Ken Rex McElroy (June 1, 1934 – July 10, 1981), known as "The Town Bully", was a thief from Skidmore, Missouri. Over the course of his life he was charged with dozens of felonies ranging from rape to arson to burglary, but managed to avoid prosecution by intimidating witnesses, victims, the police force with threats of death to individuals' family members. After two decades of terrorizing the town of Skidmore, McElroy was shot to death in broad daylight by at least two individuals in front of a crowd of 46 people. Every witness other than his wife refused to identify the assailants, and as a result no one was ever charged with McElroy's death. As of 2009, his killing remains unsolved.
McElroy owned a farm outside of Skidmore, Missouri. He was accused of rustling livestock, stealing grain and farm chemicals, and farmhouse burglary, primarily for salable antique items. He worked the four state region of Iowa, Kansas, Missouri and Nebraska, making it difficult for authorities to connect his crimes. McElroy escaped conviction for any of the crimes, despite 22 indictments, often by intimidating witnesses. In a town of less than 450, McElroy would park outside an accuser's house and just sit there until the occupants took notice and became frightened. His Kansas City attorney Richard "Gene" McFadin was called in repeatedly to handle the legal matters.
McElroy was a dog breeder and trainer, and his coonhounds won many prizes and sold for good prices. For many years, he was a well-known figure in hunting circles in his home area, and many people who only knew him through hunting could hardly credit the stories about him.
In 1980, one of McElroy's children got into an argument with Bo Bowenkamp, the 70 year old owner of the local grocery store, over allegedly stealing some candy. McElroy, displeased with the incident, began stalking the Bowenkamp family, and eventually confronted him in the store with a shotgun. In the ensuing altercation, McElroy shot Bowenkamp in the neck; Bowenkamp survived, and McElroy was arrested and charged with attempted murder. McElroy was convicted at trial of assault, but freed on bail pending his appeal. On the morning of July 10, 1981, after his appeal hearing was again delayed, townspeople met at the Legion Hall in the center of town with Nodaway County Sheriff Dan Estes to discuss how to protect themselves. Immediately after being released, McElroy had gone to the local tavern with a military style rifle, complete with bayonet. He loaded the rifle, and told everyone how he was going to finish the job by shooting Bowenkamp, then running him through with the bayonet. This led to several patrons deciding to see what they could legally do to prevent McElroy from harming anyone else. Estes suggested they form a Neighborhood Watch.
During the meeting, McElroy showed at the tavern with his wife, unarmed. As he sat drinking at the bar, word got back to the men at the Legion Hall that he was in town. Sheriff Estes left the meeting after telling them not to get in a direct confrontation with McElroy. They decided to go down to the tavern en masse. The bar soon filled completely. After he finished, he purchased a six pack of beer, left the bar, and got into his pickup truck. As he attempted to light a cigarette, McElroy was shot at several times and hit twice, once by a high powered rifle, and once by a .22 rimfire rifle. In all, there were 46 potential witnesses to the shooting, including Trena McElroy, who was in the truck with him when he was shot. Only Trena McElroy identified a gunman; every other witness either refused to name an assailant or claimed not to have seen who fired the fatal shots. Due to no one corroborating Trena's story, the district attorney refused to file charges.
A federal investigation was also unable to bring the killer to trial.
In 1984 Richard McFadin filed a $5 million wrongful death civil lawsuit on behalf of Trena McElroy against Sheriff Estes, the Skidmore mayor and Del Clement (who had been accused by Trena as the killer). The lawsuit was dropped, however an out of court settlement was reached. The defendants settled out of court for $17,600, with the county paying $12,600, Skidmore $2,000 and Clement $3,000. No one admitted guilt. They said the settlement was made to avoid costly legal fees should the suit go forward.
In the fall of 1982 the farmhouse on Valley Road where Ken McElroy lived burned down.
Trena remarried and moved away from Skidmore. Other McElroy children still live in the area.
60 Minutes did a profile on the case.
A made-for-tv movie was made in 1991 starring Brian Dennehy, Marcia Gay Harden and Chris Cooper. Though the title remained the same, the bully was given the fictitious name of Len Rowan. A police officer tells the perpetrators that "there is no room in this country for vigilante justice."
Another film dealing with the killing takes the opposite view: Connecticut filmmaker Ralph Server's Without Mercy, which won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Picture at the New York International Independent Film & Video Festival in 2004. The film suggests that government will at times go to extremes not to punish lawbreakers and allow them to commit terrorist acts, as was the case with McElroy. But the townspeople owned guns and they used them to make the point that when government fails the people must take matters into their own hands.