The Vigilante Murder of Ken McElroy

In 1981, Ken McElroy was murdered, in broad daylight, in front of 45 witnesses. To this day, it remains unsolved and controversial.

In most Unsolved articles, we talk about innocent people who fell victim to unknown serial murderers. But Ken McElroy was unlike all of those. The years leading up to his death, McElroy was charged with over 20 crimes and was a known pedophile.

Known as the “town bully,” McElroy always had a gun and hard cash, even though he never held a steady job. Among his 20 crimes, McElroy was charged from arson to child molestation, yet he was never convicted of any charges.

McElroy dropped out of school in eighth grade and went on to become a petty thief, but over time, his crimes would become severe. In the small farm town of Skidmore, Missouri, McElroy was suspected of stealing grain, gasoline, alcohol, livestock, and antiques.

Although severe charges were brought against him about 21 times, McElroy always got off. Some victims and witnesses who had made allegations against him noted that they had been intimidated, stalked, and harassed by McElroy before he went to trial.

Ken McElroy

McElroy had four wives, and over ten children. His last wife, Trena McCloud, was only 14 when McElroy got her pregnant and she was forced to drop out of school. Still married to his third wife, Alice Woods, McElroy moved McCloud in anyway. McElroy divorced Woods and married McCloud to escape statutory rape charges. Woods stayed in the house after.

By the time McCloud had had McElroy’s child, she realized what she’d gotten into and fled with Woods to her parents’ house. McElroy simply went over to the McCloud’s home and forced them to return. When McCloud’s parents were away, McElroy went to the house, shot the family dog and burned the house down.

Charged with assault, arson, and statutory rape, McElroy was exonerated of all charges in 1973. McCloud and her child were placed in foster care.

Until 1981, McElroy’s crimes went beyond his normal level, to attempted murder. A local grocer, Ernest “Bo” Bowencamp had accused McElroy’s twelve year old daughter of shoplifting a piece of candy. Instead of letting the incident go, McElroy decided to harass the Bowencamps, and eventually, McElroy snuck up on Bowencamp on a loading dock and shot him. Bowencamp survived the attack, but the town decided that that was the last straw.

A newly appointed prosecuting attorney managed to get the first-ever conviction against McElroy, but he was released on bond by a judge. Upon being freed, McElroy went down to the tavern and bragged about what he was going to do to Bowencamp, but he never got a chance.

In an effort to stop McElroy, the sheriff called a town meeting on July 10, 1981, to come up with some possible solutions to dealing with McElroy. They talked about a neighborhood watch, but the sheriff’s ideas fell on deaf ears, as it seemed that the community had already made up their mind about what they wanted to do.

The same day, McElroy and Trena McCloud went to the tavern so he could get a drink. After the town meeting, a large group had moved to the bar, waiting for McElroy to leave.

By the time McElroy had left the bar, got into his truck, and went to light his cigarette, he was dead. In the crowd of 30-60 people, two guns fired upon him, murdering McElroy.

McElroy’s truck after the shooting, photo credit: Henry MacLean

Despite the overwhelming number of witnesses to the murder, nobody came forward to reveal who fired the critical shot, nobody called an ambulance, and when the ringing of shots had subsided, the group simply walked away.

This sparked a massive investigation by both local and federal authorities. Despite numerous witnesses being questioned, to this day, no one will tell who shot Ken McElroy.

Three years later, Trena McCloud filed a $6 million wrongful death suit against the town, but it was quickly settled out of court for $17,600, and no one was implicated for the death.

Trena McCloud

Ken McElroy’s vigilante murder has seized the country for decades, from whether McElroy deserved what he got, to who actually shot him. To this day, the case remains unsolved.