The Secret Sits

Ken McElroy: The Town Bully: Part 2

January 05, 2023 John W. Dodson Season 2 Episode 42
The Secret Sits
Ken McElroy: The Town Bully: Part 2
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Show Notes Transcript

This is Part 2 in our series covering the bad deeds of Ken Rex McElroy.

Ken Rex McElroy was a criminal and convicted attempted murderer who resided in Skidmore, Missouri. He was known as "the town bully", and his unsolved murder became the focus of international attention. Over the course of his life, McElroy was accused of dozens of felonies, including assault, child molestation, statutory rape, arson, animal cruelty, hog and cattle rustling, and burglary. With as many as 45 witnesses to his murder, no one would admit to having seen anything.

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 [Underscore Music]

Previously on The Secret Sits, Ken McElroy had spent years terrorizing the town of Skidmore, Missouri, Ken’s wife Trena and their baby are being kept in a safe house in Maryville, but they would not stay safe from Ken McElroy for long.  This story is only going to get crazier from here, are you ready, here we go.

[Theme Music Start]

Welcome to The Secret Sits, I’m your host John Dodson.  Join us every Thursday as we uncover the Secrets behind the world’s most fascinating true crime cases.  You can find all episodes of The Secret Sits for free on Apple Podcast, Spotify or where ever you get your podcasts.  And if you like what you are hearing, reach out to us on Instagram and Facebook @The Secret Sits Podcast or on Twitter @SecretSitsPod. Now, on with our story.

[Theme Music Play Out]

[Under Score Music]


Ken quickly ascertained where Trena and the baby had been placed with a foster family and he took to parking outside of their house, for hours at a time.  This family called the police, but when officers showed up and spoke with Ken, they told the family that he was perfectly within his rights to sit in his car and stare at their home.  Ken found out the names of the homeowners who were fostering his underage wife and child and he began a stream of threatening and intimidating phone calls to the family.  Each time Ken called the house it raise Trena’s level of anxiety and panic.  During one of these phone calls, Ken offered to make a deal, a girl for a girl; Ken then went on as he told the woman that he knew what school bus her daughter took to school each day, a blatant threat that he would kidnap the woman’s actual daughter, and then they could trade girl for girl.

Trena had additional meetings with the county prosecutor and she told him about all of the times she had been with Ken McElroy in the St. Joseph motel over the past three years, starting from when she was just 13-years-old.  After these interviews, the prosecutor added 8 additional felony molestation charges against Ken.  Then Dick McFadin got to work.  Dick had the charges split into two separate trials, he perused venue changes for each trial, and he had trial dates reset time and time again, all stalling tactics to keep his client out of jail longer and longer.  After a year of this run around, Trena told her foster family that she was going to move out of their home and move in with her grandmother.  The family was not comfortable with this arrangement and it immediately raised their suspicions, but they were just her foster family and Trena was free to do as she pleased.  Less than one month after Trena moved out Ken walked into Dick’s office and asked him a simple question, “What happens if I marry Trena?”

The problem was that Ken was still legally married to his second wife, Sharon, a girl he had not live with for several years now.  Conveniently, the very next day, Sharon showed up at Dick’s office asking for a divorce from Ken McElroy. The attorney drew up a simple dissolution of their marriage.  Now Ken was available to marry Trena, but what if she did not want to marry him?  Trena was still just 15-years-old at this time, so legally she could get married, but only with her parent’s consent.  After having had their house burned to the ground and their family dog shot by Ken, Trena’s mother reluctantly signed the affidavit to authorize her underage daughter’s marriage to Ken McElroy.  A local judge did a quick wedding with only Dick McFadin there as a witness.  As soon as this wedding was finished, Dick called the county prosecutor to inform him that his only witness against Ken McElroy was now Ken’s wife and therefor; she could not be compelled to testify against him in court.  The prosecutor had no choice but to drop the charges against Ken.

After this; Ken, Trena and Alice resumed the tortured life they had been living together.  The trio would drive around in three separate pickup trucks, like a military convoy, and each one of them watched the other’s back.

