Murder In The Heartland

 Tidings and salutations, bibliophages.  Thank you for joining me on True Crime By The Book where every other Tuesday we meet up to talk real crime one page at a time.  I’m your host, Tasha Pierce. If you’d like to help the podcast, please head over to iTunes/Apple Podcasts, anywhere and drop a review.  I would certainly appreciate it. There’s more than one type of crime. Today, my main source of reference was “Murder In the Heartland” by M. William Phelps, narrated by J. Charles.  Charles’ reading was engaging. He slipped in and out of the different characters in a way that was not jarring or abrasive. His tone fit the material. At times a folksy charm, other times tension filled.

 In case you need an Audible Author Page refresher on Phelps, he is a New York Times bestselling author of at least 40 nonfiction books to date. He has consulted for crime shows on television including season 1 of the hit television show, Dexter. The first episode of this podcast was inspired by his book, “Obsessed”, covering the crimes of Sheila Davalloo.

This crime is very disturbing and this retelling may be unsuitable for some listeners.  I know there was a disclaimer at the start of the episode, but I think it’s important to issue another.  Today we discuss the heartbreaking and shocking murder of Bobbie Jo Stinett.

 Let’s get the Goodreads synopsis before I go into the circumstances surrounding this week’s story.  On a December night in 2004, a 911 operator in Nodaway County, Missouri, received a frantic call from a woman who’d found her pregnant 23-year-old daughter in a pool of blood on the living room floor. Most shocking of all, the dying woman’s unborn baby had been viciously ripped from her womb.

 Murder in the Heartland goes behind the scenes of two picture-perfect American towns forever changed by one horrifying act of violence. With exclusive access to key witnesses, family members, and potential victims who narrowly escaped a similarly gruesome fate, M. William Phelps tells a classic American tale of unthinkable murder and the quest for justice.  

Twenty-five years ago, I became a mother.  Thinking back to my pregnancy, I remember being both excited and fearful at the same time.  The fears are probably common amongst first-time parents: Am I ready for this responsibility? Will I be a good parent? How big of a fool am I going to act when I go into labor? Those were my questions, and there was quite a bit of pain, not as much drama as I expected, and the feeling of unparalleled love when I looked into the eyes of my newborn son. No, I wasn’t ready for the responsibility, and I made my fair share of mistakes while raising him, but I didn’t lose him or break him (two of my worst nightmares) and I’m proud of the woman he made me and the young man he’s become. Bobbie Jo Stinett had recently celebrated her twenty-third birthday in December of 2004.  I’m sure she was at peak excitement because she and her husband, Zeb, were preparing for Christmas and anticipating the birth of their first child. They had a little house in Skidmore, Missouri, the nursery was done, and the sounds of a baby girl would be filling their home. Bobbie Jo was due on January 19, 2005 and in her eighth month of pregnancy- this is easily the most awkward and clumsy time for most women. Maneuvering the extra weight and general discomfort is more of a task in those final weeks. But, there were still things that had to be done and she joyfully went about her housework and managing the dog breeding business she and Zeb ran out of their home. The couple bred rat terriers. The Rat Terrier is an American dog breed with a background as a farm dog and hunting companion. Traditionally more of a type than a breed, they share much ancestry with the small hunting dogs known as feists. These little guys were Bobbie Jo’s passion, and she had won awards for her dogs at shows.  She had met many other breeders at these shows and was a part of the rat terrier community. There were even message boards, one called “Ratter Chatter” and another named ”Annie’s Rat Terrier Rest Area”, of which she was an active member. Here she chatted with other breeders and struck up friendships.  Through one of these friends, Bobbie Jo was introduced to Darlene Fischer. Darlene was a breeder who also was pregnant. She and Bobbie Jo shared their excitement and talked dogs and babies often. On December 15, Darlene expressed an interest in purchasing one of Bobbie Jo’s pups. The two ladies made plans for Darlene to come to Skidmore to visit and pick up a dog.  On December 16, Darlene got into her red Toyota Corolla, grabbed a page with directions to the Stinnett home that she printed one month earlier, and made the 300-mile journey to Skidmore.

