Transcript: 136. The Vigilante Killing of Ken McElroy | USA

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It was 3am in the dark of a warm summer’s night, and Lois Bowenkamp of Skidmore, Missouri was vacuuming her loungeroom. When she was done, she began dusting the house. Lois was keeping busy so she wouldn’t fall asleep. Taking shifts with her husband and their daughter, they kept a constant eye on the street in front of their house.

A confrontation between town bully, Ken McElroy, and Lois’s husband Bo ended up with Bo being shot. Although he survived, the Bowenkamps feared for their safety and always looked over their shoulders.

Everyone in Skidmore knew that you did not want to be in Ken McElroy’s bad books. The Bowenkamp’s neighbours and friends were sympathetic, but they were too scared to get involved. McElroy had years of experience intimidating witnesses in legal matters and he was not afraid to use his firearm.

McElroy was making Bo and Lois Bowenkamp’s lives a nightmare: he parked outside their place of business – the local grocery store – and watched them for hours on end. When they left to go home at the end of a working day, he followed them and parked across the street. He stood outside his truck, watching, smoking one cigarette after the other. On one occasion, he aimed his shotgun at their house and fired a couple of shots. Lois called police, but even they found an excuse NOT to come out and help the Bowenkamps.

How could one man invoke so much fear into an entire community? The situation was reaching a boiling point, and the residents of Skidmore had had enough. It was time to take matters into their own hands…

>>Intro Music

Ken Rex McElroy was born on the 1st of June 1934 into a large family. He was the fifteenth of sixteen children and they never had much money growing up. Ken’s parents Tony and Mabel were tenant farmers, who moved between Kansas and Missouri with their ever-expanding brood. They eventually settled on a farm outside the town of Skidmore, Missouri, a place Ken would call home until his death.

In 1981, the town of Skidmore had about 300 residents – give or take. The main industry was farming, and cornfields swept across the landscape. As one drove into the small town, clapboard homes dotted big lots. The Bowenkamp’s B&B Grocery was where everyone congregated for anything from a piece of gossip to a loaf of bread. Across the road was the local watering hole and pool hall, D&G Tavern. There was no police station in Skidmore – the closest station was in Maryville, about a 20-minute drive away. People from Skidmore did not like outsiders and one’s family name would give you the necessary clout to fit in. Some farmers made a good living, but one bad season with extreme heat could be enough to wipe out an entire crop of corn.

This is what happened to Tony McElroy and he had to look for an alternative source of income. He became a farm-hand, instead of a tenant farmer, and he also took odd jobs, to keep his large family going. Mabel McEvoy did her best to keep all of her children clean and presentable. The family of eighteen had a small, two-bedroom farmhouse and times were tough. Rusty cars crowded the front lawn and hunting dogs in cages kept most visitors at bay.

Young Ken McElroy was always a hell raiser, but his bright eyes and big smile kept him out of trouble for the most part. At the age of 15 he was still mostly illiterate and dropped out of school. He was one of the best coon hunters in Nodaway County. He went into the woods with his dogs and his .22 and always brought home the bacon – so to speak. He skinned the animals and sold the pelts.

Ken McElroy married 16-year-old Olita when he was 18, and they moved to Denver. While working at a construction site, he was seriously injured when a metal beam fell onto his head. Throughout the rest of his adult life, he suffered dizzy spells, and had constant pain. His family always believed this injury lead to his violent behaviour.

The young couple returned from Colorado to be closer to their hometown. Ken worked as a tenant farmer, but was not the kind of person to play by the rules. He despised wealthy farmers who had land handed down to them from one generation to the next and refused to struggle with money. Ken McElroy’s idea of farming was to steal livestock, equipment and gas from his neighbours. He’d sell the cattle for 50c on the dollar and shady slaughterhouses were happy to turn a blind eye.

McElroy also traded in hunting dogs and soon had a good reputation as a breeder. The money was rolling in – always cash – and he splashed out as soon as he was paid. He spent his earnings on new cars and guns – and also on women.

