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Chris Law looked out the window of his home onto Elm Street, a quiet neighborhood in the small run-down town of Skidmore in the northwest corner of Missouri. Most of the houses on that dead end street cried out for a fresh coat of paint or the immediate attention of a carpenter or roofer. They huddled together tired and neglectedsagging beneath the weight of a cold December day. The bare branches of the trees and the winter weariness of the lawns added to the bleakness of the block.
Chris peered catty-corner across the street to the little white bungalow with flaking paint that Zeb and Bobbie Jo Stinnett called home. They were a cute couplefriendly but quiet. Bobbie Jo, though, had a sparkle in her eye that revealed an ornery sense of humor beneath her gentle, still demeanor.
The young couple in their early twenties were newlywedstheir marriage less than two years old. They were already expecting their first childthe due date was January 19. The coming of the baby created a growing excitement for their tomorrows. They saved every penny they could to build a nest egg and make it possible to own their own home. They envisioned a life for their baby that exceeded the expectations they had for their own.
Now just nine days before Christmas, Bobbie Jo had reached that awkward, waddling stage. She rolled up the sidewalk more than she walked. She had to hold on to a secure object when she bent down to pick something up off the floor.
Chris had planned to walk over and pay a visit to Bobbie Jo that afternoon. He wanted to ask her about her recent pre-natal test results. In a town this small, everyone focused on each expectant mother. With the population shrinking, any birth was big news.
He hesitated when he spotted a dirty, pinkish-red two-door import parked the wrong way in front of her house. He thought he ought not to bother Bobbie Jo, since she had company. He popped his head up to the window a couple of times to see if the coast was clear so he could slip over without interrupting her social visit.
It seemed to him as if the car was there for hours. But he could have been wrong. Waiting for a change of events over which he had no control did make time crawl slower than the sand in a clogged hourglass.
Sometime well before 3:30, he decided he would catch up with Bobbie Jo later. He jumped in his car to drive the fourteen miles up State Road V to Maryville to run a few errands. His town had no grocery store, pharmacy, fast food restaurants or even a Wal-Mart.
As he hit the end of Elm Street, he had second thoughtsmaybe he should stop in and check on Bobbie Jo anyway. What if something was wrong? He pulled out on the main road and circled around a block as he toyed with the idea. Ultimately, he decided not to yield to his sudden flash of paranoia. He'd be a good neighbor and not disrupt her visit with her guests. He headed on up the road.
Once Chris left home, no one was watching 410 Elm Street. Bobbie Jo was alone with her mystery visitor. The rat terriers she bred out of her huge love of animals and passion for the breedand for a small profitwere put up in their room. No neighbor looked as the front door jerked all the way open. Not a soul saw the dirty-blond woman with the frenzied eyes and furtive moves walk across the front porch. No one took note of the blanketed bundle cradled in her arms. No one watched as she scurried to her car, pulling the bundle closer to her chest as if sheltering it from the wind and the cold. No one heard the unmistakable cry of a newborn infant. No eyes followed the dirty red car with Kansas plates as it made a rough U-turn at the dead end of Elm Street and drove off to parts unknown.
A short while later, Becky Harper turned onto Elm Street. She passed the big yellow house with its toy-laden porch and splotchy lawn. She drove beyond a sad, sagging home with a weedy front yard. She turned around at the dead end and pulled in front of her daughter Bobbie Jo's home. It was 3:30 in the afternoon.
The front door to the tiny bungalow was ajar. A tingle of concern sent ripples across her scalp. Folks in Northwest Missouri simply did not leave their doors open to the cold of December. Even nice sunny days bore too much chill in the air.
Becky pushed the door all the way open, hollering, "Bobbie Jo! Bobbie Jo!"
There was no response. A tight band of apprehension tugged in her chest. Bobbie Jo was eight months pregnant. Had she gone into early labor? Was she sicktoo sick to respond? Becky hesitated with each step she took into the house.
Stepping inside the home, she saw nothing to cause alarm. Everything was neat and orderly in the living room. She moved to the dining room and the kitchen. Everything was in its place. Even this late in her pregnancy, Bobbie Jo maintained the tidy appearance of her modest home. Becky called out to her daughter again and was greeted by frustrated barks from Bobbie Jo's dogs. Becky moved past the kitchen and toward the animals confined in the small bedroom Bobbie Jo transformed into a room for her dogs. Barks and whimpers emerged from the metal kennel cages lining the room. Against one wall, an old dresser served as a grooming station for her rat terriers.
As she reached the doorway, a vision out of a slaughterhouse exploded before Becky's eyes. Blood. Pools of blood. Garish red smears streaked and swirled on the oak floor boards. Huge, dark clots of blood scattered on the surface like trampled roses in mud.
