Ken Rex McElroy (June 1, 1934 – July 10, 1981) was a resident of Skidmore, Nodaway County, Missouri. Known as "the town bully", his unsolved killing became the focus of international attention. Over the course of his life McElroy was accused of dozens of felonies, including assault, child molestation, statutory rape, arson, hog and cattle rustling, and burglary.
In all, he was indicted 21 times, but escaped conviction each time, except for the last. In 1981, McElroy was convicted of shooting and seriously injuring the town's 70-year-old grocer, Ernest "Bo" Bowenkamp, the previous year. McElroy successfully appealed the conviction and was released on bond, after which he engaged in an ongoing harassment campaign against Bowenkamp, the town's Church of Christ minister, and others who were sympathetic to Bowenkamp. He appeared in a local bar, the D&G Tavern, armed with an M1 Garand rifle and bayonet, and later threatened to kill Bowenkamp. The next day, McElroy was shot to death in broad daylight as he sat with his wife Trena in his pickup truck on Skidmore's main street. He was struck by bullets from at least two different firearms, in front of a crowd of people estimated as between 30 and 46. To date, no one has been charged in connection with McElroy's death.
McElroy was born in 1934, the fifteenth of sixteen children born to a poor, migrant tenant-farming couple named Tony and Mabel McElroy, who had moved between Kansas and the Ozarks before settling outside of Skidmore. He dropped out of school at age 15 in the eighth grade, quickly establishing a local reputation as a raccoon hunter, cattle rustler, small-time thief and womanizer. For more than two decades, McElroy was suspected of being involved in theft of grain, gasoline, alcohol, antiques, and livestock, but he avoided conviction when charges were brought against him 21 times—often after witnesses refused to testify because he allegedly intimidated them, frequently by following his targets or parking outside their homes and watching them. He was represented by Gallatin, Missouri defense attorney Richard Gene McFadin.
Fathering more than 10 children with different women, he met his last wife, Trena McCloud, when she was 12 years old and in eighth grade. She became pregnant when she was fourteen, dropped out of school in the ninth grade, and went to live with McElroy and a woman named Alice Wood. Sixteen days after Trena gave birth, both she and Alice fled to Trena's mother's and stepfather's house. According to court records, McElroy tracked them down and brought them back. He then returned to Trena's parents' home when they were away, shot the family dog, and burned down the house.
Events prior to his killing
In June 1973, McElroy was indicted for arson, assault and statutory rape based on Trena's story. He was arrested, booked, arraigned and released on $2,500 bail. Trena and her baby were placed in foster care at a home in Maryville, Missouri. McElroy sat outside the foster home for hours at a time, staring, and told the foster family that he would trade "girl for girl" to get his child back since he knew where the foster family's biological daughter went to school—and what bus route she rode. Additional charges were filed against McElroy.
On July 27, 1976, Skidmore farmer Romaine Henry said McElroy shot him twice with a shotgun after Henry challenged him for shooting weapons on Henry's property. McElroy was charged with assault with intent to kill. McElroy denied he was at the scene. As the case dragged out without a court date, Henry said McElroy had parked outside his home at least 100 times. At the trial, two raccoon hunters testified they were with McElroy the day of the shooting away from Henry's property. Henry was forced to admit in court, under questioning by McElroy's attorney Richard Gene McFadin, that he had concealed his own petty criminal conviction from more than 30 years previous. McElroy was acquitted.
In 1980, one of McElroy's children got into an argument with a clerk, Evelyn Sumy, in a local grocery store owned by 70-year-old Ernest "Bo" Bowenkamp and his wife, Lois, allegedly because a younger McElroy child tried to steal some candy. McElroy began stalking the Bowenkamp family, and eventually threatened Bo Bowenkamp in the back of his store with a shotgun in hand. In the ensuing confrontation, McElroy shot Bowenkamp in the neck; Bowenkamp survived, and McElroy was arrested and charged with attempted murder. McElroy was convicted at trial of assault, but freed on bail pending his appeal. Immediately after being released at a post-trial hearing, McElroy went to the D&G Tavern, a local bar, with an M1 Garand rifle, and made graphic threats about what he would do to Mr. Bowenkamp. This led to several patrons deciding to see what they could legally do to prevent McElroy from harming anyone else. Nodaway County Sheriff Dan Estes suggested they form a Neighborhood Watch.
