Bully’s Death Unsolved Five Years Later Despite Dozens of Witnesses
SKIDMORE, Mo. (AP) _ For five years, the identity of whoever gunned down town bully Ken Rex McElroy has remained a secret in this northwest Missouri farming community, even though dozens of people witnessed the slaying.
Authorities say they lack evidence to file charges in the July 10, 1981, shooting, which occurred in the middle of an angry crowd near the town’s lone tavern, and have essentially closed the case.
The death of the 47-year-old McElroy, who was known as a thief with a violent temper, drew attention for its resemblance to Wild West, vigilante- style justice.
Bill Everhart, mayor of the town of 440 people, says it could have been avoided had the courts cracked down on McElroy.
″When you back a rat into a corner of a pen and tease him with a stick, he’ll fight the stick,″ Everhart said. ″Same thing with people. After so long they won’t take it anymore. They come out fighting. After 20 years, people here couldn’t take it anymore.″
Everhart said the streets of Skidmore - which emptied when the 5-foot-10, 280-pound McElroy appeared, often carrying a gun - are safe again. Most residents, he says, prefer not to know who killed McElroy.
″They accuse the town of keeping a secret, but I don’t think people really know who shot McElroy,″ said Everhart. ″Maybe it’s best that way. It’s between whoever shot him and their Lord.″
McElroy claimed to be an antiques dealer who also raised and sold championship coon hounds. Townspeople say he made his living poaching livestock or stealing farm machinery and grain.
″After his death, some people ... were going to erect a statue of him crossing a fence with a hog under his arm,″ said Dave Dunbar, 30, a former town marshal.
McElroy occasionally would walk into D&G’s Recreation, the tavern, plunk a paper sack containing $20,000 on a table and order a drink. Livestock producers figured it was their money.
McElroy once bragged he paid lawyers $30,000 a year to clear him of charges - from theft and arson to assault with a weapon. He publicly threatened to kill anyone who testified against him.
Nodaway County Prosecutor David Baird says authorities never determined if more than one person shot McElroy, who was killed in a barrage of gunfire.
Baird said most of the approximately 100 people subpoenaed to appear before grand juries admitted witnessing McElroy’s death but not the shooter because they dived for cover.
″I think if anyone ever went to jail for what happened that day, it would have been an incredible injustice,″ said Dunbar, whom McElroy once threatened with a rifle. ″The whole problem was Ken McElroy went wild for years, intimidating people openly and getting away with it because the law was afraid of him.″
On the morning he was shot, about 60 people met with the county sheriff to discuss ways to protect themselves from McElroy.
McElroy was free on bond after being convicted four days earlier of wounding an elderly grocer. He strutted about town, armed and spewing threats, while his attorney sought a new trial.
The announcement that a hearing had been postponed that morning on a motion to revoke McElroy’s bond for carrying a rifle into the tavern incensed the crowd.
As the sheriff drove away, much of the crowd marched to the tavern.
Undaunted, McElroy walked out with a six-pack of beer and cigarettes and slid into a pickup truck with his wife, Trena, at his side. The crowd surrounded the truck.
Soon, gunshots rang out. McElroy’s wife got out unharmed, but her husband was dead.
The widow, who now lives in southwest Missouri and has remarried, told county and federal grand juries that she saw Del Clement, co-owner of the tavern, grab a rifle from a pickup and shoot her husband.
Clement denies the charge and refuses interviews.
McElroy’s widow last year accepted a $17,500 payment to settle two multimillion dollar lawsuits. Besides Clement, the suits named the city of Skidmore, Nodaway County and city and county officials.
Many Skidmore residents say the community’s reputation has suffered because of the killing. They say Skidmore is a community of decent people, and that what happened here could happen anywhere.
″I can go back to my hometown in Iowa and someone will say, ’Hey, we’ve got a guy here like Ken McElroy who someone should take care of,‴ Dunbar said. ″And I say, ’no, you don’t have anybody nearly as bad as Ken McElroy. Not even close.‴