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.
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.
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