In 1981, in the tiny farming town of Skidmore, Missouri, Ken McElroy was gunned down in broad daylight, in the middle of the town’s main street, in front of as many as 60 witnesses. More than three decades later, his murder remains unsolved.
The town, which sits in the northwest corner of Missouri about a hundred miles from Kansas City, had a population of around 440 people in 1981, and just about all of those people knew Ken Rex McElroy. He was known as the “town bully,” a big man with bushy sideburns and cold eyes who carried a gun and had plenty of money, even though he rarely worked.
In the years leading up to his murder, McElroy was charged with more than 20 crimes, including arson, assault, burglary, cattle rustling, child molestation, and statutory rape. Yet he was never convicted. Years later, McElroy’s attorney recalled that he typically defended McElroy in “three or four felonies a year.”
In 1981, McElroy’s mean streak led to attempted murder. The attack concerned a local grocer, 70-year-old Ernest “Bo” Bowencamp, and a piece of candy that Bowencamp’s wife had accused McElroy’s daughter of shoplifting. Unwilling to let the matter drop, McElroy harassed the Bowencamps, leering at them from his pickup while parked outside their house and occasionally firing his shotgun into the air. Finally, McElroy approached the grocer while he stood on the loading dock behind his store and shot him.
Bo Bowencamp survived the attack, but the town had had enough. David Baird, the newly-appointed prosecuting attorney for Nodaway County, managed to get the first-ever conviction against McElroy in the shooting of Bowencamp, but a judge released him on bond. McElroy showed up in the local tavern a few days later, carrying a rifle and bayonet, bellowing to all those present that he planned to finish off Bowencamp.
But McElroy never got the chance.
On July 10, McElroy and his wife Trena drove into town in his pickup and went into the bar, where they encountered a crowd of locals. There had been a meeting at the town hall just before, though what was discussed remains a mystery. McElroy and his wife backed out of the bar to leave, but the townspeople followed them to their pickup. McElroy climbed in and fired up the truck, then paused to grab a cigarette. That’s when shots rang out.
Though the crowd assembled in the town’s main street that day has been estimated at anywhere from 30 to 60 people, no one called an ambulance, and no one even turned off McElroy’s pickup. Once the shots subsided, the crowd simply walked away. McElroy was hit twice, by bullets from two different guns, and there’s reason to believe more bullets were fired that missed their target. How many shooters may never be known, as nobody but McElroy’s wife has ever talked about the shooting.
In spite of a massive investigation by both local and federal authorities, and media attention from all over the country, not one person in Skidmore ever confessed to the killing, or implicated anyone else. Numerous witnesses were questioned, and every one of them said that they never saw who fired the shots.
Three years later, McElroy’s wife filed a $6 million wrongful death suit against the town, the county, and several other individuals, including a local rancher named Del Clement, who McElroy’s wife identified as one of the shooters. The suit was settled out of court for $17,600, without anyone admitting to any wrongdoing.
The Skidmore murder—and the subsequent silence of the townspeople—seized the attention of the country. The event was written up in newspapers all across America, and ran a segment on the vigilante killing. In 1988, Harry MacLean vividly recreated the murder in his true crime investigation , earning him the Edgar Award in 1989. The book was made into a TV movie in 1991 starring Brian Dennehy, Chris Cooper, and Marcia Gay Harden.
Today, the population of Skidmore has shrunk to a little under 300 people. The grocery store and school have both closed down. Other murders have occurred in surrounding Nodaway County since 1981—yet everyone knows that the murder of Ken McElroy, and the secret the town keeps, remain Skidmore’s deadly legacy.