(Last week I posted about vigilante justice in Tanzania. It happens in the United States, too, which is what this story is about. As with the previous post, this is an extract from my book When Killing is a Crime, 2007 Lynne Rienner Publishers).
Ken McElroy was shot and killed while sitting next to his wife Trena in a Chevy Silverado in downtown Skidmore, Missouri, USA, in August 1981. At least thirty-five people were present at the time of the killing, including law officers, the mayor, and other prominent people in the small community. At least two guns were used to shoot as many as 15 rounds.
The shooting occurred in the afternoon outside the American Legion Hall following a meeting which had been called to discuss how Skidmore could protect itself against Ken McElroy. McElroy and his wife Trena showed-up uninvited at the meeting. Leaving after exchanging words with the men there, he and Trena returned to his truck. As he was sitting in the truck, he was shot by two different rifles. Despite the large number of potential witnesses, and repeated investigations by local, state, and federal authorities all reached the same conclusion. Ken McElroy had been killed by “persons unknown.” All thirty-five people present claimed not to have seen anyone fire. Despite the coercive power of the courts to compel testimony, none present admitting to having seen who killed Ken McElroy. Town Marshall David Dunbar, who had earlier resigned out of fear of McElroy would attack would only comment twenty years later: “It’s really a shame about the Silverado,” he said. “That was a really nice truck.”
Ken McElroy was born in 1934, the 15th of 16 children born to itinerant sharecroppers. He never really learned to read well, and never had a job. McElroy lived outside of Skidmore, a town of about 500 people, with a succession of women. A harem, writers called it, because frequently there were more than one teenage wife or girlfriend living there. Indeed, in the 1960s and 1970s, he regularly cased junior high schools, looking for new girls to replace those of whom he had tired. As a result, by the time of his murder in 1981, he had had at least ten children by four different women. He had been arrested twenty-two times, been tried only once (he was acquitted) but never served time in jail. Indeed, the event that precipitated his murder, a shotgun assault on a 70 year-old grocer, resulted in only his first conviction and sentencing. He was free on bail when he was killed.
Ken McElroy married for the first time at age 18, and moved briefly to Denver, Colorado. He could not hold a job, so he and his wife soon moved back to Skidmore. There, he began hanging out with his “coon huntin’ buddies,” men who shared his passion for hunting raccoons at night when the animals were active. His nighttime activities were to become his income—he became a cattle rustler in a remote corner of Missouri where cattle markets were poorly policed, and there was no obligation to brand cattle. Nighttime stealth, a refined capability to harass any witnesses, and an attorney who could be retained at a cost of $5,000 per felony kept him out of the courthouse, and driving a succession of new trucks. McElroy also developed a skill for brandishing weapons, and intimidation.
McElroy’s first arrest came in connection with his wife-to-be Trena, an eighth grader who he first seduced in 1971 when she was 12 years old. McElroy already had two women, Marcia and Alice living with him at the time. Nevertheless, Trena moved in replacing Marcia. She dropped out of school in the 9th grade, and was pregnant by the time she was 14. But then 16 days after the birth of her son, she and Alice fled to Trena’s parents. This lasted only a few hours. McElroy brandishing a gun forced the girls to return home with him, where as punishment, he beat them and forced them to perform sex acts. After that, he returned with Trena to the home of her parents. McElroy shot the family dog, poured gas around the house, and burned it down.
Two days later, Trena took her new-born son to a doctor, who coaxed the story of the arson out of her. The doctor contacted the county social welfare agency, who put Trena and her baby into foster care. The case was taken to the district attorney. On the basis of Trena’s testimony, McElroy was indicted for arson, assault, and rape. Even at $5,000 per felony, his attorney told him, it would be difficult for him to be acquitted. But McElroy did not relent. He found the foster home where Trena was living, and began making threatening calls. The District Attorney slapped on eight more felony molestation charges as a result of the trysts he had with Trena beginning when she was 13 years old.
But McElroy was still charming. He arranged to divorce his second wife Sharon from whom he had been separated for several years, and marry Trena. More threats persuaded Trena’s mother to give consent to the marriage, which in turn solved McElroy’s legal problems. As his wife, Trena could not be compelled to testify against him, in a case which was highly dependent on her cooperation for a conviction. McElroy had beat the charges.
There were more cases during the subsequent years. Many involved intimidation, whether it was over women, slights to his honor, or accusations of criminal activity. His last fight was in many respects just as trivial as the others. One of McElroy’s children was chastised by shopkeepers Bo and Lois Bowenkamp for not having paid for a ten cent piece of candy. Ken McElroy came back to the store, and found Bo Bowenkamp cutting open boxes with a butcher knife. A verbal altercation ensued, and Bowenkamp was shot with McElroy’s shotgun. This time, despite the claims of McElroy and one of his coon huntin’ buddies that Bowencamp had threatened McElroy with the knife, Ken McElroy was sentenced to two years in prison. But, under Missouri law, he remained free on appeal; still the only question in August 1981 was when he would begin his sentence. Stays were granted, during which McElroy returned to Skidmore to threaten witnesses, including the Bowenkamps. It was at this time the town called a meeting in the American Legion Hall. The conclusion of the meeting resulted in the still unsolved death of Ken McElroy, by persons unknown.
Ultimately of course, this is a story about the legitimacy of the law as it emerges from the people. Not even the power of the FBI could break the code of silence in Skidmore. Skidmore, in short, to address the problem of Ken McElroy briefly became a virtually stateless area. The death and subsequent code of silence was as powerful as that in an inner city gang, or any stateless areas which are so difficult to police.
Film: “Without Mercy” (2004)
Krajicek, David (n.d.) Court TV Crime Library, online at http://www.crimelibrary.com/notorious_murders/classics/ken_mcelroy/index.html
MacLean, Harry N. (1988). In Broad Daylight: A Murder in Skidmore, Missouri. New York: Dell
Originally posted at Ethnography.com, April 2015
Tony Waters is czar and editor of Ethnography.com. He came to us from the Sociology department at California State University at Chico where he has been a professor since 1996. In 2016 though he suddenly found himself with a new gig at Payap University in northern Thailand where he is on the faculty of the Peace Studies Department. He has also been a guest professor in Germany, and Tanzania. In the past, his main interests have been international development and refugees in Thailand, Tanzania, and California. This reflects a former career in the Peace Corps (Thailand), and refugee camps (Thailand and Tanzania). His books include: Crime and Immigrant Youth (1999), Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan (2001), The Persistence of Subsistence Agriculture: Life Beneath of the Marketplace (2007), When Killing is a Crime (2007), and Schooling, Bureaucracy, and Childhood: Bureaucratizing the Child (2012). His hobby is trying to learn strange languages–and the mistakes that that implies. Tony is a prolific academic, you can read more of his work at academia.edu.or purchase one (or more!) of his books from Amazon.com.