The news broke like a thunderclap on that September morning, and by sundown all of Webster County, Mo., had heard about the carnage on Steve Buckner's farm: Buckner, 35, his wife, Jan, 36, and their sons, Dennis, 8, Timothy, 7, and Michael, 2, had been shot to death in the stillness before dawn. The killer had continued the rampage at the two-story white farmhouse where Steve's sister, Julie, lived with her husband, Jim Schnick. As Jim told it, the gunman had stormed into the house, shot and killed the sleeping Julie and put up a violent struggle before Jim could drive a butcher knife through his chest and finish him off with a bullet. When Sheriff Eugene Fraker got to the Schnick farmhouse around 6.30 a.m., he found the putative murderer in a bloody heap in the front hallway. It was Steve Buckner's 14-year-old-son, Kirk.

Even though Webster County has seen its share of homicide, something about the Buckner tragedy was especially disturbing. Neighbors who knew Kirk well could not imagine him carrying out so hideous a crime. A sweet-tempered, outgoing kid who toiled long hours on his family's struggling dairy farm, he wasn't the sort to harbor demons. A week after Kirk and his family were buried in the cemetery at Timber Ridge Baptist Church, Jim Schnick confessed that he had killed his wife, her brother and his family and tried to pin the murder on his nephew Kirk. Though the crime itself was appalling, Schnick's attempt to traduce the dead child seemed, to many, particularly cruel. The boy had gone to his grave in disgrace. Newspapers across the country had reported the story and named Kirk as the probable murderer. Says Sgt. Tom Martin, the Missouri highway patrol detective who investigated the case, "At least the little boy can rest in peace now."

By all accounts, the Buckners had been in crisis for months before the massacre. Like many farmers in Webster County, Steve and Jan were awash in debt. Two years behind on payments to the FHA and the Federal Land Bank, they knew their 99 acres were in danger. The run-down look of their small two-bedroom house reflected the family's decline; the front porch had nearly collapsed, and detritus was heaped inside and out.

"Jan was a good mother—the hardest-working woman I ever saw," says neighbor Jim Murphy. "Maybe they were too tired to keep the place up. I'd see those people 10 times a day, and they were always working. I'd look at her and think, 'I bet she'd love to go to town.' But she never could because they had no money."

Miraculously, the Buckners managed to keep their children from warping under the pressure. Kirk seemed particularly well adjusted. "He was a happy kid, real close with his mother, and he was always taking care of his little brothers," says Murphy. After attacking the chores at home, Murphy says, Kirk would ask him for extra work. "The little guy worked his butt off for me and always wanted more," he remembers. In the classroom Kirk was no standout, but he was anxious to please. "He wanted to do better," says Audie DeHart, principal of Marshfield Junior High. "He believed in working through problems. You don't see that in many kids."

While Steve's family struggled, the Schnicks were wrestling with their own problems. After two children, the marriage apparently had gone sour. Jim and Julie fought frequently, and investigators say Jim may have had a girlfriend. The Schnicks were also plagued by money troubles. Friends say their 85-acre dairy farm was as debt-ridden as Steve's.

In retrospect, the police were able to find a straightforward motive that might have led Schnick to murder. "What are the two reasons people kill people?" asks Sheriff Fraker. "Money and sex." Jim reportedly held a substantial life-insurance policy on Julie and had also cosigned a bank note that would have given him debt-free title to Steve's farm if his brother-in-law died. And Schnick may well have known that Steve's parents intended to leave their substantial holdings and 240-acre farm to their children and six grandchildren. "Think about it," says Fraker. "By killing seven people, he eliminated seven heirs."

However, Schnick's attempt to frame Kirk seemed credible at first precisely because he was himself above suspicion, a man whose word was to be trusted. Neighbors knew him as an amiable sort who always pitched in to help other farmers. When a neighbor went on vacation last summer, he got up an hour early for two weeks to milk his cows. A member of the Elkland Volunteer Fire Department, he was running a fund-raising raffle to buy new equipment. The day before the killings, he had stopped by the Phillips 66 station to pick up a donated prize from manager Don Howard, who says, "He acted like he always acted—happy-go-lucky."

Sheriff Fraker—who initially announced that Kirk "possibly" was the murderer—maintains that he was always suspicious of Schnick. "When [reporters] wrote their stories, they left out the 'possibly,' " he says now. "We had a mess out there, and I said I'd know more...when we had a chance to sort it out."

Jim's account of Kirk's attack fell apart almost immediately. The dead boy was a 130-lb. stringbean, and no one believed that he could have hoisted Steve's 250-lb. body into a truck and hauled him to a cemetery. Then there was the matter of temperament. "If the boy had gone crazy, maybe, but he wasn't a crazy boy," says George Chapman, who knew the family well. "Everyone around here knew he didn't do it."

On Sunday—the same day that Jim went to view the victims' caskets at the funeral home—Fraker called in his friend Sergeant Martin and ticked off the inconsistencies. The murder scenes had yielded not a single shell casing: Had Kirk had the presence of mind to collect as many as 18 casings during the rampage? The boy was left-handed, yet the gun was found clenched in his right hand. The angle of the bullet wound through the boy's heart wasn't consistent with the struggle Jim had described; nor were Jim's wounds, which were not as serious as he had suggested. "I was certain things weren't as they appeared on the surface," Martin said. "Nothing matched up."

Jim and his children, Jamie, 8, and Mindy, 6, were staying with Julie's grieving parents when Martin called and asked him to report to the courthouse for an interview. Schnick obliged. "We didn't hit him hard," says Martin. "We just let him tell his story. I didn't believe him at all." Asked to take a polygraph test, Schnick dutifully reported to police headquarters in Springfield the next Monday. As soon as the operator began preliminary questioning, Schnick broke down and admitted to committing the seven murders.

Neither Schnick nor James McNabb, his public defender, will discuss the case before the trial. Schnick, says McNabb, is "distressed." Martin, a veteran of dozens of homicide investigations, was stunned by the cold-bloodedness of Schnick's awful tale: "Who knows what makes a man tick? It takes somebody smarter than me to figure this out. He didn't even express remorse."

Even if Jim Schnick could show no sorrow, the tight-knit farm community has been abrim with it. Murphy says he gets the chills thinking about all the deaths. He tends the Buckner's farm, where several yard dogs wait in the tall grass for a family that will never return. "I can't express what I feel when I drive out there and know there's no life in that house anymore," he says.

Schnick's house too is deserted. Farmers who live nearby are milking his cows and feeding his hogs, and they have donated a ton of grain to keep the animals from starving. "Jim would do it for me," says James Hartman, who was close to both the Schnicks and the Buckners. "I'm still a neighbor and I'm a good friend."

It is a chilly sunset in October, and an anguished Hartman is driving Schnick's herd into the milking barn. As he yells at the cows to move out, tears begin to stream down his face. A moment later, he begins to sob. "Jim was a good man," he says with sad bewilderment. "You can't see inside a man's soul, can you?"

  • Contributors:
  • Bill Shaw.