Murdered woman's town has been in spotlight before

Sunday, December 19, 2004

SKIDMORE, Mo. -- This tiny town in northwest Missouri was acquainted with violence well before someone strangled Bobbie Jo Stinnett 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, to death 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 Montgomery, 36, of Melvern, Kan., has been charged with killing Stinnett and taking the baby to pass off as her own.

"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 and falling, 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 over the last 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."

'They're quiet people'

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 called them "vigilantes." A made-for-TV movie came soon after.

"What's happened now is going to be a shock for them all over again," said MacLean, whose book, "Broad Daylight," reached No. 2 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 Bobbi Stinnett. "All this just happened to hit here. It could have happened anywhere."

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