NEW YORK — It’s been 38 years since a man named Ken Rex McElroy was shot to death by an angry crowd in the dusty farming community of Skidmore, Mo. And for 38 years, the case has remained unsolved.
McElroy was widely regarded as a gun-toting bully who menaced the community. For years residents watched him wiggle out of one jam with the law after another. They became increasingly disenchanted with the legal system and took the law into their own hands. As many as 60 people witnessed his murder but no one implicated anyone.
Israeli filmmaker Avi Belkin was looking for an interesting story to base a documentary and stumbled onto the McElroy case in a library. He was intrigued by the murder but also fascinated by what came after it — a wave of violence in Skidmore.
“I decided to do a portrait of this small town but also explore the origin of violence in American society through that,” Belkin said. “Why is it continuing? And what’s the price you pay for vigilante culture?”
The answer is in “No One Saw a Thing,” a six-episode meditation on what happens when a small town finds itself outside the law. It airs Thursdays on Sundance TV starting Aug. 1.
Belkin, a rising filmmaker who has been praised for the new film “Mike Wallace Is Here,” spoke to as many living participants in Skidmore as possible, as well as law enforcement and McElroy’s family. Though residents have grown sick of the media, Belkin somehow earned access.
“I figured it was the first time that an Israeli was ever in that small town,” he said. “In a way, the fact that I was an outsider allowed me to get the story told to me by the people because they really felt they had no judgment on the case. I think they were tired of Americans having prejudged the town.”
As he poked around the town’s skeletons, Belkin found a legacy of violence following McElroy’s slaying: a townswoman stomped to death by her boyfriend, a 20-year-old man who vanished into thin air and the slaying of a pregnant woman whose fetus was cut from her womb. While none of the cases were directly related to the McElroy murder, Belkin saw tentacles of violence stretching from that 1981 killing.
“The message that was sent to that community on that day is that if you have a problem, you solve it with violence. And that just perpetuates itself later on in future generations,” he said. “I think that’s the message that subconsciously Americans are getting and not completely understanding the effect of it.”
McElroy’s death and the collective town silence that followed have been chronicled in a book, “In Broad Daylight,” which was made into a TV movie, and the film “Without Mercy,” as well as several podcasts.
After Belkin first spotted the story on Skidmore, he flew to the town about 80 miles northwest of Kansas City, Mo., and started filming. He edited his footage down to an 8-minute clip in order to gin up interest from producers.
Marci Wiseman and Jeremy Gold, co-presidents of Blumhouse Television, were instantly intrigued and bid for the project on the spot. They said Belkin’s approach was timely and representative of an American struggle.
“If you dropped a pin in the dead center of the country, you couldn’t get more dead center in America than Skidmore, Mo.,” Gold said. “It was a no-brainer for us.”
Both executives also thought it was a perfect fit as they move the Blumhouse brand away from horror toward more provocative, complex fare, including “Sharp Objects” and “The Loudest Voice.”
“It’s a really cautionary tale about what happens when you abandon the rule of law,” Wiseman said. “In our current time, there is this tendency for anger and mob-think. This looks at the corrosiveness of what that does to a community.”
With financial backing secure, Belkin returned more than half a dozen times to Skidmore, staying for a week or two each time and doing interviews. A small army of researchers went through old TV news footage and newspaper archives.
“No One Saw a Thing” beautifully mixes intimate portraiture, re-creations using Super 16 format and sweeping shots of the town, captured by drones to show the town’s isolation.
“I felt showing how small that community is, and how isolated it is, is a really important part of the story. That’s what happens a lot of the time in small towns in America. They govern themselves, in a way,” he said.
Belkin isn’t worried that his documentary series will reopen wounds in Skidmore — they really haven’t healed since 1981.
“I think very early on I let everybody know that I’m not here to do a whodunit series,” he said. “It’s about closure. It’s like you have this wound that will not close and then it’s infecting other places in your body.”