Corpses in the Pig Pen: The Tale of Indiana's Most Notorious Serial Killer

Belle Gunness as a young woman
Belle Gunness as a young woman
LaPorte County Historical Society Museum

The scent of smoke wafted through Joe Maxson’s bedroom as dawn broke on April 28, 1908. At first, he thought an early breakfast was cooking below—he lived on the second story, somewhere above the kitchen—but the smoke drifting through his window looked unusually thick. Maxson rose from bed, peered outside, and saw a wall of flames.

His mind immediately turned to the other people living in the house. Three children, as well as the home’s owner—a 48-year-old widow named Belle Gunness—were likely sleeping. Maxson was the family’s hired farmhand and had lived on the small La Porte, Indiana, farm for barely three months. It was his job to protect the property and the people in it. He ran across his bedroom and tried to open the door leading to Gunness’s half of the home.

It was locked.

With smoke choking his throat, Maxson cried out in a desperate attempt to get the family’s attention. “Fire! Fire!” But nobody stirred. The only thing Maxson heard was the ominous creaking of burning timbers.

As a haze filled the bedroom, Maxson scrambled down a set of rear stairs, ran outside, and grabbed an ax. He desperately hacked at the door leading to Mrs. Gunness’s part of the home, but it was no use. Nobody inside was responding. By the time the authorities reached the property, the building was a charred husk.

When the embers finally cooled, firemen sifting through the rubble found evidence that the fire was not accidental. In the basement, they discovered the four burnt bodies of three children and an adult female. The woman’s corpse was headless.

Immediately, neighbors began mourning the tragedy: Belle Gunness, a lonely widow who had spent years fruitlessly looking for love, had died surrounded by her children in a horrendous fire. For all her life, it seemed that tragedy had followed Mrs. Gunness—she had lost two husbands and multiple children to terrible accidents—and now it looked as though fate had come for her, too. Within days, a disgruntled former farmhand named Ray Lamphere was arrested for setting fire to the building.

As the village mourned, a South Dakota man named Asle Helgelien walked into the La Porte sheriff’s office. He had heard about the blaze and was deeply worried. Months earlier, his brother, Andrew Helgelien, had come to La Porte with the intention of moving in with Mrs. Gunness. He hadn’t heard from his brother since.

The ensuing investigation would turn the town of La Porte, Indiana, into the center of America’s attention.

 

By all outward appearances, Belle Gunness had a hard lot in life. Born on a farm in Norway, she emigrated to the United States in 1881 when she was 22 and settled in Chicago, where she met her first husband, Mads Ditlev Anton Sorenson. Two of their children (who may have been adopted) never lived passed infancy. Around 1895, a candy store they owned burned to the ground. In 1900, one of their homes was turned to ash. That same year, Mads mysteriously died.

Using her husband’s life insurance payout, Belle bought a farm with more than 40 acres near La Porte, Indiana, and married a fellow widower named Peter Gunness. Marital bliss, however, was in short supply. Not even one week after the wedding, Peter’s 7-month-old daughter died unexpectedly. And that December, Peter died in a freak accident after a sausage grinder fell from a high shelf and struck his head. The circumstances seemed strange enough that the coroner looked into it, but Belle was cleared.

In the ensuing years, the two-time widow kept few constant companions. She lived alone with her surviving children and a revolving cast of farmhands, who helped her pitch hay, butcher hogs, and manage a menagerie of chickens, horses, cows, and a single Shetland pony. Around 1905, she decided it was time to find love again and began placing classified ads in Scandinavian-language newspapers.

"Personal—comely widow who owns a large farm in one of the finest districts in La Porte County, Indiana, desires to make the acquaintance of a gentleman equally well provided, with view of joining fortunes. No replies by letter considered unless sender is willing to follow answer with personal visit. Triflers need not apply."

According to her mail carrier, Mrs. Gunness sometimes received as many as eight letters a day from suitors. Her neighbors watched as men came knocking. One of her farmhands, Emil Greening, would tell the New York Tribune that she often kept the identities of the men concealed: “Mrs. Gunness received men visitors all the time. A different man came nearly every week to stay at the house. She introduced them as cousins from Kansas, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and from Chicago ... She was always careful to make the children stay away from her 'cousins.'”

Two photographs of Andrew Helgelien
Andrew Helgelien
LaPorte County Historical Society Museum

Gunness was extremely private and practical in her search for a new partner. As much as she was looking for romance, she was also looking for a man who could help take care of her property and its finances, and she vetted the incoming suitors as if she were an employer looking to fill a job opening. Money was always at the top of her priorities. In one letter to a potential suitor named Carl Peterson, Gunness reportedly wrote, “I have picked out the most respectable and I have decided that yours is such … If you think that you are able in some way to put up $1000 cash, we can talk matters over personally.” From 1905 to 1907, dozens of potential suitors knocked on her door, though none appeared to please her enough to actually tie the knot.

