It Takes a Village: The Town That Got Away With Murder

One July morning in in 1981 in Skidmore, Missouri, (a small town about 90 minutes north of Kansas City), the townspeople gathered at D&G Tavern. There was an eerie shift in the atmosphere of the farming community that morning. The fear that once haunted the town’s 440 residents would be replaced but something else – a deep, dark secret. Anger and revenge had a lot to do with it, but there was also a sense of obligation to protect their community.

Newspaper clipping / Ken Rex McElroy, Tina / Ken Rex McElroy truck / Trena McElroy.
Source: Getty Images

Men stood by their cars containing rifles and shotguns. Grocery clerks and bank employees watched from windows. Dust hovered over the site and added a chilling sensation to that significant moment. A town was about to witness a murder. But with more than 40 onlookers, no one said a word.

Ken Rex McElroy: A Known Criminal

The tavern door opened, and a bulky man with a pair of scruffy sideburns and a creepy glare stepped out: it was 47-year-old Ken Rex McElroy. To folks passing through, McElroy seemed like a good old farm boy. But McElroy had a reputation around town, and all the locals heard of him.

Ken Rex McElroy sits for a family photo as he holds his young daughter, Tina.
Ken Rex McElroy, Tina McElroy. Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

He was a thief and a vengeful bully. He couldn’t let things go and took things way too far. He would threaten and even attempt to murder anyone who spoke out against him, which completely terrified this otherwise peaceful community. McElroy literally terrorized the small town of Skidmore, which didn’t even have its own police force.

The Town Bully

He would take point-blank shots at anyone who crossed him and was routinely charged for at least three to four crimes a year, but suffered no consequences. This guy was a master at getting himself out of trouble.

A pickup truck is parked in front of the locoa pub.
Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

McElroy wasn’t blind to the town’s hostility toward him; he just didn’t really care. That fateful morning in July 1981, he was out on bond once again, free to walk the streets of Skidmore. As he left the tavern and opened the driver’s door of his car, he said nothing to the 30-odd residents nearby, nor to the ones watching from a gas station right up the hill.

One Fateful Day

His wife Trena jumped into the passenger’s seat. As she looked around, she was the first one to notice a rifle that one of the men in the crowd held over his shoulder. She suddenly heard the rear window of the vehicle shatter and watched her husband slump over the steering wheel.

The broken glass from the front door of McElroy's van after the shooting.
Photo by Harry N. McLean

Seconds later, Ken McElroy would be dead, and the people of Skidmore – who saw the entire thing – claimed to have seen nothing at all. Nobody called the police. With over 40 witnesses, it sounds like a classic case of the Bystander Effect, but what was actually going on was much darker.

Let’s just say, if anyone could drive a normally peaceful community to cover up a murder, it was Ken McElroy.

Middle School Drop Out

So, let’s start at the beginning. Ken McElroy was born on June 1, 1943, and was one of over a dozen children – number 15 out of 16 siblings to be exact. He grew up around Kansas and the Ozarks and didn’t seem to have the best education.

A portrait of McElroy sitting in his house.
Source: Tumblr

McElroy dropped out of school in eighth grade, according to In Broad Daylight. It is said that he was illiterate as he never learned to read and write. Instead of school, he embarked on a life of labor and ultimately ended up in Nodaway County, Missouri.

Something May Have Cause His Violent Behavior…

When he was 18 years old, McElroy supposedly suffered a head injury in an accident on a construction site: a heavy steel beam fell on his head. As you could imagine, McElroy was in severe chronic pain and developed possible brain damage that would plague him for the rest of his life.

View of a heavy steel beam in a construction site.
Photo by Zhang Chenlin/Getty Images

We will never know if the injury necessarily led to these events, but it seems like a strong possibility. The townspeople think it’s the only reasonable explanation for his violent behavior and erratic temper. But no one cared why he acted this way; they just wanted him to stop.

Side Hustle – Thievery

It didn’t take long for McElroy to learn that an honest living would take hard work and probably won’t provide the material objects and upscale lifestyle he so badly wanted. So, naturally, he started stealing. His target was mostly the livestock in Skidmore.

A view at Skidmore town as the sun goes down.
Source: YouTube

During the dark nights, he would pull up next to farmers’ hog pens and take the animals that he would be able to sell at an auction or to third parties who knew not to ask too many questions. In addition, McElroy would lease his own land and traffic in hunting dogs, which he was pretty good at training.

He Was Always Armed

Through his legal and illegal activities, McElroy was known for always having a ton of cash in his pocket – which would come in handy whenever he lost his temper. It was also rare for McElroy to be out without some kind of accessible firearm, either on his body or in his vehicles.

