SKIDMORE, MO — Four decades after Ken Rex McElroy was gunned down on the main drag of Skidmore, Missouri, in one of America’s most infamous cold cases, the story of the notoriously brutal town bully has refused to die with him — no matter how much the farmers and blue-collar workers who live in the small farming town wish it would.
How could it? Anywhere from 30 to 90 people watched the 47-year-old McElroy die in an act that ended his decade-long reign of terror over the people of Skidmore. At least some of the witnesses surely knew who fired the bullet that shattered the back window of McElroy’s truck and blew off the back of his head.
Yet in a conspiracy of silence that has spanned the past 38 years, the townsfolk have held the secret close.
The story was thrust back to the forefront this month by “No One Saw a Thing,” a six-part Sundance TV docu-series exploring the moral ambiguity of frontier justice and the unspoken, yet universally intriguing, question: When, if ever, does someone like McElroy deserve to die?
(Editor’s Note: Patch Deputy National Editor Beth Dalbey grew up on a farm about 10 miles from Skidmore, Missouri.)
The story of Ken Rex McElroy began on June 1, 1934. He dropped out of school before he reached high school, and by 13 was already a familiar character to the cops around Nodaway County.
His lifelong career as a criminal started with petty offenses, but he increasingly became more violent, amassing a rap sheet that included nearly two dozen felony charges for assault, child molestation, statutory rape, arson, burglary, grain theft, and hog and cattle rustling — enterprises that kept a thick roll of hundred-dollar bills in his pocket.
McElroy for the most part escaped prosecution and, certainly, conviction for various crimes. Then, on the night of July 8, 1980, McElroy shot 70-year-old Skidmore grocer Ernst “Bo” Bowenkamp, unwittingly setting up his own murder a year later.
“We went everywhere we could, but justice would stay delicately out the way. Looking back, the justice system had as much to do with killing Ken McElroy as anyone in Skidmore did.”
— Joyce Monte, daughter of injured grocer
Everyone in town seemed to know McElroy had done it, yet he spent only a single night in jail for nearly killing the man. No one was surprised. McElroy four years earlier had pumped a couple of rounds of buckshot into the stomach of local farmer Romaine Henry as he tried to run the blackguard off his land.
He got away with it, too.
By the time McElroy was shot dead under the glare of the morning sun on July 10, 1981, everybody feared his hair-trigger temper and brooding presence. Skidmore townsfolk may not all have liked how he was killed — it was murder, after all — but when he died, most of the town’s 435 residents let out a heavy sigh of relief. They could finally sleep peacefully at night, especially Bo and Lois Bowenkamp and their children.
“It was not the kind of justice they should’ve gotten,” 60-year-old Joyce Monte, the Bowenkamps’ daughter, told Patch in a telephone interview from her home in Oklahoma. “We stood up and did the right thing. We went to the police. We went to the courts.
“We went everywhere we could, but justice would stay delicately out the way,” she said. “Looking back, the justice system had as much to do with killing Ken McElroy as anyone in Skidmore did.”
What happened in Skidmore that day wasn’t much different than the completely predictable result from shaking a carbonated beverage until the top finally blows.
Uneducated But ‘Very Cunning’
A swarthy, physically intimidating man who carried about 270 pounds on his more than 6-foot frame, McElroy had thick black eyebrows and bushy sideburns. Heavy lids veiled cold, steel-blue eyes, making them look like half moons.
He was as mean as he looked, but there was more to his baleful demeanor, said Colorado lawyer and author Harry MacLean, who lived with a prominent Skidmore farm family off and on for about five years while he researched “In Broad Daylight,” a New York Times bestseller chronicling McElroy’s life and death.
“He was very cunning,” MacLean told Patch. “He knew which people to pick on — the weak people — and he followed through on his threats just often enough to make people believe he was going to do what he said he was going to do.
“He had a legendary status, and it all got to be bigger than he was. Somebody would hear his name, and the legend grew bigger. When he got off on a trial, it grew even bigger. It went beyond just hammering people and being mean-spirited. He neutralized an entire criminal justice system.”
“Our law enforcement never went after him very hard. The son of a bitch would just as soon shoot them as anyone else.”