In July 1907, Gunness hired Ray Lamphere to be her new farmhand. A 37-year-old with an unsavory reputation as a drinker, gambler, and all-around loafer, Lamphere defied expectations: He was a competent carpenter and loyal employee. Immediately, Gunness gave Lamphere a room on the second floor of her home, and soon the two began a strictly sexual relationship. Too poor to ever be considered a potential suitor, Lamphere resented the men coming in trying to woo the woman he grew to love.

Mrs. Gunness didn’t care. While she was sleeping with Lamphere and auditioning potential suitors, she was busy exchanging deeply personal love letters with a 40-something South Dakota wheat farmer (and fellow Norwegian immigrant) named Andrew Helgelien. Over about 16 months, Gunness sent him approximately 80 letters.

The long-distance romance burned slowly. Gunness explained that all of her other suitors had been duds, but Helgelien sounded like a true, red-blooded Norwegian. She begged him to come to Indiana. According to Harold Schechter’s book Hell’s Princess, Gunness wrote: “This is a secret between us and no one else. Probably we will have many other secrets between us, not so, dear friend?”

 

Andrew Helgelien’s arrival in La Porte broke Ray Lamphere’s heart. When the South Dakota farmer came in early January 1908, Gunness kicked Lamphere out of his room and told him to sleep in the barn. “After he came, she had no use for me,” Lamphere later lamented.

Helgelien and Gunness appeared to have fallen in love immediately. Just a few days after meeting, they walked into the First National Bank of La Porte together and attempted to redeem three of the South Dakota man’s Certificates of Deposit. Within days, they pulled out $2839—money to build a new life together.

A few weeks later, Mrs. Gunness and Lamphere got into a fight. Some say it’s because she owed him money. Others say it was because he was jealous of Gunness’s new man. Whatever the reason, Lamphere was fired and replaced with Joe Maxson.

Over the next three months, Lamphere became an endless source of grief for Belle Gunness. She wrote multiple letters to the local sheriff, Albert Smutzer, complaining that Lamphere, playing the part of a creepy ex-lover, was prowling on her property and peeking through the windows. In March, Belle tried to get Lamphere declared insane, which failed. She then had him arrested and fined for trespassing. Days after that, he was arrested again and acquitted, though by this time nearly every La Porte city official was aware that Lamphere seemingly had it out for the poor widow.

He wasn’t the only one.

 

When Andrew Helgelien left for Indiana, he told his brother, Asle, that “he would be back home in a week surely,” according to the La Porte Argus-Bulletin. Andrew never explained why he was leaving. Nor did he return as promised.

Back in South Dakota, Asle worried endlessly. He checked with family and friends to see if anybody knew of Andrew’s whereabouts, but nobody had the answers. It wasn’t until a farmhand found a stack of letters in Andrew’s cabin from a “Bella Gunness” that Asle realized that his brother had run off to Indiana to bed a rich widow. He pored over the love letters and was immediately suspicious of the woman’s motives.

“Take all your money out of the bank,” one letter advised, “and come as soon as possible.”

“Now see all that you can get cash for, and if you have much left you can easily take it with you, as we will soon sell it here and get a good price on everything,” she wrote in another. “Leave neither money or stock up there but make yourself free from Dakota so you will have nothing more to bother with up there.”

In a third letter, the mysterious woman wrote: “Do not say one word about it to anyone, not even your nearest relative.”

Worried that his brother was being bilked by a con woman in Indiana, Asle wrote to Mrs. Gunness in mid-March and inquired about his brother, more than two months after Andrew had arrived. The widow wrote back promptly.

“You wish to know where your brother keeps himself,” Gunness wrote. “Well this is just what I would like to know but it almost seems impossible for me to give a definite answer.” She claimed that Andrew had left for Chicago. In fact, she had received a letter from him sent from the Windy City telling her not to write back for a while. In it, Andrew said that he had left to search for a family member. She speculated he might go to Norway. “Since then I have neither heard or seen anything of him.”

For Asle, the excuse raised eyebrows. This was very uncharacteristic of his brother. When he asked Gunness to forward the letter his brother had sent from Chicago, the widow remorsefully told him that the letter was missing.

“I got the letter in the morning and read it and laid it in a china closet in the kitchen and went to milk & when I came back the letter was gone,” she wrote, blaming her ex-farmhand for the note’s disappearance. “That Lamphere was here and he had probably taken it.”

Asle remained suspicious of the story. Meanwhile, Gunness continued to voice her suspicions of Lamphere. On April 27, she visited her attorney, Melvin E. Leliter, and asked to have a will drawn up. She seemed extremely anxious.

She told the lawyer what she had been telling everybody in town: Ray Lamphere was causing her more and more trouble, and she was afraid he was going to do something dangerous. “I want to prepare for an eventuality,” she reportedly told her lawyer. “I’m afraid that fool Lamphere is going to kill me and burn my house.” The lawyer signed the will.

