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The Thirtieth Anniversary of the Killing of Ken McEroy — Chapter Two


Dunbar was leaning up against the rail in front of the café, talking to Kermit Goslee. Dunbar had been the town marshal for a few months before McElroy was killed. He had run for marshal as a lark. The town was unhappy with its current marshal, and anyone could have beaten him. Dunbar took his duties seriously, but not too seriously. Many evenings he sat on a stool in the tavern with his badge on his jean jacket, his pistol in the glove box of the car, and drank with the locals.  He had even challenged McElroy to an arm wrestling match in the tavern one night, before he knew who he was. The other patrons shook their head in wonder.

Dunbar came from an Iowa town near the Missouri border, and had moved to Skidmore to work on the pipeline.  He was married, had two kids and lived in a small house near the edge of town. He was handsome with liquid brown eyes and an engaging smile, and women loved him. He had been a football player and a wrestler in high school, and he had thick shoulders and arms. You sensed that he would punch in a flurry, quick and hard, and could take a good shot himself.  Maybe it was because he wasn’t from here, but the Clements and their crowd didn’t intimidate him, or anyone else who thought talking about McElroy or what happened that day in 1981 was a bad idea.

Early on, Dunbar had decided I was all right, and we became friends. Along with Kermit Goslee, we caroused together in clubs and bars in northwest Missouri and southern Iowa, and we ended up with a few good stories. The night of my confrontation with Del Clement in the Elks Club in Maryville, Dunbar and Del had gone outside to have it out, but Clement had backed down.  In the early days of my presence in Skidmore, there had been a price to pay for being my friend. The Goslees and the Clements had never gotten along, any my acceptance into the Goslees household didn’t help matters. Without the Goslees there would have been no book, or it would have been a much different book.

Once Dunbar put the badge on, as a lark or not, whatever comity existed between him and McElroy evaporated. In the tavern now, McElroy gave him that penetrating, baleful stare that kept people on edge, or drove them from his presence.  The day that McElroy pulled a shotgun on Bo Bowenkamp on the loading dock behind the grocery and blew half his neck away, Dunbar had been at a friend’s house smoking pot and drinking beer.  When he heard the commotion, he pulled himself together and investigated. He would be called upon to testify at McElroy’s upcoming trial for assault, and McElroy was not pleased about it. McElroy had a way of getting witnesses to disappear or forget what they thought they saw—his wife’s parents could swear to that—and without witnesses, he had proven time and again over the years, there would be no case. Although Dunbar hadn’t seen the shooting, hadn’t seen McElroy stick the shotgun in Bo’s throat and pull the trigger, or even leave the scene, he was part of the lineup of witnesses. McElroy was an expert in the practical dynamics of fear: scare one witness, one juror, one DA, one judge, and the others got the message.  This practical sense mixed in with a substantial strain of paranoia, and what you got was a man who would shoot someone he thought was talking bad, or even thinking bad, about him, or his family.

In the last year or so before the shooting, McElroy had gotten worse, and most people, stayed out of his way. It was just simpler not to have an encounter with him, than to try to straighten it out later.  He would stop in the tavern and drop a sack full of twenties and hundreds on the bar top and invite anyone there to help themselves.  He might even insist on it.  You could be in serious trouble either way. If you didn’t grab some money, it might be because you thought you were too good for McElroy, that you were from one of the wealthy farm families who looked down on the McElroy family as  a bunch of rag-tag pig farmers. That alone could be very dangerous for you.

That last year or so, after he had had shot Bo and was terrorizing the victims and the witnesses, the town was a like powder keg, waiting for the spark. Nobody wanted to be around when it happened. When his Silverado reached the edge of town, the phone lines would begin buzzing, and by the time he pulled into the tavern the whole town knew where he was.  Like I said, it began ruining business at the D & G.

For all intents and purposes, there was no law in Skidmore, at least not as far as Ken McElroy was concerned.  The town was isolated; lawmen, with a few exceptions, weren’t anxious to run into him; and McElroy, who never made it beyond sixth grade, who didn’t have a social security number and had never filed a tax return, knew the rules as well as they did.  Lois Bowenkamp had been calling and writing the governor and the attorney general asking for help, but all she received were form letters telling her it was a local problem.  The other thing was, people in Skidmore weren’t anxious to draw McElroy onto themselves by helping her.  The local minister had stopped by the house to counsel Bo after  his release from the hospital, and that very night he and his family received unwanted visitors. The minister began packing, and kept packing until the day McElroy was shot.