[Music Change]

A local Skidmore farmer named Romaine Henry was working in his equipment shed in the afternoon of July 27th, 1976, a regular Tuesday, just like all the rest.  Then, Romaine heard several gunshots and he could tell these shots had to have come from somewhere on his 1,000 acre farm.  Romaine climbed into his pickup and he began to drive around his property, just to make sure nothing was amiss.  Romaine saw Ken McElroy’s truck parked on the gravel road which bordered his property.  Romaine pulled closer to the truck and as he did, Ken stepped from behind the truck brandishing a shotgun.  Romaine stopped his truck and Ken jerked the passenger side door open and shoved his shotgun into the cab of the truck, pointed directly at Romaine.  Ken yelled, “Were you the dirty son of a bitch over at my place in a white Pontiac?”  Romaine was shocked and he had no idea what Ken was talking about, he stammered out an answer to Ken, he told him that he did not know what he was talking about, Ken shouted obscenities at Romaine and he fired his shotgun.  Romaine was shocked as the buckshot tore into his torso, he flung open his driver side door and he tried to exit his vehicle, this was the only way to get out of the way of the gun.  But, before he could get out of the truck, Ken fired again, this blast of pellets struck Romaine in his right cheek and forehead.  In the split second that Romaine exited his vehicle, Ken’s gun jammed, Romaine used this opportunity to jump back into his truck and he sped away.  After he returned to his house, he wife drove him to the Maryville hospital.  The Sheriff’s office picked up Ken the next day and charged him with assault with the intent to kill.  Ken simply said that he was not there and he had no idea what Romaine was talking about.  Ken’s attorney used all of his typical tactics; change of venue requests and repeated delays for the trial.  And while Ken’s attorney was doing his part, Ken was doing his typical part as well; he parked outside of Romaine’s house and he would just sit there staring at the house an attempt at intimidation.  Romaine and his wife said that Ken say outside of their home at least 100 times between Ken’s arrest and the trial.  Romaine made complaints to the Sheriff, who said he would talk to Ken, but the stalking behavior continued.  

When the case finally made its way to trial a newly elected district attorney proved no match for the high powered private attorney.  Romaine sat in the witness stand and he testified that Ken McElroy, was the man who had shot him.  Two of Romaine’s neighbors testified that they saw Ken fleeing the scene in his pickup truck, just after the shooting.  Then, Dick put two witnesses on the stand, both of these men were raccoon hunters and they both made claims that they were with Ken McElroy on the day of the shooting and they were all the way across town from Romaine’s farm.  The jury acquitted Ken on all charges.

The good citizens of Skidmore were flabbergasted at this verdict.  And Ken McElroy paraded around town talking about how he should have killed Romaine in the first place.  A few months after the trial had ended in Ken’s acquittal, Romaine was on his tractor working on his fall harvest.  As he tended his fields, Romaine noticed a truck parked at the edge of the field he was currently working on.  As he grew closer, Romaine recognized the truck as belonging to Ken McElroy.  Romaine then noticed the stalky figure of Ken crouched behind a gate, Ken was holding a long rifle that was aimed squarely at Romaine’s tractor.  The roaring noise from the giant diesel engine was not enough sound to drone out the report of the rifle as it rang out in the open fields.  Ken then stood up straight and walked back to his truck, he racked his rifle and just drove off, he was certain that he had proven his point, anytime he wanted to Ken could end your life, so watch out.

The shooting of Romaine Henry resulted in no retaliation from the people of Skidmore.  But the series of events that would lead to Ken McElroy’s death was all set into motion by the theft of a 10 cent piece of candy.

[Music Change]

It was a hot Friday afternoon on April 25th, 1980 when several of Ken McElroy’s litter of children stopped into the B&B grocery store in town to get some candy.  There was some apparent confusion at the cash register and one of the little girls began to walk out of the store with candy, she had not paid for.  The store clerk called after the children, like the woman in Home Alone, “Son, you have to pay for that toothbrush” you know, something innocuous like that.  Well, one of the older girls was very upset that this clerk had yelled after her sister, she took the candy from the small girl and slammed it down onto one of the shelves and the small girl began to sob as they walked out of the store.  Almost as soon as the door to the store closed, another of the older girls burst back into the store and yelled at the store clerk, “Nobody accuses my little sister of stealing!” 

