Ken McElroy was born on June 1st, 1934 to a poor farming couple, Tony and Mabel, who had been moving around a bit before settling down just outside a little town in Missouri named Skidmore. McElroy was the 15th of 16 children.
His childhood was fairly normal, one thing that may have led to his behavior is when McElroy was young and riding on a hay wagon he fell off and hit his head. The injury was so severe a metal plate had to be implanted in his head (another source said that he suffered an injury while working on a construction site and a steel beam was dropped on him causing chronic pain and possible brain damage.) McElroy was also illiterate and dropped out of school in the eighth grade, this is when things began to change. McElroy started out hunting raccoons but that quickly escalated to petty crimes such as cattle rustling, theft of grain, alcohol, gasoline, and antiques. This petty crime eventually evolved into more serious felonies such as assault, arson, child molestation, and statutory rape.
Now you may be wondering why he wasn’t in jail if he committed so many crimes so frequently. They tried. McElroy had charges brought against him 21 times, but he was never convicted due to his habit of intimidating witnesses, either by following them around or parking outside their homes and watching them. His defense attorney, Richard McFadin said in an interview “Best client I ever had. He was punctual, always said he didn’t do it, paid in cash, and kept coming back.” McFadin also noted that he represented McElroy against a different felony arrest about 3 or 4 times a year.
McElroy had a total of 10 children with several women but in 1971 he met his last wife, Trena McCloud, who he had raped repeatedly, when she was only 12 and he was 35. Trena became pregnant at 14 and dropped out of school to go live with McElroy and his current wife, Alice. During a doctor’s visit, the issue of domestic abuse came up along with the charges of molestation. However, McElroy had a plan, he had learned of a loophole to escape these charges. If he and Trena were to get married then Trena would be unable to testify against him, and since she was the only witness, there would be no evidence for a conviction. So McElroy divorced Alice and married Trena. Understandably, Trena’s parents didn’t approve of this relationship, but they eventually agreed to the marriage when McElroy shot their dog and burned down their house.
Not long after, Trena gave birth to a boy and at this point she decided to make her escape. With the help of McElroy’s ex-wife Alice, Trena made it back to her parents’ place. Once McElroy realized what had happened he tracked them down and forced Trena to go back to his home. Later he would return to the McCloud home to shoot the new dog and, once again, burn down the house.
In 1973, McElroy was facing charges of arson, assault, and statutory rape based on a testimony given by Trena. To keep her safe, she and her baby were relocated to a foster home in the nearby town of Maryville. This did nothing to stop McElroy who had been released on a $2,500 bail (in 2023 this would be equal to $17,212.33). The next few weeks consisted of McElroy stalking Trena and her foster family. McElroy would sit in his car outside their home for hours and even plotted to kidnap the foster family’s biological daughter as she waited for the school bus so he could trade her for Trena. Fortunately McElroy never went through with this plan and despite all of the charges brought against him, the state failed to convict him. McElroy would go on to convince Trena to move back in with him.
On July 27th, 1976, a local farmer named Romaine Henry claimed that McElroy had shot him twice with a shotgun after the two got into an argument over McElroy shooting guns on Romaine’s property. McElroy was then charged with assault with intent to kill, but was once again released while the courts processed the case and according to Romaine, in the following months after the shooting, McElroy had been parking outside his house over 100 times. It should come as no surprise that McElroy was able to escape prison once again with the help of his lawyer despite the testimony and two separate witnesses who positively identified the suspect as McElroy. It may have also helped him out when, according to a judge, he found out where the jury members lived and put rattlesnakes in their mailboxes.
Sometime in 1980, Trena took one of McElroy’s daughters, Tonia, from a previous marriage to the grocery store. It wasn’t long before Trena and the shopkeepers, 70-year-old Ernest “Bo” Bowenkamp and his wife Lois, were in an argument over whether Tonia had attempted to steal a piece of candy. Supposedly Lois called it a misunderstanding and attempted to let it go when McElroy offered her money to fight Trena. The offer was obviously declined and everyone went their separate ways.
But McElroy wasn’t so willing to forgive the couple who had accused his child of being a thief and began stalking them, at the store and at home, often parking out front to make sure they knew he was watching them and even going so far as to fire his shotgun into the air multiple times. A little while later, Bo was waiting for an air-conditioner engineer out on the loading dock behind the store, when McElroy turned up armed with a shotgun which he used to shoot Bo in the neck. Luckily he survived. McElroy went to trial for simple assault and not assault with intent to kill. After a lengthy trial, he was convicted and given a two year sentence but was released on a $40,000 (around $148,393.69 today) bond after his lawyer had appealed the conviction.
This was obviously not a good idea because immediately after his release, McElroy broke his bond by walking into a local bar called the D&G Tavern with an M1 Garand rifle complete with bayonet, and loudly announced the gruesome ways he would get his revenge on Bo. After a sheriff deputy managed to get several witnesses to agree to testify against McElroy, with some of the townsfolk even arranging to have the witnesses escorted to the hearing, McElroy’s lawyer got the hearing postponed, which further angered the town.
On July 10th, 1981, the townspeople decided that they’ve had enough and gathered at the Legion hall with county sheriff, Dan Estes, to discuss what could be done and how they could defend themselves. During this meeting, McElroy and Trena drove into town and went into the D&G Tavern, not heeding his lawyer’s advice to stay out of town. Being a small town, word traveled fast and soon the people at the meeting heard about McElroy being in town. Sheriff Estes had advised the townsfolk to not confront McElroy but to instead form a neighborhood watch. After the meeting was over, Estes left town in his police car and the people who were still at Legion hall (about 46 people) agreed to head over to the tavern as a large mob.
They all went into the bar and nothing happened while they were inside but eventually McElroy and Trena left the building and according to Trena, when they left, a large number of people followed them outside. Trena was in the passenger seat and as McElroy sat down in the driver seat, gunfire erupted and he was shot and killed by at least two gunmen. 46 witnesses and none of them called an ambulance, and none of them claimed to have seen anything. Trena had been the only one to identify a gunman. The shell casings that were found put one of the shooters behind McElroy’s truck while the other was about a half-block down the street. It’s possible that there were more than two shooters but there is only evidence of two. The individual that Trena named as a shooter was not convicted due to minimal evidence and no other witness statements but he was taken to court along with the county sheriff and town mayor on July 9th, 1984 in a wrongful death suit. No one admitted guilt but they settled out of court for $17,600 (around $51,782.11). The reason for settling was to avoid legal costs if the case continued. If you’d like to find out more about this story you can check out In Broad Daylight by Harry N. Maclean.