Lisa Montgomery: Looking for answers in the life of a killer

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Lisa Montgomery – the only female inmate on federal death row in the US – has been executed for murder in the state of Indiana. Her lawyers had argued she was a mentally ill victim of abuse who deserved mercy. Her victim’s community said otherwise.

This story was first published on 11 January – before Lisa Montgomery’s execution on 13 January.

For Diane Mattingly, there is one moment from her childhood for which she feels both enormous gratitude and guilt.

She credits this moment for her “fairly normal” life – a house on eight peaceful acres, a loving relationship with her children, nearly two decades at a job working for the state of Kentucky.

At the same time, she blames it for the fate of her younger half-sister, Lisa Montgomery.

Montgomery was sentenced for the murder of a 23-year-old woman who was eight months pregnant. In December 2004, Montgomery, who was 36 at the time, strangled Bobbie Jo Stinnett before cutting the baby out of her womb and kidnapping it. Stinnett bled to death.

Mattingly and Montgomery lived together until Mattingly was eight and her half-sister was four. It was a terrifying household, she says, where physical, psychological and sexual abuse at the hands of Judy Shaughnessy, Montgomery’s mother, and her boyfriends was routine.

The girls’ biological father left the home, and after a while, Mattingly was whisked away to foster care. Montgomery was left behind with her mother.

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Lisa Montgomery and her half-sister Diane Mattingly as children

It would be 34 years before the half-sisters would see each other again. And that would be from across a courtroom, where lawyers for the US government were trying to persuade a jury to sentence Montgomery to death.

“One sister got taken out and got put into a loving home and was nurtured and had time to heal,” says Mattingly. “The other sister stayed in that situation, and it got worse and worse and worse. And then at the end, she was broken.”

In late December, Montgomery’s legal team submitted a petition to President Donald Trump that makes the case that after a lifetime of abuse – which they characterise as torture – she is too mentally ill to be executed and deserves mercy.

However, in the tiny town of Skidmore, Missouri, where the crime was committed, there is little sympathy for that argument. Many there believe the final moments of Bobbie Jo Stinnett were so horrific, the death sentence is warranted.

Lisa Montgomery and Bobbie Jo Stinnett got to know each other online through a shared love of dogs. They had corresponded for weeks on an online forum for rat terrier breeders and enthusiasts called “Ratter Chatter”. Montgomery told Stinnett that she was also expecting, and the pair shared pregnancy stories.

In December 2004, Montgomery drove 281.5 km (175 miles) from her home in Kansas to Skidmore, where she had an appointment to look at some puppies owned by Stinnett.

But it wasn’t Montgomery that Stinnett was expecting, it was a woman who went by the name of Darlene Fischer. But Fischer was a name that Montgomery had been using when she separately began messaging Stinnett from a different email address inquiring about buying one of her puppies.

When Stinnett answered the door, Montgomery overpowered the pregnant woman, strangled her with a piece of rope, and cut the baby out of her womb.

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JENA BAUMLI

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Bobbie Jo Stinnett

Investigators quickly realised that “Darlene Fischer” did not exist, and tracked Montgomery down the next day using her emails and computer IP address. They found her cradling a new-born girl she claimed to have given birth to the previous day. Her story quickly fell apart and she confessed to the killing.

Since 2008, Montgomery has been held in a federal prison in Texas for female inmates with special medical and psychological needs, where she has been receiving psychiatric care. Since receiving her execution date, she’s been placed on suicide watch in an isolated cell.

Montgomery is scheduled to be put to death by a lethal injection of pentobarbital at Terre Haute prison in Indiana. It is the only federal prison with an active death chamber.

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Terre Haute Prison, Indiana

Montgomery’s lawyers argue that because of a combination of years of horrific abuse, and a raft of psychological issues, she should never have been given the death penalty. They believe that at the time of the crime, Montgomery was psychotic and out of touch with reality. They have been joined by a chorus of supportive voices from the legal field, including 41 former and current prosecutors, as well as human rights entities like the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

However, calls for Trump to be merciful are hardly unanimous. According to Gallup, while support for the death penalty in the US is at its lowest level in more than 50 years, 55% of Americans still believe it is an appropriate punishment for murder. And nowhere is that support more palpably felt in this case than in Skidmore.

