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Bo Bowencamp then aged 72. Ken Rex McElroy was found guilty of second-degree assault in the shooting of grocer Bo Bowencamp.

Death of a Bully

Ken Rex McElroy – The Most Hated Man in Missouri

Ken Rex McElroy shared something with the townspeople he tormented, something beyond the years of accumulated tension. McElroy most likely didn’t see who shot him from behind in broad daylight near the town’s major intersection. To hear Skidmore’s citizens tell it, neither did they.

Thirty-six years later, their stories remain unchanged.

Ken Rex McElroy was a big, mean jerk of a bully who was allowed for years to wreak criminal, mental, physical and sociological havoc on his community of Skidmore, Missouri. And then somebody shot him dead in front of dozens of witnesses in daylight. Everybody knows who did it. But everybody shut up. And the town kept silent. Apparently, McElroy was mean enough to unite a town of plain, good people to do murder. He had terrorised Skidmore for years.

Many trucking towns across the United States have died a slow death since the railroads’ heydey in the late 1800s. Few small towns, however, have seen the level of tragedy that Skidmore, Missouri, has. Within a generation, the town has seen an unsolved killing in front of at least 60 witnesses, a pregnant woman stalked and killed for her baby, and a young man go missing from his backyard.

Skidmore, Missouri is a very small town. In the ’70s, there was only one bar, one grocery store, and one bully. Ken McElroy was so ruthless and intimidating that even law enforcement looked the other way. He terrorised the town for decades until they finally fought back. Ken Rex McElroy, 47, was an awful, burly man with bushy sideburns, cold eyes and an ever-present gun.

Small towns are reputed to be close. Almost like family. Residents stick together. They have your back. They protect you. They keep your secrets. 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. In spite of three grand jury investigations and an FBI probe, no indictments were ever issued, no trial held – and the town of Skidmore has protected the killer with silence.

The town, which sits in the north-west 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.

The murder of Ken Rex McElroy took place in plain view of dozens of residents of this small farm town, under the glare of the morning sun. But in a dramatic act of solidarity with the gunman, every witness, save the dead man’s wife, denied seeing who had pulled the trigger. Killed instantly by rifle bullets, his foot pushed the accelerator to the floor. The engine roared. Like something in literature, no one shut it off. They just walked away.

Except for McElroy’s wife, nobody told who did it. Investigators and grand juries heard the same thing time and time again: “I heard shooting and got down. Didn’t see a thing.”

Life in small town America is increasingly romanticised as more and more Americans move to cities. Pop culture likes to portray rural hamlets as idyllic places with quirky citizens who are full of homespun wisdom, getaways where the materialistic city dweller can vacation away from their stressful urban lifestyle and maybe learn a few life lessons while they’re at it.

While there is perhaps some truth to this, another trope about small towns is that they all harbour deep, dark secrets whose truths are not easily discovered. After all, small towns are in reality large families, with a sense of identity that comes from close kinship among its members. Secrets die hard when a community closes ranks and refuses to talk.

Skidmore, Missouri was just such a town.

Ken McElroy was the terror of Skidmore. A big man with a bad temper and no conscience, he did as he pleased and if anyone had the audacity to get in his way, he didn’t hesitate to resort to violence. His reign of terror over the residents of Skidmore lasted for decades. From assault to rape to theft, McElroy was such a prolific criminal that his attorney, Richard McFadin, claimed to have defended his client from upwards of three felony convictions a year. McElroy, who never seemed to be hurting for money despite never holding down a job, paid his attorney in cash whatever amount was necessary to stay out of jail.

The strategy seemed to work because, despite a laundry list of crimes, law enforcement could never make any charges stick to McElroy. It seemed that the bully would continue to terrorise Skidmore Indefinitely. That is, until McElroy tried to murder the local grocer, the elderly Bo Bowenkamp, over some candy.

Trena McElroy, Ken’s wife, told her husband that Lois Bownenkamp, the grocer’s wife, had accused their daughter of stealing candy. Mrs Bowenkamp tried to soothe the hurt feelings by explaining away the incident as a misunderstanding, but Ken McElroy, never one to let matters drop, offered the elderly woman money to fight Trena McElroy over the dispute. When she refused, McElroy camped out in his pickup truck outside the Bowenkamp’s home at night, on two occasions firing his shotgun into the air.