On the morning of July 10, 1981, after his appeal hearing was again delayed, townspeople met at the Legion Hall in the center of town with Sheriff Estes to discuss how to protect themselves. During the meeting, McElroy arrived at the D&G Tavern with Trena. As he sat drinking at the bar, word got back to the men at the Legion Hall that he was in town. After telling the assembled group not to get in a direct confrontation with McElroy, but instead seriously consider forming a Neighborhood Watch Program, Sheriff Estes drove out of town in his police cruiser. The citizens decided to go to the tavern en masse. The bar soon filled completely. After McElroy finished his drinks, he purchased a six pack of beer, left the bar, and entered his pickup truck. While McElroy was sitting in his truck he was shot at several times and hit twice, once by a center fire rifle and once by a .22 rimfire rifle. In all, there were 46 potential witnesses to the shooting, including Trena McElroy, who was in the truck with her husband when he was shot. No one called for an ambulance. Only Trena claimed to identify a gunman; every other witness either was unable to name an assailant or claimed not to have seen who fired the fatal shots. The DA declined to press charges. An extensive Federal investigation did not lead to any charges.
McElroy was buried at Memorial Park Cemetery in Saint Joseph, Missouri.
On July 9, 1984, Trena McElroy filed a $6 million wrongful death lawsuit against the Town of Skidmore, County of Nodaway, Sheriff Danny Estes, Steve Peters (Mayor of Skidmore), and Del Clement (whom Trena accused of being the shooter, but who was never charged). The case was later settled out of court by all parties for the sum of $17,600, with no one admitting guilt, for the stated reason of avoiding costly legal fees should the suit proceed.
Movies and books
- 60 Minutes ran a segment on the story in 1982.
- A 1988 book, In Broad Daylight, by Harry N. MacLean, was also turned into a made-for-TV movie titled In Broad Daylight in 1991 starring Brian Dennehy, Marcia Gay Harden and Chris Cooper. The bully who was based on Ken McElroy was given the fictitious name "Len Rowan". A police officer tells the perpetrators that "there is no room in this country for vigilante justice".
- Connecticut filmmaker Ralph Server's Without Mercy won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Picture at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival in 2004. The film portrays the last six days of McElroy's life.
- The television series Quincy, M.E. featured an episode (season 8, episode 6, "Sleeping Dogs") with a storyline based on the Ken McElroy saga.
- The television series City Confidential featured an episode (season 2, episode 10, "Skidmore: Frontier Justice") in 1999.
- The Missouri-based music group The Marshall/Peery Project recorded a song titled "Country Justice" in 2013. The song recounts the events surrounding McElroy's death. The song was written by Bryant Carter and Kevin W. Peery. It's a featured track on the "Life's Too Short" album, released by the Marshall/Peery Project in 2013.
- The band UFO has a song titled "Diesel in the Dust" which is loosely based on this event.
- A similar storyline exists in the movie Road House.
- The 2003 movie Dunsmore, starring W. Earl Brown, is based on Ken McElroy depicting his torment of the town and its citizenry, and his (unproven) death at their hands.
- Bradley, Donald. "3 decades on, who killed Skidmore town bully still secret". Mcclatchydc.com. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
- "Ken McElroy Murderer, rapist and consummate intimidator". Trutv.com. 1981-07-10. Retrieved 2010-09-01.
- Harry N. MacLean, In Broad Daylight. NY: Harper & Row, 1988.
- "Ken McElroy Murderer, rapist and consummate intimidator". Trutv.com. Retrieved 2010-09-02.
- "Ken McElroy Murderer, rapist and consummate intimidator — Another Teen Love". Trutv.com. Retrieved 2010-09-02.
- "Ken McElroy Murderer, rapist and consummate intimidator — Saved by the Law". Trutv.com. Retrieved 2010-09-02.
- "Ken McElroy Murderer, rapist and consummate intimidator — Intent to Kill". Trutv.com. 1976-07-27. Retrieved 2010-09-02.
- "Ken McElroy Murderer, rapist and consummate intimidator — The Last Straw". Trutv.com. Retrieved 2010-09-02.
- "Ken McElroy Murderer, rapist and consummate intimidator — Murder in Broad Daylight". Trutv.com. Retrieved 2010-09-02.
- Wrongful death lawsuit settled in re Ken McElroy
- "Trena L. Williams". The Lebanon Daily Record. Retrieved 2010-09-02.
- "You Get What You Pay For, by Larry Beinhart (Ballantine... - Chicago Tribune". Articles.chicagotribune.com. 1990-02-18. Retrieved 2012-04-20.
- "Without Mercy (2005)". Imdb.com. Retrieved 2014-06-14.