“Bobbie deserves to be here today. Bobbie’s family deserves her,” says Meagan Morrow, a high school classmate of Stinnett’s. “And Lisa deserves to pay.”

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Lisa Montgomery’s current legal team has conducted some 450 interviews with family members, friends, case workers, doctors and social workers. Stitched together, they form a tapestry of family dysfunction, abuse, neglect, professional negligence, substance abuse and untreated mental illness.

“The whole story is tragic,” says Kelley Henry, one of Montgomery’s federal defence lawyers. “But one of the things that the president can do is say – to women who have been trafficked, and who have been sexually abused – ‘Your abuse matters’.”

For Montgomery, her lawyers argue, it began before she was born. According to an interview with her father, Montgomery’s mother Judy Shaughnessy drank heavily throughout her pregnancy, and their daughter was born with foetal alcohol syndrome. Multiple medical experts have given statements agreeing with that diagnosis.

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CBS

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Judy Shaughnessy, Lisa Montgomery’s mother

When Mattingly and Montgomery were young, Shaughnessy beat them and doled out cruel forms of punishment, like taping Montgomery’s mouth shut, or pushing Mattingly out into the snow, naked. After their biological father left the home, Mattingly says they were left alone with Shaughnessy’s boyfriends, at least one of whom started raping Mattingly.

“Judy was manipulative and – I hate to use this word, but – evil. She enjoyed torturing the people around her,” says Mattingly. “She got joy out of it.”

After Mattingly was removed from the home by social services, Montgomery fell prey to her mother’s new husband, who according to statements from his other children, was a violent alcoholic who began sexually abusing Montgomery when she was a pre-teen. The family moved from place to place dozens of times, but it was in a trailer in Sperry, Oklahoma, where her lawyers say the abuse turned into something more akin to torture.

According to interviews with her half-siblings and others who spent time with the family, Montgomery’s stepfather built a shed onto the trailer where he, and eventually his friends, raped and beat her. Her mother also began trafficking her, allowing handymen like electricians and plumbers to sexually abuse Montgomery in exchange for work on the house.

Watch on BBC iPlayer

Execution: Lisa Montgomery’s story

As a teenager, Montgomery confided in a cousin, telling him the men would tie her up, beat her and even urinate on her afterwards.

But the cousin, a sheriff’s deputy, confessed to Montgomery’s current legal team that he did nothing. In fact, he drove her back home and dropped her off in the hands of her abusers.

Lawyer Kelley Henry says one of the things that disturbs her most is that adults in positions of authority were told about what was going on but did nothing.

When Shaughnessy eventually split from her second husband, she and Montgomery testified in divorce proceedings about the sexual assaults. The judge in the case scolded Shaughnessy for not reporting the abuse – but did not report the abuse himself.

“There were so many opportunities where people could have intervened and prevented this,” says Henry.

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TIM MYERS

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Kelley Henry

Montgomery’s cousin told her legal team that he lived with “regret for not speaking up about what happened to Lisa”.

When she was 18, Montgomery married her stepbrother. The couple had four children in five years, but the relationship was not the escape from violence that Montgomery might have hoped it would be. At one point, one of Montgomery’s brothers found a home movie that showed Montgomery’s husband raping and beating her.

“It was violent and like a scene out of a horror movie,” he said in a statement. “I felt sick watching the video. I didn’t know what to do or how to talk to my sister about it.”

Friends and family began noticing Montgomery’s tendency to slip into “a world of her own”. Her children were disturbed by it. Henry says this was an early sign of her mental illnesses, which include bipolar disorder, complex post-traumatic stress disorder, dissociative disorder and traumatic brain injury.