Lisa Montgomery was a 36-year-old mother of four and wife to Kevin Montgomery.  He was her second husband. Her ex-husband -and father of her children- was Carl Bowman who was a perpetual thorn in her side.  They were set to go to court over custody of their kids in January. Carl intended to prove her unstable and unfit to properly care for their children.  She had already allowed their 14-year- old daughter, Kayla, to move to Georgia and live with a virtual stranger- he wanted to get the other minors out of her home. He thought he had an excellent chance of winning full custody of two of his kids because Lisa was a negligent mother and had a history of being a pathological liar.  Her latest whopper was that she was expecting a baby. This was a frequent lie that she told because she enjoyed the attention that pregnancy gave her. Of course, Carl knew that Lisa had her tubes tied in 1990 after the birth of their fourth child. It was impossible for her to be pregnant. He intended on proving to the courts that she was just a manipulative attention seeker who wasn’t capable of parenting.  Her supposed due date was Dec. 13. When she could produce no child, she would be guilty of perjury. Slam dunk.

Carl even went the extra mile of telling Kevin, her new husband, that it was inconceivable for Lisa to be pregnant.  Kevin stood by his wife, though. She had morning sickness, mood swings, and she LOOKED pregnant. She had shown him an ultrasound.  She even went to the doctor regularly for checkups on the progress of her pregnancy. Did I mention that she LOOKED pregnant? Things were even more complicated when Lisa’s mom called and reiterated that there was no way she could be pregnant. She had a tubal ligation.  On a side note, tubal ligation is considered a permanent method of controlling fertility but there is a 1 in 200 chance of it failing. Lisa was claiming to be a statistical anomaly.  

On December 16, Lisa was set to go Christmas shopping.  She was past her due date for the newest addition to her family, but she wanted to get a special Christmas gift for her daughter, Kayla, who was coming home for the holidays.  Kayla was away in Georgia, living with a friend who could assist her with what had become a full- time hobby- dog breeding. They bred a specific type of dog- rat terriers- and had been showing their dogs in competitions.  In fact, they were photographed at one such competition in April of that year with Kayla, Lisa, their dogs, and the Stinnet’s. Kayla was an online friend of Bobbie Jo’s and even felt inspired by her. The rat terrier world was a small one. But, back to Malvern, Kansas and Lisa’s shopping excursion.  She told her oldest daughter that she would be back soon. Before long she was in her red Toyota Corolla, heading down the road towards town.

We’ll pause here for a word from the host of a NEW true-crime podcast you’re sure to love.  It’s called “True Consequences”.

Now, back to our story.

Bobbie Jo was awaiting Darlene’s arrival.  In the meantime, she talked with her mom. Becky Harper, Bobbie Jo’s mother, was also full of anticipation for the birth of her first grandchild.  She regularly checked in on her expectant daughter and planned to do that later that afternoon. She was so proud of Bobbie Jo and Zeb. How they almost personified love in their relationship and that they were starting a family. How Bobbie Jo’s glow only got brighter during their marriage and now in her pregnancy. Zeb was a good husband and provider.  They were living their dream. As they spoke on the phone, Bobbie Jo noticed that her customer had arrived and quickly ended their conversation. Becky had no way of knowing this would be the last time she heard her daughter’s voice.

By 3:15pm, Becky had called Bobbie Jo’s home a number of times.  There was no answer. She was concerned because when they spoke earlier Becky had asked her for a lift to the auto shop to pick up her truck.  So, Becky Harper made her way to Bobbie Jo’s to make sure everything was alright. She entered the tiny home and called her daughter’s name. No answer.  Then she went room by room, hoping she hadn’t fallen or passed out. At 3:28pm, Becky found Bobbie Jo. She was splayed out on the floor surrounded by blood.  The room showed signs of a struggle. Blood was everywhere. A horrified Becky dialed 911 and said, “It’s my daughter.  It looks like her stomach is exposed! It looks like her stomach has exploded.” 

