Editor’s note: This article and photos were published in the February 22, 2018, edition of the Bethany Republican Clipper. Because of his law enforcement presence with his service to Nodaway County on the Missouri Highway Patrol, we requested and were granted permission to share this with the Nodaway News Leader’s readers.
By Phil Conger, Bethany Republican Clipper
Margaret Stratton, wife of retired lawman Richard “Sarge” Stratton, often thinks back on her frightening
encounter in the early 1980s with Ken Rex McElroy, the brutish thug who terrorized residents of Northwest Missouri for many years.
Early one morning, Margaret was getting into her car to drive to church in Savannah, MO, when she saw the heavyset McElroy walk up to her window.
“He stuck a shotgun right in my face,” Mrs. Stratton said, whose highway patrol husband had had numerous run-ins with McElroy over the years while patrolling Nodaway County.
“I remember thinking to myself that if he shot me, then at least I would be in my good clothes,” Margaret said during an interview.
Richard Stratton, then a highway patrol corporal, was away from home working with a pilot on traffic enforcement on I-29.
The Strattons, who now live in Bethany, had received several harassing telephone calls from McElroy. Richard said the shotgun incident was just part of McElroy’s way of operating after years of thievery and more serious crimes in and around his hometown of Skidmore.
“He liked to intimidate people, particularly women,” Stratton said, who retired several years ago after a long career with the highway patrol and later as the Harrison County Sheriff.
Richard said his wife is pretty tough. “I am surprised that she didn’t bite the end of the barrel off,” he laughed.
Margaret took refuge in a nearby grocery store. All the time, McElroy was outside the store. “He sat outside in his pickup truck in the parking lot,” she said. “Finally, he crumpled up a beer can and threw it down in the parking lot.”
Sarge has been confined to his home in Bethany’s Daily Addition for the past several weeks. He is suffering from lung cancer and recently had a stroke. Margaret has set up a hospital bed in their kitchen where Sarge has spent his days recently watching the winter Olympics on TV. It has been a tough time for the gregarious couple who have spent a lifetime in service to the public. Richard spent 20 years as a member of the Bethany Fair Board and Margaret has been involved in numerous volunteer programs like the Red Cross.
Richard Stratton, known across the region for his gravelly voice answering “507” when responding to calls on police scanners, was the law officer credited with bringing Ken Rex McElroy to justice. After his arrest in Nodaway County, McElroy was eventually convicted by a Harrison County jury of assault for shooting Skidmore grocer Ernest “Bo” Bowenkamp in the neck. The trial, which was held in Bethany on a change of venue, drew a large crowd of interested spectators from Nodaway County who hoped that McElroy would finally face justice. Bowenkamp, a meek-appearing man who recovered from his injuries, described McElroy’s brutal assault in which McElroy incredibly claimed self-defense because the grocer was holding a paring knife.
The Harrison County jury’s verdict of guilty was the first time that McElroy had been convicted of a crime. But, McElroy received a light sentence of two years in prison, considering the seriousness of the crime. Then, Nodaway County residents were further outraged when McElroy was released on bond while his attorney prepared an appeal.
The case came to an end in most shocking fashion when McElroy encountered an angry crowd after he arrogantly returned to Skidmore on July 10, 1981. While seated in his pickup with his wife, Trena, a shot rang out and struck McElroy in the head, ending his brutal reign of terror.
The shooting became a national sensation because of the aspects of vigilante justice. A Denver author, Harry N. MacLean, wrote a bestselling book, “In Broad Daylight: A Murder in Skidmore, Missouri,” after extensive research including trips to the Harrison County courthouse where the trial was held on a change of venue.
McElroy was played in a popular movie of the same name by well-known actor Brian Dennehey. Stratton’s highway patrol 507 call letters even had a place in the movie.
The Strattons occasionally hear from the author, McLean, who recently sent them a follow-up book about the McElroy case. They often receive calls from newspapers and television stations, and Richard was even invited to appear on the Oprah show. But he declined despite Oprah’s persistent phone calls. “I finally hung up on her,” he said.
According to MacLean’s “In Broad Daylight” book, Richard Stratton was the only lawman that McElroy feared and respected. Stratton had had several encounters with the Skidmore man including one when McElroy threatened him with a shotgun. Stratton spent a lot of time keeping track of McElroy’s whereabouts.
Stratton was popular in Nodaway County because of his reputation as a “tough cop” who could be capable of taking out McElroy.
MacLean wrote, “When word spread in Nodaway County in 1973 that the patrol was transferring Stratton from Maryville to St. Joe, people protested. Residents circulated petitions at gas stations, taverns, fertilizer stores, auctions and door to door.” Many wanted him to run for sheriff.
It was natural, then, that Stratton used his instincts to finally flush out McElroy during the two-state manhunt that occurred after the Skidmore man shot Bowenkamp. The highway patrol and sheriff’s departments put out an all-points bulletin for the arrest of McElroy after the shooting, but Stratton knew that the fugitive monitored police radio frequencies and would be using back roads in an attempt to get across the river in Kansas.
While the other troopers had set up roadblocks elsewhere, Stratton knew in his gut that McElroy would be coming through Fillmore, MO, on Route H.
Stratton maintained radio silence while he waited in Fillmore. Within a short time, a green pickup came through town occupied by McElroy and his blond wife, Trena. Stratton followed the car and called for backup.
“The dispatcher told him to hold his position until assistance arrived,” according to MacLean’s book. The officers finally took the McElroys into custody without any shots being fired.
Stratton’s efforts to bring McElroy to justice, which extended over several years, are an example of the types of dangers that families of lawmen sometimes face from a criminal.
Margaret’s first encounter with McElroy actually came a few years previously when the Strattons had just moved to St. Joseph but Corporal Stratton was still keeping tabs on McElroy.
Mrs. Stratton recalled that a large-framed man and a blond woman had recently begun parking in their driveway when Richard was on duty.
“At the time, I didn’t even know who he was,” she said.
When she told her husband about the incident, he took her to the highway patrol’s St. Joseph headquarters to look at some photos.
“I already knew who it was,” Stratton said, but he let Margaret make the identification.
McElroy had also been coming into the places in Maryville where Margaret’s daughters worked.
“The St. Joseph Police Department sent an officer to stay at our home,” Margaret said, saying that at first she objected but then accepted his presence. “I thought the least I could do was to give him some coffee,” she said.
Richard wanted his wife to stay with her sister in Texas, but Margaret was having none of that. “I wasn’t going to let anyone run me out of town.”
It was a matter of relief when Ken Rex McElroy received justice in Skidmore.
“It has been an interesting life,” Margaret said.
In the meantime, Sarge says he is certain about who fired the fatal shot in their encounter in Skidmore. But that secret is going to remain with him.
After all, there were probably a lot of people who would have liked to have pulled the trigger.