THE TOWN THAT GOT AWAY WITH MURDER

When the police find a body, they usually have a main suspect.

But in the case of Kenneth Rex McElroy the suspected murderer was … an entire town.

source:: americasroof

McElroy’s murder on July 10, 1981, is one of the most bizarre cases in US criminal history. It should have been straightforward – he was shot in broad daylight in front of dozens of witnesses – but not a single resident of Skidmore was willing to talk.

How could that happen?

The victim had quite a history. He was born the 15th of 16 children to a poor, migrant tenant-farming couple from the Ozarks. He dropped out of school when he was 15, unable to read or write.

Despite his lack of education, McElroy was never short of either cash– or notoriety. The local attorney, Richard McFadin, routinely defended McElroy in three or four felonies a year. During his life McElroy was variously accused of assault, child molestation, statutory rape, arson, hog stealing, cattle rustling and burglary.

In all, he was indicted 21 times on various charges – including shooting a farmer called Romaine Henry – but escaped conviction each time. Witnesses would suddenly refuse to testify, lawyers would balk at prosecuting him, even judges were frightened of him. He was the archetype of the small-town bully. His strong-arm tactics had all of Skidmore living in fear of him.

When the parents of a fourteen-year-old girl, over twenty years his junior, refused to let him marry her, he shot their dog and burned their house down. He got off the charges – and got the wedding done, to avoid further charges of engaging with a minor.

He went on to father eleven children by a number of women.

Then in 1980, one of his daughters was caught stealing candy from the Skidmore town grocery, owned by 70-year-old Ernest “Bo” Bowenkamp. McElroy’s responded with a campaign of intimidation against Bowencamp that ended a few months later when he shot the grocer in the neck.

Bowencamp survived, and McElroy was arrested and charged with attempted murder, but the jury set a maximum sentence of two years, and the judge released McElroy on bond pending appeal.

McElroy was quickly re-arrested after he appeared in the D&G tavern the next day with a Garand M1 rifle and a bayonet, threatening to finish Bowencamp off.

Skidmore had had enough. On the morning of Friday, July 10, 1981, the townspeople held a meeting at the Legion Hall to discuss McElroy. No one knows what was decided.

McElroy’s lawyer advised his client to stay out of town for a while, but of course he ignored that kind of advice. Later that morning, he was parked in the main street in his pickup, with his wife. A group of over thirty townspeople surrounded his ride.

Moments later, several shots rang out.

McElroy was hit twice, in the head and neck. The townspeople wandered off, leaving his wife, Trena, screaming in the front seat. No one troubled themselves to call an ambulance.

Skidmore had no police force. Finally, when County deputies and Highway Patrol troopers arrived on the scene, McElroy was dead. They later found shell casings from a .22-caliber Magnum and an 8 mm Mauser, a German World War I-era long-range rifle.

In all, there were 46 potential witnesses to the shooting, but no one in Skidmore would admit to seeing anything.

McElroy’s wife, Trena, accused Del Clement, a local rancher and business owner, but not a single person would corroborate her story. The FBI got involved. They held over a hundred interviews but were unable to find enough evidence for an arrest warrant.

The county prosecutor, David A. Baird, was fresh out of law school and this was his first major case. He said he was confident that the case would finally be solved, and that justice would be served.

But for almost forty years the people of Skidmore have kept their silence.

But what is justice? Is it the system of trial and jury that so monumentally failed the people of Skidmore – or is it what happened that morning in the main street?

What do you think?

What I love about the story is it leaves some people in two minds. It touches a moral dilemma for some people. They’re the crime stories I love best. Not every murderer is a monster and moral ambiguity is one of the things that attracts me to write crime fiction. What makes a good person do terrible things? It’s a theme in explore in Lucifer Falls. You can read a free excerpt here. It’s about a six minute read.

Colin Falconer


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UNMURDERABLE MIKE

unmurderable mike
unmurderable mike
Tony Marino

In the winter of 1933, in a ragtag little speakeasy in the Bronx, four guys were playing cards.

The boss of the joint, Tony Marino, was telling his friends how he barely made enough to stay open. This was the Depression, and times were tough.

Tony and his buddies – the barman, “Red” Murphy, a cash-strapped funeral director called Frank Pasqua, and a fruit seller called Dan Kriesberg – got to talking about money. If only one of them had a wealthy relative with a good insurance policy. One good pay-out could get them all out of the hole.

