Mo. town where fetus was stolen has had trouble before

`Skidmore bully' is among rural area's grisly past

December 19, 2004|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SKIDMORE, Mo. - The people in this small town wonder how such horrible things could happen in a place they treasure for its friendly rural charms.

First came the notorious "Skidmore bully," Ken Rex McElroy, whose death made national headlines. When somebody gunned him down in broad daylight in 1981, nobody would admit to having seen a thing.

Then on Oct. 16, 2000, Wendy Gillenwater was stomped to death by her boyfriend. Local residents take comfort in knowing that the killer is serving life in prison.

The next year, a 20-year-old resident vanished. Many think he was killed.

Now the police cars and media crews are back. Bobbi Jo Stinnett, 23, was killed Thursday. Her body was butchered to pull out her baby girl, who was due next month.

"Why do they all come to Skidmore to do this?" asked 91-year-old Pauline Dragoo, who has lived in the town for 10 years. "I'm going to move out of this town."

Other residents see the string of violent incidents as random and inexplicable.

"It's just a freak thing," said Roland Langford, who is a custodian in nearby Maryville. "It's a real nice town. People get along. That's what you like about it here - the people."

Skidmore's crime rates are enviably low most years, but residents concede that the town's reputation is a grisly one.

Travel somewhere and mention that you live in Skidmore and faces are usually blank. But mention the McElroy case - the basis for books and movies and TV documentaries that still run on cable - and a light of recognition clicks on.

"People look at you funny," said M.C. Derr, the town's postmaster.

Skidmore is a collection of small houses and mostly shuttered businesses at the junction of Missouri 113 and Route DD. Its Little People's Park has four working swings, one small bench and a basketball backboard with no rim.

With only about 330 residents - estimated in 2003 for the census (the postmaster and others think it is more like 250) - Skidmore has lost more than a quarter of its population since July 10, 1981, when the killing of McElroy drew nationwide attention.

Dozens of witnesses are thought to have kept quiet all these years after someone settled an old score with the 47-year-old McElroy, who had a history of threatening his neighbors.

McElroy was free on bond after a second-degree assault conviction when he was shot in his truck outside Skidmore's only bank.

The national media streamed in to report on the town's "vigilantes," which many residents considered a slur at the time, citing a legal system that kept McElroy on the streets.

Just months ago, an independent filmmaker from Connecticut released Without Mercy, a graphic dramatization of the McElroy story that won a top prize at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival.

"What's happened now is going to be a shock for them all over again," said Harry MacLean, a Colorado author. MacLean's book In Broad Daylight, an account of the McElroy case, reached No. 2 on the New York Times best-seller list.

Still, overall crime is low in Skidmore, which is in Nodaway County.

The county's crime rate last year was less than half the statewide average, according to the Missouri Department of Public Safety. Authorities recorded only 23 violent offenses, mostly for aggravated assault, in the county of nearly 22,000 people.

"They're quiet people ... mostly farmers who all knew each other since kindergarten," said MacLean, who while doing research for his book in the mid-1980s lived with a family outside Skidmore. "Even then, they had sort of an `us versus the world' approach" to outsiders, he said.

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