SKIDMORE, Mo. • The murder of Ken Rex McElroy took place in plain view of dozens of residents of this small farm town, under the glare of the morning sun. But in a dramatic act of solidarity with the gunman, every witness, save the dead man's wife, denied seeing who had pulled the trigger.
The killing was a shocking end for a notoriously brutal man who had terrorized the area for years with seeming impunity until he was struck down in a moment of vigilante justice.
It was the first major case for a young county prosecutor, not far removed from law school and just months into the job, who said he was confident that the case would be solved soon. But now, nearly 30 years later, that prosecutor, David Baird, is preparing to leave office with his most famous case still unsolved.
No one has ever been brought to trial in McElroy's death, and, although there is no statute of limitations on murder, most people around here suspect that no one ever will be.
"Once the shroud of silence fell, there was going to be no one talking," said Cheryl Huston, whose elderly father had been shot by McElroy and who watched the killing of McElroy from her family's grocery but, like the others, said she did not see the gunman.
As Baird's long tenure comes to an end, questions about the lack of resolution in the murder case continue to follow him. He was charged with wading through the sensational details and moral ambiguities of the case to ensure that, in his words, justice was served.
But justice is a loaded term in a case that challenges the usual assumptions of victim and perpetrator. And Baird, all these years later, is still unwilling to give his own view on whether justice was served.
"You could talk to everybody in this case, and they'd give you a different answer," he said in an interview at his office in the county courthouse in Maryville, Mo. "I'm never going to answer that question. It's never going to happen."
Richard McFadin, 87, a lawyer, now retired, who represented McElroy in numerous cases and, after the killing, his widow, said he believed there was sufficient evidence for a prosecution. He believes one of the gunmen was the suspect named by the widow.
"The town got away with murder," McFadin said.
The police chief who oversaw the investigation, Hal Riddle, disagrees. He said that Baird pushed aggressively to bring a case to trial but that investigators were never able to secure sufficient evidence to charge someone.
"If we could have proved who done it, he would have prosecuted him," said Riddle, 72 who is retired. He calls the case the most frustrating of his career.
Just months after Baird became county prosecutor — a post he was encouraged to take because "nothing exciting ever happens in Nodaway County"— he found himself in a courtroom for the first time with McElroy, who had shot an elderly Skidmore grocer in the neck with a shotgun. Known for stealing livestock, harassing women, destroying property and threatening lives, McElroy had been charged with numerous felonies — his lawyer estimated at least three a year — but had never been convicted.
The streak ended when a jury convicted McElroy of second-degree assault in the grocer's shooting. A conviction should have been a victory for the people of Skidmore, but the jury set a maximum sentence of two years, and the judge, without protest from Baird, released McElroy on bond pending appeal. McElroy was quickly rearrested after he appeared in town with a rifle, but he was again released.
When a court hearing was postponed, there was a meeting in town, with the mayor and the sheriff attending, to discuss McElroy.
Within hours, Baird heard that there had been a shooting downtown. He was sure it was McElroy who had done the shooting. It was hours before he learned that it was McElroy who had been shot, sitting in the front seat of his pickup alongside his wife, after picking up some beer at the town bar. Bullet casings from two guns were found. As many as 60 people were reported to have been at the scene, but not one of them would say who had wielded the weapons.
The local major case squad investigated, then the FBI. Three grand juries heard evidence. But even after a federal prosecutor forwarded to Baird what he called 'substantial" new evidence, no one was indicted. Instead of playing out in court, the details emerged in newspaper and magazine accounts, as well as a best-selling book, "In Broad Daylight: A Murder in Skidmore, Missouri," which was later made into a television movie.
Reached by phone, McElroy's wife, who has since remarried and left the state, said she was not interested in talking about the case.
McElroy has been dead for almost three decades, a round number that has residents bracing for the next round of visits by reporters. The bar that provided the backdrop for the shooting is closed and for sale for $20,000. The man ID'd by the widow as the main gunman recently died, something Baird raised in suggesting that the case may never be reopened.
And Baird lost his first election, in the Democratic primary this year, by just 25 votes, a loss noted by the Kansas City Star because of his connection with the case. He said he was not at all disappointed to leave office with the case still unsolved.
"My experience is that trying a case is not always good at bringing closure," Baird said.