I’ll be in Skidmore this weekend. If you’re interested in talking about the case, the book “In Broad Daylight,” the town or northwest Missouri in general, let’s meet in front of the old post office on the main street at noon on Sunday.
“The Story Behind ‘In Broad Daylight'” is finally here. It’s now available on Amazon Kindle (also on Apple devices through a Kindle app). The true crime short is 64 pages long and has 9 pages of photos, some of which have not been published before. I tell how I came to write “In Broad Daylight” and the many obstacles I encountered in researching the story. The book discusses the moral dilemmas involved in taking a life outside the law, and also updates the story of the town and the main characters in the book.
I hope you all find it interesting.
I first met Jeff not too long after “In Broad Daylight” was published. He called me one night, and said that he thought he was the son of a woman I had called Sally in the book. Sally had been one of McElroy’s first victims. A girl from a poor, rural family, McElroy had begun having sex with her when she was barely fourteen. The rumor was that he had drowned her father in a bathtub when he had objected to what he was doing to his daughter. Within a few years, she had had four children by him. This was perhaps the local populace’s first look at McElroy’s immunity: no one fooled with him; they were too scared.
I had not found Sally in researching the book, but I had found her social worker and a few others who knew her. One of them recalled McElroy visiting her in the hospital after the last baby. At eighteen years old she was unable to care for her four children. The social worker, and others, recommended that she adopt the children out, which she finally did. I had written in the book that she cried in the hallway of the court when she said goodbye to her children for the last time. Two of the children, a boy and a girl, were adopted together, to a family in St. Joe. One of them, Jeffy, had a hernia problem.
The man one the phone said his name was Jeffrey. He had read the book and put some pieces together and had come to believe he was Jeffy, McElroy’s son with the hernia. There were a few facts I hadn’t put in the book, and Jeff’s knowledge matched up with them. He told me that years earlier, his sister, adopted by the same family in St. Joe, had found a collection of magazines and articles in a dresser drawer in her step parents’ bedroom, all of which led with the story of the killing of Ken Rex McElroy. It wasn’t the sort of stuff they usually read.
Jeff had investigated and found some documents showing the date and place of his birth, which further heightened his suspicions. And there the matter lay, until he read the book. It all fit. He managed to obtain his medical records from a hospital where he had had his hernia repaired as a child. In black and white, on paper, were the names of his parents: “Ken Rex McElroy and Sally . . .” He told his sister, and the two of them began the process of accepting the fact of who their father was.
Jeff told me on the phone that he lived in Kansas City, and was in college, majoring in special education. After a moment of shock, I laughed at the irony: Ken McElroy, barely literate, who hadn’t gone beyond the 6th grade, an outlaw who bore a special grudge toward the educated class, had fathered a son who not only was in college but was learning to teach handicapped children. We agreed to meet on my next trip to Kansas City. I would take him on a tour of the area.
A week or so later, I received a call around 2 a.m. from a quite distraught and drunken woman who claimed that she was “Sally,” in the book. She was really pissed off at me: I had said that she didn’t loved her kids and had left them behind, when in fact she had had no choice; she had been coerced by the social workers and nurses into giving the kids up. She had missed them every day of her life. And, she said, I didn’t know the half of who Ken McElroy was or what he had one; he was much worse, more terrible than I could ever imagine. I listened, tried to pry more details from her about McElroy’s conduct, but she could only keep repeating home much she loved her kids and how terrible I was for saying otherwise.
Well, I finally said, I spoke with one of her sons, just a few weeks ago. If she would like, I would call and ask if he would be willing to speak to her. She fell silent, and after a moment or two, said “Please, please.”
When I called Jeff and told him the story, he agreed to talk to her and asked for her number. He ended up becoming quite involved in his mother’s life, even moving out to California to live with her and try to pull her out of a long alcoholic spiral. He met his two other siblings, including Ken, Jr. His sister from St. Joe wanted nothing to do with her mother or her siblings. What played out between Jeff and his mother and siblings is another story, but suffice it to say Jeff returned to Kansas City and no longer has contact with any of them.
Jeff and I lost touch over the years. When the 30th Anniversary Edition of “In Broad Daylight” was released in early 2008, I received another call from him. We talked and agreed to meet on my next trip to Missouri in a few months.
I try to come back to Missouri at least every other year, although there had been times, in the midst of researching other books, when several years passed without my return. I feel a great affection for Skidmore, and for the people who had been so critical to my obtaining the story. In the heart of my research, from 1982 to 1986, I had spent more time in northwest Missouri than in my home state of Colorado. I added it up once, and figured that altogether I had probably spent close to three years in Skidmore, usually in periods of one to three months.