After the meeting, Belle Gunness went shopping and came home with cakes, a toy train, and two gallons of kerosene. According to Schechter, she treated her family that evening to a large meal of meat and potatoes and spent the night sitting on the floor, playing with her children and their new toy train.

The following morning, her house burned. Ray Lamphere was arrested almost immediately. And when Asle Helgelien received a newspaper clipping announcing that the house had burned, he rushed to Indiana.

 

On May 4, Asle Helgelien walked into the La Porte sheriff’s office in hopes of gaining information on the whereabouts of his brother. Sheriff Smutzer drove Helgelien to the Gunness house and told him to see if he could find any clues in the burnt rubble.

By then nearly a week had passed since the fire, and the skull of Belle Gunness had yet to be found. All of the bodies had been mangled and charred, but it was curious—and frustrating—that the head of the oldest woman had somehow gone missing, especially because the coroner needed it to make a proper identification. The La Porte Argus-Bulletin claimed that a vengeful Ray Lamphere must have disposed of it, writing that he had “decapitated her, and then set fire to the house to cover the evidence of his crime.”

When Helgelien arrived, Joe Maxson and another man were digging through the charred rubble in search of the missing head. Asle grabbed a shovel and joined in hopes of finding some sign of his brother. After two days, he gave up. According to Schechter, he told the men goodbye and started walking down the road—until a creeping sense of doubt compelled him to stop and turn around.

“I was not satisfied,” Helgelien later said, “and I went back to the cellar and asked Maxson whether he knew of any hole or dirt having been dug up there about the place in spring.”

In fact, Maxson had. There was a fenced-in hog lot about 50 feet from the house. Earlier that spring, there were a couple of soft depressions in the ground—buried rubbish, Mrs. Gunness had explained—and Maxson was ordered to level the divots with dirt. Helgelien asked the men to dig up the trenches: Perhaps there was something buried in the trash that would indicate his brother’s whereabouts.

The men slogged over to the pig pen and thrust their shovels into the muck. They didn’t have to dig deep before they penetrated a putrid layer of trash. As they dug further, somebody gasped—poking from the ooze was a gunny-sack.

Inside were two hands, two feet, and one head. Asle recognized the withered, rotten face: It was his brother.

When the men looked back up from the gruesome hole, they peered across the pig pen and realized that there were dozens of slumped depressions in Belle Gunness’s yard.

 

The earth was filled with burlap bags of torsos and hands, arms hacked from the shoulders down, masses of human bone wrapped in loose flesh that dripped like jelly. On the first day of digging, five bodies were found. On the second, the count totaled nine. Then 11. After a while, the police stopped counting.

“The bones had been crushed on the ends, as though they had been … struck with hammers after they were dismembered,” reported The Chicago Inter Ocean. “Quicklime had been scattered over the faces and stuffed in the ears.”

Body after body after body was found in shallow, trash-covered graves—some under the pig pen, others near a lake, a few by the outhouse. Each body was butchered into six parts: The legs chopped at the knee, the arms hacked at the shoulder, and the head decapitated. Most of the remains could not be identified.

Investigators digging up bodies on Belle Gunness's property
Investigators digging up bodies on Belle Gunness's property
LaPorte County Historical Society Museum

Just days earlier, newspapers and neighbors had been singing Belle Gunness’s praises. Here was a heroic woman who died in a desperate attempt to save her children from an awful fire. But as this mass grave of burlap-wrapped bodies came to light, the people of La Porte realized that Mrs. Gunness was not the woman they believed her to be.

Most of the skulls were scarred with giant gashes and showed signs of blunt trauma. Some of the bodies—those still intact, at least—contained traces of strychnine, commonly used as a rat poison. Many of the remains had been quartered like a hog, doused in quicklime to speed up decomposition, and buried under piles of men’s shoes. It was clear that this was not some crude family cemetery, but a mass grave. And for people familiar with Mrs. Gunness’s matrimonial advertisements, there was no question to whom these bones belonged.

As the police soon pieced together, Belle Gunness had lived a double life as a serial killer. She lured bachelors with her classified newspaper ads. When she believed the right man had replied, she’d convince him to come to La Porte and would seduce him into surrendering his life savings. After the man withdrew the cash, she killed him.

The yellow press pounced on the story. Just a week after calling her a heroic mother, reporters nicknamed Gunness the “Indiana Ogress" or “Female Bluebeard,” and even compared her to Lady Macbeth. Reporters described her home as a “horror farm” and a “death garden.” These details attracted gawkers, who came in droves to La Porte—some estimates say 20,000 people gathered at the farm one weekend—to watch body parts yanked from the dirt. Vendors reportedly sold ice cream, popcorn, cake, and something called “Gunness Stew.”

A crowd gathering to watch the exhumations on the Gunness property
A crowd gathering to watch the exhumations on the Gunness property
LaPorte County Historical Society Museum

“As a result of the nationwide coverage of the case, police officials in La Porte were flooded with inquiries from people who feared that their long-missing loved ones had ended up in the muck of Belle Gunness’s hog lot,” Schechter writes in Hell’s Princess.