Montgomery eventually divorced her first husband and married Kevin Montgomery. Around this time, she repeatedly claimed to be pregnant again, although she had undergone sterilisation after her fourth baby was born.

One theory her lawyers put forward regarding the chain of events that led to the murder, is that Montgomery feared her ex-husband would expose her lies about being pregnant and use it against her as he sought custody of their children.

“There was so much pressure on her at that point,” says Henry. She describes Montgomery’s ex-husband as cruel and harassing. “She was completely detached from reality.”

Her lawyers say that as she lost touch with reality, she fantasised about being pregnant.

Henry says Montgomery’s original legal defence after she was arrested and charged with murder was woefully inadequate, and presented few of the details about her abuse, trauma and mental illness.

Her lawyers at the time also presented an alternative theory of the crime, which was that Montgomery’s brother had actually committed the murder, even though he had an alibi. That was ultimately dropped in favour of an insanity defence, but Henry believes the damage to Montgomery’s credibility was already done.

After five hours of deliberation, the jury found Montgomery guilty. They recommended a sentence of death.

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TIM MYERS

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Diane Mattingly

Diane Mattingly has been speaking publicly for the first time in the hope it can make a difference.

“I would say, ‘President Trump, I want you to look at the life that Lisa had led, I want to look at all the people that have failed her, I want you to look at the rape, the torture, the mental abuse, the physical abuse that this woman had endured,'” she says. “I’m asking him to have compassion on her as a person that has been failed over and over and over again. And to not fail her.”

The tiny farming town of Skidmore sits in the far northwest corner of Missouri. A generation ago, it was the kind of place where you could “get your hair cut, see a show, buy rabbit feed and eat dinner” – but those days are long gone. Today there is a single restaurant and few of the streets are paved.

The population hovers around just 250, and everyone knew Bobbie Jo Stinnett and her family. Friends recall her as a good student with a love of horses and dogs. She liked going down to the Nodaway River to swim, and playing Nintendo games at slumber parties. She was quiet and kind, they say.

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TIM MYERS

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TIM MYERS

At the time of her murder, she was newly married and pregnant with her first child.

Although the alumni have scattered somewhat, in recent years, the Nodaway-Holt R-VII High School graduating class of 2000 – which had only 22 members – has a tradition to mark the anniversary of the death of their classmate Bobbie Jo Stinnett.

They hold a collection and try to do something nice for Stinnett’s mother. “Last year, we got flowers, and gave her a $100-plus gift card and then paid her water bill,” says Jena Baumli.

The murder 16 years ago is never far from the minds of the town’s residents.

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CBS

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Bobbie Jo Stinnett

For one thing, the wider world won’t let them forget. It has been the subject of two books, multiple true crime television shows, documentaries and countless podcast episodes. And though there’s been much recent debate over the fairness of Montgomery’s sentence in courthouses and in the opinion pages of newspapers like the New York Times, a similar debate does not exist here.

“I think that in a lot of the opinion pieces that are being posted, in a lot of things that people are sharing, Bobbie Jo and her daughter, and her mother and her husband and other friends and family, are kind of being forgotten,” says Tiffany Kirkland, another member of the class of 2000.

“She always wanted to be a mom,” says Baumli. “She was really the first one to have a decent marriage, you know, and I guess looking at Bobbie Jo was like, what your dreams were when you were younger.”

Because of Stinnett’s easy-going reputation, Morrow remembers instantly dismissing the initial reports of her murder.

“I was like, ‘Oh, she was not.’ You know, like, that doesn’t happen to Bobbie,” Morrow says.

But what happened at the modest clapboard house where Stinnett lived with her husband still haunts some of those involved in the investigation.

Nodaway County Sheriff Randy Strong says that the scene that he and his four colleagues found that day was so bloody, they are still traumatised by it. It makes him even angrier that it was Stinnett’s mother who discovered her that way.

