Features
‘Bad things have happened to good people’
Many trucking towns across the United States have died a slow death since the railroads' heyday in the late 1800s. Few small towns, however, have seen the level of tragedy that Skidmore, Missouri, has. Within a generation, the town has seen an unsolved killing in front of at least 45 witnesses, a pregnant woman stalked and killed for her baby, and a young man go missing from his backyard.

By Charlie Morasch
staff writer

 

Ken Rex McElroy raced down Nodaway County’s winding, gravel farm roads that night, the thrill of a good load of stolen cows coursing through his veins.

A lumbering giant of a man with jet black hair and a perpetual wad of cash, McElroy’s keen wits and craftiness kept him from serving time for nearly all of his exploits. Charges of rape, attempted murder and stealing were met with high-priced defense attorneys and witnesses who seemed to all too easily change their accounts.

On this night, he and another man had taken four cows from farms near Fillmore, MO, according to The New York Times best-selling book, “In Broad Daylight.”

As the cops drew near, McElroy stopped on a bridge and unhooked the trailer, blocking patrol cars from giving further chase. Later, he called the county sheriff and reported his trailer as being stolen. He would pick it up the following day.

Tina Gladman was working in the sheriff’s office that night, and took the call of the stolen trailer.

Was McElroy too smart to get locked up?

Tina pauses, and her eyes tell her more than her words.

“He was something,” Tina told Land Line Magazine.

Skidmore wants to move on and leave McElroy in the past. Then maybe it could be known again for its festivals, garden clubs and truck-friendly community.

Will history allow it?

“Skidmore – it has a stigma,” Tina said. “But these are good people. It’s just that bad things have happened to good people.”

•••

It’s late September and hilly acres of bleached corn rows are punctuated by tree lines and white farmhouses as you leave Interstate 29 and head toward Skidmore.

Most of the customers at a neighboring town’s gas station are camo-wearing hunters. Inside, a wall has postings for “farm work needed.”

On into Nodaway County, a few metal grain silos shine in the sun; a chorus of crickets and frogs drown out all but the closest occasional truck or car trickling by.  

In town, weather-beaten farmhouses and battered chicken coops guide you to the mostly boarded up downtown. In between Skidmore’s new post office building and a few carefully tended yards, a shuttered brick library hints at what used to be.

Skidmore’s nearly deserted streets show a once thriving community dying on the vine. Drive through town and you’re likely to encounter wary stares from a few locals who aren’t surprised by the latest generation of tourists and reporters.

“It’s gone downhill, totally,” says Harry MacLean, an attorney and author who spent three years in Skidmore writing “In Broad Daylight.”

“It’s really kind of sad. Everything has closed. ... Small towns are having a hard time.”

“Trucking was definitely important back then,” MacLean says. “You’d see the grain trucks either coming to or from the big grain silos, and the roads are so twisty and hilly.”

MacLean remembers seeing mud caked to area highways from trucks leaving farms – one of the few sights that remain the same today.

Located north of Interstate 29, just inside the Nodaway County line and less than an hour from St. Joseph, MO, Skidmore is like a lot of rural towns started near 19th-century rail lines. The quiet farm town’s population has dwindled to 300 today. On a Sunday morning, it’s nearly motionless.

Next summer will mark the 30th anniversary of one of America’s most unusual killings – the shooting of noted town bully Ken Rex McElroy in front of at least 45 witnesses – none of whom would identify a shooter. The killing put Skidmore on the map, and the rural community became known for more than corn, soybeans and its annual “Punkin Show.”

If you Google “Skidmore,” you’ll learn about a rural community that is all too often haphazardly painted as a hick town that rose up to kill a bully – and shrouded the bully’s killer with a 30-year vow of silence.

Since then, it’s seen a series of tragedies – where pregnant Bobbi Jo Stinnett was killed and had her baby crudely cut out and taken from her dying body. In 2001, a 20-year-old resident named Branson Perry went missing after walking out of his house to replace some jumper cables.

But Skidmore is more than the site of true crimes. It’s a city with a mayor and council, some families, and a recently opened bar and grill that’s in the old post office.

•••

Dennis and Tina Gladman moved to Skidmore 21 years ago from the nearby Oregon, MO-area.

Dennis, who once worked as a diesel mechanic, said locals began buying and driving their own trucks after motor carriers largely stopped offering service in the Skidmore area.

