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How a Murder Trial Exposed a Small Town’s Growing Division

How a Murder Trial Exposed a Small Town’s Growing Division

Perched on a stool at the end of the bar of the Elks Club lodge 656, Gary Webb answered his black Nokia flip phone like a celebrity fielding live calls at a telethon fundraiser. After so many decades as a farmer, political agitator, activist, competitive fisherman, football coach, school board member, and historical preservationist, Webb, 69, was a well-established connector, the hub at the center of a giant wheel of people. That was part of why he’d finish one call, clap the phone closed, and it’d start ringing again. The other part was my fault, since before I’d made that reporting trip out to Missouri in August of 2013, I’d told him I’d like to meet anyone he thought I should talk to about the murder. He was, after all, the person who’d introduced me to the case—in a sense, it was only because of him I’d gotten involved at all.

Broad in the shoulders with a snug short-sleeved button-down of checkered reds, Webb wore white New Balance sneakers with thick rubber soles flecked in mud, clean white gym socks bunched at his ankles, and pleated, baggy khaki shorts. The bartender came over with my beer and Webb sipped from his Styrofoam cup while he worked the phone. As we left, I thanked him for his offer to arrange interviews. “At your disposal,” he said, climbing into the driver’s side of his Chevy red pickup. “Now let’s go get it.”

Like so many of the other 10,000 residents who lived around Chillicothe, a farming town in northwest Missouri, Webb was a native to the area. And like most everyone else in Chillicothe over the past three decades, he had developed rather strong feelings about the murder investigation and subsequent courtroom battles that followed that one horrible night in November, 1990, when Cathy Robertson, a mother of five, had been shot and killed in her home. The town was thrown into turmoil by the shooting, Webb said, suffering the deep fear and surreal shock of a mother slain while she slept down the hallway from her small children. But that fear would soon give way to intense disagreement between two opposing camps, divided on the guilt or innocence of a young Chillicothe man. A teenager at the time of the shooting, Mark Woodworth would eventually be tried and convicted for the killing.  “A raw deal,” Webb said. “But there were sides even before there had been sides to take,” he explained. It would take me several years to fully appreciate what Webb had meant that day.  

We kept the truck windows down while Webb sped around Livingston County’s long, solitary gravel roads, plumes of dust rising behind us, in search of those associates of his who he thought would be better to approach about the sensitive topic in person. On the porch of a general store, then in a kitchen fragrant with a roast in the oven, then outside a farmstead drinking sweet tea, I encountered what would become the running theme while I was in Missouri — everyone had a different interpretation of the case.  

My own sense of the case would change, too, as I acquainted myself more fully with the police investigation, the legal files, and the full range of grievances. Both advocates for Mark’s innocence and those convinced of his guilt laid out disparate criticisms and accusations of wrongdoing, cleaved together by a contradictory explanation for the same circumstances. What was unusual about these allegations however was that it wasn’t always one side speaking ill of the other. In fact, I’d often hear ambivalence towards the opposing faction on the grounds that those other folks, as far as it went, were incidental victims themselves, unaware that their belief in the innocence or guilt of this young man was not a conclusion of their own but the result of deceptions from the defense team or the state prosecutors, or the court system, or the squad of law enforcement agents that hadn’t been forthcoming with the whole damning truth.

Still, others, either by what they said or in simply telling me the story of their own lives, echoed Webb’s idea—that the division around Woodworth’s guilt or innocence didn’t really begin with the case itself, or fall exclusively within the jurisdiction of this community. Rather, the night of the shooting and subsequent legal action were but two dots on the crowded timeline of recent historical events that had upended life for the farming families of not only Missouri but across the Middle West. These were, in their own way, examples of larger malignant forces that had preyed, pushed, and ultimately undermined small farming towns trying to earn their daily bread. Singular as the violence of the murder had been, and as disruptive as the criminal trials would become, they were but pieces of the decade’s legacy—the long, grinding, bankrupting bad times known as the 1980s farming crisis. 