Although McElroy was a married man, he was never loyal to his wife, Olita. It was not that he was prince charming, quite the contrary. He manipulated young girls to be with him, admitting to his friends that he preferred his girlfriends to be about 13 or 14. In order to meet the girls, he befriended teenage boys. He gained their trust by offering them jobs or taking them along coon hunting. Many of the boys were pulled in, to help him with cattle rustling. He hanged out with the boys, looked after them, and as a bonus McElroy got to meet their female friends.

McElroy picked his female victims carefully: most of them came from poor, dysfunctional families. Oftentimes he knew their parents, so the girls looked up to him, trusted him. He offered them rides in his shiny pickup, and bought them cheap jewellery. Because of his fearsome persona, he promised to protect them. All the while, he was the one the girls needed protection FROM. McElroy stacked up many statutory rape charges, with his youngest victim being only 12 years old.

McElroy left Olita after being married for only a couple of years and tied the knot with one of his victims, 15-year-old Sharon, who was pregnant with his baby. They lived with McElroy’s parents for a while, with their baby boy, but eventually found a place of their own. McElroy’s sister came to visit from California and was concerned about the little boy. She did not think Ken and Sharon looked after him properly, so she took the boy home with her.

Soon Sharon was pregnant again, and this time, they had a baby girl. But things were not going well in the McElroy home. A frazzled Sharon and her baby arrived at the Sheriff’s office in Maryville and told them that McElroy had locked her and her baby in the house for two days. She said he often beat her up, and had an insatiable appetite for sex. Sharon feared for her safety and was adamant she did not want to live with her husband anymore. With the help of a social worker, Sharon and her baby were placed in a foster home.

McElroy was furious and tracked down the social worker. He threatened her and insisted they let him talk to his wife. A meeting was arranged at the prosecutor’s office, to ensure Sharon’s safety. At the meeting, McElroy was calm and remorseful, and said everything Sharon wanted to hear: he promised that if she came home, he would see to it that his sister brought their son back from California. The same day McElroy went to her foster home and picked up his wife and took her home. Sharon later said the beating she suffered at McElroy’s hands that night was so severe, she was too scared to ever leave again.

But fighting to get Sharon back home, didn’t mean Ken McElroy was committed to making his marriage work. Behind Sharon’s back, he had moved on to another underaged girl named Sally. He moved in on Sally’s life, buying her candy and picking her up from school. He threatened her and said if she didn’t go with him, he’d kill her father.

A pregnant Sally was only 13 when she moved in with McElroy and Sharon. His harem of young girls was growing, and he kept them under his spell with threats and violence. Even though they suffered, neither of the girls were prepared to leave – they were simply too scared. There was also moments of inexplicable loyalty to McElroy. He always had cash and the girls believed they were better provided for than in their own family homes. Sharon and Sally ended up having seven of McElroy’s children between them.

In 1964, both Sharon and Sally were pregnant – when McElroy moved out and abandoned them. He had met a 15-year-old girl from St Joseph named Alice. McElroy’s abusive behaviour continued – when he drank, his mood turned on a dime. The couple lived with his parents and Mabel McElroy was appalled to witness her son’s aggression. She pleaded with him to stop, which only infuriated him more, as he believed it was Alice who had told his mother. But that wasn’t the case – they lived in a small house, so there was no need for Alice to say anything, Mabel heard the fights and saw the bruises.

With McElroy out of the way, Sharon and Sally used the opportunity to leave. Sharon took her four children and moved to Florida where she went to live with her mom. Sally went to nearby Maryville with her three kids, and managed to rent a small apartment. She tried her best to be a good mom, but she was so young. One night she buckled and accepted an invitation to a party. Social services found out that she had left her kids alone, and took them into foster care. Sally had no one to help her, so she did not put up too much of a fight. Sally left Nodaway County and no one is sure what became of her. There was a rumour that she was a sex worker in St Joseph, but it was never confirmed.

