On the Night Shift
Ken McElroy had spent most of his 47 years nurturing his moldy reputation.
He was born in 1934, the 15th of 16 children of a poor, tenant-farming couple who wandered from one financial failure to another in eastern Kansas, the southern Missouri Ozarks and, finally, northwest Missouri.
McElroy grew up near Skidmore in a two-bedroom house that was packed with siblings, plus the parents. He was vaguely good-looking, with midnight-blue eyes and black hair that belied Cherokee blood in his ancestry.
McElroy did not take to schooling, and he dropped out well before he could be considered fully literate. As a teen he began dabbling in what would become his passion: raccoon hunting.
Coon hunting is done at night, when the animals are active. The tools are flashlights, varmint rifles and specially bred hounds—Blueticks, Redbones, Black and Tans, Treeing Walkers and Plott Hounds. Hunters release their dogs along creeks, then follow the baying when the hounds strike coon scent. They track the coons until the animals are forced to scurry up a tree. One hunter illuminates the treed coon with a flashlight beam while another shoots it—preferably in the head, to maximize the value of the animal's pelt.
It turned out McElroy did all his best work at night—as a thief.
He rarely held a legitimate job, even though he drove new trucks and supported a squadron of children and a small harem of women.
He stole grain, gasoline, alcohol, antiques and any other commodity he could fence. But he was particularly adept as a livestock rustler, another activity practiced at night.
He paid off auction barns to sell his hot livestock. Law enforcers and farmers alike knew that McElroy was stealing, but Missouri did not require branding, so authorities were unable to pin a crime on him.
When he was finally charged with rustling, in 1972, McElroy hired a big-shot Kansas City lawyer, Richard McFadin, whose maneuvers got the case dismissed. The two maintained a long and mutually beneficial relationship. McElroy helped make McFadin wealthy, and McFadin kept McElroy out of jail.
For years his home county reported more rustling than any other in Missouri. McElroy would show up at the D&G tavern with paper bags filled with thousands of dollars in cash, as if taunting the farmers and ranchers at the bar whose animals had disappeared.