One July night in 1980, McElroy took the dispute to dangerous proportions. Bo Bowenkamp stood on the loading dock of his grocery store, waiting for a repairman. McElroy pulled up in his pickup truck, pulled out his shotgun, and unloaded a round of buckshot at the elderly grocer. The round tore through Bowenkamp’s neck, and the old man collapsed. McElroy fled the scene but was picked up later that night by State Troopers. Bowenkamp survived his wounds. The town was outraged by the attack, calling for justice. McElroy would subsequently go to trial, but justice grinds slow, and the bureaucratic court system would once again fail Skidmore, setting the stage for an act of vigilante justice that remains unsolved to this day.

Ken McElroy received a two-year sentence for shooting Bowenkamp. McFadin put in an appeal, and much to Skidmore’s dismay, McElroy was freed on bond.

Skidmore was infuriated, and some among the villagers decided enough was enough.

Ken Rex McElroy, a notoriously brutal man who had terrorised Skidmore, Mo., for years, was killed in 1981. Credit Jupiter Entertainment.

No sooner had Ken McElroy walked out of the courtroom where they found him guilty of shot gunning the village grocer then, sure enough, there he was back at the B&G tavern. He showed no remorse. He was sullen. When Ken McElroy was sullen, prudent people gave him room. Even when he was not sullen, tough guys in saloons all across Nodaway County called him mister. It was recognised as unhealthy to cross Ken McElroy.

“He never knelt down to nobody,” his young, blonde wife Trena, reflected. “He didn’t care who they were or how many there were. He didn’t need nobody beside him.” Just so. He was a big, thickset man of 47 ill-spent years, five-ten and 265 pounds, massive arms, low forehead, bushy eyebrows and sideburns.

He wasn’t a street brawler. He was specific. He struck fear in your soul by staring you down, flashing a gun, occasionally using it. If you were his prey for today, he stalked you. He glared at you in silence and when he spoke it was with a slow whisper. Chilling.

He was born on a farm just outside of town. When he was a boy he fell off a hay wagon, requiring a steel plate to be implanted in his head. Some wondered if that was what made him so mean.

This was a small town: 440 people, filling station, bank, post office, tavern, blacktop street, grain elevator. Beyond lie rolling meadows, ripening corn, redwing blackbirds, fat cattle, windmills and silos — a scene off a Sweet Lassie feed calendar.

Ken McElroy jarred that pastoral serenity. So it is with outspoken relief that the citizens of Nodaway County now speak of him in the past tense. He is dead. The fear he brought them, though, still lingers in a new, unexpected form.

At the B&G tavern the day of his conviction, he was very much alive, and he was decidedly sullen. “I been fighting prosecutors since I was 13 years old and I’m damn near 50,” he muttered in his beer. “This is the first time I’ve lost.”

For the next two weeks, the townspeople muttered, too. They wondered why Ken McElroy was in the B&G tavern in the first place, or anywhere else that they had not wanted him to be since he was about 13 causing mayhem. Where he should have been was in a well-barred jail.

And here he was again, scot-free on a $40,000 appeal bond, terrorising the countryside. Bond or no bond, he had swaggered into the B&G tavern toting an M-1 rifle with a bayonet on it.

“Same old story. Lois Bowenkamp said. “Police arrest him, courts let him go.” Lois is the wife of Ernest Bowenkamp, known affectionately around town as Bo, the 72-year-old grocer whom McElroy shot in the neck. Bo survived and is back at work. On the day of a hearing to revoke McElroy’s bond for carrying the rifle, about 60 men gathered downtown. They figured a big crowd at the hearing would impress the judge, and they figured to go to the courthouse together. With McElroy still loose, it would not be wise to go singly. When the men got to town, though, they learned the hearing had been postponed. Another maddening delay. In Legion hall, they invited the sheriff to discuss how to protect themselves from the county menace. The meeting broke up when someone burst in with a message that more than once had cleared the streets of Skidmore.

“McElroy’s in town.”