Meanwhile McElroy’s cattle rustling business was booming. He had a network of people who worked for him, many of them girlfriends who lived on neighbouring farms. He did not waste his time with smaller jobs, instead he stole truckloads of animals at a time. McElroy kept the stolen livestock at undisclosed locations, and when police enquired about the stolen livestock, he refused to co-operate.

The farmers McElroy stole from were terrified of him, because he was so violent. One farmer saw him taking his horses and tried to stop him. McElroy hit him across the face with a shotgun, leaving him badly scarred. The incident was reported, but police did not quite know how to handle the volatile McElroy. They sent all information to the prosecutor’s office, hoping something was big enough to ensure a conviction.

In the winter of 1969 to 1970, McElroy’s criminal activity resulted in no less than 19 felony charges. Because most of the cases were someone’s word against McElroy’s, there was little evidence to go by. Court dates kept being postponed, which worked in McElroy’s favour. The delays gave him time to intimidate the witnesses, to such a degree that no one was prepared to testify against him.

His secret weapon was to stalk witnesses, and keep a threatening eye on everything they did. He parked outside their homes and if they left, he followed them. People withdrew their statements out of fear. Because of this tactic, McElroy got away with most of his crimes.

By 1972, McElroy had 10 children and he had passed the 40-year-old mark. He was overweight, with random homemade tattoos, like the letters K-E-N on his fingers. With his dyed black hair and mutton chops, he fancied himself to be an Elvis lookalike. Although he was only 5ft10, people remembered him being well over 6ft. He was an imposing man of 270 pounds, a larger than life character who invoked fear just by walking into a room. McElroy always had a firearm on him – in fact he usually had a shotgun in his pickup truck and a pistol on his person. He wasn’t afraid to use it either, and the people of Skidmore were terrified of him.

Alice tried to leave him, and took her son with her to St Joseph. McElroy would not have that and threatened to fetch the boy. Alice, prepared for the fight, always kept a rifle with her from then on. One night, as she made sure it was loaded, an accidental shot went off, hitting Alice in the leg. While Alice was in hospital, her stepfather, Otha, had to protect her son. To McElroy, Alice and his son were possessions, he wanted them with HIM, and Otha was in the way. He harassed Otha endlessly and even shot him though his living room window. Otha was injured, but survived.

With more charges coming his way after shooting Otha, McElroy employed Kansas City criminal defence lawyer, Richard McFadin. And it was a match made in hell. McElroy used to boast that McFadin also represented members of the Mafia, so he was confident that he would get off, no matter what crime he had committed. As for McFadin… He found the ideal client in McElroy: he was a return-customer, McFadin could count on the fact that he would always be back. They had a mutually-beneficial arrangement – McFadin charged a flat rate of $5,000 per charge, and McElroy paid in cash. McFadin never asked where the money came from.

Although McElroy was sentenced to six months for his actions against Otha, McFadin filed an appeal and McElroy was released. As is sadly the case in many abuse victims’ stories, Alice went back to McElroy. And the abuse continued: one night she called police and said he was shooting at her. She didn’t want to lay any charges – he’d never forgive her. However, she begged police to hold on to McElroy if they caught him, so she had the opportunity to get away, which is how it played out.

But before long, Alice returned yet again. By this time, McElroy already had another pregnant teenager in his life, called Marcia, or Marty. She was always regarded to be one of the most beautiful girls in town, and McElroy felt she was his trophy. Like his other girlfriends, McElroy wanted to possess Marty, so she moved in with him and Alice.

McElroy was still legally married to Sharon, and had two live-in girlfriends, but that was not enough. He was always lurking and stalking high school girls, and he soon discovered a new victim. The seedy oaf became obsessed with a 12-year-old girl named Trena McCloud. To get to school, Trena had to change buses. McElroy waited for her when she got off the first bus and convinced her to leave with him. In the afternoon, he dropped her off there again. Kids on the bus noticed Trena’s clothing was dishevelled and that she cried all the way home. This happened often and her friends told her NOT to go with McElroy again. But the manipulative, imposing older man always got his way.