Stories poured in about missing men believed to have heeded Mrs. Gunness’s siren call: There was Christie Hilkven of Wisconsin, who sold his farm in 1906 to live with a widow in La Porte. There was Olaf Jensen, who wrote his relatives that he was off to get married in Indiana. There was Bert Chase … and T.J. Tiefland … and Charles Neiburg. The names went on.

It didn’t take long for it to dawn on investigators that the identity of the headless woman in Gunness’s basement was a matter of public safety. If the body didn’t belonged to Belle Gunness, then it meant a serial killer was on the loose.

 

Sightings of Belle Gunness were reported across the country. She was lurking in the woods of La Porte, shopping the streets of Chicago, riding a train bound for Rochester, New York. But on May 19, a pair of dental bridges were discovered in the rubble of the Gunness home. A La Porte dentist identified the bridges as belonging to Gunness, and authorities quickly claimed that they had secured proof that the headless corpse belonged to the murderous widow.

Many people, however, were skeptical. According to hearsay, neighbors who had seen the charred corpse believed it was too short and skinny to belong to their neighbor, a tall woman who weighed upwards of 250 pounds. Reporters wondered if the serial killer could have lit the house on fire, torn the bridges from her mouth to throw off the police, and fled the blaze. Rumors swirled that, days earlier, Gunness had hired a housekeeper and that the remains might have belonged to that woman instead.

Despite any lingering doubts, the police continued to pursue arson and murder charges against Ray Lamphere. There was solid evidence that Lamphere had been near the Gunness home the morning of the fire. (He had admitted to seeing the smoking building; he even claimed that he had refused to report it to the police because he feared he’d be blamed him for causing it.) At best, Lamphere was negligent in failing to report an emergency. At worst, he had started it.

The prosecution acknowledged they were in a tricky position. After all, they were fighting on behalf of Belle Gunness, a woman, they admitted, who had “engaged in the wholesale slaughter of humanity.” But it didn’t matter: It was still a crime to burn down another person’s house, prosecutors said, even if that person is later found to be a serial killer.

The lawyers even insinuated that Lamphere knew about the Gunness murders. According to the Chicago Inter Ocean, Lamphere denied this. “I have led a pretty loose life, maybe, and possibly I drank too much at times,” he reportedly said. “But there are others who have done as bad as me who are walking the streets of La Porte today. I know nothing about the ‘house of crime,’ as they call it. Sure, I worked for Mrs. Gunness for a time, but I didn’t see her kill anybody, and I didn’t know she had killed anybody.”

The ensuing court case became a media circus. As Lamphere pled for his innocence, his lawyers argued that Gunness had started the fire and had framed her old farmhand. For weeks leading up to the event, she had diligently worked to hurt Lamphere’s reputation and credibility, constantly bad-mouthing him around the town’s authorities.

It’s a plausible theory. Gunness had duped authorities before. As investigators later learned, her first husband had died on the one—and only—day that two of his life insurance policies overlapped. In fact, she had collected insurance on all of her deceased family members, as well as on two properties that had mysteriously burned down. She was a master at framing herself as a victim of tragedy, when in fact she was tragedy’s greatest beneficiary.

“My sister was insane on the subject of money,” her sister, Nellie Larson, would later tell the Chicago Examiner. “She never seemed to care for a man for his own self, only for the money or luxury he was able to give her.” Indeed, the insurance payouts and matrimonial schemes earned her more than $1 million in today’s money. It also led to the deaths of at least 20 people.

But for whatever reason, the jury still believed there was convincing evidence that Lamphere had started the fire. Lamphere’s only saving grace came when a chemist found traces of strychnine in the bodies of the burnt children, evidence that Gunness’s kids had not died from arson, but from the same poison preferred by their mother (though the testifying doctor refused to declare strychnine the cause of death). That evidence helped acquit Lamphere of any charges of murder, but it failed to protect him from the charge of arson—a crime that carried up to a 21-year sentence.

After just one year in prison, Lamphere died of tuberculosis. Before his death, he purportedly confessed to a pastor, saying he had witnessed the murder of Andrew Helgelien and had demanded hush money from Gunness. She fired him instead. And when Lamphere returned to the house to take back his personal belongings, Gunness charged him with trespassing and began defaming him in public. Today, many believe that Gunness was probably responsible for the fire: With her old farmhand turned against her and Asle Helgelien breathing down her neck, Gunness knew her ruse was up—so she destroyed everything.

But that’s just one of many theories.

For now, the lingering question of whether Gunness got away—whether the headless body belonged to a rumored housekeeper or to the Female Bluebeard herself—remains unanswered. In 2008, forensic anthropologists exhumed the murderer’s suspected body and attempted to analyze the DNA, comparing it to DNA samples Gunness had left on a postage stamp and envelope. The sample, however, was too degraded to provide conclusive results.

