Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Ken McElroy

Twenty-five Years Later

Ken McElroy
Ken McElroy

It's been 25 years since fed-up citizens of Skidmore, Mo., took the law into their own hands and shot to death the town bully, Ken McElroy.

McElroy was Skidmore's resident nightmare—a Teflon-coated hick who broke laws and got away with it, again and again.

He rustled livestock, stalked and threatened his enemies, pummeled his women, raped a 13-year-old girl and pointed guns at countless foes, including at least two law enforcers.

He shot two men at point-blank range. He escaped punishment for the first, in 1976—one of 22 criminal raps he beat.

His luck finally ran out as a result of the second shooting.

On July 8, 1980, McElroy fired a shotgun blast that struck Bo Bowenkamp, 69, a mild-mannered grocer.

Ernest "Bo" Bowenkamp

As with most of McElroy's conflicts, the assault had a bizarre genesis. It began over a dime's worth of candy. McElroy and his wife, Trena, claimed that the Bowenkamps accused one of their daughters of shoplifting. The couple stormed into the store and demanded an apology. 

For the next 10 weeks, Bowenkamp and his wife, Lois, were subjected to terrifying harassment. McElroy made threatening phone calls, and his wife challenged Lois to a street fight. McElroy frequently sat in his truck outside their home or store. On May 29 he fired two shotgun blasts in the air over their house.

Mrs. Bowenkamp reported the incident to police—as she had others—but she was sent away with a suggestion that she keep an eye on McElroy.

McElroy shot Bowenkamp five weeks later, on July 8, 1980.

Hit in the neck and torso, he was hospitalized but recovered. A jury convicted McElroy of assault and sentenced him to two years in prison.

But he was freed during an appeal, and he turned up at a Skidmore bar with an assault rifle, demonstrating how he planned to finish off Bowenkamp.

On July 10, 1981, 35 men surrounded McElroy's truck outside that bar. A volley of gunfire rang out, and McElroy died of shots from two guns.

No charges were brought, despite local, state and federal investigations.

Bo Bowenkamp died 10 years after McElroy's murder, but his widow still lives in the same house that the bully stalked a quarter-century ago.

"I can still hear the bitterness in her voice when she talks about the law and the courts and how they did so little for her and my step-dad when they needed help," her daughter, Joyce Monty, told the Crime Library.

It became a seminal American crime event. Outrage over the lack of police aid afforded the Bowenkamps helped spur the victim's rights movement, prompting law enforcement agencies nationwide to re-examine their treatment of traditionally low-priority crimes such as stalking, harassment and threats. 

Monty and another of Lois Bowenkamp's daughters, Cheryl Huston, agreed to discuss the case with the Crime Library in their first joint interview.

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