Killing Fields: The Town That Got Away With Murder

iStock.com/river34
iStock.com/river34

The townspeople who had gathered near the D&G Tavern in the small farming community of Skidmore, Missouri, that July morning could feel the shift in the atmosphere. The fear that once hung over the town's 440 residents had been replaced by something else. Anger—a deep, long-simmering anger—was part of it, but so was a sense of obligation. Men stood near vehicles that held rifles and shotguns inside. Bank employees and grocery clerks watched from nearby windows. Dust hovering over the sparsely developed main road through town helped lend that moment in 1981 the tension of a Wild West showdown.

The tavern door opened, and out stepped Ken Rex McElroy, 47, a bulky man with a ragged pair of sideburns and a piercing stare. To someone passing through town, McElroy may have looked like a strong farmhand, a callused good old boy. But to locals, McElroy was a vengeful bully, a thief, and an attempted murderer who eluded any and all attempts to put him behind bars. He terrorized the rural town of Skidmore (which had no police force of its own), taking point-blank aim at those who crossed him, and was routinely charged with three to four crimes a year.

McElroy was not ignorant of the town's hostility. He simply didn't care. That morning, he was out on bond, once again free to walk Skidmore's streets. As he moved from the tavern and opened the driver's side door to his Chevy Silverado, he said nothing to the 30-odd residents who stood nearby or watched from a gas station just up the hill. His wife, Trena, climbed into the passenger’s seat.

Trena looked around, then behind them. She was the first to see the rifle as one of the gathered men hoisted it to shoulder-level. She heard the rear window of the Silverado shatter, and saw her husband slump over the steering wheel.

In seconds, Ken McElroy would be dead, and the people of Skidmore—who had seen everything—would claim to have seen nothing at all.

 

If anyone could drive a normally peaceful community to cover up a murder, it was Ken McElroy. As one of over a dozen children raised under modest financial means in and around Kansas and the Ozarks, McElroy appeared to consider a proper education frivolous at best. According to In Broad Daylight, a comprehensive account of the Skidmore saga by author Harry N. MacLean, McElroy dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Having never learned to read or write, he set about a life of labor, eventually winding up in Nodaway County, Missouri.

It became apparent to McElroy fairly early on that an honest living would fail to provide the material possessions and leisurely lifestyle he desired. So he began stealing. Mostly, it was the livestock in and around Skidmore, a small town roughly 90 minutes north of Kansas City. In the dead of night, he'd pull up next to farmers' hog pens and make off with animals he could sell at auction or to third parties who knew better than to ask too many questions. He also leased his own land and trafficked in hunting dogs, which he had a talent for training. Through means legitimate and illicit, he was usually flush with cash—money that would come in handy when he inevitably lost his temper.

A shotgun barrel is pictured
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McElroy was rarely without a firearm of some kind, either on his person or mounted in his vehicles. Possessing a weapon was not unusual in Missouri, but brandishing it was. McElroy had no reservations about stuffing a shotgun in someone's face or belly to make a point. When a farmer named Romaine Henry had an encounter with McElroy on Henry's land in July 1976, McElroy shot him in the stomach. Henry survived and expected some measure of justice. But in court, McElroy produced witnesses who swore he was home at the time the shooting took place. A jury subsequently found McElroy not guilty.

Sliding out of trouble was a McElroy specialty. In addition to allies—often his hunting-dog cohorts—who would guarantee he was some place other than the scene of a crime, he had the money to hire Richard McFadin, a skilled defense attorney, to represent him. McFadin would use every legal maneuver at his disposal to get hearings postponed or delayed on the premise that the longer it took to go to trial, the colder the case against McElroy would get. Suddenly, defendants who had been assaulted or witnesses who had seen McElroy's impropriety would spot a pick-up truck parked outside their house or hear a shotgun going off in the middle of the night. Sometimes McElroy would confront them face-to-face and explain in a measured tone that he'd kill anyone opposing him in court.