Little has been resolved since. At the time of Ray Lamphere’s trial, the Cleveland Plain Dealer prophesied that “The La Porte case may always remain one of the most puzzling things in the annals of crime.” It appears it will forever be that way.

Killing Fields: The Town That Got Away With Murder

iStock.com/river34
iStock.com/river34

The townspeople who had gathered near the D&G Tavern in the small farming community of Skidmore, Missouri, that July morning could feel the shift in the atmosphere. The fear that once hung over the town's 440 residents had been replaced by something else. Anger—a deep, long-simmering anger—was part of it, but so was a sense of obligation. Men stood near vehicles that held rifles and shotguns inside. Bank employees and grocery clerks watched from nearby windows. Dust hovering over the sparsely developed main road through town helped lend that moment in 1981 the tension of a Wild West showdown.

The tavern door opened, and out stepped Ken Rex McElroy, 47, a bulky man with a ragged pair of sideburns and a piercing stare. To someone passing through town, McElroy may have looked like a strong farmhand, a callused good old boy. But to locals, McElroy was a vengeful bully, a thief, and an attempted murderer who eluded any and all attempts to put him behind bars. He terrorized the rural town of Skidmore (which had no police force of its own), taking point-blank aim at those who crossed him, and was routinely charged with three to four crimes a year.

McElroy was not ignorant of the town's hostility. He simply didn't care. That morning, he was out on bond, once again free to walk Skidmore's streets. As he moved from the tavern and opened the driver's side door to his Chevy Silverado, he said nothing to the 30-odd residents who stood nearby or watched from a gas station just up the hill. His wife, Trena, climbed into the passenger’s seat.

Trena looked around, then behind them. She was the first to see the rifle as one of the gathered men hoisted it to shoulder-level. She heard the rear window of the Silverado shatter, and saw her husband slump over the steering wheel.

In seconds, Ken McElroy would be dead, and the people of Skidmore—who had seen everything—would claim to have seen nothing at all.

 

If anyone could drive a normally peaceful community to cover up a murder, it was Ken McElroy. As one of over a dozen children raised under modest financial means in and around Kansas and the Ozarks, McElroy appeared to consider a proper education frivolous at best. According to In Broad Daylight, a comprehensive account of the Skidmore saga by author Harry N. MacLean, McElroy dropped out of school in the eighth grade. Having never learned to read or write, he set about a life of labor, eventually winding up in Nodaway County, Missouri.

It became apparent to McElroy fairly early on that an honest living would fail to provide the material possessions and leisurely lifestyle he desired. So he began stealing. Mostly, it was the livestock in and around Skidmore, a small town roughly 90 minutes north of Kansas City. In the dead of night, he'd pull up next to farmers' hog pens and make off with animals he could sell at auction or to third parties who knew better than to ask too many questions. He also leased his own land and trafficked in hunting dogs, which he had a talent for training. Through means legitimate and illicit, he was usually flush with cash—money that would come in handy when he inevitably lost his temper.

A shotgun barrel is pictured
iStock.com/stsvirkun

McElroy was rarely without a firearm of some kind, either on his person or mounted in his vehicles. Possessing a weapon was not unusual in Missouri, but brandishing it was. McElroy had no reservations about stuffing a shotgun in someone's face or belly to make a point. When a farmer named Romaine Henry had an encounter with McElroy on Henry's land in July 1976, McElroy shot him in the stomach. Henry survived and expected some measure of justice. But in court, McElroy produced witnesses who swore he was home at the time the shooting took place. A jury subsequently found McElroy not guilty.

Sliding out of trouble was a McElroy specialty. In addition to allies—often his hunting-dog cohorts—who would guarantee he was some place other than the scene of a crime, he had the money to hire Richard McFadin, a skilled defense attorney, to represent him. McFadin would use every legal maneuver at his disposal to get hearings postponed or delayed on the premise that the longer it took to go to trial, the colder the case against McElroy would get. Suddenly, defendants who had been assaulted or witnesses who had seen McElroy's impropriety would spot a pick-up truck parked outside their house or hear a shotgun going off in the middle of the night. Sometimes McElroy would confront them face-to-face and explain in a measured tone that he'd kill anyone opposing him in court.

Perhaps they could have held out for a month or two. Faced with extended periods of McElroy's harassment, many of them recanted their statements. Time and again, McElroy would simply walk away from serious charges with nothing more than a dent in his wallet.

 

As McElroy aged, his behavior grew more audacious, and the town of Skidmore grew more apprehensive. After two marriages, he wed Trena McCloud, whom he had met when she was just 14 years old. She accused him of raping her but—like many of McElroy's victims—later withdrew her statement. When McElroy was all but confirmed to have burned her parents' house down in a fit of rage, Trena blamed it on "faulty wiring." She became his accomplice, accompanying McElroy on several of his nocturnal visits to people he had targeted for harassment. As McElroy ranted, she would stand nearby, a firearm in her hands.