There was a loud snore from the end of the bar. They all turned and looked at the no-good drunk sleeping off another bender on the plywood bar.

“If we don’t have a sick relative,” Frank said, “maybe we could make one.”

“It’s not like anyone’s going to miss that guy,” Tony said. “He’s just a bum. He doesn’t even pay his tab.”

And the plan was set in motion …

The bum’s name was Mike Malloy. A former firefighter, now pushing sixty, he lived on the streets. When he sobered up, Tony and the guys persuaded him to pose as Red’s brother and take out two life insurance policies worth $1800 – a tidy sum in today’s money. In exchange, Tony promised him free booze.

Surely, the guy would just do them all a favour and drink himself to death. After all, it was Prohibition and the city was awash with shoddy home brews, as well as whisky that had been deliberately poisoned by government agencies as part of the enforcement effort, and other equally lethal bootlegged concoctions.

Mike duly drank himself into oblivion every night, and kept coming back for more the next day. Tony couldn’t believe it. How could anyone drink that much moonshine? Tony starting replacing the liquor with anti-freeze; Mike got a taste for that as well. So Tony tried turpentine, then horse liniment mixed with rat poison.

Mike slammed his glass on the bar and asked for another.

The boys took up the challenge, feeding Mike poisonous bar snacks to wash down the poisonous liquor – bad oysters, rotten sardines mixed with carpet tacks, then sandwiches laced with metal shavings and glass.

Mike couldn’t get enough. Rediscovered his appetite, in fact.

A month later, he was still standing. They couldn’t believe it. One freezing February night, in pure desperation, the four of them waited until he passed out, then carried him to a local park. They laid him out in the snow, soaked him in ice water and left him to do the right thing and die.

That, they thought, was surely the end of Unmurderable Mike.

Nope. He didn’t even get a cold. The next night he was back at the bar, throwing back glass after glass of the moonshine that had put much younger men in the cemetery.

What to do? They hired a cab driver called Hershy Green and had him run Malloy down in the street. Green was moving at 45 mph when he hit him. A policeman found Mike lying on the road and got him to a hospital. Three weeks later, he was discharged and back in Tony’s bar, demanding more whisky on his open tab.

Enough was enough. On February 23, 1933, after he had again passed out on the bar, the guys carried him to Red’s room, put a hose in his mouth and connected it to the gas jet.

This finally did the trick.

A corrupt local doctor called Frank Manzella signed the death certificate, attributing Mike’s death to bad alcohol, and they quickly buried him and collected their windfall from the insurance company.

But rumours of the plot to murder the Unmurderable Mike had already spread through the Bronx. It was a great story, after all, and inevitably, the cops got wind of it.

They had Mike exhumed. Even back then, before CSI, forensic physicians could detect lethal levels of carbon monoxide. The cabbie and the doctor turned state’s witness to save themselves and Tony and the rest of his friends were convicted on murder one.

The four buddies went down to Sing Sing and the electric chair while their victim went down in history – as Unmurderable Mike.

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Colin Falconer

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THE STRANGEST UNSOLVED CRIME OF THE 20TH CENTURY

It is still the strangest – and most mysterious – crime in US aviation history.

On Thanksgiving Eve, November 24, 1971, a middle-aged man by the name of “Dan Cooper”, settled himself into seat 18C of flight 305, a North West Orient Airlines flight from Portland Oregon to Seattle.

He lit a cigarette – you could do that in those days – and ordered a bourbon and soda.

Shortly after take-off, he handed a note to Florence Schaffner, the flight attendant. He whispered, “Miss, you’d better look at that note. I have a bomb.”

To make his point, he opened the black attaché case on his lap and showed her what appeared to be eight red cylinders attached to wires coated with red insulation.

He told her his demands; $200,000 –about one and a quarter million dollars in today’s money – and four parachutes.

The stewardess told the pilot in the cockpit; he, in turn, talked to the control tower in Seattle.

Schaffner later described “Dan Cooper” as calm, polite, and well-spoken; in fact, she said, he seemed rather nice. He ordered a second bourbon, paid for his drink (and attempted to give Schaffner the change). He even offered to make a meal request for the flight crew part of his demands.

When the flight finally landed in Seattle, FBI agents had assembled the ransom money from several Seattle-area banks – 10,000 unmarked 20-dollar bills– having first recorded them on microfilm.