Okay- now it’s time to detail the crime itself.  Bobbie Jo had just noticed that a car had pulled into their gravel driveway and got of the phone with her mom.  She went to the door, expecting Darlene Fischer. Instead, she was greeted by Lisa Montgomery, a lady she was acquainted with through the many dog shows they had both competed in.  As the women chatted, it is presumed that Lisa asked to see one of the pups. When Bobbie Jo turned to get one, Lisa extracted a rope, quickly put it around Bobbie Jo’s neck, and pulled.  When Bobbie Jo lost consciousness, Lisa produced a makeshift birthing kit and serrated paring knife from her purse. With the knife, sh began to perform a crude C-section on Bobbie Jo. The searing pain from the initial incision would have jolted Bobbie Jo back to consciousness, and realizing that she and her unborn child were in danger, a fight ensued.  Lisa struggled with Bobbie Jo, who had gripped Lisa’s hair with both hands. Lisa regained the upperhand in the melee and, again, got the rope around Bobbie Jo’s throat. Because she had already lost a lot of blood from being sliced open, this time Bobbie Jo succumbed to the strangulation. Lisa hurriedly completed the C-section and successfully delivered Bobbie Jo’s baby girl.  With that, she swaddled the child and escaped the scene. She began to make the trip back to Melvern.

It has always confounded me that people think they can get away with this kind of crime.  Like, is no one shocked that you would return from a shopping trip with a brand new baby? How do you explain to your entire family that you delivered a baby and were released from the hospital within hours?  Well as crazy as it sounds, it’s not as uncommon as one would think. There is a condition known as pseudocyesis. Pseudocyesis is the medical term for a false pregnancy. Pseudocyesis can cause many of the signs and symptoms of pregnancy, and often resembles the condition in every way except for the presence of a fetus.  So, Lisa displaying all of the marks of pregnancy isn’t unprecedented. It is thought to occur in roughly 1 in 22000 women, so still a huge anomaly.  What makes this criminal is when a woman who has one of these “phantom pregnancies” decides to engage in fetal abduction, like Lisa Montgomery. Sadly, this phenomenon of women stalking expecting mothers with the intention of stealing their unborn children is not totally uncommon either.  The most recent reported case was a nine-month pregnant 19-year-old Chicago woman, Marlen Ochoa-Lopez was lured to a house with the promise of free baby clothes on April 23, and then strangled. Police believe that “the baby was forcibly removed following that murder” and a 46-year-old woman living at the residence subsequently called emergency services and stated that she had just given birth to the infant. The baby boy was stated to be in critical condition then. The deceased mother’s body was found on the property on May 15.[55] The boy, named Yovanny Jadiel Lopez, died several weeks later from brain damage.[56]

In the case of Bobbie Jo’s child, Lisa Montgomery somehow successfully delivered the baby after only watching YouTube videos detailing the procedure.  In fact, she was just about to call her husband and children to announce that she had gone into labor while shopping and delivered the baby at a women’s clinic.  Her excited family couldn’t wait to see the baby. Kevin asked what clinic she was in and she explained that she had been released. Kevin, you have to know that is not a thing.  Right Kevin? No? Well, she told him she’d be home shortly. Kevin- you HAVE to know that this is not a thing. Right, Kevin? This time he said absolutely not! Good Kevin. He and her daughter would be there shortly to pick her up and bring her car home.  

In Skidmore, authorities had put the pieces together and realized that Bobbie Jo had been killed for her unborn child.  In the struggle, she had yanked clumps of hair from her assailant which was bagged as evidence. After speaking with her mother,law enforcement found out that a woman named Darlene Fischer had been at the house to buy a dog.  Darlene Fischer had just moved to the top of the suspect list, just as Lisa had planned when she made her up. The sheriff,, issued a very controversial Amber Alert for the missing child. An Amber Alert is – a widely publicized bulletin that alerts the public to a recently abducted or missing child.  It relies heavily on detailed information about the child, the abductor, and usually the vehicle involved including make model, color, and license plate number.  In the Stinett case, there was no known description of the abductor, no way to know the missing child’s features and very little about the vehicle. I say “very little” about the vehicle, because a family friend had earlier drove by the Stinnet’s to check on Bobbie Jo but noticed a dirty red Toyota or Mazda at the house.  He assumed she had company and went on his way. I can only imagine him feeling awful about not stopping that day but he had no real way of knowing that Bobbie Jo was in any danger.  

This kidnapping and murder made the national news due to a slow Christmas news cycle.  People all over the area and the country were aware that a psycho had slain a young woman and stole her child right out of her womb.  The Montgomery household was oblivious, though. They were all awed by the new bundle of joy in their midst. While the FBI was investigating the rat terrier chats and emails shared between Darlene Fischer and Bobbie Jo Stinett, Lisa was phoning friends and loved ones to tell them of Abigail’s arrival.  