Becky saw the body on the floor, but in her heart she wanted to believe all this carnage was from one of the dogs. Whatever horrible thing happened to any one of them would break Bobbie Jo's heart. She could deny the reality before her dazed eyes for brief seconds only. There at her feet lay her only daughterthe mother of her soon-to-be first grandchildand she was covered in blood. The young woman who, twenty-three short years ago, was only a small warm burden inside of Becky's body now lay still on the floor.
Splotches of blood covered Bobbie Jo's face. Streaks of ruby red ran up and down her arms. Her belly, distended from pregnancy, splayed open to reveal protruding internal organs scorched with a screaming crimson. Even the small soles of Bobbie Jo's feet glistened with blood.
Becky's eyes saw the truth of the horror. Her mind ran from it. Her eyes had to be lying. She tried to deny the truth of her senses and failed. Still, the scene made no sense to her. She struggled to frame it into a coherent possibility. "My daughter's intestines exploded," she said when she called 9-1-1.
As soon as the words passed her lips, she was no longer certain of their reliability. Her world tilted and wobbled on an unreliable axis. She was undone.
The operator asked, "Is she still breathing?"
"I don't know," Becky wailed. She kneeled in the blood beside her oldest child's side struggling to numb the paralyzing emotions that siezed her own limbs. She followed instructions as the operator talked her step-by-step through the administration of cardio-pulmonary resuscitation.
She tilted back Bobbie Jo's head and pinched her nose. She covered her daughter's mouth with her own and delivered the sharpest breath she could. She rose up and placed her hands on Bobbie Jo's chest and pushed down. One time. Two times. Thirty times.
In less than twenty seconds she was back on her daughter's mouth with two more breaths. Then back to the chest compressions again. Over and over. Breathing and pushing. Counting the compressions aloud to block the noise of her own dreadful thoughts and keep her focus.
She choked. She sobbed. But she did not stop.
Four-term Nodaway County Sheriff Ben Espey was in the dispatch center in Maryville when Becky's frantic call shattered the peace of a quiet afternoon. He jumped in his truck and floored the pedalmaking the half-hour drive in fourteen minutes. He was the first responder on the scene.
Becky turned to him with crazed yet determined eyes and pleaded, "I need help with this." CPR was so simple but so exhausting.
Espey got down on the floor to assist. He smelled the slight musky undertone of dog present even in this clean, well-kept kennel. Blaring above that scent was the iron-rich scream of freshly-shed blood. He saw no signs of life in the body of the young woman on the floor, but did not whisper his fears to the mother. He just worked with Becky as a team while distressed dogs whimpered their mournful fears.
On the east end of Elm Street, Carla Wetzel heard the howl of the sirens. She could not see where the vehicles stopped. But it was just past the time school let out and she worried that a school bus had wrecked.
Across the street from the Stinnett home, Tracy Grossoehme played in the yard with her two small children, enjoying the relative balminess of that winter afternoon. They stopped what they were doing as the ambulance pulled into their street, staring open-mouthed.
As it parked in front of their neighbor's home, Tracy's oldest child asked, "Can we say a prayer for the hurt person?"
"Yes, we can," Tracy said.
Three heads bowed in a moment of silence, marking the first public prayer sent to the heavens for Bobbie Jo and her baby. It certainly would not be the last.
Five minutes after Espey's arrival, the paramedics flew out of the ambulance and into the house, where they relieved Becky and the sheriff of their hopeless duty. The emergency medical pair checked for vital signs and found no indication of life. Just the same, they attempted to revive Bobbie Jo, continuing the performance of CPR her mother started, but they, too, failed to get a response. It was far too late.
Espey told the paramedics that Bobbie Jo was eight months pregnant. He then listened in disbelief as one of the emergency medical technicians pointed to the cut umbilical cord and informed him, "This lady has been murdered because someone came to get the child out of her body."
It didn't seem possible. Espey struggled to wrap his mind around the crime. How could anyone attack a pregnant woman? How could anyone abduct a baby in such a vicious, violent way? In his mind, he ran through the list of brutal people in his jurisdiction. Certainly there were those who could commit murder. But someone who would kill this young woman and then run off with the baby? It made no sense.
In the kitchen, the shell of Becky Harper shuffled to the sink and turned on the water. Her shoulders slumped. Her vision blurred from the buildup of an abundant but not yet fallen rush of tears. A burning in her midsection made her want to double over, slide on the floor and sleep. She stuck her reddened hands under the faucet and tried to wash away the stain of her child's blood. No matter how clear the water ran, she would forever see the red spots on her hands.
The last trace of her living baby girl, who'd brightened her lifemade her proudswirled down the drain with a finality that hit Becky hard. A pounding surge of love rose and crashed downshattering on the rough rocks on her newly earned, hard-as-granite grief.
Bobbie Jo Stinnett, a soft-spoken, sweet-smiling 23-year-old woman, streaked away from her home in an ambulance. It headed up the road traveled by Chris Law just a short time before. Bobbie Jo was declared dead upon arrival at St. Francis Hospital & Health Services in the nearby county seat of Maryville.
Copyright © 2006 by Diane Fanning. All rights reserved.