“The people that are defending [Montgomery], I wish I could take them back in time, and put them in that room,” he says. “And then go, ‘Look at this body’. And then go, ‘Stand there and listen to the 911 call of [Stinnett’s mother]. This is the stuff of nightmares.”

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TIM MYERS

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Randy Strong, Nodaway County Sheriff

Many of the residents of Skidmore cite the details of the crime, and the amount of planning that went into it, as evidence that Montgomery was a calculating killer.

She had catfished Stinnett online under a fake name. She had bought supplies, including a home birth kit, and searched online for how to perform a caesarean section. Sheriff Strong insists that the crime was meticulously planned and that the woman he arrested continued to lie until backed into a corner.

Dr Katherine Porterfield, a clinical psychologist who evaluated Montgomery and spent about 18 hours with her, says that psychosis does not always look the way people expect it to.

“Being psychotic, it does not mean you are not intelligent, nor that you cannot act in a planful way,” she says. “We’ve seen crime for years and years in our country in which people enact terrible violence coming out of a psychotic set of beliefs or thought process. Lisa Montgomery is no different. She enacted this in the grip of a very broken mind.”

The baby was returned to her father, after being recovered from Montgomery.

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TIM MYERS

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Bobbie Jo Stinnett’s home lies empty today

Bobbie Jo’s mother and husband have have not spoken publicly in many years. But Strong says this is the first year he’s heard directly from Stinnett’s husband. He thanked the sheriff for recovering his daughter and allowing him to be the parent that his wife couldn’t be.

“I cried,” says Strong. “The whole community over there’s traumatised by this.”

School friend Baumli says she’s read the descriptions of Montgomery’s abuse, but it mostly just makes her angry. She says it’s not as if all the other people of Skidmore lead idyllic lives free from abuse, poverty and other destructive tragedies. She gives herself as an example – when Stinnett was murdered, Baumli was in rehab for a drug addiction. She missed the funeral because of it.

“Let’s say I didn’t stay clean very long,” she says.

“I’m sick of hearing about Lisa Montgomery and what she went through. And it’s never about what my friend went through,” she adds. “I get these images in my head of [Bobbie Jo’s mother] finding her daughter that way.”

Three federal inmates – Orlando Hall, Alfred Bourgeois and Brandon Bernard – have been put to death since the 3 November presidential election. Several high-profile figures had appealed for clemency in Brandon’s case but Mr Trump did not heed those calls.

President-elect Joe Biden has already pledged to end death penalty proceedings, although he hasn’t said when.

Until July 2020, there had been no federal executions for 17 years. At state level, the number of sentences and executions continues a historic decline. Only 18 death sentences were handed down in 2020 and the number of executions carried out hit a 30-year low. More recently, the states that have been carrying out executions, such as Texas and Tennessee, have halted and delayed executions because of the pandemic.

However, the executions ordered by President Trump are continuing. If they all go ahead, the federal government will have executed more people than any administration in nearly 100 years.

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Protest against federal executions of death row inmates – outside the US Justice Department, Washington DC, December 2020

Two other inmates are scheduled to die at Terre Haute prison before Mr Trump’s presidency ends. Recently, there has been a virus outbreak on death row at the institution, and previous executions have been linked to outbreaks among the execution team and prison staff.

“They made this a priority at the risk of the health and lives of corrections officials, of the prisoners on death row, and the communities that all of those Bureau of Prisons officials who flew in from across the country were returning to,” says Ngozi Ndulue, senior director of research and special projects at the Death Penalty Information Center.

“This was a very coordinated and determined plan to ensure that as many people could be executed on federal death row as possible before the end of this administration term.”

Montgomery’s lawyers want her sentence commuted to a life sentence, which would allow her to remain under psychiatric care in prison for the rest of her days.

Mattingly says looking back to the moment life changed for her as an eight-year-old, she feels guilty that when the social workers came for her, she didn’t tell them what was going on in that house.

“If I had, would they have taken Lisa out of the home also?” she says. “There’s so many people that failed her throughout her whole life. And I am just asking for somebody – once – not to fail her.”

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