— Kirby Goslee, Skidmore farmer
Often, witnesses changed their mind about testifying before trials began, MacLean said, and if a case did make it to trial, a juror might open the mailbox to find a rattlesnake. Gene McFadin, McElroy’s “nickel-slick lawyer from Kansas City could get Ken off every time,” Kirby Goslee, a 71-year-old Skidmore farmer who still works the land his family homesteaded six generations ago, told Patch.
Almost everyone, with the exception of Bo Bowenkamp, backed down.
Livestock owners looked the other way when a few head of cattle or hogs vanished in the night or gas barrels used to fuel farm implements were noticeably emptier. The mere mention of his surname was enough to cause anxiety, if not full terror. When they met him on the street, parents steered their children, especially their daughters, away from McElroy, a notorious womanizer who favored young women and was married multiple times — including to a child bride he was accused of raping — and fathered 15 children.
It was a matter of self-preservation. Retaliation would be severe. Calling the sheriff about his threats was risk few were willing to take — not that it would have done much good, Goslee said.
“Our law enforcement never went after him very hard,” he said. “The son of a bitch would just as soon shoot them as anyone else.”
In the plainspoken manner of speaking in Skidmore, McElroy simply needed killing, like a gangrened leg needs to be severed to save the whole body. The law wasn’t going to help the people of Skidmore. They had to look out for themselves.
Shooting Over Penny Candy
What set off McElroy and put the local grocer in his crosshairs was the pettiest of offenses. In April 1980, Trena McElroy told her husband a clerk in the Bowenkamps’ store had accused their 4-year-old daughter of stealing penny candy. It was a misunderstanding, but one that made the Bowenkamps’ lives a living hell for months.
“It was so out of the blue, almost to the point of being surreal,” said Monte, who occasionally worked in her parents’ store. “We had shoplifting, but … a lot of people were on hard times.
“There was a kind of silent charity on the part of my parents, and they never prosecuted. If they thought it was getting too out of hand, they would send one of us up and down the aisle. No one was ever accused of shoplifting, or stealing. You just didn’t do that.”
The clerk, Evelyn Sumy, was at the back of the store when the doors swung open. Someone warned her, “You’re about to meet Ken Rex McElroy,” Monte said.
He stood silently at the back of the store, but his wife tore into Sumy in an argument laced with “four-letter bombs,” Monte said. “Evelyn tried to explain what had happened, that nobody had accused the children of stealing, and Trena said, ‘Why would my effing daughter lie?’ “
The McElroys eventually left the store, but when Bowenkamp closed up that night, he was outside, waiting. Refusing to argue, he and Lois went home.
“He showed back up in front of their house that night, and he and Trena sat there and watched them,” Monte said. “That became the pattern. Once, he even got out and fired a shotgun up in the pine tree by their house. Evelyn lived cross the street, and he made sure she could see them.
“He’d leave, then he’d come back,” Monte said.
Then, on a warm July night, “McElroy shot my dad” as he sat on the back loading dock of his store, waiting for an air conditioner repairman, Monte said. A deer slug in one chamber tore through Bowenkamp’s neck, coming within 3 inches of his head.
‘How Is This Man Not In Jail?’
Missouri State Highway Patrol Trooper Richard Stratton, the only lawman in northwest Missouri ever known to stand up to McElroy, hunted McElroy down and arrested him on an attempted murder charge. He spent the night in jail before posting bond, then sauntered menacingly back into the D&G tavern and pool hall and took his usual spot.
“How is this man not in jail?” Monte said, repeating the question asked by many when he showed up in Skidmore the morning after his release.
“McElroy would just sit and glower at you — just stare at you — and you’d never know what he was thinking.”
— Joyce Monte
In the months before McElroy went to trial, the Bowenkamps and Sumy went to bed scared, woke up frightened and lived in terror with every breath. They slept in shifts, with some friend or family member keeping an eye on the street.
“There were so many nights Dad couldn’t go out and mow the yard or water the flowers because there was a truck parked down the street, and they were watching the house,” Monte said. “McElroy would just sit and glower at you — just stare at you — and you’d never know what he was thinking.”
McElroy was known to pay local kids for information about who was where in town at what time, so the Bowenkamps developed their own network of informants.