Through a series of fortuitous circumstances, I had come to live with the Goslees, a highly respected family and third-generation farmers in Nodaway County. Q, the patriarch, and Margaret, his wife and mother of five sons, took me into their home. I had my own bedroom at the top of the stairs, my own seat at the dinner table, and my own parking spot under the Walnut tree in the drive alongside the house. Through them, I gained a respectability that set me apart from the other journalists and authors who had come to town in search of the story of Ken McElroy. When I walked into Mom’s Café at 6:30 in the morning with Q, the farmers at the table drinking coffee made a place for me. Not to say that I didn’t still have a lot of doors slammed in my face and encounter some pretty scary situations, which I will talk about later, but being, in effect, a member of the Goslee family gave me an anchor in the community.
As in all small towns, everyone knew everything about everyone else, and Q and Margaret would sit at the table after dinner and outline the genealogy of the various players in the drama. I took notes and made long lists of people to talk to. Sometimes Margaret or Q or one of their sons would call a person and lay the groundwork for my visit. An introduction from a respected local was worth its weight in gold.
I wouldn’t claim that I was ever fully “accepted” into the community, but after a few years I could shoot pool in the tavern or walk in city hall to get records from the clerk without anyone thinking much of it. I would stand outside the post office and chatted with locals as they came to get their mail. I went to church. I drank in the bars. I attended tractor pulls. And unlike the other writers, I came back to the community time and again, over a course of many years. I knew the story was a difficult one, with layer upon layer of reality to it, and I knew that getting people to talk would take both patience and persistence. And time. I made friends that are still friends today.
The story of Ken McElroy was still going on all of the time I was there. His killers were still at large. The prosecuting attorney of Nodaway County, David Baird, swore that if strong evidence came to his office pointing to the identity of the killers he would prosecute them. Law officers in the area claimed that they followed up any leads that came their way. How serious Baird or law enforcement really was is open to serious question.
It was the law, after all, who had time after time failed to protect the residents of the town of Skidmore. It was the law, through its idleness, its willingness to be intimidated by one man, that had allowed a series of events to get rolling which eventually resulted in the murder of Ken McElroy on the main street of Skidmore. It was David Baird, after all, who, after successfully prosecuting McElroy for shooting the grocer, had agreed to a continuance of the hearing to revoke his bond on the morning of his death.
Hell, I had lawmen admit to me, off the record, that they stayed out of town when they knew McElroy was around. One state patrolman told me that the word was out among law men in northwest Missouri that if you found Ken McElroy out on the roads at night, with a weapon in his truck—which was most nights—you should go ahead and shoot him.
When the question of prosecuting the killers was asked of the locals, their anger was immediate: “Where the hell was the law when McElroy was running loose?” There was a certain compelling logic to their attitude: if the law had handled McElroy, he would not have been shot to death. But it hadn’t, and he had been, and now they wanted to put in jail the men who had acted to protect the community the law had failed so terribly. You can’t call that justice.
Not that the townspeople were particularly pleased with the killing. One attitude toward the killers I heard frequently was: “They should be given a medal for what they did, and be strung up for the way they did it.” Meaning in broad daylight, at ten o’clock on a Friday morning, on the main street of town, in front of 50 witnesses. The killers didn’t know it, of course, but that morning the national press was 90 miles south in Kansas City, covering the collapse of the Hyatt Hotel bridge. Nothing suited their eastern journalistic instincts more than to drive up to a small town in northwest Missouri to cover an Old West style “vigilante killing of a town bully.”
The fact that McElroy lived as long as he did came to interest me soon after my arrival. The young men in the area shrugged their shoulders when I asked them about it. Perhaps each one was waiting for another to do it. Perhaps they were scared of what would happen if they tried and failed, only wounded McElroy, or missed him altogether.. Or maybe they were scared of going to jail, or maybe they didn’t want to live with murder on their conscience, no matter how justified.
Not that a few of them hadn’t thought about killing him, even done some planning for it. Sitting in a tavern in Maryville one night, one fellow diagrammed on a napkin for me how they had figured to shoot him: they would wait crouched behind a trove of bushes right at the corner where Valley Road met V, and catch him with a high powered slug as he slowed to make the turn onto the Valley on his way home. Two shooters. One would be sure to hit him. They would roll his truck into the ditch and let him lay there until someone spotted it on the way into town in the morning.