This time they didn’t clear the streets. This time they strode over to the B&G, and when McElroy finished his beer, they followed McElroy and his wife Trena as they left the bar and walked to their pickup truck. McElroy was no sooner in the truck than someone across the street raised a rifle. They stared wordlessly as he got into his pickup. McElroy started his truck and lit a cigarette. “I started to scream,” recalls Trena. “I said to Ken, ‘They’ve got a gun.’ I think he kind of knew what was going to happen. He didn’t show any fear. He never said a word.”

Suddenly, someone put at least three bullets in McElroy’s head. Shots cracked through the morning stillness, coming from both in front of and behind the truck. McElroy was struck several times in the head and neck. McElroy fell dead, shot through the head by a high-powered rifle.

Depending on who you talk to, Trena was either helped from the truck or she jumped out of the truck, screaming and fearful for her life.

The bystanders immediately cleared out. A bartender inside the D&G heard the shots and continued serving drinks. Business, as usual, continued until 45 minutes later when McElroy’s attorney – who wasn’t even in Skidmore at the time – called the police after being notified by a frantic Trena.

No one called for an ambulance, and when sheriff’s deputies arrived, no one but Trena said they saw anything. Immediately, law enforcement at all levels mounts an intense investigation to find and arrest the shooters. But the townspeople refuse to cooperate, even defiantly challenging the FBI to make good on their threats to arrest every adult male in town for murder and conspiracy.

The wall of silence went up that day, and to this day it remains standing. No one in town would admit anything. Not even the FBI could get people in Skidmore to talk…

Still, McElroy was not without mourners. By his first wife, Sharon, he had four daughters, then 16 to 19, and a son, 22. The four girls chose to live with him after he and Sharon parted. McElroy next became involved with Alice Woods, then 35, who said she was not sure they were ever legally married but lived with him for 15 years. She bore him two sons and a daughter. Ten years earlier McElroy began a relationship with young Trena McCloud, who first accused him of rape, then married him in 1974, a year after the first of their three children was born. But he never abandoned Alice, by whom he had two more children after his marriage to Trena.

Though neighbours were disgusted by the arrangement, Alice and Trena, who are friends, insist that McElroy treated them well. “Ken was totally different from the way they are saying he was now,” says Alice. “Oh, he was wild, but he wasn’t guilty of all those things they say. He was honest and generous. I never knew him to steal anything, ever.” Trena agreed and says McElroy was harassed by police. “The officers were always hassling him,” she claimed. “They’d accuse him of anything, even things I know he didn’t do because I was with him. They just hated him because he wouldn’t kneel down to them.” She angrily denies a rumour that her stepfather at first refused McElroy permission to marry her and that McElroy retaliated by burning his house down. “That’s a lie,” she snaps. “It was just faulty wiring.”

Ken Rex McElroy’s truck after he was fatally shot on the main street of Skidmore, Mo., on July 10, 1981. (PHOTO COURTESY HARRY N. McLEAN)

After the death of McElroy, a new terror gripped the people of Skidmore. Having survived their fear of the lawless, they now fear the law. Not one person in that crowd has been willing to say who it was who shot and killed Ken Rex McElroy.

Trena McElroy, who was with him, told a coroner’s jury she saw who it was and named his name. Nonetheless, the jury concluded McElroy was killed by a “person or persons unknown.” Trena was not McElroy’s first wife. She was his fourth, the mother of three of the 15 children he fathered over the years.

They were married when their first child was a year old, married under circumstances the prosecutor termed “suspicious.” The townspeople had other words for it.

Charges being dropped for lack of people willing to testify against Ken McElroy was the theme of his long criminal record. His lawyer said he had been run in and turned loose “for lack of a case” so many times he couldn’t remember them all.

Rustling livestock, threatening people, molesting a minor, arson, you name it, McElroy had been charged with it, but witnesses had a way of backing off.

When he was tried for shooting a farmer (who had suggested that McElroy leaves his farm and quit shooting pheasants out of season), the witnesses had faulty memories. Not guilty.

So it went until he shot Bo Bowenkamp. Guilty. Finally.

“Oh, he was intimidating, Lois Bowenkamp said.”You can’t know how awful it was. My neighbour and I took turns sleeping at night.