The next morning, Dec 17, Lisa did something unfathomable to most mothers.  See, there’s this period of time that coincides with recovery for the new mother.  This fragile little human has just been through a trauma- and that’s if everything goes normally.  This infant needs to adapt to life outside the womb- get used to the sights, sounds and sensations that are going to be customary in her new surroundings.  But, Lisa needed no physical recovery since she didn’t do any real “labor”. So she set out to show the town Baby Abigail to prove to everyone who doubted her that she had INDEED been pregnant.  So she and Kevin went out to eat and shop literally hours after ripping that poor baby from her mother. The townsfolk fawned over Abigail, even while the women wondered how Lisa could be so irresponsible by bringing a newborn out of the house- in December, no less.

In the meantime, in Missouri law enforcement was getting leads as to the potential whereabouts of the missing Stinnet baby.  They had been fielding calls from members of the rat terrier community with everything they thought they knew about Darlene Fischer. She supposedly lived in Fairfax,, Missouri, her email address was fischer the number 4 and kids – did that help?  But their biggest lead came from a caller in Georgia. She told the investigators about a woman she knew who just had a baby despite having a tubal ligation. She told them this same lady had previously faked pregnancy at least 4 times, and she was acquainted with the victim.  When asked this woman’s name she told them LIsa Montgomery, of Melvern, Kansas. Shortly after that call, forensics got a hit on the IP address from Darlene Fischer’s correspondence with the victim. It was determined that the IP originated in Melvern, Kansas.

Later that evening, Kevin, Lisa, and Abigail were returning from their day out.  They noticed a black SUV at the corner of their street. It was Christmas time so there was little odd about strange vehicles in the neighborhood.  Neighbor’s would be having visitors for the next month. When they pulled up to their house, more black SUVs and law enforcement would be soon swarming them.  Directions were shouted- hands up, get down, where’s the baby. Abigail was handed to an officer and she was rushed back to Skidmore. The jig was up.

Zeb Stinnet was reunited with his and Bobbie Jo’s daughter.  He knew exactly what Bobbie Jo wanted to name her- Victoria Jo Stinnett.  Despite her traumatic entrance into the world, she was a beautiful angel. A miracle baby.

In death, Bobbie Jo had delivered law enforcement the evidence they would need to positively identify her killer.  Those clumps of hair she pulled out in the struggle positively matched Lisa Montgomery. Lisa went on trial for the murder of Bobbie Jo Stinett and the fetal abduction of Victoria Jo. She was found guilty and sentenced to death.  She is currently in federal prison in Fort Worth Texas, awaiting her execution.

There are a lot of questions about what could make someone so desperate  that they would commit this grisly kind of crime. Would she have faked another miscarriage if her ex-husband, Carl Bowman wasn’t planning to get custody of their children?  Make no mistakes, I don’t think she cared about her children enough to kill for them. I believe she didn’t want to lose to CARL. She had no problem sending Kayla to live with someone she hardly knew (who, in case you didn’t put it together- called the FBI with a HUGE tip).  No, she’d let them live ANYWHERE but with Carl. I think she had something to prove to Carl, her mother, and anyone else who doubted her. Her motive was selfish, which makes the whole situation even worse. She planned this for months- e=she had even printed the directions to the Stinett home a month in advance.  Sadly, there was still drama in the life of Victoria Jo when Becky Harper, her maternal grandmother, ended up taking Zeb Stinnet to court over visitation. Becky did receive visitation but she had to honor Zeb’s wish to not tell the child the circumstances surrounding the death of her mother. There was a picture of a now teenaged Victoria Jo and she is absolutely beautiful.  Just like her mother.

And that is M William Phelps’ Murder in the Heartland.  I’ll see you in two weeks when we discuss My Friend Anna: The True Story of a Fake Heiress by Rachel DeLoache Williams .  If you have feedback, comments, or book suggestions, I’ll direct you to my email TCbyTB@gmail.com.  Please subscribe to True Crime By The Book on Stitcher, Spotify, iTunes, Google Podcasts, and many other podcatchers and share the show with a friend.  I would also appreciate ratings and reviews on your platform of choice. Thanks for listening. Later bookworms!