McElroy didn’t try to hide his twisted situation with Trena, and often took her to a motel in St Joseph. He also paraded her in town back in Skidmore. So many people knew about the situation, yet no one ever did or said anything.

Two years later, after many sexual assaults, Trena fell pregnant at the age of 14. She dropped out of school halfway through her 9th grade year. Trena’s mother refused to let her daughter move in with McElroy, but he wasn’t exactly the kind of person that took NO for an answer. McElroy burnt down their house and shot the family dog, and in the end… Trena’s mother relented. She did however file charges against McElroy for statutory rape, arson and assault.

McElroy’s lawyer-on-call, Richard McFadin, concocted a plan that would keep his client safe from the long arm of the law. In order to prevent Trena in testifying against McElroy in the rape case, McFadin suggested they got married. McElroy was still married to Sharon at the time, but he convinced her to file for a divorce. McFadin handled proceedings and soon McElroy was able to marry Trena. Because she was only 15, they needed her mother’s permission. McElroy intimidated her mother into signing and once she buckled, they went straight to a rural Nodaway County judge and tied the knot. Their only witness was none other than Richard McFadin.

With McElroy married to the only witness regarding in the statutory rape case against him, the prosecutor was forced to drop all charges.

So they all lived under one roof: Ken McElroy, Trena, Alice, Marty and all their children. Two weeks after Trena had the baby, her and Alice managed to escape from McElroy’s house and went to Trena’s stepdad. But McElroy wouldn’t have it and physically dragged them both home.

A concerned paediatrician who saw a teen mother in trouble, reached out to authorities and told them about the situation. To Trena’s relief, social services intervened and a foster family took both her and her baby in. McElroy found out where they lived, and using his always-effective intimidation skills, sat outside the house, just watching it for hours on end. Trena’s foster family had their own, biological daughter, and McElroy threatened to take her if they didn’t give Trena and his baby back to him. The foster family laid additional charges against him. Eventually Trena couldn’t stand the pressure of the situation anymore and agreed to go back home with McElroy.

McElroy was charged with arson, assault and statutory rape, and after an arraignment, he was released on bail for $2,000.

People who went to school with Trena saw how she changed over the years. She used to be a kind, soft-spoken girl, but she had become cold and hard. Sometimes the way she spoke or her mannerisms were similar to Ken McElroy’s. Her best childhood friend worked at the Sheriff’s office, and Trena always made sure her husband didn’t see them talking to each other. If he wasn’t around, they’d chat about their kids and their lives, but as soon as he walked in, Trena’s whole demeanour changed.

But McElroy’s violence didn’t start and stop at the front door of his house. On the 27th of July 1976, local farmer, Romaine Henry, reported an incident to police. When he confronted McElroy for firing a shotgun on his property, McElroy turned his shotgun on Romaine, shoved it up against him and shot him twice – once in the stomach, and another time in the face. As McElroy reloaded his gun, Romaine managed to get into his truck and flee.

McElroy was charged with assault with the intent to kill, but because there was not much evidence, it took ages for Prosecution to build a case. Romaine said that, while awaiting a trial date, McElroy was on his property, observing him, no less than one hundred times. In the end, two of McElroy’s raccoon hunting buddies came forward and provided an alibi. They claimed that McElroy was with them on the day of the alleged shooting – a fair distance away from Romaine Henry’s farm. They were at McElroy’s home, doing carpentry work.  

Romaine had also neglected to mention his own criminal conviction, for a petty crime committed 30 years before. Rumours were also doing the rounds that the confrontation between Romaine and McElroy was about a woman. Again, the victim bore all the shame and in the end, McElroy was acquitted.

The people of Skidmore told the media about their hell-raising citizen. Everyone despised McElroy, but were too scared to do anything that would anger him. If McElroy waved his shotgun in someone’s face, the nearest police station was a 20-minute drive away. There was no point calling police to report every single incident. But the situation was a ticking time-bomb…

On the 25th of April 1980, the Bowenkamps had the misfortune of having McElroy’s kids as customers at their grocery store. Lois Bowenkamp saw eight-year-old Tanya McElroy shoplifting candy and told her to put it back. Tanya left in tears and her half-sister told Trena about the incident. Within minutes Ken and Trena McElroy exploded into the store, making no secret of the fact that they felt Lois was in the wrong. Trena even said to Lois:

“I’ll whip your ass.”