“Before the trial, he would drive up in his pickup at night and sit there. Occasionally he would fire a gun. We knew him, knew his reputation. It was frightening.” You could never know what small thing might set McElroy off. His falling out with Bo Bowenkamp resulted from Bo’s clerk asking McElroy’s daughter to put back a candy bar she hadn’t paid for or, from McElroy’s view, “accusing her of raiding the store.”

As if shooting Bo over that weren’t enough, McElroy got mad at the preacher who visited Bo in the hospital and threatened him, too.

When McElroy roared into town in his pickup with the big mud flaps and the gun rack, his wife in a second pickup (“backup,” he explained), sometimes a third pickup, everybody fled not so much for their immediate safety but for fear that they might see McElroy do something they would have to testify to later.

In fairness to the late Ken McElroy, it is also true that, like another who once prowled these parts and met his Maker just south of here, Jesse James, he was suspected of every crime in the county.

Especially rustling. At the time Nodaway County led the state in stolen livestock — six times the thefts in any other county — and the ranchers who were aware of that were also aware that Ken McElroy always had a pocket full of money.

He lived on a small farm not likely to win any agricultural awards, so where did he get it all? He claimed also to trade in antiques, to which everybody said, but not to his face, whose antiques?

We’re talking money. He paid for his pickups in cash. He paid his lawyer in cash. He tossed $8,000 on the bar at the B&G and told the bartender, “If that ain’t enough I’ve got a suitcase full at home.” He peeled a hundred-dollar bill off his wad and told Lois Bowenkamp it was hers if she would try to whip Trina on the Skidmore street.

People here are looking to see what happens to the rustling problem now that Ken McElroy is laid in his grave. It will be more interesting to see what happens to Skidmore.

The McElroy shooting has thoroughly shaken this rural community. The townsfolk don’t want to talk just about who might have shot him; they don’t want to talk about “the incident,” as they refer to it, at all, not even among themselves.

“All we want to do,” Lois Bowenkamp said, “is to go back to doing what we do best, which is minding our own business.”

McElroy’s truck after the shooting.The killers stood close to where the car sits across the street.

More than thirty-six years have passed since that July morning when Skidmore gunned down its most notorious citizen. Those years have not been kind to Skidmore—its population has shrunk by nearly half, and the local grocery, the bar and the gas station have all closed down. Many of the protagonists in this strange story have moved on or passed away. Meanwhile, the murder of Ken McElroy remains an open case, one that law enforcement will not solve anytime soon.

The town was fed up with being terrorised by Ken Rex, as McElroy was known. He had shot a local farmer in the stomach and a grocer in the neck, the latter in a dispute over a piece of candy. He raped girls as young as 12 years old and married two of them to keep them from testifying against him. He burned down the house of the parents of one of the young women he raped. He made his living stealing hogs and cattle and always seemed to have plenty of cash but never had a job. He threatened anyone who dared to stand up to him.

Law enforcement seemed powerless. Ken Rex hired a Kansas City lawyer who bragged he represented the mob and who managed repeatedly to keep McElroy out of jail.

“I understand why they did it and why they felt they were all alone,” MacLean answered when I asked if he thought what the town did was right.

Larry King asked him that same question, and MacLean said he gave the same answer. During the commercial break, King told him he didn’t think murder was ever right.

“I asked him, ‘What if someone was raping your daughter?’ ”

The killing was a shocking end for a notoriously brutal man who had terrorised the area for years with seeming impunity from the law until he was struck down in a moment of vigilante justice. It was also the first major case for a young county prosecutor, not far removed from law school and just months into the job, who said he was confident that the case would be solved soon.

No one has ever been brought to trial in McElroy’s death, and, although there is no statute of limitations on murder, most people around here suspect that no one ever will be.

“Once the shroud of silence fell, there was going to be no one talking,” said Cheryl Huston, whose elderly father had been shot by McElroy and who watched the killing of McElroy from her family’s grocery store but, like the others, said she did not see the gunman. “They could have pushed and dug, pushed and dug and gotten nothing.”

“We were so bitter and so angry at the law letting us down that it came to somebody taking matters into their own hands,” she said. “No one has any idea what a nightmare we lived.”

