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.”
McElroy was born in 1934, the fifteenth of sixteen children to poor, migrant tenant-farming parents. Eventually he dropped out of school at 15 in the eighth grade and short after became a delinquent. He began hunting raccoons which lead to petty crime—he was a cattle rustler and a small-time thief—but it would quickly change. For the next two decades, McElroy was suspected of stealing grain, gasoline, alcohol, antiques, and livestock. Charges were brought against him 21 times but he avoided conviction because witnesses refused to testify against him out of fear.
McElroy had four wives and more than 10 children. Trena McCloud—McElroy’s last wife—was only 14 when she became pregnant and dropped out of school in the ninth grade. She moved in with McElroy and his third wife Alice Woods. McElroy divorced Woods and married McCloud to escape charges of statutory rape. After McCloud gave birth, both she and Woods fled to McCloud’s parents’ house but McElroy tracked them and brought them back. He then returned to the home when McCloud’s parents were away, shot the family dog and burned the house down. In June 1973, McElroy was indicted for arson, assault, and statutory rape. He was arrested, booked, arraigned, and eventually released on $2,500 bail.
On July 1976, McElroy shot Skidmore farmer Romaine Henry twice with a shotgun after Henry challenged McElroy for shooting weapons on his property. McElroy was charged with assault with intent to kill but he vehemently denied being at the scene. As the case dragged on without a court date, Henry claimed that McElroy had parked outside his home at least 100 times. During trial, Henry’s own petty criminal conviction was discovered from 30 years before. McElroy was acquitted but it wouldn’t stop there.
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. After being released at a post-trial hearing, McElroy went to the D&G Tavern with a bayonet attached to M1 Garand rifle where he made graphic threats about what he would do to Mr. Bowenkamp.
But McElroy never got the chance.
Many patrons were alarmed and decided to see what they could legally do to prevent McElroy from harming anyone else. Nodaway County Sheriff Dan Estes came up with a possible solution: the town could form a neighborhood watch. On July 1981, townspeople met at the Legion Hall in the center of town to discuss with Sheriff Estes how they could protect themselves. That same day, McElroy and his wife Trena drove into town in his pickup and went into the bar. The group in Legion Hall found out that McElroy was in town. Sheriff Estes instructed them to avoid directly confronting Elroy however the citizens decided to go to the tavern together. 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.