Skidmore is a small and modest town in Missouri, situated approximately 80 miles northwest of Kansas City. Consisting of around 440 residents and a number of small family-run businesses, the farming town revolved around work ethic.
This was something that the “town bully,” Ken Rex McElroy, staunchly rebelled against. 1
McElroy was never a popular man. Weighing in at approximately 270 pounds with bushy black sideburns, McElroy held the entire town of Skidmore under his thumb. Always armed with a gun, McElroy took whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted and nobody dared asked questions.
Born in 1934, he was the 15th out of 16 children born to poor sharecroppers, Tony and Mabel McElroy. Illiterate due to quitting school after just the fifth grade, trouble seemed to follow McElroy wherever he went. When McElroy was a young boy, he fell from a hay wagon on his family farm and as a result, a steel plate was implanted into his head. Many question if this was the catalyst that caused him to become the abominable character that he eventually morphed into. 2
His criminal career started off with petty crimes such as stealing livestock but this soon escalated, predominately in violence. Over the years, McElroy, who was a raging alcoholic and notorious womaniser, was married multiple times. He fathered a total of fifteen children with a hoard of different women, many of them being just teenagers.
Not one to care about the law (or quite clearly morals), he met his youngest and last wife, Trena, in 1971 when she was just 12-years-old. She fell pregnant just two years later. Unsurprisingly, McElroy mistreated Trena, who eventually attempted to escape his evil clutches by fleeing to her parents’ house with their new born son. McElroy refused to let her get away that easily; he followed Trena to her parents’ house and once there, he shot their dog and set their house on fire before bringing Trena back home where he physically abused her for her apparent misconduct.
Trena revealed the arson and abuse to a local doctor who in turn called a social welfare agency and put her into a foster home. Facing molestation charges due to Trena’s young age when he began a sexual relationship with her, McElroy discovered that if he were to marry Trena then she would be exempt from testifying. He knew all too well that Trena’s testimony against him was very damning. McElroy was granted permission to marry Trena by her panic-stricken parents after he threatened that if they didn’t grant permission, he would burn their new home to the ground. 3
They reluctantly complied and the unlikely couple were married.
Throughout McElroy’s tempestuous life, he had been indicted on a range of crimes including child molestation, rape, attempted murder and burglary. However, the citizens of Skidmore were so petrified of his brutality and the revenge that he could potentially exact on them that everybody refused to testify against him. The whole town knew how violent and unpredictable he was. His lawyer, Richard McFadin, would later say that he defended McElroy in at least three or four felonies per year.
It almost seemed as though he was exempt from the law… at least until that fateful day when his reign of terror came to an abrupt halt when vigilante justice took over. McElroy’s ultimate downfall commenced in 1980, when one of his children – a daughter he had with Trena – was caught stealing a candy bar from a local grocery store. This grocery store was owned by 70-year-old Bo Bowenkamp and his elderly wife, Lois Bowenkamp. The Kansas City Star reported that Lois called the theft a “misunderstanding” and tried to make peace with the McElroy family.
However, with McElroy being the hot-headed aggressor that he was, he refused to let it slide and unleashed a barrage of terror on the elderly couple.
First of all, McElroy offered the elderly Lois cash to engage in a fist fight with his much younger and stronger wife before turning to the intimidation tactics that he knew so well. McElroy took to sitting outside the Bowenkamp residence in his truck and every so often, shooting his gun into the air as a warning sign.
“Oh, he was intimidating,” Lois Bowenkamp said. “You can’t know how awful it was. My neighbor and I took turns sleeping at night.” 4
The stalking and harassment of the Bowenkamp family took a tragic turn for the worse on a pleasant summer’s night in July of 1980. Bo Bowenkamp was standing outside on the loading dock of his grocery store awaiting an air-conditioning repair man. McElroy drove up to the store, produced his shotgun, and shot the elderly man in the neck.
Miraculously, Bo survived his wounds but this senseless attempted murder was the straw that broke the camel’s back. This time, the small town of Skidmore would not forgive or forget this mindless attack on a defenceless and well-adored man.
McElroy was soon convicted of the attack. However, he was released on bail awaiting appeal, much to the shock of the entire community. Within hours, McElroy was ready to exact his revenge on Bo Bowenkamp and the witnesses that testified against him. The town rallied together and wrote a number of letters to the Missouri authorities, the governor, attorney general, and state legislators, expressing that they were living in fear of McElroy and wanted to finally see some justice but alas, their pleas were ignored.
An exasperated McElroy was soon seen in D&G Tavern, his local haunt, brandishing an M-1 rifle with a bayonet attached to the muzzle. This, of course, violated the terms of his bail. Richard McFadin, McElroy’s lawyer, somehow managed to postpone his appeal hearing not once but twice, much to the townsfolks dismay.
On the prickly-hot afternoon of 10 July, 1981, the town gathered at Legion Hall to contemplate what to do about McElroy after the second postponement.
The whole town was at the end of their tether with the barrage of intimidation and harassment that had been inflicted on them. They were also extremely wary as to what McElroy could be planning against them as revenge.
Simultaneously, McElroy and Trena were sitting the D&G Tavern having a couple of beers and getting rowdy completely oblivious to the uprising of the town. It’s not exactly known what was being discussed in Legion Hall – some think they were discussing how to keep witnesses safe while others think they were planning the demise of McElroy. Whatever took place inside that hall, when the meeting ended, the townsfolk made their way to the D & G Tavern where they encountered McElroy and Trena climbing into his Chevy Silverado.
McElroy was armed with his beloved rifle and a six-pack of beer.
Moments later, shots rang out and the town intimidator sat dead in his car, his bloody body riddled with bullets with his wife screaming in the front passenger seat. Ironically, he had been killed with the same sort of violence that he had revelled in over the years.
At least 40 people witnessed McElroy being shot and every single one refused to confess who had fired the fateful shots.
Nobody saw a thing.
Not one person called an ambulance as McElroy lay bleeding to death, surrounded by the wide-eyes of the town he had once held in fear.
As Postmaster Jim Hartman said: “I can’t think of anyone who’d seen it (the shooting) feel any different than you would about the people who invented penicillin. Nobody tried to hang them for finding a way to kill a germ.” 5
When police eventually arrived, they discovered shell casings from both a .22-caliber Magnum and an 8mm Mauser. An investigation uncovered that McElroy had been shot by two separate people. One who had been positioned behind the truck while the other was positioned a half block in front of the truck. Regardless of the abundance of witnesses to the murder which took place in broad daylight, nobody was ever charged and the jury concluded that McElroy was killed by a “person or persons unknown.” 6
Trena claimed she knew who one of the shooters was but with nobody to corroborate her claims, he couldn’t be indicted.
The town has kept its silence ever since: they feel as though they owe nothing to a man who vandalised and terrorised them for decades. It is a true tale of comeuppance that could have easily been avoided if the law and court had cracked down on McElroy when necessary. “I know why they didn’t talk – they were all glad he was dead. That town got away with murder,” his attorney would later say. 7
- Observer-Reporter – Jul 10, 1982
- Herald-Journal – Aug 1, 1981
- Lawrence Journal-World – Aug 2, 1981
- The Courier – Aug 2, 1981
- Observer-Reporter – Jul 10, 1982
- Observer-Reporter – Jul 10, 1982
- NY Times