“If you’re not a farmer here, you’re nobody,” said Dennis, who is also a former mayor of Skidmore. “And everyone that has a tractor has got a truck.”

The Gladmans’ son, Owen, lost his job as a truck mechanic earlier this year when the motor carrier he worked for had cutbacks.

Owen said that he, like many in his generation, moved away from Skidmore for work.

“There are no jobs,” Owen said. “You can’t get paid.”

Like many residents, the Gladmans may show a bit of hesitation, but they also speak with reporters to help outsiders see the normalcy in Skidmore that’s rarely written about.

They understand it’s impossible to visit or write about Skidmore without recounting the infamous life and old west-style demise of Ken Rex McElroy. They know the wonder of whodunit.

Each time they are asked, the Gladmans say Ken Rex’s shooter won’t be identified.

•••

Cheryl Huston’s hands tremble as she talks about Ken Rex McElroy, the only male she’s been intimidated by. Seated in the kitchen of the home she inherited, she wants people to know that no one wanted vigilante justice served.

True to the lyrics of a song playing in the background, she tells Land Line the town took matters into its own hands when they came to the realization it was “just us.”

Cheryl’s parents ran Skidmore’s grocery store in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Her father, Bo Bowenkamp, was shot and left for dead by McElroy in 1980 following an incident in which one of the McElroy children told their parents they had been accused of shoplifting candy from the store.

Despite being charged in the shooting, McElroy continued parking on the street in front of the Bowenkamp home, and even brazenly fired shots into a tree in their front yard. Cheryl never felt that sheriff’s deputies stood up to McElroy. In fact, she says the law failed her family.

“There is a lot of bitterness still,” she said. “I have a lot of bitterness toward law enforcement. We all grew up thinking if you needed help, the law was on your side. Well, the Nodaway County Sheriff’s Office would wait three days to respond.”

In July 1981, a group of 60 locals met early one morning at the American Legion building to discuss ways they could keep an eye on McElroy and protect themselves.

As chance would have it, that same morning McElroy rode back into town uncharacteristically unarmed and went into D&G Tavern – which was just down the hill from the American Legion.

Many in the American Legion hall went to the bar when they heard McElroy had arrived, and they watched McElroy and his young wife, Trena, as they sat at the bar.

McElroy ordered a six-pack to go, and he and Trena walked outside and climbed into his pickup.

Moments later, shots rang out, hitting McElroy in the head. Depending on who you talk to, Trena was either helped from the truck or she jumped out of the truck, screaming and fearful for her life.

The bystanders immediately cleared out. A bartender inside the D&G heard the shots, and continued serving drinks. Business as usual continued until 45 minutes later when McElroy’s attorney – who wasn’t even in Skidmore at the time – called the police after being notified by a frantic Trena.

The killing is unsolved to this day, though an updated edition of “In Broad Daylight” published in 2007 gives some key clues as to who might have shot McElroy.

Cheryl began keeping a .30-30 rifle in the trunk of her car. She told Land Line she made the fortunate decision to keep it at home the day McElroy was shot and killed.

During the shooting, Cheryl’s car was parked in the space next to McElroy’s truck, and investigators determined the first shots were fired from a .30-30.

Whether those gunshots were a gut reaction or a public execution, who fired them?

Standing with pursed lips and a confident gaze, Cheryl told Land Line McElroy’s killer will never be known.

•••

Skidmore would become the stage for more horror.

The encyclopedia of the McElroy killing remains “In Broad Daylight,” the spellbinding account which MacLean authored with the help of a regional trucker named Kriss, an OOIDA member and Skidmore native.

The book digs deeply into McElroy’s life, and the rise and fall of Skidmore, which its founder and namesake once thought had the potential to become a future Omaha.

In 1980, Kriss was a rowdy 28-year-old, the youngest of five sons of a longtime Skidmore farming family.

On Aug. 10, 1980, the area continued its annual four-day “Punkin’ Show,” complete with frog jumping contests, tractor pulls and parades.

That Saturday night, Kriss – who asked that his last name be kept from this article – walked into a Skidmore tavern, sat down on a barstool and started a conversation that nearly got him killed.

According to the book, no other seats in the little box-shaped bar were available. After a few drinks Kriss and McElroy seemed to hit it off.

