In Broad Daylight by Harry N. MacLean
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
In 1981 Ken McElroy was shot dead in his pick-up truck while parked on a main street of Skidmore, Missouri. At least two people fired on him, and dozens of people were nearby and witnessed the shooting. Yet not one person checked on McElroy, and his body sat there for an hour until the authorities had finally been called. No one has ever been charged with the murder because nobody in the crowd would tell the police who did it.
Think about that the next time you hear how polite and nice people in the heartland of America are.
What In Broad Daylight does brilliantly is explain how some ordinary people were driven to murder, and why an entire community would refuse to tell the cops who did it. The simple answer is that Ken McElroy was an asshole.
This is a guy who for years had stolen livestock, grain, equipment, supplies, antiques, and anything else he could get his hands on from farmers all around northwest Missouri and other nearby states. Despite being arrested and charged multiple times for various crimes he kept getting away with it by keeping a very good criminal lawyer from Kansas City on retainer as well as intimidating any potential accusers or witnesses.
McElroy would do things like park for hours outside the homes of those he was angry with, and there were several incidents of him threatening people with guns. He also committed multiple acts of statutory rape, and when one underage girl’s parents made too much of a fuss about McElroy 'dating' their daughter, he burned their house down. He shot three men who all lived to testify against him in court, but McElroy escaped conviction on the first two incidents. It was only the shooting of the last man, elderly grocery store owner Bo Bowenkamp, which finally convinced a jury to say that McElroy was guilty of a crime. It was McElroy’s extended campaign of harassment of several locals before and after the shooting of Bowenkamp that made the town’s fear and frustration with the bully boil over.
I grew up in a small Kansas town just about an hour from Skidmore, and I was 11 when McElroy died so I remember a lot of talk about the incident. However, after reading this I realized that I hadn’t known many details, and that I had some fundamental misunderstandings about what happened there.
I didn't comprehend just what a total sonofabitch that Ken McElroy was. He got referred to as the town bully, but that doesn’t really tell you the scope of his criminality, how bad his intimidation tactics were, and how easy it was to get on his bad side.
As an example, McElroy’s beef with Bo Bowenkamp began over a simple misunderstanding when McElroy’s four year old daughter tried to walk out of the store without paying for a few pieces of candy. This minor incident drove McElroy into an extended rage that had him harassing the Bowenkamps for months by parking outside their store and home. He’d frequently fire shotguns over their house in the middle of the night. People stopped shopping at the store out of fear that McElroy would see them and start coming after them, too. Eventually, McElroy shot and nearly killed Bowenkamp one night in back of the store.
McElroy even pulled this stuff on cops and got away with it. One state trooper had regular clashes with him, and he arrested McElroy for the Bowenkamp shooting. While on trial and out on bail for that crime he began parking outside that cop’s home and once pointed a shotgun at his wife. McElroy only stopped after the trooper used a friend of his to deliver a message that if McElroy didn’t quit that the trooper was going to catch him out on a gravel road one dark night and deliver some instant justice.
So if cops were that threatened, imagine how the citizens of Skidmore felt. I’d always been under the impression that the killing of McElroy was simple mob justice by organized vigilantes. However, the people of Skidmore had endured years of Ken McElroy’s reign of terror. Time and again someone would turn to the law for help only to be told that nothing could be done, or even if he got charged his lawyer would get him off while McElroy made the life of anyone involved a living hell.
The crowd there the day that McElroy was killed was even due to continued efforts to do things legally because they’d gathered as solidarity and security for four men who were going to testify about McElroy’s brandishing a rifle in the bar while threatening to kill Bowenkamp. This was part of an effort to get McElroy’s bail revoked while his appeal of the conviction was pending. However, were enraged when McElroy’s lawyer got yet another postponement, and this turned into an impromptu meeting about options and organizing themselves to watch and protect the four men until the court date. That’s when McElroy, who had heard about the gathering, decided to show his ass yet again by driving into town and having a beer.
That turned out to be the final straw that drove a couple of people to take advantage of the opportunity to finally be rid of the guy. Then the town closed ranks because they felt that the shooters had finally dealt with a problem that the legal system had failed to resolve time after time. This wasn’t frontier mob justice done in haste, it was a bunch of frightened and angry people pushed far past the breaking point.
I’ll give a lot of credit to Harry MacLean for the way he depicts this part of the world. As I stated before, I grew up in a small town like Skidmore in that area during the same time frame, and he absolutely nails life in farm country during the ‘80s. From describing the landscape to the weather to the depictions of the local people, this really took me back. In fact, my home town is even mentioned, and one of the cops who crossed paths with McElroy was a man I knew.
My one complaint is that MacLean goes a little easy on the people of Skidmore although I generally agree that this was a failure of the system, not a bad town. While MacLean does touch on the local Midwest farmer mentality of people-should-take-care-of-their-own-problems and how that was part of how McElroy managed to isolate his targets, he also kind of lets them off the hook for not looking out for each other more until McElroy was finally convicted of shooting Bowenkamp. That’s when people started to finally push back. Obviously, the main problem was McElroy and how he manipulated the legal system, but if the town had collectively stood up to him sooner it might not have come the bloody end it eventually did.
So who killed Ken McElroy? The book gives the most likely candidates, but as MacLean points out, knowing who actually pulled the trigger doesn’t really matter. The story here is in how Ken McElroy was allowed to behave the way he did for so long, and how he managed to push an entire town of people so far that almost every one of them felt like he had it coming.
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