Ken McElroy: Town Bully
Skidmore is a small farming town in the northwest corner of the state of Missouri. In the 1980s, the town had fewer than 450 residents, so it’s no surprise that the community was close-knit. Despite this closeness, the town has seen a number of violent crimes that were so heinous and bizarre that they quickly made national headlines. The first of these crimes was the murder of 47-year-old Ken Rex McElroy on July 10, 1981.
The 15th of 16 children, McElroy was already a known troublemaker by the time he’d reached his early teens. Held back repeatedly in school, he dropped out in the 8th grade at the age of 15. Once he left school, Ken passed his time by stealing practically anything that wasn’t nailed down. From grain and gasoline to livestock and antiques, if Ken McElroy wanted it, he helped himself. Ultimately, Ken would be indicted on 21 felony charges over the years. He escaped conviction on all but one of those indictments thanks to the efforts of his longtime lawyer, Richard McFadin. As McFadin describes it, McElroy was routinely charged with 3 to 4 felonies every year.
Despite his reputation for meanness and known criminal behavior, Ken had a way with the ladies. He fathered at least 13 children with three different wives, but author Harry N. MacLean believes McElroy fathered more than 20 children with at least four women. The first of Ken’s wives was Sharon, who gave her husband 4 daughters and a son. Alice Woods was Ken’s second wife, but she has stated that she’s not sure their marriage was legal because McElroy may have still been married to Sharon when they wed. Nevertheless, they were together for 15 years, and Alice bore two sons and a daughter. McElroy’s third wife, Trena McCloud, met Ken when he began dating her mother while she was 12. She became romantically involved with the man when she was just 14. Trena initially accused McElroy of molestation and statutory rape. Ken beat the charges by marrying Trena so that she couldn’t testify against him. There are conflicting reports as to whether Ken was still married to Sharon when he wed Trena, but one thing that is uncontested is the fact that Sharon, Trena, and Ken all lived together. In fact, in addition to the three children Ken had with Trena, he also had two more kids with Sharon after he married McCloud.
Even though Trena remained married to McElroy for ten years until his death, there’s evidence that the union was not always a happy one. Shortly after giving birth to her first child, Trena ran back to her mother’s home with Alice in tow. Her attempt to escape McElroy proved fruitless. Ken dragged the girls back home, and then returned to his mother-in-law’s house to shoot the family dog and burn down the home. McElroy’s intimidation tactics were clearly escalating.
In 1976, Romaine Henry, a local farmer, found McElroy on his property. Knowing Ken’s reputation, Henry demanded that McElroy leave the property right away. Ken responded by shooting him in the stomach, twice. Henry survived the attack, and Ken McElroy found himself charged with assault with intent to kill. As lawyer, Richard McFadin delayed the case through a series of legal stalling tactics, Ken intimidated Romaine by sitting in his truck on Henry’s property brandishing a shotgun. Jurors found rattlesnakes in their mailboxes and could only assume McElroy had paid them a visit. Eventually, Ken pressured two raccoon hunters into testifying that the town bully had accompanied them on a hunting trip the day of the shooting, and the charges were dropped.
The residents of Skidmore began to feel hopeless. Moving meant giving up their farms, so it wasn’t an option. People began hiding in their homes, and simply walking out of local establishments any time Ken McElroy walked in. The town was being held hostage by this 270-pound man whose sideburns were as large and unruly as his behavior. Then, in 1980, a piece of candy triggered a series of events that would ultimately seal Ken’s fate.
Evelyn Sumy was a clerk at a local grocery store that was owned by 72-year old, Ernest “Bo” Bowenkamp. Tonia McElroy, Ken’s 8-year-old daughter had a jawbreaker that hadn’t been paid for, and Evelyn asked the girl to please return the candy. That’s all it took to light Ken’s fuse. An argument ensued between McElroy and Sumy, and despite Evelyn’s apologies, Ken would later return for revenge – shooting Bowenkamp in the neck with a shotgun in the store’s back alley. Thankfully, Bowenkamp would survive, and McElroy would be arrested for attempted murder.
During his trial, McElroy engaged in his usual intimidation tactics. He regularly sat out front of the Bowenkamps home and fired off guns. Bo and his wife, Lois were scared but they refused to back down. Their tenacity paid off when Ken was convicted of assault, and the town heaved a sigh of relief. This should have been the reprieve from terror that the citizens of Skidmore so desperately needed. Instead, the judge allowed McElroy to bond out of jail while his attorney appealed the conviction, and the entire town of Skidmore was now in his crosshairs.
Just days after being released on bond, McElroy swaggered into the local watering hole, the D&G Tavern, carrying a bayoneted rifle – a flagrant violation of his bond terms. Patrons at the bar phoned the local prosecutor. Ken’s bail was revoked, and a hearing was set. True to form, Richard McFadin successfully managed to delay the hearing multiple times, and McElroy managed to learn the names of witnesses who were set to testify against him. The tensions in Skidmore, Missouri began to boil over.
On July 10, 1981, citizens of Skidmore gathered at the local American Legion to brainstorm solutions to the town’s Ken McElroy problem. As they discussed the issue, Ken and Trena pulled into the D&G Tavern just across the street. As is often the case in small towns, word spread quickly once Ken showed up, and citizens reacted. According to Harry N. MacLean, the author of In Broad Daylight, 30 – 40 people walked over to the D&G Tavern while another 20 or so entered the bar. As those inside the bar attempted to turn the tables and intimidate McElroy, Trena told her husband that she wanted to leave.
As Trena tells it, the couple walked outside and pushed through the crowd before silently climbing into their truck. Nobody spoke a word. Trena says she looked out the back window of the truck in time to see Del Clement, the owner of the D&G Tavern, pull his rifle out of his truck. Trena told her husband, “They’re going to shoot you.” Ken silently lit a cigarette, and then shots rang out.
Ken McElroy was shot twice with bullets from two different guns. Trena was pulled to safety while her husband’s body lay slumped in the driver’s seat – his foot dead weight on the accelerator. Nobody bothered to call an ambulance. The only information that authorities could get out of the locals was that they heard the shots and ducked. Not a single one of them saw the shooter. Nobody ever saw the gun. Trena, on the other hand, told anyone that would listen that Del had killed her husband. The county, the state, and even the federal government all failed to identify who had fired the shots. Nobody has ever been charged in the death of Ken McElroy, and Skidmore, Missouri has become known as the town that got away with murder.
If You’d like to learn more about the Ken McElroy case while also supporting Mean & Evil, use the links below to purchase In Broad Daylight and The Story behind ‘In Broad Daylight’ by Harry N. MacLean.