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The Curse of Skidmore Missouri

The Curse of Skidmore Missouri

On a hot July afternoon in 1981, townspeople in Skidmore, Missouri, gathered around a pickup truck parked outside a tavern. Inside the truck sat Ken Rex McElroy and his wife Trena. To Trena’s horror, gun shots splattered the pickup truck, hitting her husband in the back of the head. Trena watched as her husband died and bullets just barely missed her head. The murder of Ken Rex McElroy would be the first in a disturbing series of violent crimes to affect the tiny town of Skidmore, leading some to believe in a curse upon the town of Skidmore, Missouri.


The city of Skidmore is located in northwestern Missouri, a part of Nodaway County. The entire town is less than one square mile in area. The population of the tiny town has gradually decreased since 1910, when five-hundred sixty-two residents occupied the town. Today, only two-hundred-forty-five people live in Skidmore. Of those, more than twenty percent fall below the poverty line. Several businesses have closed and the town shows signs of deterioration. Despite the tiny size of Skidmore, the town is famous for the violent crimes that have occurred there.

Kenneth Rex McElroy was born June 1st, 1934, in Kansas. He was the fifteenth of sixteen children born to Tony and Mabel McElroy. The family were poor farmers who moved around frequently before settling in Skidmore, Missouri. According to A&E’s documentary, No One Saw a Thing, Ken’s father was abusive and forced his son to be violent with animals. Ken dropped out of school at age fifteen and began a life of crime.

Ken Rex McElroy was known for stealing cattle, grain, gasoline, alcohol, antiques, and other livestock. He also started gaining a reputation as a womanizer. Ken was married three times and was known to hang around young girls, as young as twelve. In fact, he started seeing his third wife, Trena, when she was just twelve years old, and he was thirty-five. At some point, Trena told her parents Ken had sexually assaulted her and charges were pressed. To escape charges, Ken asked Trena to marry him. Trena agreed, but Trena’s parents would be required to give permission for their young daughter to marry him. At first, Trena’s parents refused. Soon after, their dog was shot, and their house burned down. After the fire and death of the dog, Trena’s parents consented to the marriage. Ken moved his new wife in with him and his second wife.

Trena had the first of the couple’s children when she was fourteen and she was thirty-seven. I could not confirm the exact number of children Ken fathered, but most sources state he fathered at least ten. Most likely, it was closer to twenty. An online article by Harry Maclean (2010) suggests he had four children with another fourteen-year-old girl who later placed them all for adoption.


In 1973, McElroy faced charges for arson, assault, and statutory rape. Trena (pictured), who was still underage, was placed in foster care along with her infant child. Ken parked his truck outside foster home, stalking Trena. He even asked the foster parents to “trade girl for girl” (Wikipedia), implying he knew where their biological daughter went to school. In 1976, a farmer in Skidmore accused McElroy of shooting him twice with a shotgun after a dispute. No matter how many times charges were pressed against McElroy, he always seemed one step ahead. Despite facing charges more than twenty times, no charges ever stuck.

One of the reasons McElroy stayed out of jail was by his own design. He made sure to threaten anyone who dare file charges or testify against him. He would sit outside their homes and stare, make comments about burning down a house, People in Skidmore claim they were too scared to cross him. In the case of his charges for having sex with a minor, Ken married Trena, which meant she could not be forced to testify against him. Ken McElroy hired a hot shot attorney who worked diligently to keep him out of prison, and he was a good at his job.

In 1980, some of the McElroy children entered the grocery store owned by fellow Skidmore residents Ernest “Bo” and Lois Bowenkamp. One of the children picked up a few pieces of candy, prompting the clerk to ask if they were going to pay for the candy. The kids came out crying, prompting Trena to enter the store and begin in argument with the store owners and clerk. She said something to the effect of “you haven’t met Ken Rex McElroy yet” (No One Saw a Thing). After that, Ken began to stalk the Bowenkamp family. Ken would sit outside the Bowenkamp home, show his gun to Bo Bowenkamp, and frighten the family any chance he got.

Ken Rex was forty-seven years old in 1981, stood five feet ten inches tall, and weighed two-hundred-sixty-five pounds. He had dark hair with sideburns and frequently carried a gun. That being said, most of the men in Skidmore carried guns in their trucks. Ken was muscular and strong, easily able to intimidate any of Skidmore’s four hundred citizens. Eventually, after many months of stalking, Ken shot Bo Bowenkamp, who was seventy years old at the time, with a shot gun. Bo (pictured) was rushed to the hospital in critical care but survived the attack. Ken Rex was charged with assault with a deadly weapon but was free on bail pending trial. After all, his illegal activities such as stealing livestock provided him fists full of cash.

