MARSHFIELD, MO., OCT. 6 -- The reputation of Kirk Buckner, a quiet, hard-working, 14-year-old farm boy suspected of murdering six members of his family, was officially restored today.
The bizarre twist of events produced a collective, if guilt-ridden, sigh of relief in this county seat in the Ozarks, where Kirk attended school, and nearby in the tiny hamlet of Elkland, where his hard-pressed parents had operated a dairy farm.
"We all feel like we owe Kirk a giant apology," said Charles Moody, principal of Marshfield Elementary School. "I think kids feel relieved that one of their classmates didn't do those awful things. Teachers who knew him are relieved, too.
"Some of them had been feeling that, if they'd seen something suspicious about the boy, they could have prevented it," he said. "Now they know it wasn't their fault."
Apologies will not help Buckner, a slender, mop-haired youth, who had won blue ribbons showing Holstein calves at the county fair.
His body is buried in a bare spot among oaks and scrub pines at Timber Branch Baptist Church cemetery, near where police found the body Sept. 25.
In the same plot are other fresh graves, covered with wilting flowers and containing the bodies of his parents, Steven, 35, and Jan 36; his brothers, Dennis, 9, Timothy, 7, and Michael, 2, and his aunt, Julie Schnick, 30.
All were found dead the same day, shot in the head with .22-caliber bullets.
Eleven days ago, Webster County Sheriff Eugene Fraker said he was "99 percent certain" that Kirk Buckner had killed his relatives in a wild, predawn rampage. No one could explain why.
Today, the boy's uncle, James Eugene Schnick, 36, was arraigned in Webster County Circuit Court on seven counts of first-degree murder. Neighbors suggested that he may have been feuding with Steve Buckner for months.
Schnick, a mechanic and dairy farmer, hobbled into the courtroom on crutches, barefoot and unshaven. He wore a dirty, white T-shirt and worn, blue bib overalls.
Head bowed, he winced as each charge was read. He made no statement other than to say, barely audible, "I guess so," when Judge Daniel Max Knust asked whether he could afford an attorney. He was ordered jailed without bond.
Police and prosecutor Don Cheever refused to reveal anything about Schnick's possible motive or details of their investigation.
The charges were filed late Monday after Schnick gave a videotaped statement to state police. He had been scheduled to take a polygraph test but refused.
The circumstantial case against Kirk Buckner apparently began to fall apart about three days after the shootings, authorities said.
Initially, they said he died in a desperate and bloody struggle with Schnick after shooting his relatives.
Police said that Schnick appeared to be delirious when they arrived at his neat farm home on the morning of the shootings and that he struggled with them. He told them that he had suffered stomach and leg wounds attempting to stop Kirk Buckner from further killings.
The boy's body was found in a hallway outside his aunt's bedroom. He had bullet and stab wounds in the heart; she had been shot twice in the head while sleeping.
A .22-caliber pistol, described by authorities as a cheap "Saturday night special" registered to Kirk's mother, was found in his right hand. Police later learned that he was lefthanded.
"It's pretty hard to pick up a gun when you're dead, in either hand," Fraker told reporters today.
Authorities said today that they think Kirk Buckner, found wearing blue jeans over his pajamas, did not die in the Schnick home. They said they are working on the assumption that Schnick planned the murders and tried to frame the boy. Authorities refused to elaborate on the alleged family fight.
Investigators said they became suspicious when Schnick's wounds, which they now believe were self-inflicted, were found to be superficial. He also refused to leave the hospital for several days despite how minor his injuries were, they said.
"We thought he overacted his part," the sheriff said. "He tried too hard."
Investigators originally believed that Kirk Buckner, depressed about family finances, shot his brothers at point-blank range as they slept, then reloaded the six-shot pistol and gunned down his parents outside doing chores.
Investigators had theorized that Kirk dumped his father's body in a ditch as he drove to the Schnick home 7.2 miles away. The theory troubled many because they doubted that the 90-pound boy could have moved the body of his 250-pound father.
"I sure hate to see this happen to Jim because he is a good friend," said George Chapman, owner of George's Economy Auto Service in Elkland. "But real life is real life. Things happen, and people make them happen. You can't believe in fairy tales and hope this all goes away."