In 1980, Trena entered a grocery store in Skidmore with one of Ken's daughters from a previous marriage, Tonia. Before long, an argument ensued between Trena and shopkeepers Ernest "Bo" Bowenkamp and his wife, Lois, over whether Tonia had taken candy without intending to pay for it. For McElroy, the misunderstanding turned into an accusation that his daughter was a thief. He began to haunt the Bowenkamps at their store and at home, parking outside for hours at a time. Knowing McElroy's reputation, the couple feared it wouldn't be long before his harassment turned violent.

One evening in July 1980, McElroy approached Bo Bowenkamp near the loading area of the grocery store. After a brief verbal exchange, McElroy raised a shotgun and fired. Bowenkamp flinched as the buckshot tore through his neck. The 70-year-old was lucky to survive.

A cornfield is seen under a full moon
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McElroy peeled off in his truck. A highway patrol corporal named Richard Stratton was alerted to the incident and gave chase. Having had run-ins with McElroy before, he knew the man would attempt to get out of the county via an alternative route going through neighboring Fillmore. He found and arrested McElroy, but not before considering he might just get shot. McElroy had previously threatened that he was capable of gunning down police, and at that point there was no reason to doubt him.

 

In what was becoming a routine occurrence, McElroy enlisted McFadin to represent him in the resulting criminal case. McFadin asked for and received a change of venue—this time to Harrison County—and prepared a defense that portrayed Bowenkamp as the aggressor. The store owner, McElroy claimed, had approached him menacingly with a knife. McElroy had no choice but to defend himself.

In the interim, McElroy stuck to his usual strategy of intimidating victims, driving by the Bowenkamp household and making harassing calls. This time, his words fell on deaf ears. The Bowenkamps never lost their nerve, and McElroy was convicted of second-degree assault. He received a two-year jail sentence.

Anyone in Skidmore rejoicing at the news McElroy had finally been cornered by the law found their relief short-lived. A judge allowed McElroy out on a $40,000 bond pending an appeal of the conviction.

McElroy remained a looming presence in town, and the sentence did nothing to curb his behavior. At the D&G Tavern, he brandished a rifle with a bayonet attached to it, vowing to finish the job on Bowenkamp. Such a display was a clear violation of his bond, and eyewitnesses found the courage to testify against him in the hopes he would finally be locked up. But a crafty McFadin got the hearing delayed again. On the morning of July 10, 1981, when McElroy should have been answering to charges of wielding a firearm, he was in the tavern.

To the people of Skidmore, McElroy's continued presence was inexplicable. Time and again, the law had failed to protect them from a violent, abusive man who had stolen from them, raped them, terrorized them in their homes, and fired guns in the hopes of killing them. There was no predicting what kind of pain he could inflict before he was sent to jail. And that assumed he'd wind up there at all.

A windshield with a bullet hole is pictured
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A town meeting was convened at the American Legion Hall up the road from the tavern. Many of the same people who once cowered from McElroy now discussed the best way to protect their town from another rampage. Someone voiced the idea of trailing McElroy in a pack to prevent him from acting out—a kind of roving neighborhood watch. Others simply couldn't believe McElroy had once again sidestepped punishment for his actions.

The meeting dispersed, and the residents walked toward the tavern. Many walked inside and surrounded McElroy, a silent statement that there was solidarity among the townspeople.

McElroy said nothing. He exited the building and climbed into his Silverado. His wife, Trena, would later tell investigators she saw a man behind them raise a rifle before the shooting began. A shot shattered the car window and ripped through McElroy, leaving glass everywhere. Then one of the men opened the passenger-side door and ushered Trena out of the line of fire.

She was led into the nearby bank. The shooting continued for 20 seconds or so and then stopped. The only remaining noise was the Silverado’s rumbling engine.

A few residents walked up to the truck to peer inside. But when the ambulance arrived, it was obvious no one had tried to help.

 

From the time she was brought in for questioning, Trena was unwavering in her assertion that she knew who the killer was. She identified a man People magazine later named as Del Clement as the one who had held up the rifle and shot McElroy. Clement had motive—he was part-owner of the tavern where McElroy idled, driving away customers, and was also victimized by his livestock heists—and was known to have a quick temper.

Trena told Nodaway County's prosecuting attorney, David Baird, that it was Clement. She told FBI investigators and three separate grand juries. But she was the only one talking. Local law enforcement and federal officials tried every approach possible to gather information from residents. They tried playing nice. Then they played a heavy hand, demanding to know what had happened. They insisted no one would be getting away with murder—certainly not in broad daylight and in front of dozens of witnesses. FBI vehicles crawled through town, stopping in front of houses. Agents sat in kitchens, hoping to pry even the tiniest bit of detail from locals.