The owners of B&B grocery, Lois and Bo Bownkamp, attempted to resolve the disagreement with a simple discussion.  But the McElroy family had too many of Ken’s social traits and they could not be spoken with rationally.  The teenaged girl told the couple that her family would never shop in their store again, Lois responded by telling the girl that they were no longer welcome in the store period.  Ken McElroy arrived at the store about 20 minutes later and he walked into the store with his pocket knife already out and in his right hand.  Trena followed Ken into the store shouting obscenities and threats at Lois, Trena told the woman that she was going to “Whip her ass”.

Lois Bowenkamp attempted to keep her calm and she explained to Ken and Trena that no one had accused the little girl of stealing, it was a simple mistake, the candy had just not been rung up at the register.  After hearing this, surprisingly Ken and Trena seemed to calm down.  Ken then asked Lois for a pack of Camel cigarettes.  Lois took in a deep breath and stood tall as she declined to sell Ken the cigarettes, as she had previously stated, the McElroy’s were barred from her store.  That night Ken sat in his truck just outside of the B&B grocery store and he stared.  The Bowenkamps closed up their store for the evening, just like they did every evening and they went to their car.  The couple drove home, to their house located just on the outskirts of town.  As the couple attempted to enjoy their evening together, they kept noticing Ken McElroy’s truck driving very slowly past their house, back and forth, back and forth.  Lois phoned a sheriff’s deputy she knew personally and the deputy told her, “Don’t worry about it, he won’t do nothing.”

A few days after this Ken McElroy approached Lois and offered her $100 cash if she would challenge Trena to a street fight, as a way to settle their disagreement.  Lois laughed at this and told Ken that it was an absolutely absurd idea.  The next day Lois looked out of her kitchen window to find Ken and Trena standing right there outside of her home, were they expecting her to come outside and fight, Lois thought not.  She phoned for the police and a deputy was dispatched, Ken heard the call on the police scanner in his truck and he and Trena left before the deputy could arrive.

Lois told the officer that she wanted to file a formal complaint, but the officer told her that Ken was perfectly within his legal rights to be there and there was nothing they could do about it.  The problem was, Lois thought, that Ken McElroy never left a conflict unfinished, he always had to have the final word.  The couple began to live on edge all of the time, when they were at their store, the soft jingle of the bell at the front door sent chills down their spines, was it Ken coming to exact his revenge?  While they were at home the sound of a car crunching the gravel driveway made them run to the windows to see if Ken was at their house, they were living their lives in fear.

And this lasted for a month, until the night of May 29th when Ken and Trena appeared, once again, right outside of the Bowenkamp’s home.  Lois peered through the window as Ken exited his truck, shotgun in hand.  He walked around to the front of his truck, aimed his shotgun to the sky and he fired two shots into the night sky.  Ken, then got back into his truck and he drove away.  30 minutes later, Ken drove by the house again and he fired another warning shot.  The following morning, Lois Bowenkamp decided that enough was enough and she drove down to the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office in Maryville to file a report.  Sheriff Roger Cronk told Lois that he would file the report and it would be reviewed by the county prosecutor.  The Sheriff then told her that she and Bo should keep an eye on Ken McElroy, which just made Lois laugh.  But after Lois left the Sheriff’s Office, Sheriff Cronk did nothing with Lois’ report, he did not file it, he did not talk to Ken McElroy, he did absolutely nothing.

Two nights after this incident, Ken returned to the Bowenkamp house and fired more gunshots outside.  Lois and Bo hid inside of their own house, terrorized by the town bully.  By Missouri state law Ken was harassing, intimidating, threatening and assaulting this couple, but law enforcement would do nothing to help them, except for continuously tell the couple to keep an eye out for Ken.  At this point most of the residence knew about the problem the Bowenkamps were having with Ken, but they were also powerless to stop it.   Bo Bowenkamp had only lived in Skidmore for about 8 years, he was not as baked in as many of the other residence in town.  Bo was about to turn 70-years-old and he was easing into his retirement.  Bo stood a whopping 6-foot-5, but his demeanor was quite demure.   Lois was a Skidmore local and she was just 50-years-old, 20 years younger than her husband and she was known to be spirited and blunt.