Skidmore residents testified against Ken Rex, hoping to finally rid themselves of who most considered “the town bully” once and for all. The townspeople believed they had finally succeeded when Ken Rex McElroy was convicted of assault. However, the people of Skidmore were forced to live in fear once more when McElroy was granted an appeal and allowed to post $40,000 bond. He began to stalk those who testified against him, often carrying a gun against the court’s orders. On July 10th, 1981, Ken was to go back to court to face bond revocation as a result of carrying the gun.

The townspeople of Skidmore, nearly every adult in town, gathered at the legion call to discuss the plan for the day. Several citizens were to testify against him at the hearing, so they felt a united convoy to and from the courthouse in a neighboring community would be the best option to protect themselves. They were distraught to learn that the hearing was postponed. Ken Rex McElroy was free to terrorize them a little longer. They feared for their families and themselves. The people of Skidmore had enough and decided to form a neighborhood watch at the urging of the sheriff. The Sheriff then left town, just as Ken Rex and his wife Trena drove in.

“He never knelt down to nobody” Trena McElroy later told the Associated Press. He insisted on driving into Skidmore to the D&G tavern, the only tavern in town. As Ken and Trena sat down to enjoy some beers, all the men from the legion flooded into the bar. They all just stared, uniting in their fight against the bully. Soon, Ken and Trena left the tavern and went to their pickup truck. Everyone followed them out of the bar. As Ken and Trena sat in their truck, the townspeople surrounded the truck, many carrying their won weapons. Ken also had a shotgun, with a bayonet. Soon, the gun shots started.

Ken Rex McElroy was killed on July 10th, 1981, as he sat in his pickup truck next to his twenty-four-year-old wife. He was forty-seven-years-old. Someone eventually pulled Trena out of the vehicle and ushered her to the bank. After Ken was dead, everyone just went home and about their business as he lay dead in his truck, the accelerator pushed down to the floor but the car in park.

Upon questioning, not a single person admitted to knowing who shot McElroy. In fact, police believed at least two people shot at Ken, but no one seemed to have seen a thing. Trena claimed the murder was planned by the townspeople at the legion hall. She also claimed to see the shooter, a man she identified to police. However, police said they believed the fatal shot came from the other direction, ruling out that suspect. The prosecutor brought the case before a grand jury, who determined there was not enough evidence to indict anyone one person for the crime.

Some people believe Trena, others call her a liar. She definitely damaged her credibility by claiming Ken had raped her when she was a minor, but later said she made that up because she was jealous of his wife at the time. Ken later divorced his wife and married Trena, but his former wife continued to live with the couple, and they behaved as a polygamous family. “We had heard they were having meetings around town before he even went to trial in Bethany” Trena said (Nichols, 1981).

Ken’s children do not understand the hatred for their father. “All my life, they’ve blamed him for everything. He was the best father anyone can have. I worshiped the ground he walked on. He took good care of his family and loved us all. I don’t know how anyone could shoot him down in cold blood” his daughter Tami said (Nichols, 1981). On the documentary, No One Saw a Thing, several of Ken’s children appear and express sadness over the loss of their father. They admit that sometimes Trena and Alice had black eyes, but they denied ever witnessing abuse in their home.

Although no arrests have ever been made in this case, Trena did file a federal civil rights lawsuit against the man she swears killed her husband, the town of Skidmore, Nodaway County, the Sheriff, and the mayor of the town. She originally sought five million dollars, but the case was later settled for $17,600. The defendants denied wrongdoing, but say they settled to prevent an expensive legal process. Trena moved out of Skidmore with her children.

In 1982, the home that once belonged to Ken and his family was destroyed by fire. No one reported the house fire, and authorities stated they would not investigate as no one had made a complaint or request for assistance. The house was vacant at the time of the fire. Some volunteer firemen showed up to fight the fire, but the Skidmore Fire Department did not respond. They claim they were never aware of the fire and that it was not in their jurisdiction as the house was outside of the city limits. “If no complaint is issued on a fire such as that, we don’t do anything about it. We have fires around here all the time. People burn sheds, people burn trailers they don’t want, people burn weeds. If we responded to every fire in Nodaway County, we’d be busy all the time” Sheriff Deputy Jill Hogue said (St Joseph Gazette, 1982).

