CHAPTER THREE — THIRTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF THE KILLING OF KEN REX MCELROY

CHAPTER THREE

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.

 

Skidmore – Forever the Town that Killed Ken Rex McElroy

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.

No Death Bed Confession

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.

Ken Rex McElroy