During the evening hours of July 8th, 1980, Bo drove into town to his grocery store, he needed to meet a repairman to fix his wonky air conditioner.  As Bo waited on the repairman to show up, he stood in the backdoor of the store, cutting up cardboard boxes with a meat knife.  Suddenly and out of nowhere, Ken McElroy was standing right in front of the old man.  The two men had some words and Bo turned to go back into his store, as he looked back, he was now face to face with the business end of Ken’s shotgun.  The 70-year-old man made an attempt to run, but as he turned, Ken pulled the trigger and the towering man, crumpled to the ground.

Ken, fled the scene and lucky for Bo, only a few minutes passed before a young boy happened upon the opened door to the back of the store.  The boy discovered Bo on the ground, his head, neck and body were washed with a spray of crimson blood.  This boy raised the alarm and first responders raced to the scene.  Bruce Richards a police officer from Maryville was the first person on scene and Bruce asked Bo, “Who shot you?”  Bo Bowenkamp, still clinging to life answered, “Ken McElroy.”

A few hours after the shooting, the police picked up Ken McElroy, who claimed, once again, that he knew nothing about the shooting, he wasn’t there, he didn’t do it.  Ken called his good buddy Dick and he was released on $30,000s bond the following day and Ken took Trena out to the D&G Tavern for some beers.

Bo spent 10 days recovering in the hospital, the gunshot wound to his neck was severe, but he had survived.  As the weeks passed and Bo left the hospital, Ken kept up his usual antics, continuing to administer his intimidations on Bo Bownkamp.  After a local minister came a calling to offer his sympathy to Bo, Ken began making threatening phone calls to the minister. And Ken told the minister to “Mind his own business.”

Ken always made it his purpose to isolate the people he terrorized; he did not allow those around them to even offer sympathy.  Lois Bowenkamp began writing letters to anyone she thought could help them escape this daily blanket of terror, in a letter to the governor Lois asks, “Are we to live in fear for the rest of our lives?  Please help us see justice done.”

Ken was spreading his own version of event around town, telling anyone who would listen that Bo had come at him with a knife and he had only fired in self-defense.  This version of events was believed by almost no one in town, they all knew that Bo Bowenkamp was a gentle, passive man, who wouldn’t hurt a fly.  Bo had already admitted that he was in fact holding a knife when he was shot, but that was due to him cutting up the cardboard boxes.  But Ken McElroy would not stop, one night, Ken happened upon a part-time town marshal named David Dunbar and he asked David if he was going to testify against him in the Bowenkamp case, David said that he would if he had to.  This enraged Ken and he said, “I’ll kill anybody who would put me in jail.”  Ken turned around and pulled his shotgun from his truck and he pointed the double barrels directly at David Dunbar, David, somehow, miraculously began to calm down Ken and then David walked to his patrol car to radio the Sheriff’s Office.  David told them what had just happened and they responded, “Don’t provoke him.  Nothing we can do.  Keep an eye on him.”  And this to a part-time town marshal, who made $3,000 per year.  So, on Monday morning, as soon as the Skidmore town hall opened, David Dunbar walked in and turned in his badge.  Good for you, Dunbar, good for you.

Ken had also called threats into two other state troopers who had arrested him.  One officer named Richard Stratton said that while he was at work, Ken McElroy would slowly drive back and forth past his house, terrorizing his wife who was home.  All while Ken was out running amuck, his attorney Dick McFadin was doing his thing attempting to delay yet another trial for his best client.  The venue changed to Bethany, Missouri, which is 75 miles east of Skidmore and when all of the trivial delays came to their ultimate end the trial began on June 25th, 1981.