But the names may not really matter. “I personally believe it’s a mistake to put too much emphasis on who pulled the trigger,” author Harry N. MacLean said. If it hadn’t happened that day, it would have been someone else the next day.

Trena McElroy, centre, is led to a car with her stepson Ken McElroy Jr. and an unidentified man following Ken Rex McElroy’s funeral in Maryville, Mo. in July 1981. At far right is McElroy’s former wife Alice Woods. Ken Rex McElroy had something in common with the Maryville townspeople he tormented. Though he didn’t see who shot him from behind at midday on the main drag through this tiny town, the way scores of Skidmore’s citizens tell it, they didn’t see a shooter, either. (AP Photo/The Maryville Daily Forum, Don Shrubshell)

Ken Rex McElroy was born in 1934, the fifteenth of sixteen children born to a poor, migrant tenant-farming couple named Tony and Mabel (neé Lister) 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 racoon hunter, cattle rustler, small-time thief and womaniser. 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 defence attorney Richard Gene McFadin.

He never really learned to read well, and never had a job. McElroy lived outside of Skidmore, a town of about 500 people, with a succession of women. A harem, writers called it, because frequently there were more than one teenage wife or girlfriend living there. Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, he regularly cased junior high schools, looking for new girls to replace those of whom he had tired. As a result, by the time of his murder in 1981, he had had at least ten children by four different women. He had been arrested twenty-two times, been tried only once (he was acquitted) but never served time in jail. Indeed, the event that precipitated his murder, a shotgun assault on a 70-year-old grocer, resulted in only his first conviction and sentencing. He was free on bail when he was killed.

Ken McElroy married for the first time at age 18 and moved briefly to Denver, Colorado. He could not hold a job, so he and his wife soon moved back to Skidmore. There, he began hanging out with his “coon Huntin’ buddies,” men who shared his passion for hunting racoons at night when the animals were active. His nighttime activities were to become his income—he became a cattle rustler in a remote corner of Missouri where cattle markets were poorly policed, and there was no obligation to brand cattle. Nighttime stealth, a refined capability to harass any witnesses, and an attorney who could be retained at a cost of $5,000 per felony kept him out of the courthouse and driving a succession of new trucks. McElroy also developed a skill for brandishing weapons and intimidation.

McElroy’s first arrest came in connection with his wife-to-be Trena, an eighth grader who he first seduced in 1971 when she was 12 years old. McElroy already had two women, Marcia and Alice living with him at the time. Nevertheless, Trena moved in replacing Marcia. She dropped out of school in the 9th grade and was pregnant by the time she was 14. But then 16 days after the birth of her son, she and Alice fled to Trena’s parents. This lasted only a few hours. McElroy brandishing a gun forced the girls to return home with him, where as punishment, he beat them and forced them to perform sex acts. After that, he returned with Trena to the home of her parents. McElroy shot the family dog, poured gas around the house, and burned it down.

Two days later, Trena took her new-born son to a doctor, who coaxed the story of the arson out of her. The doctor contacted the county social welfare agency, who put Trena and her baby into foster care. The case was taken to the district attorney. On the basis of Trena’s testimony, McElroy was indicted for arson, assault, and rape. Even at $5,000 per felony, his attorney told him, it would be difficult for him to be acquitted. But McElroy did not relent. He found the foster home where Trena was living and began making threatening calls.

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.

The District Attorney slapped on eight more felony molestation charges as a result of the trysts he had with Trena beginning when she was 13 years old.

But McElroy was still charming. He arranged to divorce his second wife, Sharon, from whom he had been separated for several years, and marry Trena. More threats persuaded Trena’s mother to give consent to the marriage, which in turn solved McElroy’s legal problems. As his wife, Trena could not be compelled to testify against him, in a case which was highly dependent on her cooperation for a conviction. McElroy had beaten the charges.

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 on without a court date, Henry said McElroy had parked outside his home at least 100 times. At the trial, two racoon 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.

There were more cases during the subsequent years. Many involved intimidation, whether it was over women, slights to his honour, or accusations of criminal activity.

His last fight was in many respects just as trivial as the others were.

Ken Rex McElroys wife Trena, and McElroy’s former wife Alice Woods.