They delivered messages in code. For example, one of the owners of the D&G tavern would send her young children to the grocery store for paper towels, keeping the children innocently unaware they were telegraphing an urgent message for the Bowenkamps to call the police. McElroy was in town and behaving belligerently.
“We might not see him for three or four days, and then we’d see him every day for weeks,” Monte said. “Everyone was keeping an eye on us. When you didn’t know where he was, you didn’t dare take the chance of not being on your guard.”
After McElroy fired a gun outside her house, Evelyn Sumy appealed to Dave Dunbar, the town marshal.
“Dunbar talked to him, and [McElroy] pulled a gun on him,” Monte said. “He quit.”
She took her complaint to at-the-time Nodaway County Sheriff Roger Cronk. He was nonplussed.
“The sheriff said, ‘If you have to shoot him, let us know and we’ll come get him before he starts stinking,’ ” Monte said.
The Breaking Point
In the summer of 1981, a jury handed McElroy his first-ever felony conviction — for the lesser charge of second-degree assault. Not only that, they recommended he spend no more than two years in prison.
McElroy escaped jail on an appeal bond and could remain free until he exhausted his appeals, free to taunt his victims with what had become painfully clear: He would never go to jail.
As the story has been told by MacLean and others, McElroy showed up at the D&G tavern and pool hall the next day toting a rifle with a bayonet — a violation of his bond — and threatened to finish off the Bowenkamps.
No one doubted he would do just that.
Still working within the justice system, witnesses who saw McElroy with the gun gave the information the county prosecutor needed to request a bond revocation hearing. The townspeople organized a caravan to escort the witnesses to the hearing — both to protect them and to show solidarity.
McFadin, McElroy’s lawyer, got the hearing postponed.
“That was the last straw,” MacLean said. “That was the last failure of criminal justice.”
The townsfolk were infuriated. Dozens of them gathered at Skidmore’s American Legion hall on the morning of July 10, 1981. What could legally be done about McElroy, they asked Sheriff Danny Estes, who had been elected months earlier. He left town just as Ken and Trena McElroy were driving in, likely passing McElroy’s Chevrolet Silverado pickup in his cruiser on the road.
When word spread that McElroy was in town, a couple of the men walked from the Legion hall to the D&G. Get out of town, they said.
As Trena told the story to reporters, a group of men followed them as they left the D&G. McElroy started his pickup and the sound of shots pierced the silence. A couple of men hustled Trena to a nearby bank, away from the gunfire.
When the shooting ended, McElroy was slumped over the steering wheel. No one called for an ambulance. Everyone just went home.
When Estes and state troopers arrived back in town, the streets were empty and quiet, save the rumbling, smoking engine of McElroy’s truck. His foot fell to the accelerator when he was shot, causing the engine to run at full bore. No one bothered to turn it off.
Investigators found shell casings from two weapons — a .22-caliber Magnum rifle and an 8 mm Mauser, a German World War I-era long-range rifle. The guns were never recovered.
Two Grand Juries, No Indictments
Maryville, Missouri, lawyer David Baird, the Nodaway County prosecutor at the time, said the crime is fairly unremarkable in the context of current-day gang shootings — witnessed by many, but seen by few willing to risk their safety by ratting out the crew.
“I said it in 1981, and I’ll say it now,” Baird told Patch. “Once you boil away to the facts of what occurred, you can probably point to hundreds of similar reports every week across the United States.”
If McElroy had been shot by a lone gunman on a dark road at night, “it would have made the Maryville paper for a day,” MacLean said. “There just wouldn’t have been a story.”
Few were criticized as mightily as Baird over the lack of prosecution in McElroy’s murder.
“You don’t take cases to trial to see what might happen. We didn’t have sufficient evidence to go to trial.”
— Former Nodaway County prosecutor David Baird
Its proceedings are secret, but in news interviews at the time, McElroy’s widow said she told a county grand jury who murdered her husband. Still, the panel didn’t return an indictment, giving rise to conspiracy theories about a law enforcement coverup, also a theme in “No One Saw a Thing.”
