Mini-series review: No One Saw a Thing

It might be the hottest cold case in American history, although old enough to have fallen off everyone’s radar screen. The Sundance Channel brings us a fresh look at the murder of Ken Rex McElroy in 1981, shot down in broad daylight in a small Missouri town in front of dozens of witnesses —  a murder for which no one has ever been charged, let alone tried. The national media swooped down on the town at the time, and the crime lodged deep in the national psyche and fueled a debate over the boundaries between justice and revenge. For those old enough to remember the original case and its impact, No One Saw A Thing promises a thorough review of the case itself and the questions it posed, then and now.

Calling McElroy the town bully of Skidmore, Missouri was an exercise in understatement. McElroy had shot people, allegedly burned his wife’s family out of their home, preyed on underaged girls for years, and finally nearly killed a local shopowner for accusing his children of shoplifting. McElroy had cowed local law enforcement to such an extent that he could literally get away with everything up to murder. Even though a court had finally convicted McElroy of attempted murder, the judge inexplicably released him on his own recognizance pending appeal. That’s when the people of Skidmore came together to rid themselves of McElroy once and for all.

McElroy ended up dead in his pickup truck, but what happened to the shooters? Why was no one tried for his murder? One Skidmore resident suggests to the documentarians that some people “just need killing,” but at what cost? Not only does No One Saw a Thing raise the same questions the case did in 1981 about justice, revenge, and self-preservation, it will raise issues about the potential consequences of getting forced into that choice and the need to keep deadly secrets for decades afterward.

The Skidmore murder insinuated itself into politics and culture in various ways. Not only did it start a national debate over rising crime at the time, it also inspired numerous efforts by Hollywood to suss out its meaning. An episode of the popular crime drama Quincy the next year took McElroy’s side, while the classic (and very loosely connected) Patrick Swayze film Road House offered a very different perspective about town bullies and collective action eight years later. McElroy’s Wikipedia page lists more directly related productions, including a scripted film called Without Mercy in 2005 that focused on McElroy’s villainous nature.

No One Saw A Thing plays out over six episodes, with four left to air as of this writing. It’s a tense, in-depth look at all sides of the McElroy shooting and its aftermath in Skidmore, where curious deaths continue to the present day. McElroy’s malignancy is not sugar-coated, but neither is the nature of the vigilante justice that still divides Skidmore. At least for the first two episodes, this rare Sundance Channel foray into territory usually belonging to Investigation Discovery is well worth watching. It uses some re-enactments, but also plenty of archival footage from a deluge of national media coverage at the time, as well as contemporary interviews with the principals and other Skidmore residents.

Since this airs on the Sundance Channel, the normal Hot Air rating scale doesn’t really apply. On the basis of the first two episodes, I highly recommend it to those who have access to the broadcasts.

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