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.