As Kriss rose to get up and go to the bathroom, he drunkenly slapped McElroy on the shoulder and asked him if he was such a good hunter, why he missed his targets – meaning Bowenkamp and Romaine Henry, another Skidmore resident McElroy had shot but not managed to kill.

Minutes later outside the tavern, Kriss found himself staring down the business end of a shotgun while fighting off McElroy and his wife, Trena. He managed to escape without being shot.

Kriss soon began planning and writing down interviews for what would later become part of MacLean’s book and, eventually, a television movie starring Brian Dennehy, Marcia Gay Harden and Chris Cooper.

“The truth was a lot better than the crap people were making up,” Kriss said, with a caveat. “I was not out to find the killer.”

Kriss believes McElroy’s killer will never be identified.

•••

OOIDA Member Rick Stanton has lived in the area for much of his life.

Like Tina Gladman, he measures his words, which run out in a drawl that sounds part farmer, part southerner.

“I heard about that,” he says of McElroy’s shooting, offering little else.

The Stantons have grown familiar with strangers coming in and asking about Skidmore’s famous crimes. Many residents simply tell visitors to “read the book,” referring to MacLean’s “In Broad Daylight,” which earned the Edgar Allan Poe Award in 1989.

Teresa Stanton spent many formative years in Skidmore, and was a classmate of Bobbi Jo Stinnett.

In 2004, Bobbi Jo Stinnett was stalked and murdered by a Kansas woman who first met her victim online. Lisa Montgomery strangled the pregnant Stinnett before cutting her baby from the womb and taking it home to Kansas.

The child, Victoria Stinnett, was found alive, and Montgomery was convicted in the killing. Victoria lives in Skidmore with her father.

With a home in the middle of Skidmore’s grid of downtown houses, the Stanton family is used to people wandering by and asking about the town’s history.

McElroy’s killer will never be identified, the Stantons told Land Line.

•••

Nearly 30 years later, author MacLean still can’t believe the events of Ken Rex McElroy’s life and death occurred in a present-day world, or any time.

“I think the nature of the community had something to do with it,” MacLean told Land Line. “They had a way of keeping to themselves … until they made him go away.”

MacLean hopes one day Skidmore will be able to embrace the McElroy shooting as a piece of unique history. Maybe one day, actors will re-create McElroy’s shooting.

“They’re not quite there yet,” MacLean said. “They’re not to the point they can push it into history and say, ‘oh yeah, it’s behind us.’… The story is never over,” said MacLean. “It doesn’t depend on the individuals involved still being alive. It will go on forever. It isn’t solved, and it has this mythological aspect to it of the town taking justice into its own hands.”

As committed as Skidmore’s residents may be to leaving tragedies in the past, the day’s circumstances or some unexplained design seem inescapable.

A few years ago, the Gladmans moved into a house once occupied by the family of Branson Kayne Perry, the 20-year-old man who has been missing for 10 years come next April.

Perry disappeared in broad daylight after telling a friend he was heading outside to put jumper cables back in a shed. Every year, it seems, news crews and reporters come and take pictures of their house to report on the unsolved case.

“A national camera crew set up right here,” Dennis Gladman says, pointing in his front yard.

Despite being unable to escape neither the past nor the outsiders who show up wanting to drudge it up, the residents of Skidmore move on.

For confirmation, you don’t have to look any further than the muddy truck tracks heading down the road.

Even though larger motor carriers rarely make stops in Nodaway County, aside from deliveries to the WalMart in nearby Maryville, farmers still need grain hauled and equipment moved.

Rick Stanton’s trucking business is run on a daily basis by his daughter Teresa, a graduate of Southern Methodist University.

Kriss hauls containers between the St. Joseph and Kansas City areas during weekdays, allowing him to return home every night.

“I bounce around all week, and it’s hard but I love it,” he says. “I’m no super trucker.”

Those are the types of stories of life in Skidmore today that residents yearn for outsiders to embrace.

Tina Gladman says she hopes questions about Skidmore’s economy and schools will one day outnumber the other questions. She hopes the community won’t be judged because of the actions of a few.

Pulling out of town, you drive over new concrete bridges. The silos filled with the bounty of today’s farms mark the route back to the interstate. You see an old Freightliner and fresh mud tracked from farms onto the road.

You leave with a better understanding of Skidmore today, but still without the answer to who killed Ken Rex McElroy. LL

 

charlie_morasch@landlinemag.com

Aug/Sept Digital Edition