Missouri town keeps bully’s murder a secret for 40 years

Local News

Ken McElroy (AP)

SKIDMORE, Mo. – Tucked away in the northwest corner of Missouri is a small, dusty town 46 miles north of St. Joseph with a decades-old secret.

This past weekend marked the 40th anniversary of the killing of Ken Rex McElroy of Skidmore. And despite there being dozens of witnesses, no one has ever been arrested or charged in connection with McElroy’s murder.

In short: no one saw anything.

Ken McElroy died in a hail of gunfire on the morning of July 10, 1981, while sitting in his truck outside a local tavern. He was known as the town bully, but they may be putting it mildly.

In the decades preceding his murder, McElroy terrorized the denizens of Skidmore. He was accused or suspected of dozens of crimes, including theft, livestock rustling, burglary, arson, assault, rape, and child molestation. He was charged 21 times in theft cases but was said to have avoided conviction through witness intimidation, either by direct confrontation or by parking his truck outside their home.

McElroy raped a 12-year-old girl and, to avoid statutory rape charges, he divorced his wife at the time and married the child when she was 14 – and pregnant with their baby. McElroy burned down the girl’s home and shot her family’s dog to force her parents to agree to the marriage. He torched the home and shot the dog—again—after the girl went into hiding with her and McElroy’s baby.

In July 1976, McElroy pulled a shotgun on farmer Romaine Henry and shot the man in the stomach. Henry survived and McElroy was charged with assault with intent to kill. However, when the matter came to trial, McElroy’s attorney produced a pair of witnesses who testified they were hunting with McElroy that day and he was nowhere near the scene of the shooting. McElroy was found not guilty.

In 1980, McElroy shot the 70-year-old town grocer in the neck following a months-old dispute over an accusation about a piece of stolen candy. The grocer lived and McElroy was again arrested and charged with attempted murder. McElroy was convicted of assault but let out of jail awaiting appeal. He went about making public threats against the grocer while armed with a rifle.

On the morning of July 10, 1981, several townspeople met with the Nodaway County sheriff at a local hall to discuss what could be done about McElroy. The sheriff suggested they form a neighborhood watch and advised the group not to confront the man. Meanwhile, McElroy and his wife arrived at the D&G Tavern for a morning drink.

After the sheriff left town, the group walked from the hall and went down the street to the tavern. McElroy eventually left the tavern and got into his pickup truck with his wife, but the mob of people followed the pair outside. According to reports, some 50 people were outside the tavern when the shooting started.

McElory was struck by two different firearms and died behind the wheel of his truck. McElroy’s wife was not injured and escaped the vehicle. According to a report, no one called an ambulance.

Local authorities, including a coroner’s jury and a local grand jury, and even the FBI, investigated the killing but to no avail. McElroy’s wife named one person as a possible gunman, but no one could—or would—identify who fired the shots. She eventually filed a wrongful death against the town, the county, and some citizens but the matter was settled out of court.

McElroy’s wife—whom he victimized as a child—remarried and moved to Lebanon, Missouri. She died of cancer on Jan. 24, 2012; it was her 55th birthday.

The case inspired a book, In Broad Daylight by Harry McLean, and a 1991 TV movie of the same name starring Brian Dennehy. A&E, Rolling Stone, Playboy, 60 Minutes, and other media outlets covered the story in print or television. In 2019, the McElroy killing was the subject of a docuseries on SundanceTV. Buzzfeed’s Unsolved Network produced a 24-minute true crime documentary on the shooting.

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