A close-up of a man's eye is pictured
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Nothing worked. Skidmore's population had little else to say other than that they heard shooting and hit the ground to avoid being struck by a bullet. They didn't see who started it, if there had been one shooter or several, or if anyone was fleeing the scene. One witness mentioned seeing Clement and a passenger speeding down a road after the shooting but later recanted.

None of it was enough for Baird to bring a case. Trena's testimony would wither without anyone to corroborate it. After a year, the FBI announced they would be closing their investigation.

The town was deluged by reporters intoxicated by the idea of frontier justice. They composed headlines like "Town Bully is Dead" and "Woman Says Husband Killed by Vigilante." They knocked on doors and sat down in the tavern. But they couldn't loosen the tongues of the locals.

Highway patrolman Stratton, who knew of McElroy's sinister reputation first-hand—McElroy once terrorized his wife outside of their home with a shotgun—seemed resigned to the town's silence. "They did what they did because we didn't do our job," he said in 2010. "Then they went home and kept their mouths shut and kept them closed all these years. There wasn't much David Baird could do about that."

No one was ever charged with the murder of Ken McElroy. Clement, the man Trena named as the shooter, died in 2009. Baird moved to private practice. Trena managed to get a $17,000 settlement in a wrongful-death civil suit against the county sheriff, Skidmore's mayor, and Clement, and nothing more.

Skidmore's population continues to dwindle. And as its residents age, it grows even less likely that anyone will come forward with information that could solve the case.

McFadin summarized his feelings in a 2010 New York Times interview. "The town," he said, "got away with murder."

13 Infamous Facts About Bonnie and Clyde

Warner Bros. Home Entertainment
Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker were two of the most popular celebrity criminals of the 1930s (and they had a lot of competition in that decade). More than 30 years later, America fell in love with them all over again through Bonnie and Clyde, a zeitgeist-capturing movie that spoke to the dissatisfaction and unrest that people (especially young people) felt in 1967. And hey, it was the first major film appearance for Faye Dunaway, Gene Hackman, and Gene Wilder, and featured a future Duke of Hazzard (Denver Pyle, a.k.a. Uncle Jesse). Get to know your favorite movie about your favorite outlaws a little better with these behind-the-scenes tidbits.

1. Before it was made in the style of the French New Wave films, it almost was a French New Wave film.

Like many young cinephiles of their day, Bonnie and Clyde's screenwriters, Robert Benton and David Newman, were enamored of the French New Wave, the influential movement that included films like The 400 Blows, Jules and Jim, and Breathless. These movies tended to have young, iconoclastic, sexually liberated protagonists and unhappy endings, making the true story of Bonnie and Clyde a perfect fit. Director Arthur Penn wound up using some of the New Wave's aesthetic techniques, too—like quick cuts, zooms, stylized photography, and abrupt changes in mood—making Bonnie and Clyde the first major American film to imitate the style. But before Penn came onboard, the screenwriters pursued two actual French New Wavers: François Truffaut (The 400 Blows) and Jean-Luc Godard (Breathless). Each filmmaker eventually passed on the project, but both offered suggestions that were incorporated into the final product.

2. Faye Dunaway's star-making performance almost didn't happen.

Warren Beatty, doing double duty as star and producer, and director Arthur Penn considered many other actresses first, including Tuesday Weld, Jane Fonda, Natalie Wood, Sharon Tate, Leslie Caron, and Ann-Margret. (Back when he was only producing it and not starring in it, Beatty had also considered his sister, Shirley MacLaine, for the role.) Beatty said they were turned down "by about 10 women," though he would later say Weld was the only one they made a firm offer to. When Beatty met Dunaway, he didn't think she was right for the part, but he told her to meet with Penn, who he thought would think she was perfect. Beatty was right.

3. The writers had no idea what they were doing.

Benton and Newman worked at Esquire (as editor and art director, respectively), and had no screenwriting experience whatsoever. But they loved the story of Bonnie and Clyde, which Benton, growing up in the Dallas area, had heard his entire life as part of local folklore. (Benton's father had actually attended Bonnie and Clyde's funeral in 1934.) Benton and Newman didn't have experience writing movies, but they did have a well-connected friend of a friend who put them in touch with the French filmmakers and offered some working capital. It was through these connections that the script fell into the hands of Warren Beatty, who immediately contacted them and set the project in motion.

4. The first drafts had Clyde swinging both ways.

Newman and Benton worked closely with Beatty and Penn in fine-tuning the screenplay, which all four men later described as a positive, low-conflict collaboration. The only major problem had to do with sex. Newman and Benton's version had Bonnie and Clyde having a threesome with C.W. Moss (Michael J. Pollard), a composite character based on several members of Bonnie and Clyde's gang, the idea being that Clyde couldn't perform without a third party. Beatty claimed he had no problem playing a bisexual character, but he and Penn were both concerned that the audience would view Clyde as a sexual deviant and ascribe his lawbreaking to that. But Penn thought the idea of there being some kind of sexual dysfunction in the group was important. Eventually the four collaborators settled on Clyde being impotent.