McElroy leans down as he pets his dog.
Photo by Bec Heim

It’s not uncommon or unusual to own a firearm in Missouri; the strange part was that McElroy would show it off like he wanted to scare or intimidate people. He had no reservations about holding a shotgun to someone’s head just to make a point. (Sounds like a standup guy.)

A Long Criminal History

Just to give you an idea of what kind of man this was, he was indicted in June 1973 for arson, assault, and sexual harassment. He was arrested and booked before getting released on a $2,500 bail. He had a history of relationships with minors, including his wife Trena, who was a young teenager when they met. They even had a child together.

Police file photo of Ken Rex McElroy.
Source: YouTube

After his arrest, Trena and her baby were put in foster care. McElroy harassed the foster family, asking for the girl back. He then threatened them and stalked the family’s biological daughter, learning her route to school. They let Trena go in fear of their own kid’s life.

He Tried to Kill Someone

In July 1976, a farmer named Romaine Henry encountered McElroy on Henry’s Island, and McElroy shot him in the stomach. Luckily, Henry survived and was expecting some kind of justice. However, McElroy had a way of getting out of trouble, time and time again.

Portrait of Romain Henry.
Source: Tumblr

Initially, the upstanding citizen was charged with assault and intent to kill. But McElroy denied even being at the scene. The case was dragged on without a court date, and throughout this time, McElroy parked outside his home at least 100 times. Talk about a stalker…

Not Guilty… Again…

When the trial finally began, two raccoon hunters testified that they were with McElroy on Henry’s property the day of the shooting. But when Henry was questioned by McElroy’s attorney, he was forced to admit under oath that he concealed his own petty criminal conviction over 30 years ago.

Headshot of Ken McElroy looking straight to the camera.
Source: Pinterest

The defense brought a witness who swore that he was at home during the time of the shooting, so McElroy couldn’t have done it. Subsequently, he was found not guilty by a jury. Getting out of any consequences for his crimes was McElroy’s specialty. The residents were really getting sick of him. I mean, he just attempted murder and he was getting away with it.

He Had the Best Lawyer

Other than his allies, who seemed to be his hunting-dog cohorts, who in the world would guarantee that McElroy was anywhere near the crime scene? Well, thanks to his burglary habit, McElroy had the money to hire an incredibly skilled defense attorney, Richard McFadin.

Portrait of Richard McFadin.
Richard McFadin. Source: Tumblr

McElroy would just walk around town thinking he could get away with anything because he had an amazing lawyer, and the sad part is that he wasn’t wrong. McFadin used every legal maneuver and loophole at his disposal in order to postpone and delay hearings so it would take longer to go to trial, and by the time it did, the case against McElroy would get colder.

Continuously Intimidating Witnesses

At that point, defendants and witnesses who could testify against him started noticing McElroy parked outside their home in a pickup truck, and they would hear their shotgun going off in the middle of the night. That’s right; he would just randomly shoot his gun, which gave him a chilling thrill from the terrified residents.

McElroy is waiting inside his parked car outside a house.
Source: ABC

McElroy would even confront some of them face-to-face, making it clear that he would kill anyone opposing him in court. So, basically, he threatened witnesses as well as jurors. With extended periods of harassment from McElroy, many of them were intimidated or worried for their families and eventually recanted their statements.

Walking the Streets Freely

McElroy didn’t face any consequences for his actions. In fact, he would walk around town proclaiming how he is untouchable, and he can get away with anything thanks to his fancy pants lawyer Richard McFadin. So, McElroy continuously walked away from serious charges with no punishments.

Trena McElroy is sitting in a park with a friend.
Trena McElroy. Source: Tumblr

But his petty crimes escalated as he got older. It wasn’t just burglary and threats, McElroy’s actions were extremely violent and frightening, and the residents of Skidmore became more apprehensive. After two marriages, McElroy tied the knot with Trena McCloud, the girl he met when she was 14 years old.

Like Bonnie & Clyde

Trena accused McElroy of raping her, but later recanted her statement, like many of McElroy’s victims. It was even confirmed that during a fit of rage, McElroy burned down Trena’s parents’ house. She was so manipulated by him that she believed him when he told her it was due to “faulty wiring.”

A firefighter battles the house burning fire / Bonnie & Clyde.
Faye Dunaway, Warren Beatty. Photo by Emercom, TASS, Getty Images / Warner Bros.

It didn’t take long for Trena to become his accomplice, joining him on several of his criminal escapades, including threatening and harassing the people McElroy targeted. According to McElroy, she would stand nearby with a firearm in her hands. She wanted to be the ‘ride or die’ type.