I wonder if McElroy enjoyed this power over people, over the town, derived a satanic sort of pleasure from it, or if he was simply caught up in the bloody dynamics of the drama. I asked Trena during our interview, and she couldn’t say.  I wasn’t sure she even comprehended the question.  Even then, four or five years after McElroy’s death, I think her mind was still overwhelmed by him. She had been twelve when he first got a hold of her, and she spoke to me that day in the Ozarks in the voice of a twelve-year old. She seemed stuck where she had been when he found her. I left the interview feeling very sorry for her, even though, at the end, she had become a fearsome character in her own right; tilting her own shotgun out the passenger’s side window, blonde hair blowing in the wind, as the Silverado led a line of McElroy  pick-ups by someone’s house.

Ask David Dunbar about Trena. The Punkin’ Show in those days was the town’s annual rite of community. For three days there were dances, tractor pulls, rodeos, bake-offs, frog jumping contests, beauty contests, barbecue competitions,  parades and lots of partying, in the tavern and on the streets.  Skidmore, I always said, was not on the road to anywhere; you ended up there only if you wanted to go there. A lot of people came to town for the Punkin’ Show. In the evening, people gathered on the sidewalks, and a steady, slow stream of pickups rolled down the main street.

On the Friday night of the Punkin’ Show in 1980,  only a few months after McElroy had shot Bo and while he was awaiting trial, Dunbar sat for a few hours at the bar in the D & G, with his badge on his jean jacket, drinking beer. As he was leaving, he heard a voice: “Hey, Dave, come over here a moment.  I want to talk to you.”

Dunbar knew McElroy’s voice. “Fuck,” he thought.  “Here we go.” McElroy was standing by his truck, in the gravel drive between the tavern and the back of the bank and the grocery store.  The spot was in the shadows, a little out of the glare. Dunbar  walked over. McElroy stared at the badge on Dunbar’s jacket with glassy eyes.

“Are you going to testify against me?” McElroy demanded.

“I have to,” Dunbar responded. “It’s my job.”

“I’ll kill anybody who’ll put me in jail for the rest of my life,” McElroy said.

He reached in the bed of the pickup and swung a shotgun up and out into Dunbar’s face. Dunbar grabbed the barrel and held it away from him. McElroy flicked his right ear, and in his peripheral vision Dunbar saw a form begin to move behind him. Suddenly, he felt cold steel bite into the back of  his neck. Trena was holding a shotgun to the base of his skull. Another flick of a finger and he was gone.

Dunbar later reported the incident to the sheriff’s office in Maryville, and was told there was nothing that could be done about it. Just keep an eye on him. Keep an eye on him? he swore. The guy was pulling shotguns on the law in the middle of a festival  and the sheriff’s response was to say “Keep an eye on him?” Until he actually killed someone? The next morning he walked to the gas station which had been converted to city hall and laid his badge on the table.  $240 a month wasn’t close to what it would cost to go up against McElroy.

Now, on the 30th anniversary of the shooting, he laughed as he recounted the story of his encounter with McElroy to the reporter and the small crowd that had gathered in front of the café. He added that by the time he got home that night he was really pissed, and he grabbed a rifle and got in his car and went looking for McElroy.  But he couldn’t find him.

A faded mid-nineties black car slowed as it passed in front of us. Thirty yards down the hill, it stopped, then swung around into an angled parking spot.

“Watch out,” Dunbar said, “it could be an ambush.”

He chuckled as he said it, but he kept his eye on the car, as did I, as the others. Did.  The gathering this morning was no secret; in my blog and on Facebook I had invited anyone in the area to join us at the café at 9 AM for a “commemoration” of the anniversary of the killing. McElroy still had a lot of family in the area—I had been in contact with some of his kids over the years—and more than a few fans and followers, some of whom considered him a sort of a Robin Hood, because he stole from rich farmers and shared his booty with his them, and many of whom used to ride with him. Another concern was the family and friends of  Del Clement, a few of whom had responded with veiled threats after I had referred to him in a blog as hot-tempered drunk and suggested that he might have been a coward for shooting McElroy in the back.

Northwest Missouri was a more civilized area now than it was in 1981, when McElroy met his infamous end, but there was still an outlaw element, and there was still a lot of bad feelings about what had gone on that summer, and how it come to an end on the morning of July 10. The car sat there, in the growing heat, it’s occupants invisible in the harsh light. Close to a minute passed, and Dunbar repeated his comment, without a chuckle this time. I kept my eyes on the driver’s door, thinking it couldn’t be good, someone sitting in the heat that long. Finally the door swung open, and boots hit the ground.

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