Friday, April 29, 2011

The Tinkerbell Effect

Several facts of society, facets we take for granted, aren't quite as intractable as they seem. They're plenty intractable, but the reason for that is that we say they are. Things like money, the rule of law, government, even society itself only exist because we all agreed at some point that they should be so. A 2004 article (PDF) in the Macquarie Law Journal by Cameron Stewart referred to it as the Tinkerbell Effect. If everyone agreed that, say, planes couldn't fly, that doesn't make that true. The plane will still be airworthy no matter how many people claim otherwise. But if everyone agreed that planes should not be ALLOWED to fly, if nobody is willing to take the plane up in the air, the plane won't fly. It COULD fly, but it won't.

We could bring up several things to illustrate the point of what happens when people as a group decide to stop existing under a particular societal setup- riots, mobs, rebellions, revolutions, even the odd community that prints its own local currency- but today, we have something much more unique.

Ken McElroy of Skidmore, Missouri was not a nice man. In fact, Skidmore's nickname for him was "the town bully". He had a rap sheet that would stretch halfway to Kansas City, including theft, rape, pedophilia, arson, assault, cattle rustling, even burning down someone's house... or at least, he would have had he actually been convicted of anything. He would, on 22 out of 23 occasions, escape conviction via witness intimidation- sometimes by making threats, sometimes just by parking outside the witnesses' houses and watching them. After acquittals would come the bragging- once safe via double-jeopardy law, McElroy would taunt townsfolk about what he was now free to admit he did. After one acquittal in 1973 over the attempted shooting of a farmer, McElroy bragged to Skidmore that he might as well have killed him. Through the multitude of offenses, townspeople terrified of McElroy kept turning to law enforcement, but every time, all they got back was a message that there wasn't anything they could do, but keep an eye on him.

Then there's the matter of that one conviction. McElroy was convicted of shooting grocer Bo Bowenkamp. Trena McElroy, Ken's wife, accused Bowenkamp's wife, Lois, of accusing Trena's daughter of stealing a 10-cent piece of candy. After a threat from Trena to "whip her ass" and the brandhishing of a pocketknife by Ken, Lois banned them from the store.

After several nights of parking outside the Bowenkamp house, at least two of which involved firing his shotgun, and one offer of $100 to Lois to settle the dispute with Trena via a street fight (Lois was in her 50's; Trena was a teenager), he pulled up behind the grocery and shot Bowenkamp. McElroy was convicted in April 1981 and sentenced to two years in prison.

But not for long. McElroy appealed, won the appeal mere hours later, and was freed on bond. Not long afterward, he showed up to a local tavern, rifle in hand, threatening to finish the job. This immediately violated his bond, and several witnesses were willing to testify, but McElroy's lawyer managed to get the hearing postponed. That was all the town could stand.

On July 10, 1981, less than three months later, much of Skidmore gathered at the Legion Hall to demand the county sheriff do something. He suggested a neighborhood watch program. They responded that that's supposed to be his job. Meanwhile, McElroy arrived at the tavern. It was no coincidence; he had heard about the meeting. The sheriff, upon wrapping up the meeting, headed out of town for the county seat of Maryville, 15 miles away. The rest of the meeting-goers soon decided to head to the tavern. Soon, over 40 people were there, about 30 in the tavern itself. Some of them had never gone there before. McElroy left, got into his truck, and the crowd followed.

Then McElroy was shot from at least two directions, in the middle of the day, in July, with a crowd of a reported 45 people present. Trena was spattered with blood; she was not shot and soon rushed to safety. The sheriff got word over the scanner and rushed back into Skidmore.

But nobody saw anything.

Obviously, this was a bald-faced lie- dozens of people were standing right there- but the town had mutually agreed that nobody saw anything. Nobody had told the sheriff of anything during the earlier meeting. And, as per the Tinkerbell Effect, so it was. Trena, Ken's wife, wasn't in on this, and made accusations, but with nobody else willing to back her up, her word alone was not enough to press charges. Every time a potential witness was asked, they would simply say that they heard gunshots, hit the ground, and saw nothing. A hotline was set up for tips. Nobody called, unless you count the media.

And the media wasn't being talked to either, at least after the initial stretch of time. As daughter Cheryl Bowenkamp recalled 25 years later,

"Right after the shooting some of us here in Skidmore were willing to talk about what we had gone through in the year prior to the shooting. No one was going to talk about the shooting itself. But it only took the first couple of stories that were printed for us to realize that it didn't matter what we said. It was going to be twisted. So...everyone quit talking. That seemed like the best way. Most of the stories that got printed were blown out of proportion and would have made a great western."

The shooting was in 1981. 30 years later, no further progress on the case has been made. None is likely to be made.

The town of Skidmore, still refusing to finger a shooter, doesn't regret it, because they feel to this day it had to be done. Had McElroy not been shot, he simply would have continued his reign of terror, and law enforcement would have continued to allow it. But at the same time, they do regret it, as the incident is all the otherwise very sleepy town is likely to ever be known for. As it happens, the media only appears interested in Skidmore when someone gets killed there, and every time they come around, Ken McElroy's name is thrown around again.

Skidmore, which mainly caters to truckers and farmers, has an annual four-day Punkin' Show in the fall, which includes such things as dance contests, tractor pulls and frog-jumping contests. It is by all accounts lovely. If that sounds boring and sleepy, good. That's just the way Skidmore would like it.

But everyone else has determined that Ken McElroy will be Skidmore's claim to fame. And so it is.

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