The Unsolved Murder of Missouri Town Bully Ken Rex McElroy: 'No One Saw a Thing'

Ken McElroy was shot in broad daylight outside a bar where he had been drinking.
Ken McElroy was shot to death in broad daylight as he sat in his pickup truck. Harry MacLean

For the residents of Skidmore, Missouri, the word "bully" does not begin to cover the atrocities of Ken Rex McElroy, who was gunned down in broad daylight, allegedly by townsfolk who were just plain fed up. 

McElroy was indicted 21 times but convicted only once. He was accused of child molestation, arson, statutory rape, cattle rustling, burglary and shooting two people. He got away with nearly all of it.

His unsolved murder has fascinated people around the globe, spawned a television movie, several documentaries, a best-selling book and myriad news stories. 

The latest entry comes Thursday, on Sundance TV, from Israeli-born filmmaker Avi Belkin, who looks at McElroy's death and other killings in the tiny town in Missouri's northwest corner. Belkin, who also made "Mike Wallace Is Here," the new documentary about the lauded "60 Minutes" journalist, looks at vigilantism and violence in middle America in the six-part television series.

 

But it is the terrifying and tawdry tale of 47-year-old McElroy that transfixes. Likewise, the evil he visited on a community of some 400 souls struggling to maintain family farms and a way of life that existed since the town was founded in the late 1800s.

Tall and weighing 270 pounds, McElroy was a big man with big sideburns and a menacing attitude that started in childhood. 

"He was bullying people in school. He was about a foot taller than everyone else because he got held back so much. I'm not sure if he could read," author Harry MacLean told InsideEdition.com.

MacLean moved to Skidmore and stayed for three years, gathering details for what would become his 1988 best-selling book, "In Broad Daylight." He won an Edgar Award for best true crime writing in 1989 and the book was made into a successful 1991 TV movie with Brian Dennehy and Marcia Gay Harden.

Harry MacLean won an Edgar Award for his true crime book.
Harry MacLean won an Edgar Award for his true crime book. Harry MacLean

McElroy was the 15th of 16 children born to poor sharecroppers. He was a child when his family moved to Skidmore. He dropped out of school at age 15, in the eighth grade, and began a career of burglary and cattle and hog rustling, according to court documents. 

He terrorized Skidmore, MacLean said. For decades he managed to avoid conviction after being indicted 20 times for crimes ranging from arson to assault. Witnesses would abruptly change their stories after McElroy showed up at their homes with a shotgun. He would sit in his truck and just stare at them.  

He fathered at least 10 children with several women. His last wife, Trena McCloud, met him because he was dating her mother. McElroy and Trena began having sex when she was 12, and by 14, she was pregnant with his child and had moved in with him, the author said. 

After giving birth, and enduring abuse from McElroy, McCloud ran to her mother's house. McElroy dragged her home. He went back to the mother's house while she was away, shot her dog and burned down her house. He then married the girl, who now couldn't be forced to give testimony against him. Her mother gave permission for the marriage after McElroy threatened to burn down her new house, authorities said. 

In 1976, farmer Romaine Henry told police McElroy shot him twice in the stomach after he told the man to get off his property. McElroy was charged with assault with intent to kill. The case dragged on, and Henry said McElroy menaced him by sitting in his truck on Henry's property.  

When the case finally went to trial, McElroy was acquitted. Two raccoon hunters said McElroy was with them on the day of the shooting. 

Whenever McElroy got in trouble, he had a powerful ally in defense attorney Richard McFadin, who excelled at getting trial delays. Meanwhile, McElroy intimidated witnesses and jurors.

"When the town of Skidmore saw a guilty man get acquitted in the legal system, they said, 'Well, we're all on our own here,''' MacLean explained. "These are second- and third-generation farmers. They don't move. They just kind of cowered in their houses.

"Law enforcement was afraid. Juries wouldn't convict," said MacLean. "He would scare the s*** out of the jurors, put rattlesnakes in their mailboxes. If you're a juror and you've got two kids and you know McElroy is coming after you ... what are you going to do?"

The D&G Tavern, Skidmore's local watering hole, was a favorite haunt of McElroy. "Every time he came in, everybody else walked out," MacLean said. Del Clement, who owned bar with his brother, never liked McElroy, and liked him even less for driving off his customers. 

The D & G tavern, where bully Ken Rex McElroy was shot to death.
The D & G Tavern, seen in this 1981 news photo one month after McElroy was shot to death. Getty

"McElroy had a beef with about everyone," MacLean said. "When he came into town, everybody went home and called other people, and said, 'Go home and lock your doors.'''

Things changed in 1980. Store owner Ernest "Bo" Bowenkamp and his wife, Lois, landed squarely in McElroy's sights after accusing one of McElroy's daughters of trying to steal some Jawbreaker candies. McElroy stalked the couple. One day he showed up with a shotgun, and in the back of Bowenkamp's store, McElroy shot the 70-year-old man in the throat. The shopkeeper survived.

