Bully Me This

image by mcclatchy.com

The month of July of 1981, was a hot one in the town of Skidmore, MO, in more ways than one. That summer morning, thirty to forty people stood around a shot-up Chevrolet pickup truck outside a beer joint on Main Street. Inside lay a dead man by the name of Ken Rex McElroy (47) who was a big, burly man with bushy sideburns, cold eyes and an ever-present gun. McElroy was killed instantly by gun fire; his foot pushed the accelerator to the floor. The engine roared, but no one shut it off. In an act of solidarity with the gunman, every witness, save the dead man’s wife, denied seeing who had pulled the trigger. They just walked away.

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The killing was a shocking end for a notoriously brutal man who had terrorized the area for years with seeming impunity from the law until he was struck down in a moment of vigilante justice.

“We were so bitter and so angry at the law letting us down that it came to somebody taking matters in their own hands,” said Cheryl Huston, whose elderly father had been shot by Mr. McElroy and who watched the killing of Mr. McElroy from her family’s grocery store but, like the others, she said, she did not see the gunman.

McElroy was mean enough to unite a town of plain, good folks to do murder. He had terrorized Skidmore for years. He allegedly stole livestock, burned houses, chased women, preyed upon young girls — and threatened a bullet or buckshot for anyone who got in his way.

Richard Stratton, a now-retired Missouri Highway Patrol trooper who patrolled northwest Missouri for years, had several run-ins with McElroy. He said he thought law enforcement missed several opportunities to put him away. “Those were fathers and grandfathers on the street in Skidmore that day,” Stratton 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.”

A YEAR EARLIER.

Bo Bowenkamp, about age 70, stood on the loading dock behind the grocery store waiting for an air-conditioning repairman. McElroy’s pickup tires crackled on the gravel drive. The pickup stopped.  Bowenkamp told him he was on private property. Two boys stood nearby. McElroy gave them money for sodas. He wanted them to leave. Then he whipped out his shotgun. The old grocer didn’t duck quickly enough. Buckshot tore into his neck. He collapsed, bleeding badly.

All of this over a piece of candy.

See, earlier McElroy’s wife, Trena, said Bowenkamp’s wife had accused her young daughter of shoplifting candy. Lois Bowenkamp called it a misunderstanding and tried to make peace. No said Ken Rex McElroy. He instead offered Lois Bowenkamp money to fight his much younger wife.

On subsequent nights, he sat in his pickup outside the Bowenkamp house. At least twice, he fired his shotgun into the air.

Stratton, the trooper, hunted down McElroy that night. Bowenkamp survived his wounds, but the town had reached its boiling point.

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McElroy could neither read nor write, having quit school in the fifth grade. He seemed to never worked, but always had a pocketful of cash. Legend has it he once covered the beer joint’s pool table with $100 bills. His attorney, Richard McFadin, said he routinely defended McElroy in three or four felonies a year. “Best client I ever had,” McFadin said in a recent interview. “He was punctual, always said he didn’t do it, paid in cash and kept coming back.”

He described McElroy as “a great big guy, not a bad-looking fellow, and he wouldn’t take anything off anybody.”

“I was the only friend he had,” McFadin said. “He told me he would pay me whatever I needed to keep him out of jail.” But the string of courtroom wins seemingly ended with the shooting of Bowenkamp, for which McElroy received a two-year prison sentence.

But McFadin appealed the decision, and the judge let McElroy go free on bond.

A few days later, he appeared in the D&G Tavern with a rifle and bayonet. He pledged to all that he would finish off Bo Bowenkamp. The rifle McElroy carried into the tavern that day violated his bond. At a sheriff deputy’s urging, several witnesses agreed to testify against him. They didn’t do so lightly. Others in town arranged to escort the witnesses to a court hearing. But McFadin got the hearing postponed, infuriating the town. On the morning of Friday, July 10, 1981, a group met in a town meeting hall. What they talked about is unknown. Some say they discussed ways to keep the witnesses safe.

McFadin said he believed that they planned the murder of his client.

While the meeting took place, McElroy and his wife arrived in town and went into the bar. McFadin had warned McElroy the previous night to stay out of Skidmore.

“But he didn’t listen,” McFadin said. “Nobody was going to keep him out of town.”

Word spread that McElroy was in town. The meeting broke up. Those in attendance walked up the street and into the bar, a low-slung, white, metal building across from the post office. McElroy and Trena stayed a few minutes after that. Trena would later tell the FBI that when they left, a large number from the bar followed them outside. When they got into the pickup, Trena yelled to her husband, “They got guns!”

McElroy started the engine as if to leave, but then reached for a cigarette. Shots — an initial two followed by three or four more — broke the morning quiet of the town. Trena screamed. Bullets hit McElroy in the head and neck.

No one called for an ambulance.

Skidmore had no police. County sheriff’s deputies and Highway Patrol troopers who arrived found shell casings from a .22-caliber Magnum and an 8 mm Mauser, a German World War I-era long-range rifle. One shooter had been positioned behind McElroy’s truck; another stood a half-block down the street. There may have been others.

In addition to local and state investigations, the FBI conducted more than 100 interviews. But despite Trena McElroy giving the name of a man she said was a shooter, state and federal grand juries — without corroborating statements — ended without indictments.

Richard McFadin (87) McElroy’s lawyer, now retired said recently, “The town got away with murder.”

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larry-w-smith/getty-images

Larry W. Smith/ Getty Images

The last three decades have been tough on this agricultural community (Pop of 342) about an hour and a half north of Kansas City. Like so many other small towns, Skidmore has shrunk inside itself, watching businesses close and residents depart.

Perversely, the town’s share of tragedy has grown. Road signs bear a picture of a young man who disappeared nine years ago and is feared dead. A memorial in the tiny downtown park displays the name of an expectant mother murdered six years ago, her fetus cut from her womb.

Even with these raw wounds, the memory of the nightmare surrounding Mr. McElroy — during his years of troublemaking and after a killing that many here feel was forced by an impotent criminal-justice system — continues to loom large.

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This post contains parts extracted from an article written by A. G. SULZBERGERDEC. 15, 2010 for The New York Times. Plus and article published AUGUST 29, 2010 in McClatchyDC online news magazine.

‘Don forget to remember the victims.’ Verge Le Noir.

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