It All Started with a Piece of Candy

One ordinary day in 1980 led to the shocking events that were about to unfold. A little girl walked into a local grocery store and tried stealing a piece of candy. One of the workers told the child that she shouldn’t steal but let her keep the candy anyway. As it turned out, this little girl was McElroy’s daughter, Tonia, from a previous marriage.

Close-up shot of an assortment of multi-colored Jelly Belly beans.
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Trena was with his daughter, and boy, was she angry. She started an argument between the shopkeeper Ernest “Bo” Bowenkamp and his wife, Lois. Tonia tried taking the candy with no intention of paying for it, and despite the shop owners giving the little girl the candy for free, Tonia’s rage was uncontrollable.

Are You Calling My Daughter a Thief?!

The entire ordeal was just a huge misunderstanding, but McElroy took it as an accusation that his daughter was a thief, and as you can imagine, he wasn’t happy about that. That’s when he decided to taunt the Bowenkamps at their family business as well as at their home.

Portrait of Bo Bowenkamp.
Source: Tumblr

Aware of McElroy’s reputation, the elderly couple was concerned that the harassment would turn violent. Then, one evening in July 1980, McElroy walked toward Bo Bowenkamp as he was in the loading area of the grocery store. Sadly, the Bowenkamps fears turned into a real-life nightmare.

Things Escalated Quickly

McElroy raised a shotgun and fired. Bowenkamp flinched as it tore through his neck, but miraculously, the 70-year-old managed to survive. McElroy drove off in his truck. A highway patrol corporal named Richard Stratton was called and chased McElroy down.

Portrait of Richard Stratton dressed in his police uniform.
Source: Pinterest

He had his share of run-ins with Ken McElroy before, so this wasn’t really anything new. Stratton knew that the criminal would take an alternative route and go through the neighboring town of Filmore. He found and arrested McElroy, but feared getting shot since McElroy was armed. He made plenty of threats toward killing law enforcement, and there was no reason to doubt him.

Claiming Self-Defense

His arrest was nothing more than a routine occurrence. McElroy did what he always did, hired McFadin to represent him in the upcoming criminal case. McFadin asked for a changed venue, and his wishes were granted. It was moved to Harrison County, where he prepared a defense claiming Bowenkamp was the aggressor.

Prison bars locked and closed with a sign
Photo by Owen Franken/Corbis/Getty Images

His attorney explained how the store owner approached McElroy violently with a knife, so he had no choice but to defend himself. Meanwhile, McElroy used his usual strategy of intimidating the victims and would drive by the Bowenkamp home as well as make harassing calls to the residence.

He Just Keeps Getting Away With It

This time, no one cared about his threats. The Bowenkamps weren’t planning on backing down until McElroy was behind bars. But somehow, he was convicted of second-degree assault and received a two-year jail sentence. What kind of judge would only give this guy two years?

McElroy holds his daughter as he poses for a portrait.
Source: Pinterest

It’s believed that McElroy intimidated the jury, which he was known to do countless times before. But the residents of Skidmore were rejoicing at the news that this guy would finally be locked up. Unfortunately, their relief was short-lived.

His Presence Haunted the Town

A judge allowed McElroy out on a $40,000 bond, pending an appeal of the conviction. This guy was literally getting away with murder (or at least attempted murder). McElroy’s looming presence continued to haunt the town, and the sentence did nothing to change his behavior.

Skidmore city entrance sign.
Source: YouTube

In fact, he went to a bar called D&G Tavern, where he waved a rifle with a bayonet attached to it, promising to finish the job on Bo Bowenkamp. At this point, the residents of the town had enough. They were sick of living in fear and having this guy disrupt their peace.

A Free Man…

Waving around a gun was clearly a violation of his bond, but he really didn’t seem to care. There was one eyewitness who was brave enough to testify against him, hoping that would finally get him locked up. However, the clever McFadin got the hearing delayed once again.

The main street in Skidmore.
Source: scopophiliamovieblog

It was on July 10, 1981, when McElroy should have been answering to charges of waving a firearm, but instead, he was drinking at the tavern. The people of Skidmore were over it. This man’s continued presence was baffling. Why is he walking the streets freely?

We Need to Stop This Man

The law failed to protect the town residents from this violent, abusive criminal who stole from them, raped them, terrorized them in their own homes, and fired guns in the hopes of killing them, or at the very least scare them. By now, he had gotten away with so much that he was capable of anything.

Portrait of McElroy.
Source: Tumblr

There was no telling what kind of violence he would inflict before finally getting sent to jail. And that’s if he would end up in jail at all. And so, a town meeting was arranged because people had a lot to say.

Taking the Law into Their Own Hands

The town meeting was located just up the road from the tavern at the American Legion Hall. Many of the same people who were once intimidated by McElroy discussed the best way to protect their town from this man. Someone suggested a neighborhood watch.

