Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Life and death in Skidmore

My wife and I are watching a six-episode documentary entitled “No One Saw a Thing.” It is about the town of Skidmore, Missouri whose residents, in 1981, watched one or more of their neighbors blow the head off Ken Rex McElroy as he and his wife sat in their pickup outside the town's bar.

The title stems from the fact that, to this day, nobody has come forward to identify the person(s) who pulled the trigger(s), even though up to sixty townspeople may have witnessed the incident. Rumor has it there were as many as three shooters, but the authorities will never know for sure. All the shell casings were picked up and they, along with the guns from whence they were fired, were thrown into a van whose driver supposedly took them to Wyoming. It seems like overkill (pun unintended but I'll let it stand) to transport the guns 600 miles to dispose of them — the Missouri River isn’t that far away — but that's what townsfolk say happened.

McElroy was Skidmore's homegrown Darth Vader who terrorized everyone in town. When his kids were accused of shoplifting penny candy, he shot the owner of the town’s grocery store. He was accused of raping a teenager and burning her parents’ house to the ground. Those who crossed him were threatened with death and stalked. 

Skidmore residents were perfectly happy McElroy was killed and none of the people interviewed by the filmmakers seem to have changed their minds in the 38 years since. The only downside they acknowledge is the publicity. It is safe to say Skidmore will never be selected to host the Democratic National Convention though the NRA would likely find the welcome mat out. 

The producers, clearly, had a hard time wrapping their heads around the fact that nobody has ever told the police whodunnit even though everyone who was there that day knows or knew -- many if not most have passed on to that great shooting range in the sky. McElroy’s wife named a man she claims she saw pull the trigger but said the police "didn’t do nothin’. Ain’t no one been indicted and 38 years later, it is unlikely anyone ever will be. 

As someone who grew up in a rural Missouri town with only a few hundred more residents than Skidmore, I followed the McElroy murder from the git-go. I was living in New York at the time and the incident received extensive national and international media coverage. Knowing I was a small-town Missourian, friends and co-workers asked me for details as if I personally knew the victim and perpetrators. 

I didn’t but I do know lots of people who wouldn’t have hesitated to take matters into their own hands if my hometown had a McElroy-type character.  

It’s difficult for most Americans to understand that many tiny rural towns don’t have full-time or, even part-time, law enforcement officials. It does no good to get a restraining order against someone like McElroy because there’s nobody to enforce it. The nearest officer may be 10, 20 or 30 miles away. Skidmore residents felt they had no choice so, being practical Missouri types, took matters into their own hands. And those that were there that day still don’t give a damn what anyone may think, they’d do it again.

The documentary, available to stream on the Sundance Channel, incorporates footage from a 60 Minutes story Morley Safer did shortly after the shooting. Townsfolk who were interviewed nearly forty years ago are, today, every bit as matter-of-fact about what happened as they were then.

My city friends who watch it will shake their heads and ask how in the hell something like this could happen. 

My small town Missouri friends won’t have to ask. They know. 

So do I.