The killing of Ken Rex McElroy could well be the hottest cold case on record. On the morning of July 10, 1981, he was shot to death as he sat in his pickup on the main street of Skidmore, Missouri. Forty-five townspeople witnessed the killing. All denied seeing the shooters. After three grand juries and an eight-month FBI investigation, no one was indicted. Twenty-five years later, still no one has been charged with the murder.
In December 2006, St. Martins re-released In Broad Daylight, the story of McElroy’s incredible reign of terror in northwest Missouri, his killing, and the aftermath. The new epilogue contains startling information about the identity of McElroy’s killers and the killing itself.
In the spring of 2006, I obtained unprecedented access to the state police and FBI files on the killing. The files contain a hand-written statement from an eyewitness which corroborates in detail McElroy’s wife’s identification of Del Clement as the first shooter. The statement also identified, for the first time, Gary Dowling, a local farmer, as the second shooter. The statement is detailed and convincing. Interestingly, the eyewitness appeared at the sheriff’s office the following day in the company of Del Clement’s lawyer and recanted the statement. Despite this, the statement, combined with Trena’s identification, stands as convincing evidence of the identity of the shooters.
The files also dispel a great myth about the killing. The media seized on the notion that the entire town had killed Ken McElroy, characterizing it as a vigilante killing, or an example of vigilante justice. My interviews, and the numerous statements in the files, make it clear that, other than the two shooters, the men on the street that day were not part of a plan to kill Ken McElroy. They were involuntary witnesses to a murder.
I believe that the killing of Ken Rex McElroy will long remain the hottest cold case on record. No one–not law enforcement, not McElroy’s family or friends, and certainly not the residents of Skidmore–seems to care that his killers remain at large. The men on the street that day are bound in a silence that is immune to the passage of time or the glare of the spotlight. In their view, while murder might be a sin, what Ken McElroy did to the town and its residents, to young girls and old men, was unspeakably evil. It would be a far greater sin to turn the men who brought the nightmare to an end over to the very justice system that had failed the community for so many years.
I lived in the town for three years while researching the book. When I first arrived, I had doors slammed in my face, a shotgun pulled on me, and I was bitten by a dog. By the time I left, I was judging dance contests at the annual Punkin’ Show and selling tickets to the Mother’s Day bazaar at the local Methodist Church. I became quite attached to the town and the people, and I stayed in touch over the years.
Personally, my sympathy has always lain with the townspeople, although it bothers me as a member of civilized society that the two killers remain unpunished for their crime. I doubt, however, that any good would come of the prosecution of the men. A prosecutor would be hard pressed to find a jury of twelve Nodaway County citizens who would convict anyone of McElroy’s murder. Memories remain strong and hearts unforgiving, and even the youngsters in the area know well the story of Ken McElroy. When I was back in Skidmore for the one-year anniversary of the killing of Bobbi Joe Stinnett–the young pregnant housewife who was strangled and her baby ripped from her body–I asked two girls what they knew of Ken McElroy.
“He was a bad guy, who bullied lots of people,” the older of the two said.
“He was shot here in town,” the younger one joined in. “Right over there.” She pointed to the tavern.
“He had it coming,” the older one said.
Ken Rex was much more than a town bully. He had all of Northwest Missouri terrorized. Even the cops and judges were scared of him. Maybe, as the townspeople say, he needed killing; the main regret seems to be the way he was finished.
“The guys who did it deserve a medal,” one local told me. “But they should be strung up for the way they did it.” Meaning, I presume, In Broad Daylight.