The story of Ken McElroy had to do with frustration over law enforcement's shortcomings, the solidarity of a town, and a man who got what was coming to him.
“I heard shooting and got down. Didn’t see a thing.” This was the response investigators received time and time again when they questioned residents of the small community of Skidmore, Missouri about the death of Ken McElroy.
It wasn’t a secret that McElroy was disliked in his community. Throughout his life, McElroy had been accused of dozens of crimes, including but not limited to assault, child molestation, statutory rape, arson, burglary, and animal cruelty.
Despite his litany of crimes, however, McElroy always managed to avoid conviction. Then, on July 10, 1981, McElroy finally got what was coming to him when a mob of around 50 people accosted McElroy outside the local tavern — and the shooting began.
How Ken McElroy Terrorized His Town
Born in 1934, Ken Rex McElroy was a resident of Skidmore, Missouri. To the residents of the small town, he was the local bully.
After dropping out of school in the eighth grade, it didn’t take long for Ken McElroy to fall into a life of delinquency. What started with hunting raccoons escalated into petty crime until McElroy ultimately emerged as a full-fledged criminal.
According to Fox2Now, McElroy’s status as the “town bully” may have been something of an understatement. While he was charged 21 times in theft cases, he never saw any time behind bars — usually because he intimidated any witnesses. But it only gets worse from there.
McElroy raped a 12-year-old girl, but managed to avoid statutory rape charges by divorcing his wife and marrying the young girl when she was 14 and pregnant with his child. To get the girl’s parents to agree to the marriage, McElroy set their house on fire and shot their dog.
Then, in July 1976, McElroy shot a farmer named Romaine Henry in the stomach with a shotgun. Thankfully, Henry survived, and McElroy was charged with assault with intent to kill. Yet again, however, McElroy avoided any consequences. In this instance, his attorney produced two witnesses who claimed they were out hunting with McElroy that day, and that they were nowhere near the scene of the shooting.
Somehow, McElroy was found not guilty.
But not being one to rest on his laurels, McElroy was involved in another shooting in 1980. This time, he shot the 70-year-old town grocer, Ernest “Bo” Bowenkamp, in the neck — over an argument about whether McElroy’s child had stolen a piece of candy. The grocer lived in this case, too, and McElroy was eventually convicted of assault.
Unfortunately, he was let out of jail while awaiting appeal, and then threatened the grocer publicly while holding a rifle.
As author Harry MacLean later wrote in hisbook on McElroy’s story, In Broad Daylight, the most baffling component of McElrooy’s story was, “He didn’t have a bank account, didn’t have a Social Security number, he didn’t read. How did this uneducated person — how is he able to outwit the criminal justice system for 20 years?”
The Killing Of Ken McElroy
While nearly everyone in the town of Skidmore may have despised Ken McElroy, there was at least one person who had good things to say about him: his attorney, Richard McFadin, who routinely defended Ken McElroy in three or four felonies a year.
“Best client I ever had,” McFadin said in an interview with the Kansas City Star. “He was punctual, always said he didn’t do it, paid in cash and kept coming back… I was the only friend he had. He told me he would pay me whatever I needed to keep him out of jail.”
But for the town, McElroy’s row with Bowenkamp was the last straw. For more than two decades, McElroy had been a plague on the town of Skidmore, and somehow, he just kept getting away with it.
“We were so bitter and so angry at the law letting us down that it came to somebody taking matters in their own hands,” Bowenkamp’s daughter Cheryl Huston told the New York Times. “No one has any idea what a nightmare we lived.”
So the townspeople held a meeting. On July 10, 1981, they gathered together and met with the Nodaway County sheriff to discuss the situation with McElroy. The sheriff suggested they form a neighborhood watch and refrain from confronting McElroy.
The townsfolk had other plans.
Once the sheriff had gone, the group walked down to the local tavern where McElroy was having a morning drink with his wife. Again, keep in mind that this was the same wife he victimized when she was a child. After some time, McElroy decided to leave, and the mob followed. Outside, they surrounded his pickup truck and confronted him — then, several shots rang out.
In the crowd, it was impossible to say who had shot McElroy. He was struck by two different firearms and bled out behind the wheel of his truck. No one called an ambulance.
And although several investigators would come knocking, trying to find out who had killed Ken McElroy, the truth would remain the town’s most coveted secret.
Decades Later, The Town Of Skidmore Refuses To Say Who Killed Ken McElroy
“Once the shroud of silence fell, there was going to be no one talking,” Cheryl Huston later said of the killing. The people of Skidmore had long put up with McElroy’s intimidation, thievery, and abuse. In a sense, they felt that his murder had been their justice.
Of course, law enforcement couldn’t view it the same way. Police, and even the FBI, tried to get to the bottom of the murder, but the townspeople kept their lips sealed. 30 years later, prosecutor David Baird retired from his office with the case file still open.
“You could talk to everybody in this case, and they’d give you a different answer,” he later said. “I’m never going to answer that question. It’s never going to happen.”
Speaking about the incident decades after it occurred, retired Missouri Highway Patrol trooper Richard Stratton said he understood why the people of Skidmore felt they needed to take matters into their own hands.
“Those were fathers and grandfathers on the street in Skidmore that day,” he said. “Ordinary, hardworking people. They did what they did because we didn’t do our job. Then they went home and kept their mouths shut and kept them closed all these years. There wasn’t much David Baird could do about that.”
To this day, no one will say who murdered Ken McElroy.
His former lawyer summed it up best when he said, “I know why they didn’t talk — they were all glad he was dead. That town got away with murder.”
If you liked reading this story on Ken McElroy, the bully who was killed by his town, check out the story of Budford Pusser’s cold-blooded revenge. Then you can read about chilling cold cases where the murderers and victims were both unknown.