3 decades on, who killed Skidmore town bully still secret

Kansas City StarAugust 29, 2010 

MARYVILLE, Mo. — Out of law school only a couple of years, David Baird was asked if he would be the new prosecuting attorney of Nodaway County in northwest Missouri.

He didn’t jump at it. He was 27, single, working at Legal Aid and didn’t even know what kind of law he wanted to practice. He could go anywhere, do anything, didn’t have to stay in his hometown of Maryville.

But his father urged him to take the job — “Nothing much happens around here anyway.”

So Baird took the oath on a spring day in 1981. Three months later, 15 miles away, a murder in the small town of Skidmore shocked America and made headlines across the country.

So much for his father as a career counselor.

“I walked right into it,” Baird said last week.

The story would eventually be told in a New York Times best-selling book and a Hollywood movie. Outsiders — news crews, authors, the merely curious and probably the morbid — flooded to the hamlet of 400.

The story was not so much of a killing. It was of a whole town that refused to talk. The secret.

And that secret would be part of Baird’s life his entire time in office, which will soon end after nearly 30 years.

Ken Rex McElroy, 47, was a big, burly man with bushy sideburns, cold eyes and an ever-present gun. He was the Skidmore bully. On July 10, 1981, on a hot summer morning in a fed-up town, he was shot to death in plain view of 30 to 40 people who gathered around his Chevrolet pickup outside a beer joint on Main Street.

Killed instantly by rifle bullets, his foot pushed the accelerator to the floor. The engine roared. Like something in literature, no one shut it off. They just walked away.

Except for McElroy’s wife, nobody told who did it. Investigators and grand juries heard the same thing time and time again: “I heard shooting and got down. Didn’t see a thing.”

Apparently, McElroy was mean enough to unite a town of plain, good folks to do murder. He had terrorized Skidmore for years. He allegedly stole livestock, burned houses, chased women, preyed upon young girls — and threatened a bullet or buckshot for anyone who got in his way.

Baird could never charge anyone.

That young prosecutor is 57 now. Married, a father, a grandfather. A lawyer with more memories than dreams.

After being re-elected eight times, he recently was beaten in the Democratic primary and will soon leave office with the most famous case in Nodaway County history still an open file.

But Baird saw this day coming a long time ago. When the town’s secrecy became apparent and solid, he told law enforcement of the odds for prosecution: “This may never happen.”

People who know the story best don’t blame Baird.

Richard Stratton, a now-retired Missouri Highway Patrol trooper who patrolled northwest Missouri for years, had several run-ins with McElroy. He said he thought law enforcement missed several opportunities to put him away.

“Those were fathers and grandfathers on the street in Skidmore that day,” Stratton said last week. “Ordinary, hardworking people. They did what they did because we didn’t do our job. 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.”

•••

Baird took the oath on April 16, 1981, and stepped right into State v. Ken Rex McElroy.

McElroy, who lived on a farm and raised coonhounds, stood accused of shooting Skidmore’s kindly old grocer, Bo Bowenkamp.

Over a piece of candy.

McElroy’s wife, Trena, said Bowenkamp’s wife had accused her young daughter of shoplifting candy. Lois Bowenkamp called it a misunderstanding and tried to make peace.

No, Ken Rex McElroy said. He offered Lois Bowenkamp money to fight his much younger wife.

On subsequent nights, he sat in his pickup outside the Bowenkamp house. At least twice, he fired his shotgun into the air.

Then on a warm July night in 1980, Bo Bowenkamp, about age 70, stood on the loading dock behind the grocery store waiting for an air-conditioning repairman. McElroy’s pickup tires crackled on the gravel drive. The pickup stopped.

Bowenkamp told him he was on private property. Two boys stood nearby. McElroy gave them money for sodas. He wanted them to leave. Then he whipped out his shotgun.

The old grocer didn’t duck quickly enough. Buckshot tore into his neck. He collapsed, bleeding badly. Stratton, the trooper, hunted down McElroy that night.

Bowenkamp survived his wounds, but the town had reached its boiling point. For years, McElroy had harrassed, threatened and stalked. He always carried a gun. He seemingly never worked, but always had a pocketful of cash.

Legend has it he once covered the beer joint’s pool table with $100 bills.

He needed it. His attorney, Richard McFadin, said he routinely defended McElroy in three or four felonies a year.

“Best client I ever had,” McFadin said in a recent interview. “He was punctual, always said he didn’t do it, paid in cash and kept coming back.”

He described McElroy as “a great big guy, not a bad-looking fellow, and he wouldn’t take anything off anybody.”

McElroy could neither read nor write, having quit school in the fifth grade.

“I was the only friend he had,” McFadin said. “He told me he would pay me whatever I needed to keep him out of jail.”

But the string of courtroom wins seemingly ended with the shooting of Bowenkamp.

Baird, in one of his first jury trials, won a conviction. McElroy received a two-year prison sentence.

But McFadin appealed the decision, and the judge let McElroy go free on bond.

A few days later, he appeared in the D&G Tavern with a rifle and bayonet. He pledged to all that he would finish off Bo Bowenkamp.