Perhaps they could have held out for a month or two. Faced with extended periods of McElroy's harassment, many of them recanted their statements. Time and again, McElroy would simply walk away from serious charges with nothing more than a dent in his wallet.

 

As McElroy aged, his behavior grew more audacious, and the town of Skidmore grew more apprehensive. After two marriages, he wed Trena McCloud, whom he had met when she was just 14 years old. She accused him of raping her but—like many of McElroy's victims—later withdrew her statement. When McElroy was all but confirmed to have burned her parents' house down in a fit of rage, Trena blamed it on "faulty wiring." She became his accomplice, accompanying McElroy on several of his nocturnal visits to people he had targeted for harassment. As McElroy ranted, she would stand nearby, a firearm in her hands.

In 1980, Trena entered a grocery store in Skidmore with one of Ken's daughters from a previous marriage, Tonia. Before long, an argument ensued between Trena and shopkeepers Ernest "Bo" Bowenkamp and his wife, Lois, over whether Tonia had taken candy without intending to pay for it. For McElroy, the misunderstanding turned into an accusation that his daughter was a thief. He began to haunt the Bowenkamps at their store and at home, parking outside for hours at a time. Knowing McElroy's reputation, the couple feared it wouldn't be long before his harassment turned violent.

One evening in July 1980, McElroy approached Bo Bowenkamp near the loading area of the grocery store. After a brief verbal exchange, McElroy raised a shotgun and fired. Bowenkamp flinched as the buckshot tore through his neck. The 70-year-old was lucky to survive.

A cornfield is seen under a full moon
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McElroy peeled off in his truck. A highway patrol corporal named Richard Stratton was alerted to the incident and gave chase. Having had run-ins with McElroy before, he knew the man would attempt to get out of the county via an alternative route going through neighboring Fillmore. He found and arrested McElroy, but not before considering he might just get shot. McElroy had previously threatened that he was capable of gunning down police, and at that point there was no reason to doubt him.

 

In what was becoming a routine occurrence, McElroy enlisted McFadin to represent him in the resulting criminal case. McFadin asked for and received a change of venue—this time to Harrison County—and prepared a defense that portrayed Bowenkamp as the aggressor. The store owner, McElroy claimed, had approached him menacingly with a knife. McElroy had no choice but to defend himself.

In the interim, McElroy stuck to his usual strategy of intimidating victims, driving by the Bowenkamp household and making harassing calls. This time, his words fell on deaf ears. The Bowenkamps never lost their nerve, and McElroy was convicted of second-degree assault. He received a two-year jail sentence.

Anyone in Skidmore rejoicing at the news McElroy had finally been cornered by the law found their relief short-lived. A judge allowed McElroy out on a $40,000 bond pending an appeal of the conviction.

McElroy remained a looming presence in town, and the sentence did nothing to curb his behavior. At the D&G Tavern, he brandished a rifle with a bayonet attached to it, vowing to finish the job on Bowenkamp. Such a display was a clear violation of his bond, and eyewitnesses found the courage to testify against him in the hopes he would finally be locked up. But a crafty McFadin got the hearing delayed again. On the morning of July 10, 1981, when McElroy should have been answering to charges of wielding a firearm, he was in the tavern.

To the people of Skidmore, McElroy's continued presence was inexplicable. Time and again, the law had failed to protect them from a violent, abusive man who had stolen from them, raped them, terrorized them in their homes, and fired guns in the hopes of killing them. There was no predicting what kind of pain he could inflict before he was sent to jail. And that assumed he'd wind up there at all.

A windshield with a bullet hole is pictured
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A town meeting was convened at the American Legion Hall up the road from the tavern. Many of the same people who once cowered from McElroy now discussed the best way to protect their town from another rampage. Someone voiced the idea of trailing McElroy in a pack to prevent him from acting out—a kind of roving neighborhood watch. Others simply couldn't believe McElroy had once again sidestepped punishment for his actions.

The meeting dispersed, and the residents walked toward the tavern. Many walked inside and surrounded McElroy, a silent statement that there was solidarity among the townspeople.