Lois kicked them out and said they were no longer welcome to shop at their store. McElroy resorted to his familiar behaviour of strongarming his victims: he stalked the Bowenkamp family for the rest of the day and when they left, he followed them home. He drove passed their house multiple times, and even parked there, just looking at them. When he wasn’t physically there, he called them and threatened them. With no laws against stalking at the time, there wasn’t anything police could do to help the Bowenkamps.

When McElroy fired his shotgun at their house, Bo and Lois were convinced police would come to help them. They called Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office, but no one came. When they followed up the next day, they learnt their report was never filed. There was speculation that police were too scared of McElroy to intervene.

McElroy’s harassment carried on for three months and came to a climax on July 8th 1980. McElroy pulled his Chevy pickup truck into the alley behind Bo’s store, and entered through the back door. A confrontation ended with McElroy shooting Bo in the neck. Bo was lucky to survive and McElroy was taken in for attempted murder that very same night.

McElroy claimed that he was parked in the alley and Bo came outside, shouting at him to move his truck. According to McElroy, he tried to explain to Bo that his truck wouldn’t start, but an enraged Bo wouldn’t listen and stormed at him with a knife. In self-defence, McElroy then shot at Bo. This was rather different to Bo’s version of events. He said that he was sitting out back when McElroy’s truck pulled up. Bo told him to leave and McElroy fired a shot.

Ken McElroy was not concerned in the least – he knew he could count of Richard McFadin to get him out on bail – which he did. McElroy did not even spend the night in a holding cell before he was released. Trena picked him up and they went straight to D&G Tavern, where McElroy regaled his young wife with an animated recount of the shooting – for all patrons to hear.

But McElroy wasn’t off the hook – his trial date was set for August 18, a date that was pushed back again to June 25th 1981, thanks to the efforts of his agile lawyer. All McElroy needed was time – he would go ahead and ‘do his thing’ to discourage witnesses from coming forward. He embarked on a mission to make life for Bo and everyone who supported him a living hell. It started with the usual intimidation of all possible witnesses. McElroy held no respect for anyone and even marched up to the reverend’s house, shotgun in hand, to ‘convince’ him to stay out of his business. The next on his list was the state trooper who arrested him.

XX was the only law enforcement officer living in Skidmore. He had been the town marshal for six months at the time McElroy showed up at his front door. McElroy pointed his shotgun at the marshal, saying:

“I’ll kill anybody who wants to put me in jail.”

Everyone in Skidmore knew that supporting Bo, meant putting themselves and their families in danger. After ten days in hospital, Bo went home, lucky to be alive. But he never felt safe anymore, as McElroy was always parked outside his house. Bo’s wife Lois recalled:

“You can’t know how intimidating it was… Before his trial, he’d drive to our house in his pickup at night and just sit there. Sometimes he would fire his gun. It was frightening.”

When his trial finally kicked off at the end of June 1981, McElroy pleaded not guilty. He stuck to his story that Bo was threatening him with a knife and that he shot the shopkeeper in self-defence. It was a circumstantial case with little evidence – it was Bo’s word against McElroy’s.

Acting for the State, was a young new prosecutor, David Baird, only three years out of law school. Because of his lack of experience the residents of Skidmore did not have much faith that he would be able to face the likes of Richard McFadin. But Baird had a trick up his sleeve… He took the unconventional step of going after McElroy on the lesser charge of first-degree assault, instead of attempted murder. He only did this so he could secure a conviction. However, because the jury had no knowledge of McElroy’s previous offenses, he was only given a maximum sentence of two years in prison. Bail was set for $40,000.

