True Crime

Without Justice, There is Silence — The Case of Ken McElroy

Just Desserts or Deserted by the Law?

In the middle of the day, a crowd looked on as the town bully was shot to death.

Who did the deed? The residents of Skidmore, Missouri made sure no one would know.

Ken McElroy was the tyrant of the small farming community, growing up in a poor household with fifteen other siblings and unable to complete high school. According to Brynley Louise in an article from Film Daily, he was born in 1934 and had a lengthy record ranging from charges of statutory rape to child molestation. Over the years, McElroy built up an infamous reputation which also included fathering over ten children with different women.

(Credit: Family Photo from Find a Grave [Edit by Author])

Starting off with shoplifting and the pilfering of lunch money, author Harry MacLean described the man as illiterate but capable, striking fear into the hearts of many. MacLean later wrote the book In Broad Daylight about the case, which was adapted into a 1991 movie on the life of McElroy. As a child, his most dangerous endeavor was hunting raccoons. That altered when sometime later in his life, a heavy steel beam was dropped onto him, a fact reported in the Youtube series Unsolved by the popular channel Buzzfeed. The brain damage he experienced then may have fueled further misdeeds. Nonetheless, McElroy was unrelenting in his transgressions.

When he wasn’t stealing, he was stalking, and when he wasn’t threatening others, he was brutally coercing them into submission. An article by David Krajicek from the TruTV Crime Library showed that his reign of terror over Skidmore lasted about two decades, where he was a repeat offender of the law who routinely beat young women and girls until they became no use to him. According to Krajicek, no one felt the need to stop him — the man had pointed guns at everyone from the town marshal to a deputy sheriff without consequences.

The fear of the town, McElroy habitually sought underage children for marriage who he would wed to erase allegations of sexual assault. One victim was named Trena McCloud, 12, the person to become his last wife. She had been pregnant by fourteen, dropped out of school, and moved into the house with McElroy’s third wife Alice. In typical fashion for him, he divorced the older woman and settled on a new life filled with raping his newest target.

Once Trena moved out with the new baby, a rampaging McElroy burned down her parent’s house and shot her dog. He grew more violent, even sitting outside her foster home for hours on end in hopes of intimidation. She later came back to him, unable to know any other reality besides abuse.

Trena and ex-wife Alice (Credit: Telegraph)

Over his life, McElroy faced indictment for 21 charges, yet was only convicted for one.

Somehow, it wasn’t even his first shooting that brought swift justice.

Back in 1976, Ken had put a bullet through the stomach of neighbor Romaine Henry, then burned down the trial judge’s barn and stalked members of the jury before any proceedings had begun. Time and time again, the elusive lawbreaker escaped punishment for his many offenses.

Then, four years later, his luck ran out.

One of his daughters visited the local grocery operated by Ernest “Bo” Bowenkamp and his wife, where there was a minor confrontation over a piece of candy that had yet to be purchased. The girl ended up leaving in a fit of tears. According to the website Missouri Life, McElroy knew it would inevitably place the blame on him, so an enraged father shot the elderly owner, wounding him in the neck. After a lifetime of avoiding penalties, Ken was booked on attempted murder. Bowenkamp had almost died from his wounds.

(Credit: In Broad Daylight [Edited by Author])

As the world would have it, though, the man was not kept behind bars. Instead, he was released on bond. The population of Skidmore worried, wondering if they would ever be truly safe. McElroy went to the town tavern called D&G to drink, where he loudly proclaimed he wanted to “finish off” Bowencamp, according to David Krajicek. Although Ken was supposed to be going away to jail for two years, he had appealed the conviction. The cursing, turbulent man ordered beers, showed off his firearms and made “graphic threats,” as stated in a Bustle.com article from Jefferson Grubbs.

Skidmore, boasting a measly community of 440 people, called a meeting in late July 1981 to discuss what needed to be done about McElroy’s successful avoidance of imprisonment. They wanted to form a neighborhood watch to address their issues. Four men agreed to testify at a hearing to reverse his bond, and the other inhabitants agreed on protecting them from the tormentor. Hearing he was back in town, though, an angry group stormed the tavern where Ken sat with Trena, grouping up on the twosome. Annoyed, McElroy returned to his vehicle parked outside, where he faced the repercussions he had been running from for decades. A total of forty five to sixty people allegedly stood outside, watching.

Opening fire on the truck, a massive gathering of men saw two rise from the crowd to pump McElroy full of bullets, instantly killing him. The majority of Skidmore looked on, including a horrified Trena. Not a single person called for an ambulance, and the police weren’t contacted until over an hour later. Surrounding them in solidarity, the small Missouri community refused to reveal who took the most hated person in their town’s life, erasing him from existence.

(Credit: The Washington Post [Edited by Author])

“Once the shroud of silence fell, there was going to be no one talking,” said Cheryl Huston, the daughter of Bowenkamp. “We were so bitter and so angry at the law letting us down that it came to somebody taking matters in their own hands,” Huston continued. “No one has any idea what a nightmare we lived.”

To this day, no charges were brought. As stated by MacLean, one of the purported killers has passed, grand juries were unable to prosecute and word was kept to a mum within Skidmore.

(Credit: The New York Times)

Trena McElroy eventually filed a civil suit against town resident Del Clement for five million dollars in 1984. He was the owner of D&G Tavern and based on Trena’s testimony, was one of the perpetrators. She also named the mayor and county sheriff as defendants in the case alleging McElroy’s compromised rights following the murder. She was the only person to ever accuse townspeople directly for their actions in the case. However, the suit was later settled for a mere $17,600 and those blamed never pointed the finger at who pulled the trigger.

According to Harry MacLean’s blog, Trena passed away from cancer in 2012. She had reportedly remarried happily and moved on from her past with McElroy until her death at age 55.

Some say Skidmore committed murder and got away with it. Others might say they were forced to action by the failings of the criminal justice system. Either way, the fact still stands.

No one would ever say a word.

Wannabe journalist and lover of all things true crime.

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