The Skidmore City Hall building.
Source: Flickr

It should be noted that police officers did attend this meeting, so deciding on a neighborhood watch really proves that their hands were tied; there was nothing they could do. But other residents of the town were still in shock that McElroy suffered no consequences for his actions.

Town Meeting Adjourned

Once the meeting ended, the angry town residents walked toward the tavern, went inside and surrounded Ken McElroy – a silent statement of unity among the townspeople against him. McElroy didn’t say a word. He left the bar and hopped into his Silverado.

Outside view of the tavern.
Source: Flickr

Later, his wife Treena told investigators that she saw a man behind them hold up a rifle before the shooting began. A bullet shattered the car window and went right through McElroy, leaving glass everywhere. Someone opened the passenger’s door in order to move Trena out of the way.

Nothing But Silence

She was led to a bank nearby. The shooting went on for about 20 seconds and then stopped. The only sound that could be heard was the Silverado’s rumbling engine. A few people walked up to the truck to peek inside. But when the ambulance got there, it was evident that nobody tried to help.

Locals are inspecting the crime scene.
Photo by Harry N. MacLean

Since the moment she was brought in for questioning, Trena insisted that she saw the killer and knew exactly who he was. She identified the man who held up the rifle and shot McElroy as Del Clement, according to People magazine.

Everyone Had a Motive

Clement seemed to have a motive (as did everyone else in that town). Clement was part-owner of the tavern where McElroy often visited and drove customers away. He was also a victim of McElroy’s livestock burglaries. Finally, Clement was also known to have a quick temper.

As her daughter Tami listens, Trena McElroy retells the crime.
Trena McElroy, Tami. Photo by Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Trena confirmed that it was Clement and told Nodaway County’s prosecuting attorney that he was the killer. She told the FBI investigators as well as three separate grand juries, but she was the only one talking. No other witnesses had much to say.

Investigating the Murder

Local law enforcement and federal officials tried every possible approach to gather information from residents. At first, they tried playing nice, but literally, no one other than Trena would speak. That’s when they played a heavy hand and demanded to know what went down.

McElroy's truck at the crime scene.
Source: YouTube

They insisted that no one is going to be getting away with murder, especially not in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses. FBI cars roamed through town, stopping in front of random houses. Agents sat in residents’ homes, trying to pry the tiniest detail from locals.

No Witness Statements

Nothing worked. As it turned out, the people of Skidmore had little to nothing to say, other than hearing the shooting and them getting on the ground to avoid getting shot. However, none of them saw who started this… or so they say.

A newspaper clipping on McElroy's death.
Source: Tumblr

They claimed that they didn’t see if it was one shooter or several, and they didn’t notice anyone fleeing the scene. One witnessed admitted to seeing Clement speeding down the road with someone in the passenger seat after the shooting. However, that statement was later recanted.

Case Closed: No One Was Charged

As it turned out, there just wasn’t enough for investigator David Baird to bring a case or charge anyone. Whether or not anyone would corroborate it, Trena’s testimony eventually fell apart. One year later, the FBI announced that they would be closing their investigation.

Aerial view from people passing by the crime scene as if nothing has happened.
Source: YouTube

The town was getting flooded by reporters stunned by the idea of frontier justice. They titled their stories with a headline like “Town Bully is Dead” and “Woman Says Husband Killed by Vigilante.” They knocked on doors, sat at the tavern, but the locals kept their mouths zipped.

A Strongly Kept Secret

Highway patrolman Stratton knew firsthand of McElroy’s sinister reputation: McElroy terrorized his wife outside their home with a shotgun. He seemed to understand and defend the silence of the townspeople since he and his family were victims.

80-year-old Stratton retells the story as his wife stands next to him.
Source: Tumblr

“They did what they did because we didn’t do our job,” Stratton 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.” If people weren’t talking, detectives weren’t able to gather enough information and certainly couldn’t charge anyone.

It’s Still a Mystery

No one was ever charged with the murder of Ken McElroy. Clement was the only suspect as Trena named him as the shooter, and he died in 2009. Since no witness verified Trena’s version of events, there wasn’t enough to charge him. Trena managed to get a settlement of $17,000 in a wrongful-death civil suit against the county sheriff, Skidmore’s mayor, and Clement.

Two bullet casings lay on the pavement next to McElroy's truck.
Source: YouTube

Skidmore’s reputation continues to decline. And as the residents get older, it becomes less likely that anyone will ever reveal information that could crack this case. McFadin, McElroy’s attorney, discussed his feelings with the New York Times in 2010: “The Town got away with murder.”