September 14, 1981 12:00 PM

Anyone looking for Ken Rex McElroy could usually find him in the D&G tavern in Skidmore, Mo. But most of the 440 people in town did what they could to avoid finding him. A 270-pound giant with a hair-trigger temper and a fondness for firearms, McElroy, 47, was a brooding presence who held the town in his thrall. Though he had been arrested for numerous crimes over the years, he had never been convicted, because witnesses were reportedly too frightened to testify. Once, when farmer Romaine Henry had tried to chase him off his land, McElroy allegedly fired a charge of buckshot into his stomach. And McElroy was known for holding a grudge.

Then, last June, McElroy was found guilty of second degree assault in the shooting of grocer Bo Bowencamp, 72. “I’ve been fighting the law since I was 13, and I’m damn near 50,” said a disbelieving McElroy. “This is the first time I’ve lost.” Skidmore was relieved, but not for long. Freed on $40,000 bond, McElroy was soon back in town, ready for action. On the morning of July 10, he was scheduled to appear in court in nearby Bethany County on charges that he had violated his bond provisions by showing up at the D&G armed with a 30-caliber Army carbine with a bayonet attached. That same day some 60 Skidmore residents were meeting with the mayor and the county sheriff to discuss what ought to be done about McElroy. “We simply felt that the system had failed us,” one of them recalls. “We all knew what McElroy was like, and there he was again and again. It seemed like nobody could stop him.”

But somebody could. When word came that McElroy was drinking at the D&G, the meeting adjourned to the street. As McElroy and his wife Trena left the bar and walked to their pickup truck, many in the crowd followed silently. McElroy was no sooner in the truck than someone across the street raised a rifle. “I started to scream,” recalls Trena. “I said to Ken, ‘They’ve got a gun.’ I think he kind of knew what was going to happen. He didn’t show any fear. He never said a word.” Moments later, McElroy fell dead, shot through the head by a high-powered rifle.

Remarkably, though the killing had taken place before a street filled with witnesses, no one would say who had rid the town of McElroy. No one, that is, but Trena, who identified the killer as Del Clement, part owner of the D&G. Clement denied the charge, and a coroner’s jury declined to order an arrest warrant. A grand jury is now hearing testimony in the case, but Skid-more people doubt there will ever be a conviction. Says Bowencamp’s wife, Lois: “Justice was done.”

Still, McElroy is not without mourners. By his first wife, Sharon, he had four daughters, now 16 to 19, and a son, 22. The four girls chose to live with him after he and Sharon parted. McElroy next became involved with Alice Woods, now 35, who says she isn’t sure they were ever legally married, but lived with him for 15 years. She bore him two sons and a daughter. Ten years ago McElroy began a relationship with 14-year-old Trena McCloud, who first accused him of rape, then married him in 1974, a year after the first of their three children was born. But he never abandoned Alice, by whom he had two more children after his marriage to Trena.

Though neighbors were disgusted by the arrangement, Alice and Trena, who are friends, insist that McElroy treated them well. “Ken was totally different from the way they are saying he was now,” says Alice. “Oh, he was wild, but he wasn’t guilty of all those things they say. He was honest and generous. I never knew him to steal anything, ever.” Trena agrees, and says McElroy was harassed by police. “The officers were always hassling him,” she claims. “They’d accuse him of anything, even things I know he didn’t do because I was with him. They just hated him because he wouldn’t kneel down to them.” She angrily denies a rumor that her stepfather at first refused McElroy permission to marry her, and that McElroy retaliated by burning his house down. “That’s a lie,” she snaps. “It was just faulty wiring.”

There are, of course, those who question McElroy’s wiring. One of 13 children, he quit school after fifth grade and could neither read nor write. His family denies reports that he carried a steel plate in his skull following a childhood fall off a hay wagon, but he was seriously injured at age 18 when a steel slab fell on him at a construction site. From then on, he earned a living by leasing land around the farm where he lived, trading and racing coon dogs, and, his neighbors suspect, rustling livestock. He also made money trading antiques. “Antiques, yes,” grumbles a skeptic, “but whose?”

However McElroy earned it, he usually carried a thick wad of bills. “We didn’t really have any trouble with him while he was at the tavern,” says Kathi Clement, sister-in-law of the man Trena says did the killing. “He was always real quiet. What he liked to do was speak in a low whisper and stare people down. I’m convinced he was insane.” Speculates one local farmer: “I think that Ken simply wanted to be big and important and have people afraid of him when he walked down the street. And he got that. They were.”

Most of McElroy’s bullying was verbal, but he was always armed and potentially violent. The Bowencamp trouble started when a clerk in the older man’s store asked McElroy’s daughter Tonia, 8, to return a piece of candy he said the child hadn’t paid for. McElroy was enraged; the clerk later apologized. Then last summer McElroy drove into the alley behind Bowen-camp’s store and shot the grocer in the neck. “You can’t know how intimidating it was after that,” says Bowencamp’s wife. “Before his trial, he’d drive up to our house in his pickup at night and just sit there. Sometimes he would fire his gun. It was frightening.”

According to local lore, several people, including a small group from Skidmore, had talked of getting rid of McElroy at one time or another. “I told him about one threat I heard,” says a farmer. “We sat up all night on his front porch with a machine gun and a bottle of whiskey, but nothing happened.” Now that something has, most people in Skidmore would prefer to forget it, but the McElroy family’s lawyer insists that they can’t. “A man was killed in the presence of 60 people,” says Richard Gene McFadin. “If people are allowed to violate the law this way, it’s a tremendously bad example.” Adds Trena: “The whole county is guilty.” Guilty, perhaps, but hardly remorseful. “The only surprise to me,” says one unrepentant D&G regular, “is that McElroy lived as long as he did.”

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