•••

The rifle McElroy carried into the tavern that day violated his bond. At a sheriff deputy’s urging, several witnesses agreed to testify against him. They didn’t do so lightly.

Others in town arranged to escort the witnesses to a court hearing. But McFadin got the hearing postponed, infuriating the town.

On the morning of Friday, July 10, 1981, a group met in a town meeting hall. What they talked about is unknown. Some say they discussed ways to keep the witnesses safe.

McFadin said he believed that they planned the murder of his client.

While the meeting took place, McElroy and his wife arrived in town and went into the bar.

McFadin had warned McElroy the previous night to stay out of Skidmore.

“But he didn’t listen,” McFadin said last week. “Nobody was going to keep him out of town.”

Word spread that McElroy was in town. The meeting broke up. Those in attendance walked up the street and into the bar, a low-slung, white, metal building across from the post office.

McElroy and Trena stayed a few minutes after that. Trena would later tell the FBI that when they left, a large number from the bar followed them outside.

When they got into the pickup, Trena yelled to her husband, “They got guns!”

McElroy started the engine as if to leave, but then reached for a cigarette. Shots — an initial two followed by three or four more — broke the morning quiet of the town.

Trena screamed. Bullets hit McElroy in the head and neck.

No one called for an ambulance.

•••

Skidmore had no police. County sheriff’s deputies and Highway Patrol troopers who arrived found shell casings from a .22-caliber Magnum and an 8 mm Mauser, a German World War I-era long-range rifle.

One shooter had been positioned behind McElroy’s truck; another stood a half-block down the street. There may have been others.

Baird soon said publicly: “We feel confident that this ultimately will be resolved.”

He convened the first grand jury Nodaway County had seen in 20 years.

“And there hasn’t been one since,” he said in an interview last week in his office in the old courthouse on the Maryville square.

In addition to local and state investigations, the FBI conducted more than 100 interviews. But despite Trena McElroy giving the name of a man she said was a shooter, state and federal grand juries — without corroborating statements — ended without indictments.

“I was too young to be frustrated,” Baird said.

Understandably perhaps, his answers to questions last week about McElroy grew curt.

“As a prosecutor, I have to know we have the evidence to prove a case,” he said. “In my estimation, we never had that in this case. And two grand juries agreed.”

McFadin, now 87 and mostly retired, spoke highly of Baird, calling him a “good man.”

“But boy, we had some knock-down drag-outs on that Skidmore thing,” he said.

He said he believed that Baird should have charged someone in McElroy’s killing, regardless of whether witnesses would talk.

“I know why they didn’t talk — they were all glad he was dead,” McFadin said.

“That town got away with murder.”

•••

Three years after the shooting, McFadin, on behalf of Trena, filed a wrongful death suit against the county sheriff, Skidmore mayor and Del Clement, a rancher who Trena accused of being one of the shooters.

They settled out of court for $17,000. No one admitted any guilt.

Bo Bowenkamp died in 1991. His wife is dead now, too. When Clement died last year, someone wrote on an Internet memorial page that he was “a good, brave man.”

Trena McElroy could not be found for this story.

Skidmore is smaller now. It has no gas station or grocery and the school has closed. A new restaurant and bar, the Outcast Cafe, opened recently across the street from the old beer joint, now empty and a reminder of the past.

Townspeople know the killing will be Skidmore’s legacy.

“If somebody had been charged and convicted, there would have been a sense of closure,” said Mayor Debbie Abrams. “But that didn’t happen. And now, as long as this town stands and probably even after it’s gone, we will always be known for what happened here that day.”

Her husband, Mike Abrams, a heavy-construction worker and lifelong resident, hates that everywhere he goes people know of Skidmore.

“If they just hadn’t done it on Main Street in broad daylight,” he said. “They knew where he lived. They could have got him at night on a country road. We’d all been better off.”

Stratton said he thought that the only way the case would be solved now was if someone left a note in a bank lockbox to be found upon his or her death.

Who knows if some people around the truck that day are still around? But if the 30 to 40 figure is accurate, it would make sense there would be. The other shooter?

But that will soon be the business of the next prosecutor, to be elected in a couple of months.

Baird will leave office at the end of the year. He lost the primary by 25 votes out of about 2,800 cast. He smiled and shook his head when asked why he lost.

Maybe the national mood against incumbents. Maybe some Republicans crossed over to support his Democratic opponent.

“Maybe I’d just been here too long,” he said.

He knows the McElroy story grabbed the headlines. But he wanted it known that his office handled thousands of felony cases over the years. Maybe it was simply part of a national trend, but Nodaway County saw a big increase in violent crime after he took office.

In 2004, a young Skidmore woman, Bobbie Jo Stinnett, was brutally murdered for her unborn baby. That case brought news crews back, from as far away as Germany. There were other murders, too, and the still-unsolved disappearance of a Skidmore teenager.

Baird doesn’t know what he is going to do next. It might be hard to find something to occupy his time.

After all, like his father told him, not much goes on in Nodaway County.

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