The New York Times retells the story of the killing of Ken McElroy, focusing on the defeat of prosecutor David Baird in the recent election. The book is mentioned on page 2 of the story. The accompanying photos are great. This is, I believe, one of those stories that will last until the end of time. Some day the killing will become a part of history, but even then it will forever define the town.
A house in this shape is not terribly uncommon in Skidmore. There are several buidings that are in much worse shape, and little seems to be done about them. In the town’s defense, the tax base has declined substantially with the loss of businesses and residents. This house is not far from where Pete Ward lived when he stood up to McElroy and signed an affidavit seeking to have his bond revoked after McElroy had been convicted and set free. McElroy was seen creeping down the alley behind Ward’s house with a pistol in his hand. Pete handled it all right, but his wife, so I’ve been told, became hysterical and never quite recovered. Pete’s was one of the names mentioned as a possible killer, but I never found anything to substantiate it.
Sumy’s gas station was a Skidmore landmark. It stood at the top of the hill for over forty years. Bobbi Jo Stinnet’s mother worked there on the day her daughter was murdered. When Mom’s Cafe closed, a lot of the coffee drinking went on in the back of the station. There were several men at the station on the day McELroy was shot, a few in front of the pumps. They would have had a bird’s eye view of the shooters who would have been standing just a few feet down hill from where I was standing when I took the photo. Their view would included the killers, the truck, the crowd, and the tavern. Thus they could have testified to the identity of the men on the street who witnessed the killing. I read their statements: they saw nothing.
Sumy’s closed last year, a hard blow to the failing economy of the small town. The bank, the grocery store, the gas station, the cafe. Not much is left but the post office and the new tavern/cafe. I hear the food is good there, but the place was empty when I went in.
Before I left on my trip to Skidmore, I wondered on this blog if I would encounter any difficulty with local residents who had recently expressed concern, to put it lightly, over my characterization of shooter Del Clement as a short, hot-tempered drunk. A trucker had warned that I had better not write about Clement at all anymore, and another had said my facts were wrong–that Del was a wonderful human being–and that I should in fact just forget about the whole thing, since everyone else had. (This was Del’s mother, Barbara Clement, who died herself just a month or so before my visit. This leaves three Clement boys.)
I was in and around Skidmore for three days and two nights, and encountered no trouble. Had I sought out the Clements and their crowd, I would have gone to the Elks Club in Maryville on Saturday night, the scene of my almost-violent encounter with Del and his friends years ago. But there was no reason to go looking for trouble. As the author of In Broad Daylight, I draw plenty of attention whenever I’m in Skidmore, or Maryville, or anywhere in Nodaway County.
I was in town to spend time with the Goslee family, who had put me up and supported my research for many years, and had received considerable grief for doing it, and to attend a barbecue put on my Dave Dunbar in Lamoni, Iowa. I will soon post photos of my visit.
Skidmore looks different. The bank is closed; Mom’s cafe is closed; the grocery store where McElroy shot Bo over one of his kids swiping some candy is closed. And not too long ago, Sumy’s, a gas station and coffee shop since 1943, closed. Several of those who observed the shooting were standing in front of the station, which is just a few yards up the hill from where the riflemen were standing. The D & G Tavern, most recently the Skidmore Tavern, in front of which Ken was sitting in his Silverado when the bullets tore through the window glass and shattered his skull, was also closed. (D & G stood for Del and Greg Clement. Del was serving beer in the tavern just before the shooting). The Tavern, a quonset hut set on a cement floor, stunk irredeemably of grease from all the burgers fried up in there over the years.
However, a new cafe opened across the street, in the old post office, in front of which the shooters were standing when they opened fire. It’s called the Outcast Cafe, and is big and clean and cheap. It has a bar, and music on the weekend. Everyone hopes it’ll make it, because it’s the last hope for the small town. It’s owned and run by newcomers. They know the story of Ken McElroy, but they weren’t here when it happened.
Skidmore is down from 450 (when I was there) to 325. With the businesses gone, the Punkin’ Festival defunct, it has little vibrancy. A lot of old timers complain that they don’t know many of the other residents, a lot of whom work in surrounding communities. An outsider has taken to buying residences, and storing tremendous amounts of junk in the yards.
But Skidmore is still Skidmore. You feel it when you drive into town. When you park in front of the old D & G. McElroy may have been shot there 30 years ago (next July), but in some ways it could have been last July. The mainstreet is eerily quiet in mid-morning. Faces turn away at a stranger’s approach. It could be all in my mind, but I don’t think so. Faulkner wrote that “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Nowhere is that more true than the small community of Skidmore, where the past is the terror and murder of a terror-stoking outlaw 30 years ago.
I have another story to tell: my drinks with one of McElroy’s sons, who had been adopted and didn’t realize who his father was until he was grown and had graduated from college. Imagine what McElroy would make of that: a college graduate for a son. It’ll be a day or two. After the photos.
September 15, 2009
NO DEATH BED CONFESSION
Trena McElroy was sitting next to her husband, Ken Rex, in his Chevy Silverado when rifle shots shattered the rear window and exploded her husband’s head onto the dashboard. That was July 9, 1981, and Trena claimed that just before the shots were fired she looked over her shoulder and saw a local cowboy pull a rifle from her pickup and take aim at Ken. She swore to the law and three grand juries that the man on the 30.30 was Del Clement, a member of a prominent ranching family.
When I first traveled to Skidmore in 1982, the first name I heard as the shooter was Del Clement. Over the years I spent there researching “In Broad Daylight” I never heard another name seriously mentioned as the rifleman. Del, a short man with a chip on his shoulder and a hot temper, wore a cowboy hat and drank heavily. It wasn’t hard to imagine him jerking the gun from his pickup in a burst of anger and opening up on the large black head on the other side of the rear window of the pickup. He and his brother owned the D & G Tavern, in front of which McElroy was parked when he died and which had recently begun closing whenever he came to town.
A few years after the book came out, I encountered Del one evening in a bar in nearby Maryville. He was drunk and became outright hostile to me. He pointed out all the untrue facts in the book—such as that he was short—and seemed on the verge of throwing a punch, until a friend stepped in.
There has been no prosecution in the death of Ken Rex McElroy. Some of the witnesses to the crime left town, and as time wore on a few of them died. The only hope for solving the crime seemed to be that one of the witnesses, or maybe one of the killers, would confess on his deathbed in order to clear his conscience. Such evidence is allowed into courts of law as an exception to the hearsay rule on the theory that someone on his deathbed would have no reason to lie.
Del Clement died of liver disease this last spring. He always denied any role in the killing. Dying of sclerosis of the liver is a slow process; it allows the person time to reflect on his life, to prepare to meet his maker. Del Clement died without a word about who shot Ken McElroy.