The trial was simply laid out by a young prosecutor only 3 years out of law school.  Bo said Ken assaulted him with a shotgun. Ken said he fired in self-defense because Bo attacked him with a knife.  This was a very he-said-he-said case, so magically Ken’s legal team found an eye witness to the attack.  This just so happened to be a woman in Ken’s racoon hunting circle, but I am sure that his just a coincidence.  This woman testified that she was passing Skidmore’s Main Street at the very second the shooting took place, and she saw with her own little peepers, Bo lunge, viciously, at Ken and then Ken had to defend himself.  When asked, she could not come up with a reason it had taken her 9 months to come forward to tell this story.

After the closing argument the jury left to deliberate and the quickly returned a verdict of guilty of assault for Ken McElroy.  The jury had several different verdicts they could render, and the heftier of these carried up to life in prison.  The venue was so far from Skidmore that none of these jurors knew anything about Ken McElroy and it is illegal in court to bring forth this man’s prior history of behavior, and because the jury knew nothing about Ken outside of this case, they chose to convict him on 2nd degree assault with only two years in prison.  After the verdict was read the judge released Ken McElroy on bail pending a routine 25-day appeal window.  And the monster was released back into the wild.

4 days after his conviction, Ken walked into the D&G Tavern carrying an M-1 assault rifle with a sharpened bayonet attached to the end of the barrel.  Everyone in the Tavern breathed a sigh of relief when they were informed that Ken was looing to sell the gun, and not use it.  As Ken sat at the bar with his wife Trena, he described how he wanted to finish what he had started with Bo Bowenkamp, he pulled a loaded clip from his pocket and slammed it into the gun.  Ken stood up and demonstrated what he wanted to do to Bo, he wanted to shoot the man in the head and then use the bayonet to carve him up like a turkey dinner.  At this disgusting display of toxic masculinity mixed with psychosis, Pete Ward, a local retired farmer stormed out of the Tavern.  Pete went and got his adult sons and a few other men from around town, and they set up a watch team to keep an eye on Bo Bowenkamp’s property and the Bowenkamps themselves.  Pete along with three other men from the bar that night all signed an affidavit to what they had witnessed, not that it mattered.  The young prosecutor attempted to use this affidavit to have Ken’s bail revoked, this was an urgent matter, a man convicted of assault, stated in public that he was going to finish the job, and the judge decided to not even hear the prosecutor’s protests for another 5 days. 

This judge was from Bethany, not Skidmore; he had no idea how terrible Ken McElroy truly was.  So, the people from the town of Skidmore planned to travel en masse to Ken’s hearing in Bethany, they wanted to go before the judge and protest Ken’s continued freedom to terrorize their town.  But as the townsfolk woke up on the morning of the hearing, July 10th, and they began meeting at the Skidmore Legion Hall to go together, they received word that the hearing had been postponed until the 20th, because Ken’s lawyer, Dick, had a conflict.

After they learned that the hearing was postponed, many people left to go back home, especially the women, cause a woman’s work is never done.  A lot of the men stayed at the hall and as more and more men showed up and began participating in this rump session, the decided to call Sheriff Estes to come over from Maryville to attend this meeting.  Sheriff Estes agrees and he drives right over to the Legion Hall.  When the Sheriff arrived, the men began to grill him on how he was keeping their town safe, and this is when the Sheriff suggested that hey watch out for themselves.  When Sheriff Estes talked to the papers he said, “They wanted to know what they could do to protect themselves.  Basically, the questions concerned could they be allowed to patrol each other’s homes and farms?”  But a neighborhood watch would not be necessary, because the people of this town were about to permanently dispose of their problem.  And no one was going to talk about it.  

[Music Change]

Shots rand out as the crowd of angry men surrounded Ken’s brown truck parked on Main Street, Trena flew from the truck screaming her head off and she was ushered to safety.  A task force of 23 officers from 6 different agencies in Missouri was put together in Skidmore.  This task force made a list of 35 men who were know to be at the scene of the murder, not one of them would talk.  Next, the task force set up a tip line, it received not one single call, except from the media.