McElroy said nothing. He exited the building and climbed into his Silverado. His wife, Trena, would later tell investigators she saw a man behind them raise a rifle before the shooting began. A shot shattered the car window and ripped through McElroy, leaving glass everywhere. Then one of the men opened the passenger-side door and ushered Trena out of the line of fire.

She was led into the nearby bank. The shooting continued for 20 seconds or so and then stopped. The only remaining noise was the Silverado’s rumbling engine.

A few residents walked up to the truck to peer inside. But when the ambulance arrived, it was obvious no one had tried to help.

 

From the time she was brought in for questioning, Trena was unwavering in her assertion that she knew who the killer was. She identified a man People magazine later named as Del Clement as the one who had held up the rifle and shot McElroy. Clement had motive—he was part-owner of the tavern where McElroy idled, driving away customers, and was also victimized by his livestock heists—and was known to have a quick temper.

Trena told Nodaway County's prosecuting attorney, David Baird, that it was Clement. She told FBI investigators and three separate grand juries. But she was the only one talking. Local law enforcement and federal officials tried every approach possible to gather information from residents. They tried playing nice. Then they played a heavy hand, demanding to know what had happened. They insisted no one would be getting away with murder—certainly not in broad daylight and in front of dozens of witnesses. FBI vehicles crawled through town, stopping in front of houses. Agents sat in kitchens, hoping to pry even the tiniest bit of detail from locals.

A close-up of a man's eye is pictured
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Nothing worked. Skidmore's population had little else to say other than that they heard shooting and hit the ground to avoid being struck by a bullet. They didn't see who started it, if there had been one shooter or several, or if anyone was fleeing the scene. One witness mentioned seeing Clement and a passenger speeding down a road after the shooting but later recanted.

None of it was enough for Baird to bring a case. Trena's testimony would wither without anyone to corroborate it. After a year, the FBI announced they would be closing their investigation.

The town was deluged by reporters intoxicated by the idea of frontier justice. They composed headlines like "Town Bully is Dead" and "Woman Says Husband Killed by Vigilante." They knocked on doors and sat down in the tavern. But they couldn't loosen the tongues of the locals.

Highway patrolman Stratton, who knew of McElroy's sinister reputation first-hand—McElroy once terrorized his wife outside of their home with a shotgun—seemed resigned to the town's silence. "They did what they did because we didn't do our job," he said in 2010. "Then they went home and kept their mouths shut and kept them closed all these years. There wasn't much David Baird could do about that."

No one was ever charged with the murder of Ken McElroy. Clement, the man Trena named as the shooter, died in 2009. Baird moved to private practice. Trena managed to get a $17,000 settlement in a wrongful-death civil suit against the county sheriff, Skidmore's mayor, and Clement, and nothing more.

Skidmore's population continues to dwindle. And as its residents age, it grows even less likely that anyone will come forward with information that could solve the case.

McFadin summarized his feelings in a 2010 New York Times interview. "The town," he said, "got away with murder."

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The 20 Best Docuseries You Can Stream Right Now

Chef David Chang stars in Netflix's Ugly Delicious.
Chef David Chang stars in Netflix's Ugly Delicious.
Gabriele Stabile/Netflix

If your main interests are true crime and cooking, you’re in the middle of a Renaissance Age. The Michelangelos of nonfiction are consistently bringing stellar storytelling to twisty tales of murder and mayhem as well as luxurious shots of food prepared by the most creative culinary minds.

But these aren’t the only genres that documentary series are tackling. There’s a host of history, arts, travel, and more at your streaming fingertips. When you want to take a break from puzzling out who’s been wrongfully imprisoned, that is.

Here are the 20 best docuseries to watch right now, so start streaming.

1. Tiger King (2020)

The seedy underbelly of the exotic animal trade is juxtaposed against some of the most outrageous non-fictional characters you're ever likely to encounter in this series that just keeps escalating. Follow Joe Exotic as he juggles polyamory, tigers, and a bitter feud with animal activist Carole Baskin.

