Skidmore Confidential

Years ago I saw an episode of Hawaii Five-O that featured a white trash family that came to Honolulu on a murder-robbery spree. When McGarrett finally brought them to justice the Deliverance-level-creepy mother announced: "It wasn't killing cause they wasn't family and it wasn't stealing cause they was dead." After reading In Broad Daylight I'm convinced that this was also the motto of infamous "Skidmore Bully" Ken Rex McElroy.

The bare outlines of the story are still well-known: a man who terrorized the residents of a small town in Missouri is gunned down in broad daylight, practically at high-noon, yet everyone present claims they didn't see a thing. Vigilantism? Frontier justice? Fear? No one was ever convicted or charged in the killing. At the time reporters and commentators tied themselves in knots trying to dissect the meaning of it all, usually ending with a degree of head-shaking "how could it happen?" How could otherwise decent, law-abiding people decide that killing someone was the only solution? Harry N MacLean set out to understand the whole story - from the beginning - and succeeds in finding meaning where so many others failed.

The story MacLean tells is profoundly depressing. In the annals of the true crime genre this has to be one of the only books in which the victim flat out "needed killing." Ken McElroy had a tough childhood that clearly leaves him with little ambition and fewer options. What he does to the people of Nodaway County goes beyond anyone's concept of taking it out on society, however. McElroy feels wronged and owed by everyone but what explains his taste for very young girls? He's a one man crime spree - stealing livestock, raping young girls, threatening people with shotguns, making late night threatening phone calls, etc. Through it all McElroy retains a sense that he is the one who has been wronged.

All of this is terrible but what is truly horrific is the fact that McElroy is not held accountable for his actions. Over 20 indictments equal zero convictions. Blame it on his "slick" attorney or blame it on McElroy's relentless talent for intimidating potential witnesses, it's just not quite explanation enough. It's hard to read this book and not come to believe that justice is available only for some in America. Nodaway was a poor county with few law enforcement officers that rated little attention from the state, or anyone else for that matter. The people of Skidmore were on their own.

MacLean convincingly portrays the townspeople's growing sense of terrified helplessness. Even after they've summoned up the courage to testify against McElroy and see him finally convicted he was still free on bail to park outside their homes fondling one of his many shotguns or make not so veiled death-threats. What happened seems inevitable in MacLean's telling.

This is a true crime classic for reason. It's well-written, thoughtful and says something about the society that produced all the participants. You won't leave this book feeling much sympathy for Ken McElroy but you may find yourself looking a little closer the next time you drive through a hard-luck town in the middle of nowhere.

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