The fact is, if he had been killed this way, very little would have come of the crime. You would have had a cursory investigation by lawmen who knew him only too well and would be relieved at his death. When his house on Valley Road burned to the ground a few months after his killing, the sheriff didn’t bother to investigate because, as he explained a reporter, no one had filed a complaint of the incident.
Another fact is that if he had been shot to death in the dark of night like that, at the intersection of V and Valley Road, there would have been no story, not for Sixty Minutes, not for Playboy, not for Rolling Stone, and not for me. There would have been no book and no movie entitled “In Broad Daylight.”
I once estimated that Ken McElroy had over twenty children, by at least four women, two of whom lived together at the time of his death. Most of them grew up knowing who their father was; the ones I had talked to were tremendously loyal to him. He might have beat their mothers, but he was nice to his kids. Several of them even joined me on “Oprah” and told the world what a good man their father was.
The one walking toward me now was in his twenties when he learned who his father was. I have to admit I had been somewhat apprehensive when I first met Jeff. More and more research is supporting the notion that in some people genetics is linked to criminal behavior. Would he be struggling with that possibility? I had wondered. Would he be angry at the source of the new information about who he was? I had instead found him to be a gentle bear, in spite of the cold glare in his eyes that so convincingly bespoke his genetic heritage. As we approached the railing where the others were standing, I heard a whistle, and a low spoken muttered comment or two as those in the crowd recognized the unmistakable visage of the man who had held them hostage for so many years.
The talking stopped, and all heads turned down hill as the mysterious figure slowly emerged from the car. The scene was playing out like a movie, one slow moment after another. The story of Ken Rex McElroy was a movie without a resolution, and it still stirred up a lot of people and emotions around here, some predictable, some not. McElroy left many children, and some of them were extremely unhappy with the way their father was killed and the way he was portrayed in my book In Broad Daylight. Although, to be fair, I’ve not heard a hostile word from any of them. His many friends, a lot of whom rode with him on his twenty-year crime spree, have also largely kept silent over the years. The friends of Del Clement, the man who opened up on McElroy with a 30.30 a few feet from where we’re standing that July morning thirty years ago, were another matter. They’re none too happy about my description of him as a short, hot-tempered drunk in the book, or my blog in which I raise the possibility that Del was a coward for shooting McElroy in the back. There were a couple of semi-threatening e-mails a year back. His mother had suggested that maybe Del looked short to me because I was so tall, and urged that I just leave the story alone, now, after so long. She denied that her son was a drunk or had died from sclerosis of the liver.
I had several encounters with Del in my days in Skidmore. The first was at the Clement ranch a few miles outside of town. The Clements and their friends were cowboys; they wore cowboy hats, rode horses, and carried rifles in racks in the rear windows of their pick-ups. They also rodeoed. The Clements had constructed a professional ring on their ranch, with chutes for calves, steers and horses to shoot out of when the rope dropped.
In the summer of my second year in Skidmore, the Clements held a rodeo in their ring. Word of the event went out all over northwest Missouri, and cowboys and cowgirls from as far away as Kansas City came with their ropes and horses to compete for modest prizes.
A few days earlier, I had spotted a flier for the event in the Skidmore grocery store, still doggedly run by Lois Bowenkamp. I thought long and hard about going. I had no reason to think Del or his brother, Greg, sometimes mentioned as the second shooter, on a .22, would talk to me. In fact, I had reason to think that Del, at least, would be overtly hostile. He was hot tempered, a drinker, and there would be guns around. But I would have to confront him sooner or later. You can’t write a book about a killing and not at least try to interview the man widely believed to be the killer. If I called, he would certainly hang up on me. On the other hand, I didn’t relish showing up at his ranch, alone and uninvited. I had been to enough ranches and farmhouses in the area to know that the inhabitants generally spotted you long before your got to the door. The Clements had to know who I was and what I was doing. Maybe it was best to approach Del in a familiar setting with lots of people around.
I showed up for the rodeo, the grounds outside the house were filled with pick-ups and horse trailers. The rodeo was in full flourish: calves sprinted out of the chute, and cowboys on horses galloped after them, ropes spinning overhead. I leaned up against the fence with other spectators and watched. In not too long, Del rode out in a fury and spun his rope and it slipped off the calf’s head and dropped to the ground. He sat on his horse, and swore as he twirled up his rope. I watched him leave the ring, dismount his horse, and tie him to a post. I had practiced my approach: I was going to introduce myself, and say I was doing some research on the killing that occurred here a few years earlier. I wouldn’t mention McElroy’s name. Not that it would fool him.
