Lisa Montgomery was recently executed by the federal government for the murder and kidnapping she committed in 2004. No matter your view on the death penalty, Montgomery’s death seems to be a capstone of a strange and violent history in Nodaway County.
And I’d like to state here that I’m familiar with the history and consequences of Nodaway County. I have family in and around this county, and my father even grew up in the nearby Hamburg, Iowa, so I am not just someone completely new to the area trying to “crack the case.” You’ll find other murderers here and there, and surprising acts of violence in the county, but at the heart of it all lies a small town about 15 miles southwest of Maryville: Skidmore, Missouri.
In Skidmore lived a man named Ken Rex McElroy. McElroy terrorized the town for years. In 1973, he raped a 12-year-old girl named Trena McCloud and then decided to marry her to avoid charges. When her parents refused to allow the marriage, McElroy burned their house down and shot their dog. So Trena became his second wife. And I don’t mean second wife overall, I mean second wife at the time. McElroy also committed the crime of polygamy. He fathered 10 children from multiple women. In 1976, he shot a man and almost killed him after he accused him of illegally shooting on his property.
After all these incidents McElroy was arrested but was either free by acquittal or released on bail. So the citizens of Skidmore took the law into their own hands. They shot McElroy in his truck, killing him. There were anywhere from 30-90 witnesses. Nobody ever came forward with who exactly did it.
McElroy turned from a rural terrorist to a ghost story. It is still nothing to be taken lightly, and I do not encourage any of you reading this to go to Skidmore to ask questions and start trouble. The killing was covered by the news for weeks, and the reputation it developed killed the town. There used to be gas stations, a grocery store, even a high school but now all that remains is Good Time Charley’s, a great grill and bar that I recommend. But the strange violence didn’t end there.
In 2000, Wendy Gillenwater was beaten to death by her boyfriend, Greg Dragoo. Her body was so badly beaten that her own mother could only identify her by the ring she was wearing. In 2001, a young boy named Branson Perry vanished without a trace. Nobody knows what happened to him. People suspect he was taken away to be killed. It’s very possible that Perry was dealing meth and was killed before he could talk. Still, he’s gone, and nobody knows who did it.
And lastly, we get to the most recent instance of strange violence in Skidmore history. In 2004, after stalking her online, Montgomery brutally murdered the pregnant Bobbie Jo Stinnett in her home by strangling her, cutting her open and stealing her baby. Montgomery had even faked symptoms of pregnancy so that when she returned to her hometown in Kansas, it didn’t turn too many heads. However, the law caught up to her quickly, and Montgomery was arrested the next day. The baby was returned home safely. After years in prison, Montgomery was executed Jan. 13.
So how does this all tie together in the history of Nodaway County? How is her execution the final chapter? Well, this land has been soiled with blood since the very beginning. This county is no stranger to violence and death. And I just wonder, “Why here? Why not in a county with a larger population? What made this county different?” Things like this don’t normally happen in small counties or small towns. Is it the lack of law enforcement? Is it the meth? Or is it even the Kansas City Mafia? There’s no way to tell.
But what people do not realize is that McElroy had terrorized the town, and when he was shot in broad daylight, Nodaway County became “haunted” by his violence in the end because there was a generation who grew up with the legacy of 50 or so people shooting a man in broad daylight and nobody getting in trouble. This led to a violent spree of crime in the 2000s. From my view, all of the violence of Skidmore connects back to the small town talk and not doing something about it.
In the 2019 documentary “No One Saw a Thing,” residents of Skidmore hinted that they knew who officially killed McElroy but would never say. They also say that they know Gillenwater was being abused but did little about it until it was too late. There were also rumors that Perry was involved in dealing meth, but it was not taken seriously.
In the case of Montgomery’s crime, they learned their lesson. The people of Skidmore did all the things they didn’t do before. They talked about what happened. They called the police, and the police got an amber alert. They did what they didn’t do for Gillenwater or Perry. They took the event seriously, and the baby was found.
Now, it seems they will let the proper authorities know, and they won’t just use it for gossip and rumors. They will no longer hold mysterious town meetings or whisper about when someone is in trouble or doing something they shouldn't. And so, the violence of Nodaway County ended recently. Because as a final act of death, Montgomery was executed Jan. 13. After this final chapter, I hope that as a town and as a community, Skidmore will heal in a new era.