MISSOURI TOWN IS SILENT OVER SHOOTING OF THE COUNTY BULLY
By IVER PETERSON, SPECIAL TO THE NEW YORK TIMES
Published: July 17, 1981
Kenneth Rex McElroy was the bully of Nodaway County until an angry crowd confronted him last week and someone put a bullet in his brain.
Now only the police and a few editorial writers seem to want to know who killed the man who wanted what few friends he had to call him ''Ken Rex.'' Many of the 410 inhabitants of this little farm town in northwestern Missouri know who did it, but they are not talking.
''I'm sure they know who did it,'' Deputy Sheriff David Owens said today, ''but they won't say much. I tell you, it's been a tough row to hoe.''
'''Fact is,'' said a businessman in Marysville, the county seat 12 miles east of here, ''a lot of them think a lot higher of whoever pulled that trigger than of Mr. McElroy.''
This is what happened: Mr. McElroy, who was 47 years old, was a ''known individual'' - that's police talk for ''notorious'' - for many years. The police say he was a brawler and a bully, and had lately taken to carrying a gun. He was frequently accused of a number of crimes ranging from assault and theft to cattle rustling, but was never convicted - until recently.
''Have you ever looked down a double-barrel 12-gauge shotgun at 2 A.M. in the morning?'' asked Deputy Sheriff Ross Johnson. ''I have, and he was holding it right in my face.'' The deputy was referring to an incident in which he was accosted by Mr. McElroy after breaking up a fight.
''He was just bad, just mean,'' Deputy Johnson said of Mr. McElroy. ''In all this fuss, people are forgetting how much everybody hated him.'' Acquitted Two Years Ago
The deputy sheriff's niece, Trina, now 25 years old, married Mr. McElroy a few years ago. So he knew all about Mr. McElroy. And, like a lot of other police officers around here, Deputy Johnson may also have been a little afraid of his niece's husband.
Mr. McElroy, a part-time farmer who held various jobs between here and St. Joseph, Mo., was aquitted two years ago on charges of shooting a farmer in the stomach, the police said. Charges in another shooting, this one in St. Joseph, were dropped because no one would testify against him.
Then, last July, Mr. McElroy got into an argument with Ernest Bowencamp, 72, Skidmore's only grocer. A day later, according to Deputy Johnson, Mr. Bowencamp was on the back porch of his store cutting the tops off crates of milk cartons to put the milk in refrigerators; his big cooler had quit in the ferocious summer heat of these parts.
The deputy said that Mr. McElroy drove up behind the store in his pickup truck, took out a shotgun and fired at Mr. Bowencamp, wounding him but not fatally.
''Just shot him,'' Mr. Johnson said. ''Said the old man threatened him with a knife - a 72-year-old man with a cardboard cutter!'' The subsequent trial in the shooting was moved to another county on a judge's finding that an impartial jury in a case involving Mr. McElroy would be impossible to find in Nodaway County.
Mr. McElroy was found guilty of assult with intent to kill. He appealed, and was released on a $60,000 bond pending the outcome of the appeal. Anger Mixed With Fear
''He was right back in town, free as can be, telling everybody he was back and bragging about it,'' said a Skidmore farmer who would not give his name. ''That's what got everybody so mad, the way the police would keep arresting him and the courts just kept letting him go.''
The anger was also mixed with fear, particularly among the handful of witnesses to the Bowencamp shooting whose testimony led to Mr. McElroy's conviction.
Last Friday morning, a number of Skidmore people held a meeting to discuss their concern about Mr. McElroy. They invited Sheriff Danny Estes, who assured them that his men would keep an eye on things.
Deputy Sheriff David Owens reported later that nothing in the meeting had suggested that the townspeople were contemplating aggression against Mr. McElroy. Although the deputy said that the meeting was ''basically more or less a neighborhood watch program,'' he conceded that Mr. McElroy was the only topic of discussion.
At 10 A.M., after the meeting broke up and the sheriff had left, Mr. McElroy drove his pickup truck into town and parked it in front of the D & G Bar. His wife was with him. They went into the bar; he had a beer and she had a soda. Then he bought a six-pack and some Rolaids, and they left.
About 60 people who had attended the meeting were in the street outside the bar, waiting. ''They were staring,'' Mrs. McElroy told the police later. And they were silent.
Mrs. McElroy got in the truck on the passenger side, and her husband started to climb in behind the wheel. Wife Called for Help
Then Mr. McElroy was struck by a bullet that exploded the left side of his head. He died a few minutes later, in an ambulance called by his wife.
Apparently, nobody else offered to summon help. Mrs. McElroy made one statement to the police after the shooting. She said that it had been planned and named someone as the killer, but what she said did not jibe with what the police turned up. They went to question her again, but she dropped from sight the day after the shooting.
Someone washed away the blood and the chalked outline of Mr. McElroy's body from the street in front of the D & G Bar. When a stranger walks in, the people inside fall silent.
Sunday Jan. 1, 1989 Houston Chronicle
The town that killed a bully: Was it vigilante action?