McElroy was charged with attempted murder. There was a new prosecutor in town, and for the first time in his life, McElroy got convicted, though it was on a lesser charge of assault.

The judge let McElroy out on bond pending his lawyer's appeal. "He should have never been turned loose," MacLean said. The town, which had breathed a collective sigh of relief over McElroy's conviction, reeled under the news that McElroy was free and able terrorize residents again. 

But this time, the people of Skidmore decided enough was enough, said MacLean. They began meeting to discuss how to protect themselves. They spoke to the sheriff. Though he wasn't much help, he suggested residents form a neighborhood watch group. 

Just days after he walked free on bail, McElroy swaggered into the D&G, carrying a rifle. It was a clear violation of his bond terms. Patrons called the prosecutor, who revoked McElroy's bail. A hearing was scheduled. But McElroy's attorney kept getting it delayed, MacLean said.

Meanwhile, McElroy learned the names of three witnesses scheduled to testify at his upcoming bond revocation hearing. They were prepared to say McElroy had walked into the local bar carrying a loaded weapon. 

The night before that hearing, McElroy's attorney landed a two-week continuance. "That's when they lost it," MacLean said of the town's residents. "They had about 40 or 50 people who were going to protect the three witnesses, and escort them to court in a convoy."

McElroy still had all of his guns — a mess of shotguns and rifles. "Not only were there three witnesses in danger, everyone was in danger," MacLean said.

So the townspeople went down to the American Legion hall to talk about what to do. Someone told McElroy what was going on. McElroy headed into town, dragging along his wife. The two went into the D&G, and started drinking. It was a hot July morning.  

"It wasn't going to end well, that was for sure," MacLean said.

The hall was just across the road, and it didn't take long for word to spread that McElroy and McCloud were at the bar. 

"This is where everyone starts telling different stories," MacLean said of the scores of interviews he conducted over the years. About 30 to 40 people walked over to the tavern and stood outside. Another 20 or so walked inside and start telling McElroy "his days are numbered" and "we got you now," MacLean recounted.

McCloud looked at her husband said, "Let's get out of here."

The couple walked outside to their truck, which was surrounded by residents. McElroy didn't say a word to them. He and Trena got in the truck. 

"I never thought it was a planned action," MacLean said of what came next.

"Del Clement went out the back. His truck was across the street. Trena looks behind her and sees Del with his rifle," the author said. "She says, 'Ken, they're going to shoot ya.' He was lighting a cigarette. He never moved."

McElroy was hit by two rounds, fired by separate weapons. His blood rained down the windshield. The bullets' momentum caused his foot to stomp the gas pedal,  pushing the engine into a high-pitched whine. Someone pulled McCloud out of the passenger seat. She was unhurt.

No one called an ambulance. Later, the people standing around McElroy's truck would tell authorities they heard gunfire, and ducked, but never saw a shooter. 

McCloud told anyone who would listen that Clement shot her husband. She told a grand jury that, and federal investigators. No charges were ever filed. She went into hiding, and later remarried and had more children. She died of cancer in 2012 at age 55. 

Tami McElroy listens as her mother, Trena McElroy, talks to a reporter about the murder of her father, Ken Rex McElroy.
Tami McElroy listens as her mother, Trena, gives a 1981 interview about the murder of her father, Ken Rex McElroy. Getty

Investigators "couldn't really crack one person," MacLean said. "The FBI couldn't get anyone to turn. Not one. They get mobsters to turn on each other, but they couldn't get one of those farmers to turn. 'Whatever had been done might not be morally right, but he needed killing.' Not a one of 'em felt sorry for him," MacLean said. "Not one of them felt bad. Somebody was going to get killed. It was either going to be him, or somebody else."

MacLean stayed so long in Skidmore he became part of the community, though it wasn't easy. He said he was threatened, and had a shotgun pulled on him while researching his book. It was an open secret, he said, that Clement fired one of the rounds that hit McElroy. He died in 2009 without confessing, MacLean said.

"A good portion of the people have died," he said. "I wondered about a deathbed confession." He thought someone leaving this world might feel the need to clear their conscience about the shooting. "I knew a lot of people who witnessed it," he said. "But man, they died one after the other, and not one person said a thing."

The town has moved on, he said, and much of that movement has been downhill. "The bank closed, the cafe closed, the grocery store closed, the gas station closed," MacLean said. The next town is about 15 miles away, and most people go there for their needs. These days, Skidmore's population hovers around 250. 

Based on his interviews and research, MacLean said he's pretty sure he knows who fired the other bullet that hit McElroy. He's not sure if that person is dead or alive. 

He would not say the person's name. But he remembered a local dance contest in Skidmore, not long after McElroy was murdered, where he was asked to be a judge. "So I'm standing up there, and one of the killers dances by and I go, 'Man, this is really bizarre.'''

MacLean still returns to that spit of a town in Missouri, though he now lives in Colorado. "I go back every couple of years," he said. 

Why?

"Because I told people I was not going to come in and do a quick hit and leave. I'm in the story," he replied.

"There are still family farms outside Skidmore."

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