I took a step in his direction, and then a cowboy appeared at his side, and then another, and they appeared to be reliving his failed attempt to rope the calf. He shook his head, tipped his white hat back, and wiped his forehead. (The hat, I noticed, gave him, at least four inches. I would never see him without it on.) I didn’t want to approach him in a group. I waited.
I was about to leave when Del separated himself from others and walked in the direction of a small barn about thirty yards away. I watched as he disappeared in the door. I began walking toward the building, reciting my opening line, sweating a little. I entered the door. Hay bales were stacked in one corner. Bridles items hung from a wall. Del was kneeling down, fooling with something on the floor. I said his name. He stood and turned in one motion. He looked at me. He was a good-looking man, with a steady, direct gaze. I introduced myself, and said I was a writer from Denver, Colorado, doing a little research into the killing in Skidmore.
“You need to get off the ranch,” he said, eyes hardening on me.
“I’m not really trying to solve the killing or figure out who the killer was. I’m trying to tell the story from the town’s perspective. I. . .”
“Maybe you didn’t hear me,” he interrupted. “If I was you, I’d get off the ranch, right now.”
I thought of trying another line, but his eyes and the rising color in his face persuaded me otherwise. It was a mistake, I saw, to come on his ranch. It was an invasion of his privacy. Things could go bad real quick.
“OK,” I said. “I’m leaving.” I backed up the few steps to the door, turned, and began walking across the property a hundred yards to where my car was parked. It was a damn long walk. I hadn’t seen a gun, he wasn’t drunk, as far as I could tell, yet he was clearly pissed. I was certainly an inviting target as I made my way through the rows of vehicles. Easy enough for a high-powered rifle. I kept walking. I reached my car; the handle was burning hot. I looked back; Del was nowhere to be seen.
The door opened the rest of the way and the figure stepped out. I thought I recognized the broad shoulders and heavy chest. The man had on a pair of aviator sunglasses, and his blonde hair was combed up and back. It was the man I had first met some twenty years ago, in the airport in Kansas City. Older and a little heavier, but the same man. He wore a goatee and gold chain. He had on white pants and a salmon-and-white shirt. He cut quite a figure. It was Ken McElroy’s lost son, Jeffrey.
I relaxed. The others standing at the rail did not. I had told them McElroy’s second-oldest son might be joining us for the commemoration of the killing, but I wasn’t sure they took me seriously, and if he did show up I think they were a little concerned about what he would be like. A lot of McElroys still lived in the area—both siblings and children—but most of them had steered a path far away from Skidmore after the killing. The youngest of the siblings, Tim, a gentle man and avid coon hunter like his brother, worked in a pizza parlor in a small town not far from Skidmore. Liked by most of the townspeople, he still lived in the house a couple of hundred yards down the road from the house where Ken and his women and children had lived. People passed him on the road from time to time. He ignored their waves at first, but in recent years, he had been lifting a hand from the steering wheel in return. He never came into Skidmore, or even drove through it, as far as the locals knew. It was Tim that an hysterical Trena, splattered in blood, had called from the bank the morning of the shooting; it was Tim that had come to the bank to get her and take her back to the McElroy home. It was Tim who had to tell Mabel, the elderly matriarch of the family, that her that her son, Ken, was dead.
“Hey, Jeffery,” I called out to the figure standing by the car door. He took a couple of steps toward me, and said my name. The passenger’s door opened, and out stepped a young black woman. As far as I knew, a black person had not lived in Skidmore for a long, long time. In my book, I had written of the lynching in 1930 of Ray Gunn, a black man, in Maryville, about fourteen miles away. Accused of raping a white woman, he was spread-eagled on a schoolhouse roof in Maryville and set on fire, while authorities looked the other way. I had spoken to several men who had witnessed the burning as a children at their father’s side.
So now, it was the son of Ken McElroy coming into town on the 30th day of his father’s murder, accompanied by a young, attractive black woman. It was hard to imagine a stranger scene.
Jeffrey took off his glasses. I was struck, as I was every time I saw him, by the cold glare of his eyes, and how smile or joke or laugh as he might, it never went away. When you talked with him, you were held in it, like a bug stuck to a board. For years I had heard from friends and foes of Ken McElroy alike about the look in his eyes; how he could scare you to death saying nothing at all. How he could clear out a pool hall in minutes with a glance. I had not seen it in his other children, but I saw it now. It was as close to Ken McElroy as I was ever going to get. The others, behind me, stirred and mumbled. They saw it, too. Jeffrey smiled, and we shook hands. He introduced me to his companion, and we walked over to meet the others.
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.