July 10, 1981 was undoubtedly the most intense summer’s day that the city of Skidmore, Missouri ever had. Outside a popular local tavern, at some point during the morning, one Ken Rex McElroy was shot dead in his pick-up truck, the rounds fired from at least two rifles in a crowd of 30-46 people. McElroy, 47, was a long-time Skidmore resident and had gained infamy as the ‘town bully’, though he was tenfold darker than what the average person may visualise when the word ‘bullying’ is mentioned.
A tall, powerfully built psychopath with a love for various kinds of weaponry, McElroy’s livelihood was mostly derived from burglaries and conducting raids on hog and cattle farms, selling the beasts for a handsome profit. He was also a statutory rapist and child molester, arsonist, attempted murderer and an all-round violent, mean-spirited thug. Despite 20+ criminal charges being brought against him in his lifetime, McElroy never saw the inside of a prison cell, a combination of witness intimidation and always having the means to hire the best defence attorneys in the state. Having been relentlessly let down by the authorities and finding no efficacy in legal endeavours such as a neighbourhood watch, the people of Skidmore had reached the end of their tether with McElroy doing whatever he pleased whenever he pleased, and elected to put his lights out for good.
Nobody has ever been identified or arrested as the suspected perpetrator of his killing, and it’s highly likely that nobody ever will. The fascinating and unbelievable events in this otherwise unremarkable American municipality, along with the robust wall of silence that followed, has spawned several films, a docuseries and has been featured on a podcast or two. It’s a hell of a lot more interesting than the arguable equivalent over here in Blighty, i.e. yet another flick about those three dead Range Rover tossers.
McElroy’s early life, from what anybody has been able to glean, consisted of a typical upbringing within a rough-hewn, dysfunctional family somewhere in the Ozarks, his folks finally settling down in Skidmore somewhere along the line. Even as a youngster, he had a well-known reputation as a habitual thief, womanizer/pervert and fellow who just couldn’t resist anti-social behaviour. Rather than your usual pushy, shouty, ‘I’m gonna do this and that’ bravado, McElroy had a proclivity for more psychologically sadistic tactics against those he felt had wronged him. He would slowly drive down streets and stand outside homes in the dead of night, silently staring at his adversaries through their windows, sometimes firing a double-barreled shotgun into the sky, other times calling their home phone to deliver cruel and obscene threats. In 1991, ten years after his death, NBC screened a television movie titled In Broad Daylight, named for the non-fiction book about the case by Harry N. MacLean. The character analogous to McElroy, Len Rowan, is played by Brian Dennehy (a late, great actor for whom I had a lot of time). Here’s a link to the entire thing on Youtube:
Being a TV film, the production values aren’t exactly outstanding, and it understandably tones down the real-life events, but it’s a watchable and interesting piece courtesy of Dennehy’s performance. He perfectly captures the utterly creepy, pathologically selfish unpleasantness of McElroy, and they’ve made him up just right, crazy sideburns and all. If it’s true that the essence of his personality and demeanour is accurately conveyed through Dennehy, it’s a wonder the man didn’t eventually go on to become a serial killer (though that’s an unfalsifiable possibility, is it not?). The performances are mostly decent, special props aside from Dennehy & Marcia Gay Harden going to Chris Cooper (one of my all-time favourites) as a Skidmore police deputy. In one sobering scene taking place in the tavern where the tumult would eventually occur, Cooper explains our baddie’s history to a colleague, detailing just how depraved the man is and how far he is willing to go in order to live his life exactly how he wants to. McElroy was indeed a bully, but he was a psychotic bully, and that’s not something you can smack away as easily as some little tracksuited shit puffing his chest outside the local supermarket.
Just last year, Israeli documentarian Avi Belkin became fascinated with the case, and temporarily lived in Skidmore in order to illustrate the town’s memory of what happened and the insidious spirit of violence that appears to have taken hold ever since. No One Saw A Thing, Belkins’ six-part true-crime miniseries that premiered on SundanceTV in mid 2019, documents the McElroy killing along with several other prolifically violent and disturbing occurrences within Skidmore since the fateful day. It does become rather unwieldy, wildly extrapolating Ken’s slaying to unrelated events as to suggest Skidmore is somehow cursed, albeit with a running theme of the residents minding their own business and being disinclined to comment. Despite this lack of focus and admittedly inaccurate advertising, it is nevertheless interesting, and paints a stark portrait of an odd little place that still lives in the shadow of this consummately evil man. Here’s a little clip:
The amount of aberration that the man managed to get away with prior to his demise is virtually the stuff of urban legend. Constant violence, theft, flipping the bird at authority and the fact that he was an open and unrepentant paedophile (he met his last wife Trina when she was 12 and he was 35; she gave birth to his 9th and 10th children a couple of years after the fact) would surely have precipitated his death or lifelong jail sentence well before the age of 47. For the better part of half a century, he was a cruel and defiant white trash king, unmitigated by higher powers and being unable to care less about how his behaviour affected anybody except himself. The man was so brazenly out of control that he put a loaded shotgun to the head of a high-ranking Skidmore policeman, and not a thing was done about it, lest old Ken came lurking outside certain houses one night with guns and kerosene.
The events have been broached on the My Favourite Murder podcast, were even given a rundown on Drunk History and allegedly inspired Patrick Swayze’s 1989 vehicle Road House. It’s certainly a deviation from the content of my usual entries as I tend to focus on individual cinematic works, but I find the story so enrapturing, and the various aftermath media is very much worth a look. An entire town banding together to kill an ogre is usually reserved for children’s bedtime stories, and the morbid intrigue of the fact that there’s a real-life variant for adults is something that my inquisitiveness cannot ignore.