everyone than even Steve would have. It was said often that Kirk was especially close to his mother and brothers. Now, had Steve been the only victim, despite the only person saying Kirk and Steve had issues, I may have bought it. But if he was the murderer why kill his entire family, then go to his aunt's home and kill her? Sure some could argue that Jim could have walked into the home and interrupted Kirk's plans to kill them all but again, where the motive in this? Sure, if he was not caught he could have gotten probably his father's 99 acre farm as prosecutors thought Jim Schnick thought he would, debt-free. But, what are the odds that this fourteen year old kid wants to run a farm full time and take over? And again this is all on the idea that he would not be caught.
No, the only rational explanation is that it was Jim Schnick and that is even before you look at all the other evidence. While I cannot say for certain how everything happened or maybe even why, I can speculate. I believe that Jim Schnick had asked for Kirk to come over early that morning, or maybe he even stayed the night so he was already there to help with the farm. I also believe it was likely planned that Julie and Steve's parents would be coming that morning. Jim would have ample opportunity to have left that morning, especially if Kirk was already at his home and maybe outside working with the cows to go to the Buckner farm and kill the rest of the family there. Maybe he was taking Steve's body back to his house thinking he would pin it on Steve. Maybe part way there he decided it was too risky to take the body back in case Kirk or Julie (who may or may not have been still alive) saw him. Or maybe he thought if Steve's body was not found right away it may give him a little time considering investigators had thought him a possible suspect until they found his body. I believe Julie's time of death (which it does not sound as if too much was determined from the medical examiner) may be determined on whether Kirk stayed the night or not. I suspect she was likely dead before Jim headed to the Buckner home. Or maybe he did it after and Kirk heard something. I do believe that Kirk was likely killed as he came into the house. It is possible that before he killed Kirk he had changed his plan and already decided to pin it on him. The stab wounds would explain a struggle but not the gunshots that he alleges not remembering. Was Kirk the only one not shot in the head because Jim was tired after killing six people? Was Kirk trying more than the others to get away and he just shot at him, hitting wherever the bullets landed? Was he not shot in the head hoping it would elevate his story that he was not the killer? These are all questions that will likely never be answered due to Jim's “blackout” story. But it makes him no less culpable and despicable. No. Jim Schnick is right where he belongs. The only place more suiting would be back in his cell on death row.