Six days after the shooting, on July 20th, Ken McElroy was interred at the St Joseph cemetery.  The task force turned over its feeble findings to the county prosecutor and the prosecutor met with Sheriff Estes to convene a coroner’s inquest.  This would consist of a 6-person jury.  The jury heard evidence from law enforcement, Trena McElroy, Skidmore Mayor Steve Peter and others.  The grand jury ruled that Ken McElroy, “died from bullets fired by a person or persons unknown.”  The jury issued no arrest warrants due to a lack of evidence.  After this, initial, grand jury, a state grand jury was impaneled three weeks later.  This grand jury had 15 meetings over five weeks, these 12 jurors heard all of the same evidence that the original jury had heard and they heard from the same witnesses, including Trena McElroy who stated that she had seen Del Clement holding a rifle as she fled the truck for her own safety.  This jury also heard forensic evidence pertaining to Ken’s wounds.  He had been struck by at least one .22 caliber bullet and another round from an 8mm rifle was also located in Ken’s body.  Both of these size caliber weapons matched shell casings that police recovered at the scene.  Due to this evidence police were able to forensically put the shooting together.  One of the shooters was positioned in the spot where Trena claimed to have seen Del Clement.  On September 25th, the grand jury’s investigation was closed out, once again with no indictments.  Trena had made the same claims in both grand juries about Del Clement, however; they could not get one single person to corroborate her claims.  Due to the stress Trena was under, with the shooting taking place and seeing her husband gunned down, the jury would not bring an indictment based on her testimony alone.

The US Department of Justice ordered the FBI to open an investigation into this shooting.  FBI agents flooded the town and interviewed witnesses through the winter and then in the Spring of 1982, a federal grand jury heard the same testimony from the same witnesses as the first two grand juries, in September, the FBI closed their case with no indictments.  Before they left town, the FBI announced that they had turned over newly discovered evidence to the local prosecutor, the prosecutor read through the FBI briefs and stated “After careful consideration and evaluation, I have determined that there is not current sufficient evidence with which to establish guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”  And with that, he closed the case and it has remained closed ever since.

In 1984, Ken McElroy’s attorney, Dick McFadin filed a $5 million-dollar wrongful death lawsuit against Sheriff Estes, the Mayor and Del Clement; on behalf of Trena McElroy.  To make this lawsuit go away, the three named defendants settle out of court for $17,600.  The county paid $12,600, the Skidmore Sheriff’s office paid $2,000 and Del Clement paid $3,000.  No one in this suit had to admit any guilt in the death of Ken McElroy.

Trena McElroy remarried and moved out of the town of Skidmore.  She died in 2012.  Ken McElroy ended up producing 15 children with the 4 women he was either married to or dating, these children have now moved on with their lives and they dot the landscape of northwest Missouri.  The young prosecutor on this case is still practicing law, to this day, as is Dick McFadin.

Bo Bowenkamp passed away 10 years after all of this mess and his wife Lois went on to serve on the Skidmore town council.  As the years pasted, Lois continued to give sound bites to reporters who wondered into the town to investigate this case, Lois will typically say, “The town is well rid of him.  Justice is served.”  Lois continues to harbor resentment toward the criminal justice system that had failed her and her husband in their time of need.  She told the Kansas City Star in 2001, “If they had done something to tell him he could not keep violating other persons’ right, it might have made a difference.”  But maybe that is simply wishful thinking Lois.  Dunbar, the town marshal, who left his position after the Sheriff’s office refused to protect him said, “It’s really a shame about the Silverado, that was a really nice truck.”  The population of Skidmore has dwindled over the years, down to about only 245 residence, people who just want to move on with their lives. It has now been 41 years since the good citizens of Skidmore decided that enough was enough, and they took the law into their own hands.  Ken McElroy was the living embodiment of a nightmare and they just wanted the nightmares to stop.  The small town of Skidmore Missouri will forever be associated with this vigilante murder.  Who actually pulled the trigger, who murdered a man in broad daylight with almost 45 witnesses on hand?  We dance round in a ring and suppose, but the secret sits in the middle and knows.