To be sure, much of this wasn’t so clear to me by the time I left Webb and everyone else I’d met on that initial trip through Missouri and Illinois. I came back home jumbled and disorganized, my notes in total disarray. It seemed like too much material and yet, as I began to sift through it all, I suspected that I had missed something. There were sources or documents I didn’t have but which would explain how these stacks of papers were all related. I’d spend another year fumbling in the dark until I squared up to the possibility I wasn’t going to find a coherent story to tell. I finally packed it up and put it all away.

After three years, I’d decided it was time to give up the ghost for good and clear out my apartment’s closet—the only closet, shared by my patient, accommodating girlfriend—crowded with the several boxes of files that I had shipped to myself from Missouri. Looking through everything one last time, I came across a reminder of what had sent me down this path in the first place: a DVD of a little-seen documentary featuring Gary Webb and his long quest to make hand fishing legal throughout the United States. It was Webb I’d originally wanted to write about — this pivotal figure in the niche community of so-called noodlers, third and fourth generation men and women who’d been taught the tactics from their parents and grandparents in Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, Mississippi and other states where Webb had traveled as a grass roots advocate. All across the South and Midwest, Webb defended this homespun technique of dangling one’s fingers underwater to catch, knuckles over lip, the chomping 80 pound catfish protecting their underwater nest eggs from the intrusive digits. I had approached Webb, the co-founder of the group Noodlers Anonymous, in the early summer of 2013. With the memory of the 2009 Great Recession still lingering and the opioid epidemic ravaging rural communities in earnest, I first rang his flip phone because I was curious to know if the years of widespread social unraveling—the sky rocketing unemployment, the drug overdoses, the weariness amid so many deaths of despair—had bestowed his tradition with something particularly valuable. Webb’s answer was both yes and no—the sport proved to be a reliable release valve during the dark times, and made for a cheap meal at the jubilant fish fries that followed the successful evasion of fish and game wardens on the prowl. But Webb’s interest seemed unchanged by this long recent spell of upheaval. He was animated principally by the prospect of defeating an ambiguous them, which was comprised of the affluent boat fisherman and politically connected hunters who’d lobbied the game wardens and agriculture department officials to keep noodling off limits. 

It was only a glimmer of a breakthrough, but thinking of Webb while I stood over the boxes that I was getting ready to throw out, I caught sight of something I hadn’t noticed in the divide of the two sides around the murder case. Webb’s desire to make handfishing legal was as true as it was felt, just as the people of Chillicothe had chosen their sides with moral conviction.  Their opponents, however, weren’t necessarily each other.  They had their own version of Webb’s them—the judges, state officials, and attorneys with power and ulterior motives that had quite fairly earned their derision. These had been after all the primary figures who either allowed or participated in the corruption, political malfeasance, and manipulation that had ravaged the town for almost a decade during the 1980s crisis. Indeed, both sides had amongst them residents with brutal memories of lean years and plenty of frustration and resentment stored up, and for very good reasons. But fighting against these figures and the large, systemic forces unravelling American farming communities like their own could feel overwhelming, if not impossible. In picking a side in Mark’s case, I realized, some had found a durable vessel into which they could now pour their anger.  

Looking at the files pulled from my closet for the first time in several years, I saw the Livingston County residents in a different light, enough to get a rough sense of what now might be possible to say about them. After another year of reporting and more weeks back in Missouri, I filled eight new banker boxes with legal documents, police files, archival material, and personal records from those involved in the case. This second tranche included new reporting on the Chillicothe Sheriff’s office’s ongoing investigation into the murder, as well as material related to the protracted civil lawsuits that began in 2014, after the previous year’s controversial Missouri Supreme Court decision, and would only end, bitterly, in 2023. 

Though the division around the murder remains alive in Chillicothe to this day—as does the sheriff’s ongoing investigation into the case—I believed I had enough already for the book now being published. If Gary Webb were still here to read it, I hope he might agree this was the right story to go chasing after in the backcountry of Livingston County.