Where to watch it: Netflix

2. The Confession Tapes (2019)

A spare room. One or two detectives. A weary suspect. That's the set-up for this series that lets archival footage of police interrogations tell its own arresting stories.

Where to watch it: Netflix

3. Our Planet (2019)

Be amazed at the sensational vistas and eclectic wildlife with this beautifully-photographed trek through some of nature's most astounding sights—and the environmental perils that affect them. David Attenborough narrates.

Where to watch it: Netflix

4. The Devil Next Door (2019)

In 1980s Cleveland, John Demjanjuk was living a quiet life as a grandfather and auto worker. Suddenly, he was being extradited to Israel over accusations he was once notorious Nazi concentration camp monster Ivan the Terrible. As Demjanjuk mounts a defense, the trial captivates a country—but was he really the monster? This riveting series will have you guessing until the very end.

Where to watch it: Netflix

5. Ugly Delicious (2018-)

David Chang, the host of the first season of The Mind of a Chef, has returned with a cultural mash-up disguised as a foodie show. What does it mean for pizza to be “authentic”? What do Korea and the American South have in common? With his casual charm in tow, Chang and a variety of special guests explore people the food we love to eat as an artifact that brings us all together.

Where to watch it: Netflix

6. Bobby Kennedy for President (2018)

This four-part series utilizes a wealth of footage, including unseen personal videos, to share the tragic story of Robert F. Kennedy’s run for president in the context of an era riven by racial strife. Watching this socio-political memorial told by many who were there (including Marian Wright and Congressman John Lewis), it will be impossible not to draw connections to the current day and wonder: What if?

Where to watch it: Netflix

7. Evil Genius (2018)

At approximately 2:20 p.m. on August 28, 2003, Brian Wells—a pizza deliveryman—walked into a PNC Bank in Erie, Pennsylvania, and handed a note to a teller demanding $250,000 in cash. Wells had a bomb, which was strapped to his body via a metal neck collar, and a loaded shotgun that was fashioned to look like a walking cane. Approximately 12 minutes later, Wells strolled out of the bank with $8702 in cash, then made his way to the McDonald’s next door, where he retrieved a detailed note that told him where to go and what to do next. Within 15 minutes, Wells would be arrested. At 3:18 p.m.—less than an hour after he first entered the bank—the bomb locked around Wells’s neck detonated as police watched (and waited for the bomb squad), killing the 46-year-old in broad daylight. The bizarre incident was just the beginning of Evil Genius, which documents the peculiar case that would eventually entangle a range of unusual suspects, including Marjorie Diehl-Armstrong, and has had armchair detectives—and the FBI—questioning whether Wells was in on the bank robbery, or a genuine victim, for more than a decade.

Where to watch it: Netflix

8. Wild Wild Country (2018)

What happens when an Indian guru with thousands of American followers sets up shop near a small town in Oregon with the intent to create a commune? Incredibly sourced, this documentary touches on every major civic issue—from religious liberty to voting rights. When you choose a side, be prepared to switch. Multiple times.

Where to watch it: Netflix

9. Flint Town (2018)

If your heart is broken by what’s going on in Flint, Michigan, be prepared to have that pain magnified and complicated. The filmmakers behind this provocative series were embedded with police in Flint to offer us a glimpse at the area’s local struggles and national attention from November 2015 through early 2017.

Where to watch it: Netflix

10. The Innocent Man (2018)

After two brutal murders in 1980s Oklahoma, four men are convicted of the crimes. All of them maintain their innocence, causing observers to question whether they were guilty or themselves victims of police coercion. This drama is based on John Grisham's 2006 book of the same name; Grisham executive produces.