In 2010, Cheryl Huston’s hands trembled as she talked about Ken Rex McElroy, the only male she’s been intimidated by. Seated in the kitchen of the home she inherited, she wants people to know that no one wanted vigilante justice served.

The town took matters into its own hands when they came to the realisation it was “just us.” Cheryl’s parents ran Skidmore’s grocery store in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Her father, Bo Bowenkamp, was shot and left for dead by McElroy in 1980 following an incident in which one of the McElroy children told their parents they had been accused of shoplifting candy from the store.

Despite being charged in the shooting, McElroy continued parking on the street in front of the Bowenkamp home and even brazenly fired shots into a tree in their front yard. Cheryl never felt that sheriff’s deputies stood up to McElroy. In fact, she says the law failed her family.

“There is a lot of bitterness still,” she said. “I have a lot of bitterness toward law enforcement. We all grew up thinking if you needed help, the law was on your side. Well, the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office would wait three days to respond.”

The Federal Civil Rights Act provides for civil damages against any official who knowingly deprives a person of his civil rights.

A coroner’s inquest, a Nodaway County grand jury and two federal grand juries investigated the case, but no criminal charges were filed. According to Mrs Trena McElroy’s suit, residents of the north-west Missouri town of 440 residents and of Nodaway County on July 10, 1981, ‘held a meeting for the specific purpose of planning how to rid the area’ of her husband. The suit says the sheriff and mayor presided over that meeting.

At the same time, the McElroys entered the D&G Tavern in Skidmore. The sheriff then left the Skidmore area, and most of those attending the meeting — ‘including the mayor and other city officials’ — went to the tavern, the suit said.

In later grand jury testimony, Trena McElroy said she and her husband were having a drink at the tavern when a mob walked into the room.

‘We left right away and got into our truck,’ she said. ‘As we went out the door, the people came out behind us and surrounded us. That’s when I saw this other guy across the street. He reached into his pickup and grabbed a gun and that’s when he started shooting my husband.’

According to court records, McElroy had been arrested for numerous crimes over the years but never convicted because witnesses were frightened of him. Numerous officials and residents of Skidmore refer to him as the ‘town bully.’

McElroy eventually was found guilty of second-degree assault in the shooting of a 72-year-old grocer. He died while he was free on bond appealing the conviction.

Trena McElroy was sitting next to her husband, Ken Rex, in his Chevy Silverado when rifle shots shattered the rear window and exploded her husband’s head onto the dashboard. That was July 9, 1981, and Trena claimed that just before the shots were fired she looked over her shoulder and saw a local cowboy pull a rifle from her pickup and take aim at Ken. She swore to the law and three grand juries.

McElroy’s widow, Trena left the town Skidmore with her child and Alice on the night of the shooting. She was convinced the townspeople were still bent on killing her as well.

The people in Skidmore were by and large very hostile to her. They understood she had been in essence captured by McElroy as a young girl, but by the end, she was riding shotgun for him and pulling weapons on people and threatening to shoot them. The last straw was when she sued the town and the mayor of the wrongful death of her husband.

Trena, whom McElroy had raped then married in order to get the charges dropped ended up filing a wrongful death suit against the sheriff, the town, and the county. She asked for $5 million but settled for less than $20,000. No one — not then, not before, and not since — admitted to the killing of her late husband.

The population has dwindled from 437 in 1980 to 284 in 2010. The grocery, the bank, the tavern, the gas station are all gone. Trena left town, too. She married and moved to a small town in southern Missouri where she raised a family.

Trena was beaten and sexually abused terribly by McElroy. It’s a tribute to the human spirit that she was able to turn her life around and have another happy family.

Trena McElroy, Ken McElroy’s former wife, died on January 28, 2012. She lived in Conway, Missouri, and apparently died of cancer. Although Trena rode with McElroy at the end, she was victimised by him at age 12.

She died on her 55th birthday. People always wondered what happened to Ken Rex’s widow, who was yet another of his victims. He used to follow the school bus, honking until the driver pulled over and let the sixth-grade Trena out.

That’s the kind of guy Ken Rex was.

