THE KILLING OF KEN REX MCELROY — THIRTY YEARS LATER
Five or six of us were standing in front of the Skidmore Café, waiting and passing the time. It was a commemoration of sorts: thirty years ago to the day after Ken Rex McElroy had been shot to death as he sat in his truck on the main street of town. I had called a few people and posted a note on Face Book inviting anyone interested to join us at the café for coffee at 9 AM, approximately an hour before the time of the killing. I wondered if a few of Del Clement’s friends would show up. Several of them had been unhappy that in my book “In Broad Daylight” and in a blog a year ago I had described Del as a short, hot-tempered drunk. A few threatening comments had hit my blog. I had a camera and a notebook in hand. My suggestion of a video for YouTube had not been well received.
“I know how you’re going to start your blog,” Bobbie, former marshal David Dunbar’s girl friend, said. “It was a boiling hot day under the Missouri sun.”
“And the rifles were blazing,” Dunbar added.
I chuckled and made a note. The rifles were indeed blazing that morning, for a few brief moments. A .30 .30, a .22 and perhaps a shotgun. The high-powered weapon opened first, and its shots would have shattered the air: BOOM! BOOM! The .22 would have snapped, like the crack of a whip. Some heard a shotgun; others didn’t.
We were only a few feet from where the shooters were standing, at the back of their trucks. From here you would have seen the rifles come out of the rear window racks and rise to the shoulders and level out on the back window of the Silverado. Those men a few feet down the street would have heard the explosion as the bullets ripped by them. I wondered what went through their minds as the glass shattered and the black head slammed forward.
It was Sunday morning and the street was empty, except for our small group and a few men sitting at a table, drinking coffee, outside Sumy’s station, on top of the hill. The café used to be the post office, and the Quonset hut across the street, shuttered, for sale, used to be the Skidmore Café. In July 1981 it was the D & G Tavern, for Del and Greg Clement. In all my years in this town, the only name I ever heard for the man on the .30 .30 was Del Clement. Trena, in the truck beside McElroy, had told me in person she saw Del squeeze the trigger on the rifle. Del had died not too long ago, reportedly from sclerosis of the liver.
It wasn’t hot yet, but you could feel the heat gathering in the damp air. At this time the men would have been gathered in the Legion Hall a few yards up the hill, calculating what they could do about McElroy, who, having been turned loose on bond after shooting the grocer in the neck with a shotgun, was now as dangerous as a wounded water buffalo: enraged and unpredictable. “Kill him,” was the only answer, which meant “Shoot him.” As the men poured out of the building and down the street to the tavern, they would have glanced at the Silverado and spotted the empty gun rack in the rear window; without his weapons, McElroy wasn’t near the threat. It never occurred to most of them that the shooting would come from their midst. If it had, they would have climbed in their pickups and gotten the fuck out of there.
Some day what happened here would become a part of history, like the gunfight at the OK Corral. The great-grandchildren of the men on the street will stage a festival around a reenactment of the killing. Ken Rex McElroy Days. You could buy T-shirts with his famous terrifying visage on the back. That is, if the town was still here; it had been in serious decline for years. Grocery store, gas station, tavern, bank: all closed.
Fifty yards down the street from the D & G was the old Mom’s Café, now a community center. It was the first place I stopped in when I came to town in 1982. When the screen door slammed behind me that morning, three tables of farmers fell stone silent, as if someone had thrown a switch. A few minutes later, when I realized I would never be waited on, I walked out, and the voices started up as I hit the steps.
By the time I left town, in 1987, those same men would pull a chair out for me when I came in, and we would drink beer together at the Palms in Maryville, and when they got drunk a few of them would talk about what happened that day. Many of them were gone now; either moved away or died.
The owner of the café had decided not to open the café this morning. Not enough business, he said, and maybe he was right. No one wanted another incident. Locals hoped that the town’s bad days were behind it, although Providence never seemed to let up on the place. A few years ago the national media once again descended on the town as it mourned the death of young resident Bobbie Jo Stinnet, who had been cut open and her baby stolen by a deranged Kansas woman. A successful author who wrote a book on the incident commented to me how surprised she was she couldn’t get anyone in town to talk, about Bobbi Jo or anything else. You should have seen it twenty-five years ago, I wanted to say. Now the residents politely declined; then they slammed doors in my face, or worse. The town had wanted badly to believe that if it just ignored the killing of Ken Rex McElroy, the whole thing would go away. Their silence only made it worse.
I had a role in keeping it alive, no doubt about that. Yet I felt little resentment from the locals, except Del Clement and his friends. Others used the book as a shield: when a stranger came in asking questions about McElroy, they would tell him to get the book and read it and leave them alone. How things had turned around.
I left our small gathering and walked up to the station at the top of the hill for a cup of coffee. A reporter from the Maryville paper had shown up. The owner, not an original local, asked me if I had a book for sale (which I didn’t). I took a picture of those seated at the table, and walked a few feet in front of the station to the intersection, which looked down the hill. Seven or eight of the men coming out of the Legion Hall had peeled off and stood at this spot, where they could see the action while not being a part of it. From here you would have had a perfect view of the entire episode: of the men walking down the hill and going in the tavern, of McElroy and Trena coming out and getting in the Silverado, of men following them out and standing around the truck and up the hill, of two men separating out, walking to their trucks, and reaching in the windows for their rifles. Of someone shouting “Shoot the bastard!” Of the rifles blazing, men falling to the ground in shock or fear, running between the buildings. Of glass shattering, and a head exploding. Of a bloody, screaming woman being pulled from the truck. You could have seen it all without turning your head. One of the men here had talked, told the law what he had seen. But then he received a visit, and his story changed. When I talked to Frankie in the eighties, he claimed not to have seen a thing; his original statement to the police unequivocally identified Del Clement as the shooter. I had heard yesterday that his mind had slipped, and he couldn’t remember much at all.
Over the years, as the witnesses died, I had expected one of them would confess on their deathbed to what they had seen. I figured a good Christian wouldn’t want to take that secret to the grave with him. I was wrong, or if one had the story hadn’t left the room.
Missouri, I had learned during my time here, was a strange place; although next to Nebraska and Kansas, it was not the Midwest. Directly above Arkansas, it more resembled the South—it had been one of three slaveholding states that didn’t join the Union—yet you didn’t see Baptist churches on every other corner, like you did in southern towns. The Christian Church on the edge of Skidmore was fundamentalist, with its own full-immersion baptizing tank on the altar, but its influence wasn’t widely felt. (The minister there had packed a gun to protect himself from McElroy). There had been a beautiful red brick Methodist church with stunning stained glass windows on the road into town. When the repairs became too costly, the congregation had torn it down and replaced it with a dull one-story building. Now there was nothing pretty in Skidmore.
I looked at my watch: 9:30. Right about now, I figured, the scene in the tavern was settling in. McElroy and Trena sat at the bar, not far from the door; twenty or thirty men stood around, glancing at McElroy through the smoky air. Nobody knowing what the next move was, but probably feeling it wasn’t going to end well. McElroy must have been enraged when he heard the town was having a meeting about what to do with him.. “He never knelt down to nobody!” Trena had said defiantly to the media in the days after McElroy’s death, and, in fact, you could say that up until he shot Bo Bowenkamp, the town had more likely knelt down to McElroy. So he drove into town, without his guns, his pretty blonde wife at his side, to answer the affront. Trena said he never spoke a word on the way in, but maybe by the time he parked in front of the tavern and flung open the driver’s door he was pleased that it was all finally coming to a head.
To be continued.