The “wild west” undertones of this case sparked national news, a best-selling novel, and even a television movie. In recent years, A&E released the documentary “No One Saw a Thing” about this case and the aftermath. It was a bloody aftermath. The tiny town of Skidmore, Missouri continued to shrink over the years after the murder, dwindling the population down to two-hundred-eighty-four by 2000. No one was ever arrested or formally charged with the murder of Ken Rex McElroy. Several people are believed to know the identity of the shooter or shooters, but no one has ever shared with law enforcement. Some believe that witnesses are too scared of the townspeople to come forward. It was suggested in “No One Saw a Thing”, that the gunmen responsible for Ken Rex’s death are now all deceased forty years later.

The violence in Skidmore did not end with the death of Ken Rex McElroy. On October 16th, 2000, Greg Dragoo beat and strangled his girlfriend, Wendy Gillenwater. Greg had a history of abusing Wendy, something people seemed to ignore in Skidmore. On the day of her death, he beat her brutally, tied her to his truck, and dragged her up and down the road in Skidmore. She was found dead in the yard of her home after the horrendous crime. Greg Dragoo was convicted of her murder and sentenced to life in prison. He remains in a Missouri prison to this day.

On April 11th, 2001, Branson Perry disappeared from Skidmore, Missouri. Branson’s grandmother came to his house and found it unlocked and Branson nowhere to be found. Ground searches for the young man failed to find him. He was twenty years old at the time of his disappearance and has never been found. His friend said the last time she saw Branson, he said he was going to get some jumper cables from a shed, but he never came back inside the home. Despite hundreds of tips and several searches, no one has found Branson Perry, who is thought to be dead. There are rumors that he was involved in methamphetamines and “knew too much”, but no charges have ever been filed. In August of 2022, Nodaway County Sheriff Randy Strong announced that the department had a suspect but lacked sufficient evidence to arrest (Wikipedia).

Perhaps the most brutal crime in Skidmore, Missouri history, is the murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett. A relative of Branson Perry, Bobbie Jo was a twenty-three-year-old mother to be murdered inside her Skidmore home by an online friend on December 16th, 2004. Her uterus was sliced open and baby daughter kidnapped. We covered this story in depth in an earlier season. The murderer was a woman from Kansas who was quickly identified as Lisa Montgomery. Lisa killed Bobbie in order to steal her baby after faking a pregnancy. Lisa was convicted and sentenced to death in the federal court. Due to the kidnapping, she was charged federally. The United States government executed Lisa Montgomery in January of 2021, just days before the end of the Trump administration.

Is Skidmore, Missouri cursed? If Ken Rex McElroy was the problem, why didn’t the violence end with this death? Some believe that the town of Skidmore has had to deal with its own karma for the murder conspiracy and obstruction of justice in the McElroy case. Others feel the murder of McElroy was justified vigilante justice after years of terror and lack of help from the legal system. Northwestern Missouri saw its fair share of crime even before Ken McElroy. In fact, infamous outlaw Jesse James was killed in that area. Prior to his death, many citizens provided hide outs for Jesse James and his gang. One thing is for sure: the town of Skidmore was never the same after that July day in 1981.

References

Skidmore, Missouri - Wikipedia

No One Saw a Thing” (2019) A&E; Available on A&E +

St. Joseph Gazette. (1982). Former McElroy home destroyed by flames.

The Associated Press. (1984). Skidmore man denies shooting reputed bully. The Kansas City Times. 21 Aug 1984

Nichols, M. (1981). Widow says fatal shooting was planned. The Kansas City Times. 17 July 1981

Disappearance of Branson Perry - Wikipedia

Murder of Bobbie Jo Stinnett - Wikipedia

Ken McElroy - Wikipedia

Ken Rex McElroy’s Lost Son | Harry N. MacLean (harrymaclean.com)

Loh, J. (1981). Town still tense after killing of feared man. St. Louis Post Dispatch. 03 Aug 1981

McGuire, J. (1990). Murder in broad daylight. St. Louis Post Dispatch. 09 May 1990.

Wendy Naoko Gillenwater (1975-2000) - Find a Grave Memorial

Ken Rex McElroy (1934-1981) - Find a Grave Memorial

Bobbie Jo Potter Stinnett (1981-2004) - Find a Grave Memorial

Branson Kayne Perry (1981-2001) - Find a Grave Memorial

In Broad Daylight 1991 tv movie - YouTube

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