McElroy was furious that Bo had sent him to jail. He said:

“The jury convicted me… And they gave me two years. But I’ll tell you what – I’ll never go to jail. I’ll appeal and get off; I’ve been fighting the law since I was 13 and I’m damn near 50… I’ve been arrested for over 53 felonies and this is the first one I’ve ever lost.”

Which is how it happened – McElroy made bail and was set free. After his release, he went straight to D&G Tavern, his M1 Garand rifle with a bayonet in hand and threatened to kill Bo Bowenkamp the next time he saw him. McElroy described what he planned to do to Bo in graphic detail: pointing at the bayonet, he said he was going to carve his accusor up like a turkey.

Prosecutor Baird was informed about McElroy’s public tirade and he requested a hearing to have McElroy’s bail revoked. The hearing was granted and the date was set for July 10th.

But as long as McElroy was out on the streets, no one felt safe – not at home, not at the bar and not on the street. As soon as anyone spotted one of McElroy’s cars coming into town, they would call ahead and warn the Bowenkamps. Whoever was working on the register that day, made sure the back door was locked and kept a nervous eye on the front door.

The people of Skidmore knew there was a chance that McElroy’s bail could be revoked – but if the past had taught them anything, it was that one could never count on anything. Not when McElroy and McFadin went to court. Residents approached Nodaway County Sheriff Dan Estes and asked what they could do to protect themselves against McElroy. The Sheriff suggested they started a neighbourhood watch. This advice wasn’t received all that well, seeing as they were already looking out for each other. What they wanted to know was: how could they drive McElroy out of town.

On the 10th of July 1981, the morning of McElroy’s bail hearing, everybody in Skidmore gathered at the Legion Hall, so they could travel to court together. They wanted to be there to support prosecutor David Baird’s request, and wanted to show the judge that they were desperate. It came as no surprise when they were informed the hearing had been postponed. This was typical: Richard McFadin always found a way to postpone court dates, but this time, the town was not going to stand for it. With McElroy still around, they needed a plan of action.

Sheriff Estes was called asked to join their meeting at the hall, in the hope that he could provide some answers. The Sheriff spoke about starting an organised neighbourhood watch again and encouraged residents to look after each other. Everyone felt that it was law enforcement’s job to protect them, but yet they didn’t do it. The meeting concluded without a resolution and the Sheriff left Skidmore to return to his office at Maryville.

Emotions ran high and for the people of Skidmore, it was the last straw. One resident said:

“We simply felt that the system had failed us… We all knew what McElroy was like, and there he was again and again… It seemed nobody could stop him.”

When word reached the Legion Hall that McElroy was having a drink with Trena the D&G Tavern at that very moment, the angry mob was ready to have his head on a stake. The group of more than sixty men and women marched over to D&G Tavern – a short walk from the hall.

When they arrived at the tavern, some of them remained outside to keep an eye on McElroy’s Silverado. The rest of the crowd entered the bar, filling it from wall to wall. They didn’t say anything, they simply stood and watched McElroy as he finished his breakfast and his beer next to Trena. He did not seem affected by the mass stand-off, and ordered himself a six-pack of beer to go.

As McElroy and Trena walk out of the tavern, they headed for his truck. But there was no way the people of Skidmore was going to allow him to leave. Once he was inside his vehicle, the group circled around, in a threatening silent stare-down. McElroy didn’t flinch – he slowly took out a cigarette, but before he could light up, the sound of a gunshot broke weighted silence. Then another shot rang out, and another…

The glass of the driver’s side door, as well as the glass at the back of the cab shattered. Two of the shots hit McElroy in the head. His wife, Trena, who sat next to him, jumped out of the car and man named Jack Clement helped her to safety of a nearby bank. She was hysterical, but unharmed.

For a moment, it was like time stood still. No one called for an ambulance and the entire town of Skidmore watched in silence as Ken McElroy breathed his last breath.

Trena claimed she wanted to call for help, but the people in the bank warned her that if she did, she would be next. Eventually a call was made from the phone inside the bar. Sheriff Estes was still on his way back to Maryville when he heard dispatch on his radio. He swung his car around and headed back to Skidmore with a sense of dread. He arrived 15 minutes after the shooting and found McElroy slumped over his steering wheel.