The FBI entered the case — “stiff-arming and threatening people,” is how Monte, the Bowenkamps’ daughter, relates it. Investigators dug and dug, but Skidmore residents maintained their silence. A federal grand jury was convened. Again, there were no indictments, and the McElroy murder case was tossed back to Baird.
Many wondered: Why didn’t Baird press charges against the man Trena McElroy fingered as her husband’s killer?
“You don’t take cases to trial to see what might happen,” the former prosecutor said. “We didn’t have sufficient evidence to go to trial.”
A Vigilante Killing?
The media descended on Skidmore after the killing, an event that continues to define the people of the small town to the world — at times with wildly exaggerated versions of what happened. One account even said that McElroy rode into town on a horse and was shot and killed, Baird, the former prosecutor, said.
“Some of these things are simply assumed to be factual,” Baird said.
One assumption Skidmore hasn’t been able to shed is that McElroy’s killing was an act of vigilante justice. Neither Baird nor MacLean, whose crime novel has been praised as an accurate account of McElroy’s killing, buy that.
“You don’t have a town full of people who were hiding a guilty conscience. … A lot of them didn’t even tell their wives and children. They just went stone silent.”
— Harry MacLean, author of “In Broad Daylight”
MacLean doesn’t believe the men gathered at the Legion hall that morning ever made a “group decision” to kill McElroy.
“What gave rise to that theory is that they were in the Legion hall for a meeting, then went down to the D&G [when they heard McElroy was in town]. That it was a vigilante killing is not true for a lot of reasons; if they had decided to kill him, they wouldn’t have stood in the street” to watch the murder unfold, he said.
That they had guns at the ready wasn’t unusual. Farmers carried them to kill varmints, or for hunting — displaying them in plain sight in rear window gun racks.
“Two people decided in the midst of that whole incident they’d had enough,” MacLean said.
Those who witnessed the killing didn’t speak of it again, not because they were part of a conspiracy, MacLean believes, but because they’re stoic by nature.
“You don’t have a town full of people who were hiding a guilty conscience,” he said. “They were witnesses. It really is that it was never spoken of — they had an instinctive reaction to close up. A lot of them didn’t even tell their wives and children. They just went stone silent.
“I’ve never thought there was a series of phone calls that went around — ‘don’t say this or that.’ Those farmers have known each other since they were children. They know how everybody thinks.”
If those responsible for killing McElroy are vigilantes, “it’s because the justice system made them that way,” Monte said.
“Actually, I think those shooters saved lives in the end,” she said. “McElroy was spinning so hard out of control, I have no doubt he would have tried to kill my dad again, given the chance. I have no doubt he’d have tried to kill my mom. The courts would not help us or Skidmore. The police would not or could not help us or Skidmore. So what was left?”
‘Fear Is What Killed Him’
It’s probably accurate that few outside of McElroy’s family shed tears over his death, but many Skidmore residents still struggle with the spectacle of a man violently and publicly killed.
“A lot of people were not happy about what happened,” MacLean said. “No. 1, it is murder. Women had a harder time with it than the men. They thought about his wife and his children, and where it left them — particularly the children.”
There may never be an answer to the question of who killed Ken Rex McElroy.
“If tried by a jury of their peers, I doubt anybody around here would have convicted the shooters. They sacrificed one for the betterment of hundreds.”
— Kirby Goslee
Estes, the sheriff some tried to implicate in a conspiracy, is dead. So is Stratton. Trena McElroy remarried and had a fairly normal life, refusing interviews after she left Skidmore. She died in 2012. Del Clement, the man Trena named as McElroy’s killer, died of cirrhosis of the liver in 2009. He made no deathbed confession, but someone wrote in a memorial tribute that he was “a good, brave man.” McFadin, the lawyer who once told The New York Times “the town got away with murder,” is dead, too.
In the end, “fear is what killed him,” Goslee said.
“Was justice served? Absolutely not,” he said. “Murder is still murder. But if tried by a jury of their peers, I doubt anybody around here would have convicted the shooters. They sacrificed one for the betterment of hundreds. Yes, it’s against the law, but you know, the law is not the final definitive word on him. The law had plenty of chances, plenty of times to lock him up.”
Added Monte: “Justice failed everybody. It failed McElroy, too, because it failed to protect him from himself. The justice system just crashed and burned over this case.”
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