5. Whatever you think the film "really" means, you're probably wrong.


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

Some viewers interpreted Bonnie and Clyde as a commentary on other issues, but Newman and Benton said they didn't intend it that way. As they wrote in an introduction to a published version of their screenplay, "[People] have told us that Bonnie and Clyde was REALLY about Vietnam, REALLY about police brutality, REALLY about Lee Harvey Oswald, REALLY about Watts. After a while, we took to shrugging and saying, 'If you think so.'"

6. The studio thought it was going to flop and treated it accordingly.

Jack Warner, who measured films according to how well they convinced him not to leave the screening room to use the bathroom, hated Bonnie and Clyde. "That's the longest two hours and 11 minutes I've ever seen!" he reportedly said after seeing an early cut. "That was a three-piss picture!" (Also: "This gangster stuff went out with [James] Cagney!") Thinking they had a turkey on their hands, and despite a warm reception at a film festival in Montreal, Warner Bros. dumped the movie in drive-ins and second-run theaters in August of 1967.

7. The studio's lack of faith made Warren Beatty very, very rich.

Thinking the film wouldn't make any money, Warner Bros. offered Beatty a ridiculous deal: a $200,000 salary, plus 40 percent of the gross. Yes, 40 percent. Of the gross, not the net. The film made more than $50 million.

8. Film critics killed the film—then saved it.

Warner Bros.' wariness was validated by the early reviews. Variety was lukewarm, and The New York Times' Bosley Crowther, then the most influential critic in America, hated it. HATED it. He wrote about it more than once, and would drop scathing references to it in reviews of other movies. To him, the film’s wanton violence represented everything that was wrong with modern cinema. (It's worth noting that Crowther was 62 years old and had been the Times' chief critic since 1940.)

Early box office reflected the bad reviews. But then came Pauline Kael, a vocal champion for the film who wrote 9000 words about it for The New Yorker. She was soon followed by Newsweek's Joseph Morgenstern, who gave the film a bad review, then retracted it a week later with a new, glowing appraisal. TIME magazine, which had also panned it, recanted and put the film on the cover of its December issue. Word began to spread. Warner Bros. re-released the film into more theaters and, by the end of 1967, it was on its way toward becoming one of the top-grossers of the year. It made most of its money, however, in early 1968, when Warner Bros. put it in wide release to take advantage of its 10 Oscar nominations. (Post-script: Bosley Crowther was removed as the Times' lead film critic in early 1968.)

9. It turned an old song into a new hit.

Flatt & Scruggs' banjo-heavy bluegrass tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" serves as the film's theme music, even though it was recorded in 1949 and is anachronistic for a movie set in the 1930s. Even more anachronistic, though, is the fact that when the song was re-released in conjunction with the movie, it became a hit, reaching number 55 on the Billboard Hot 100 charts. It's now a standard in the bluegrass genre, and is often used in movies and TV when there's a chase scene set in a rural area.

10. It inspired songwriters as well as filmmakers.


Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

As Americans fell in love with Bonnie and Clyde the movie, they also became captivated by Bonnie and Clyde the outlaws, and the nation's troubadours took to the airwaves to sing about the tragic lovers. Merle Haggard, Georgie Fame, Serge Gainsbourg and Brigitte Bardot, Mel Tormé, and Bonnie's sister Billie Jean Parker all recorded new songs in the wake of the movie's success, and the aforementioned Flatt & Scruggs wrote an entire album.

11. It inspired a fashion fad, too.

Faye Dunaway's period costumes caught the attention of the fashion-minded, and soon berets (which hadn't been popular since the '30s) were back in vogue. The trend coincided with French designers wanting to move from mini-skirts to maxi-skirts, and gave women an appealing example of how great a maxi could look.

12. The cinematographer quit midway through filming.

Burnett Guffey, a respected veteran in the industry who'd shot close to 100 movies and had served as president of the American Society of Cinematographers, was frequently at odds with Penn (who was fairly new to film) and with production designer Dean Tavoularis. Not only was Guffey older than most of the crew (he was born in 1905), but the "new Hollywood" visual style that Penn and Tavoularis wanted for the film didn't mesh with his old-school sensibilities.

After butting heads with the director one too many times, Guffey quit and was replaced by another old-timer, Ellsworth Fredericks. But this lasted only a few days, as Fredericks' competent-but-uninspired work made Penn realize how hard Guffey had been trying to capture his vision. He wooed Guffey back to finish the film, for which Guffey would win his second Oscar.

13. It contains a reference John F. Kennedy's assassination.

When Bonnie and Clyde are pumped full of lead in the film's bloody climax, you can see a fragment of Clyde's scalp flying off. Penn and editor Dede Allen both confirmed that this was a deliberate reference to the Zapruder film of JFK's death, which had happened in Dallas, not far from where Bonnie and Clyde grew up.

Additional sources:
Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, by Mark Harris

This article originally ran in 2016.

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