A patrol car was already at the scene, and troopers found bullet casings of two different firearms – a .22 calibre and that fired from an 8mm rifle. About 35 townspeople were still around, looking on. When the Sheriff asked what had happened, no one said a word. They said they didn’t know who fired their weapons. Some claimed as soon as they heard the first shot, they ducked for cover. Others simply shrugged their shoulders and shook their heads.

The story of a small town mob taking the law into their own hands made national and even international news. This kind of collective vigilante justice is not an everyday occurrence, and the media wanted to know what drove the townspeople of Skidmore to kill a man. There was a lot of pressure on law enforcement to solve the case, but no one was talking. The residents had lost their faith in the system and police soon realised that no witnesses would ever coming forward.

Cheryl Huston, the Bowenkamp’s daughter summed the situation up, she said:

“Once the shroud of silence fell, there was going to be no one talking.”

Trena McElroy was furious. She claimed she knew who had killed her husband. A young man by the name of Del Clement pointed his shotgun at the back of Ken’s head and fired a shot. However, Del denied the accusation and none of the sixty witnesses corroborated her testimony.

The main suspects were the village mayor, the postmaster and two local residents, Red Smith and of course Del Clement. Because there was not enough evidence, a grand jury voted against inditement.

The McElroy family publicly stated that they believed there was a cover-up by police to protect the shooters. They believe Sheriff Estes knew what the people were planning, and that he never left town that morning. The McElroy’s claim that Estes drove to the outskirts of Skidmore, where he parked and waited for the report to come in from dispatch.

The FBI launched an investigation into Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office’s knowledge of Ken McElroy’s killing. Sheriff Danny Estes denied any knowledge or involvement, stating that as soon as he heard the news, he knew it would be bad for him. The incident happened moments after he left – if he had stayed, perhaps it would not have happened. In the end, the FBI investigation didn’t lead to any charges.

Trena McElroy filed a five million dollar lawsuit against the entire Town of Skidmore, against Nodaway County, its sheriff and its mayor. The case was settled out of court and Trena received a pay-out of $17,600. No one admitted guilt and a collective stated that they only paid Trena to avoid a lengthy and costly legal battle.

Despite a volatile life together, Trena always burnt a torch for Ken McElroy. She claimed that back when her parents’ house burnt down, it was because of ‘faulty wiring’. When asked about the rape allegations against him when she was 16, she said she did it because she was jealous. McElroy’s children have fond memories of a caring father and refuse to believe he was the bully everyone in Skidmore made him out to be.

Trena eventually remarried and moved to Lebanon, Missouri, where she passed away on her 55th birthday in 2012, after losing her battle to cancer.

After years of exhaustive investigation, the case remains unsolved. No one has ever been charged with Ken’s murder. Today, forty years later, most of the role players have passed on. Del Clement, Red Smith, the mayor, the postmaster and even Sheriff Estes died without admitting a thing. A  journalist asked a local man about the motive behind McElroy’s shooting, to which the reply was simply:

“He needed killin’.”

Bo and Lois Bowenkamp’s daughter Cheryl Huston, who was working in the family grocery store on the day of the shooting, placed the guilt of what happened that day on law enforcement.

“I believe wholeheartedly that the criminal justice system not only let us down, but let the McElroy family down as well.”

After McElroy’s death, the town of Skidmore quietly picked up the pieces. In the years that followed, the town of Skidmore saw more sensational crimes, like the vanishing of Branson Perry and the foetal abduction of Bobbie Jo Stinnett’s baby by Lisa Montgomery. So much so, that Michael Steiner, historian of North Missouri State told author David J Krajicek that among locals, there is ‘the sense that there is some vortex of evil in Skidmore’.

McElroy left a trail of destruction behind him, and their communal hatred of the man who had terrorized their community for more than thirty years created a bond so strong, that they all will take the secret of who killed Ken McElroy to their graves. And Skidmore will be forever known as the town that got away with murder…

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