Richard Stratton, now retired, was a Missouri Highway Patrol trooper and reputed to be the only person who wasn’t afraid of McElroy. He told the Kansas City Star in 2010: “Those were fathers and grandfathers on the street in Skidmore that day….They did what they did because we didn’t do our job.

“Then they went home and kept their mouths shut.”

The man, who Trena accused of being the gunman, has died; and David Baird, who, at just 27 years old, had been just been appointed the prosecuting attorney of Nodaway County right before McElroy’s death, has left office. Baird’s successor, Robert Rice, grew up hearing the McElroy story, but opted not to reopen that particular unsolved case. Bo Bowenkamp’s daughter, Cheryl Huston, told the New York Times in 2010, “Once the shroud of silence fell, there was going to be no one talking. They could have pushed and dug, pushed and dug and gotten nothing.” Said McFadin to the Kansas City Star, “I know why they didn’t talk — they were all glad he was dead. That town got away with murder.”

Maybe it did. But one thing’s for sure:

Ken Rex McElroy will never hurt anyone else.


There has been no prosecution in the death of Ken Rex McElroy. Some of the witnesses to the crime left town, and as time wore on a few of them died. The only hope for solving the crime seemed to be that one of the witnesses, or maybe one of the killers, would confess on his deathbed in order to clear his conscience. Such evidence is allowed into courts of law as an exception to the hearsay rule on the theory that someone on his deathbed would have no reason to lie.

Apparently, the word was out among the police that if you found McElroy out on the roads at night along and with a gun you should shoot him.

When you keep pushing people around, eventually they get fed up. Well, Skidmore was fed up. Any community put under the sort of pressure McElroy put it under, and with the law failing to protect it, might well have done the same thing.

I think anyone who has been on the receiving end of a bully’s wrath or the injustices of the legal system to deal with criminals can put themselves in the plight of the town’s people of Skidmore. I also believe that the residents of Skidmore simply got tired of the legal system trying and failing to deal with Ken Rex McElroy. So, on July 10, 1981, they reached their “point of no return,” reacted to an impulsive decision to take the law into their hands, and that’s exactly what they did. We should not judge them for their action, after all, they had to live and deal with this atmosphere of intimidation and fear on a daily basis.

This was a unique situation which involved the people of north-west Missouri. These were good people who did what they had to, to remedy a nightmare. Why do we deify a-holes and give them endless power in so many realms of life? There’s nothing sexy or exciting or extra smart or extra anything about a brutal jerk. Imagine if we all harnessed our collective outrage/silence/smarts/power etc… against bullies large and small and turned on them as entire communities. It’s like in schools if every kid stood together and said f off, you’re fired as our official school bully,’ then that would be that.

The town has not fared well since the shooting. The murder of McElroy isn’t Skidmore’s most grisly crime. That “honour” goes to the slaying of Bobbie Jo Stinnett, who was murdered on December 16, 2004. Stinnett was eight months pregnant at the time. The killer, a lady named Lisa Montgomery, killed Stinnett and removed the unborn child to take as her own. She was caught four days later and was sentenced to death. She is currently in prison as she exhausts appeals and other legal mechanisms. The baby was returned to Ms Stinnett’s family.

Teenager Branson Perry disappeared in 2001 and has never been found.

Crime Library: Ken McElroy.

Three Decades On, Who Killed Skidmore Town Bully Still Secret.

The Unsolved Murder of Ken McElroy.

Town Mute for 30 Years About a Bully’s Killing.

Bully’s Killing Is Unsolved, and Residents Want It That Way – The New …

Unresolved: The Town That Killed Ken McElroy | The Ghost In My …

No Death Bed Confession | Harry N. MacLean

A Small Town With A History Of Violence – CBS News

Law fails Skidmore – The Washington Post

Ken McElroy and the Town That Kept Silent | Oddly Historical

The Unsolved Vigilante Murder of Ken McElroy – The Lineup

To the Killer of Her Least Favorite Son, Skidmore, Mo. Says a Long …

Town Kills a Bully: Why don’t we all? | Psychology Today

The Unsolved Vigilante Murder of Ken McElroy – The Lineup

3 decades on, who killed Skidmore town bully still secret – McClatchy DC

Ken Rex McElroy | Project Gutenberg Central – eBooks | Read eBooks …

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