The cash-filled knapsack and parachutes were delivered to the plane. Cooper ordered all the passengers off and told the crew to plot a southeast course towards Mexico City at minimum airspeed and a maximum 3000 metres altitude.

Two hours later the Boeing 727 took off again, with only five people onboard: Cooper, the flight crew and one flight attendant. Meanwhile, two fighter aircraft were scrambled from nearby McChord Air Force Base and tracked the airliner, out of Cooper’s view.

He told the attendant to join the rest of the crew in the cockpit and to remain there with the door closed. Shortly afterwards, a warning light flashed in the cockpit, indicating that the aft air stair apparatus had been activated.

FBI wanted poster

“Dan Cooper” had strapped on one of the parachutes, secured the ransom money to his person and jumped into the cold, night sky over the Cascade Mountains.

The airstair was still deployed when the 727 landed at Reno Airport. FBI agents stormed the plane, but Cooper was gone.

Neither of the Air Force fighter pilots had seen a parachute open, but the extremely poor weather that night made it unlikely that they would have done.

A massive air and ground was ordered, and focused on Cooper’s supposed landing area in a wilderness area a few miles southeast of Ariel, Washington.

But no trace of Cooper or the money was ever found.

So who was the mysterious hijacker? It turned out “Dan Cooper” was the hero of a popular Belgian comic book series of the 1970s, who had many daring adventures, including parachuting out of planes.

Whoever he was, he knew something about aircraft. The 727 was ideal for such a bail-out escape, because of its ability (unusual for a commercial jet airliner) to remain in slow, low-altitude flight without stalling; he also knew that the aft airstair could be lowered during flight—a fact never disclosed to civilian flight crews, since there was no situation on a passenger flight that would make it necessary. He also knew that its operation, by a single switch in the rear of the cabin, could not be overridden from the cockpit.

Who was this knowledge unique to? CIA paramilitary units.

What happened to him? The FBI never found out.  

But they were convinced he did not survive. He jumped from 10,000 feet without proper protection against the extreme wind chill.

Even if he survived the jump, his survival in mountainous terrain at night during the onset of winter would surely have been impossible

Why do it at all? He must have known the bills would be traceable, and that he could never spend the money anyway.

The hijacking marked the end of unscrutinized commercial airline travel. In 1973, luggage searches were instigated on all commercial flights, and the FAA also required that all Boeing 727 aircraft be fitted with a so-called “Cooper vane” that prevented the lowering of the aft airstair during flight.

It didn’t stop other would-be hijackers from committing copycat crimes during the seventies – fifteen in all, none of them successful. My favourite is a desperado called Glenn Tripp.

On July 11, 1980, Tripp seized Northwest flight 608 at Seattle-Tacoma Airport, demanding $600,000, two parachutes … oh, and somebody to top his boss – please. After a 10-hour standoff, Tripp reduced his demands to three cheeseburgers and count to ten while I get away. He was apprehended. But two years later, while still on probation, he hijacked the same Northwest flight and demanded to be flown to Afghanistan. When the plane landed in Portland, he was shot and killed by FBI agents.

The Dan Cooper story has one further footnote.

In 1980, eight-year-old Brian Ingram was holidaying with his family on the Columbia River 20 miles southwest of Ariel. He uncovered three packets of the ransom cash as he raked the sandy riverbank to build a campfire. The bills were significantly disintegrated, but still bundled in rubber bands.

It was assumed the bills had floated there. But if they had, why were ten bills missing from one packet, and how did the three packets remain together after separating from the rest of the haul?

The case remains the one of the most enduring mysteries in criminal history.

What did happen to Dan Cooper and the $200,000?

Unlike fiction, it’s a story without a satisfying ending. The truth is – we’ll probably never know.

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“Lucifer Falls effortlessly merges a shocking serial murderer novel with a police procedural dripping with authenticity.

Packed full of characters you genuinely care about, when DI Charlie George, a richly drawn North London cop, goes toe-to-toe with the deranged killer I didn’t read the last few chapters, I devoured them.

An absolute triumph.”

M.W. Craven, bestselling author of ‘The Puppet Show’ and ‘Body Breaker’

Read more on my CRIME FICTION page

 

 

Colin Falconer

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ESCAPE FROM THE HOUSE OF HORRORS

It happened in a house only five minutes’ drive from where I’m now sitting.