Where to watch it: Netflix

11. The Staircase (2004-2018)

In 2001, author Michael Peterson reported to police that his wife, Kathleen, had died after falling down a set of stairs, but police didn’t buy the story and charged him with her murder. Before the current true crime boom, before Serial and all the rest, there was The StaircaseJean-Xavier de Lestrade’s Peabody Award-winning docuseries following Peterson’s winding court case. The mystery at the heart of the trial and the unparalleled access Lestrade had to Peterson’s defense make this a must-see. And Netflix's addition of new episodes in 2018 led to a resurgence in interest in this mind-boggling case (with armchair detectives even positing that an owl was the real killer).

Where to watch it: Netflix

12. The Toys That Made Us (2017-)

Who knew the origin of classic toy lines could be so dramatic? This series puts the spotlight on the creative friction that led to some of the most iconic playthings of the 20th century, from Transformers to the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

Where to watch it: Netflix

13. Wormwood (2017)

Documentary titan Errol Morris turns his keen eye to a CIA project that’s as famous as it is unknown—MKUltra. A Cold War-era mind control experiment. LSD and hypnosis. The mysterious death of a scientist. His son’s 60-year search for answers. Morris brings his incisive eye to the hunt.

Where to watch it: Netflix

14. Five Came Back (2017)

Based on Mark Harris’s superlative book, this historical doc features filmmakers like Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro discussing the WWII-era work of predecessors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Also narrated by Meryl Streep, it looks at how the war shaped the directors and how they shaped the war. As a bonus, Netflix has the war-time documentaries featured in the film available to stream.

Where to watch it: Netflix

15. Last Chance U (2016-)

Far more than a sports documentary, the story of the players at East Mississippi Community College will have you rooting for personal victories as much as the points on the scoreboard. Many of the outstanding players on the squad lost spots at Division I schools because of disciplinary infractions or failing academics, so they’re seeking redemption in a program that wants them to return to the big-name schools. Later seasons switch focus to a team out of Independence Community College in Independence, Kansas.

Where to watch it: Netflix

16. Making a Murderer (2015-)

One of the major true crime phenomenons of 2015 was 10 years in the making. Laura Ricciardi and Moira Demos uncovered the unthinkable story of Steven Avery, a man wrongfully convicted of sexual assault who was later convicted of murdering a different woman, Teresa Halbach. Not just a magnifying glass on the justice system and a potential small town conspiracy, it’s also a display of how stories can successfully get our blood boiling. Three years after the docuseries became a surprise hit for Netflix, it returned for a second season in 2018.

Where to watch it: Netflix

17. Chef's Table (2015-)

From David Gelb, the documentarian behind Jiro Dreams of Sushi, this doc series is a backstage pass to the kitchens of the world’s most elite chefs. The teams at Osteria Francescana, Blue Hill, Alinea, Pujol, and more open their doors to share their process, culinary creativity, and, of course, dozens of delicious courses. There's no shame in licking your screen.

Where to watch it: Netflix

18. The Jinx (2015)

After the massive success of Serial in 2014, a one-two punch of true crime docuseries landed the following year. The first was the immensely captivating study of power, The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst, which chronicled the bizarre, tangled web of the real estate mogul who was suspected of several murders. The show, which could be measured in jaw-drops per hour, both registered real life and uniquely affected it.

Where to watch it: HBO Now

19. Vice (2013-)

The series is known for asking tough questions that need immediate answers and giving viewers a street-level view of everything from killing cancer to juvenile justice reform. Its confrontational style of gonzo provocation won’t be everyone’s cup of spiked tea, but it’s filling an important gap that used to be filled by major network investigative journalists. When they let their subjects—from child soldiers suffering PTSD after fighting for ISIS to coal miners in Appalachia—tell their stories, nonfiction magic happens. The first six seasons are available on HBO, with a seventh airing on Showtime in 2020.

Where to watch it: HBO Go

20. The National Parks: America's Best Idea (2009)

The cheapest way to visit Yosemite, Yellowstone, Muir Woods, and more. This Emmy-winning, six-part series is both a travelogue and a history lesson in conservation that takes up the argument of why these beautiful places should be preserved: to quote President Theodore Roosevelt, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

Where to watch it: Amazon Prime