Late one Sunday night, 17-year-old Kate Moir tried to hitch a ride home. It wasn’t long before a car pulled over to the side of the road. The driver had a woman with him, which Kate found reassuring. She jumped in.

But once in the back of the car, Kate discovered there was no door handle on the inside. Grinning at the woman, the man said: “I’ve got the munchies.”

She smiled back and said: “I’ve got the munchies too.”

It was the cue for the man to pull a knife out of his boot and hold it to her throat. This is it, Kate thought. These people are going to kill me.

Kate didn’t know it then, but the couple in the car had already kidnapped, raped and murdered four other women in the previous month alone. Their killing spree had only whetted their appetite for more.

Kate Moir was meant to be victim number five.

The couple took Kate home and then, in a bizarre twist, made her watch “Rambo” with them on their VCR; the man changed into a mustard-coloured dressing gown and watched from the sofa while his wife made Kate dance to Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet”.

He raped Kate twice on the bed as the woman watched on and took notes. Afterwards, Kate was herself given a pen and paper and told to write “goodbye letters” to her loved ones.

She had to spend a desperate and sleepless night in the couple’s master bedroom, her foot handcuffed to the man’s. It is hard to imagine what must have been going through her head. In an apparent act of kindness, the couple offered her pills to ‘help her sleep’. But Kate knew if she took them, she’d never wake up, so she spat them out and hid them under the mattress.

On the morning of Monday November 10, 1986, Kate watched as the man had breakfast and got ready for work, as if nothing had happened.

Soon after he left, there was a knock at the door. The woman went to answer it, leaving Kate unguarded for a moment – and unchained. Kate knew it was now or never; she forced a lock on a window, threw herself out and ran.

She banged on the doors of three houses and got no reply, jumped a gate and was attacked by a dog. Hysterical and barefoot, she finally ran into the arms of a man standing outside a vacuum cleaner store at the end of the street. She begged him to call the police.

But her troubles still weren’t over.

Senior detectives at the local police station thought her story unbelievable. One of them fetched a rookie policewoman called Laura Hancock, fresh out of police college, and told her to take a statement – the first of her career – with the instruction: “Stitch her up for a false report.”

But though she was just a rookie, Laura wasn’t inclined to do what she had just been told. Her instincts told her this was no hysterical teenager; it seemed to her that Kate gave too many details for this to be a hoax. She listened as Kate told her about hiding the two sleeping pills under the mattress, about watching “Rambo” on the video player, about the chains and handcuffs in the bedroom.

And although her captors used false names in front of her, Kate had had the presence of mind to remember a name she saw on a medicine bottle in the bathroom – David Birnie.

Laura left the interview room several times to plead with the other officers at the station to take the story seriously. Finally, her nagging wore them down. One of them did some checking and discovered that a ‘David Birnie’ had a lengthy criminal record. Major crime detectives, investigating the disappearance of another woman called Denise Brown, were called in.

The next day, police obtained a search warrant and entered Kate’s House of Horrors.

As Kate sat in a police car outside, Laura Hancock accompanied senior detectives into the house and noted that everything was as Kate had described it; the chains and handcuffs in the main bedroom; the Rocky tape was still in the VCR; even the sleeping pills Kate had pretended to swallow there under the mattress.

David Birnie and his wife, Catherine, were interrogated separately. Catherine denied everything but David eventually broke and confessed to abducting Kate Moir. But there was more. He then led police to the graves of four other women – Mary Neilson, 22, Susannah Candy, 15, Noelene Patterson, 31, and Denise Brown, 21.

Thanks to the grit of young Kate Moir, and the persistence of a rookie constable, the killing spree was at an end. Without them, the Birnies may have gone on to rape and murder countless more women.

What is almost impossible to comprehend is that at the time of their killing spree, Catherine Birnie was the mother of six children. Her youngest was a girl of ten, not much younger than Kate herself.

David Birnie was sentenced to four terms of life imprisonment and hanged himself in his cell twenty years later. Catherine Birnie is still in prison, her papers marked: ‘never to be released.’ It is now believed the Birnies were responsible for at least two other murders.

In 2017 her youngest son, Peter, called for her execution. Her daughter, Tanya, has never married and had no children, stating “I don’t want to spawn another David Birnie”.

Their dark legacy continues.

If you like crime fiction as well as stories about true crime, go to my crime fiction page

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