STEELVILLE, Mo. • Perhaps it’s not surprising that James Crocker would make a sudden decision Wednesday to take the stand to defend himself at the tail end of his murder trial at the Crawford County Courthouse.
But Crocker’s last-minute effort to recast his confrontation July 20 with a drunken group of Meramec River floaters — in which he shot and killed Paul Dart Jr. on a gravel bar — failed to persuade a jury.
After just two hours of deliberation, the panel of ten men and two women found Crocker, 59, guilty of second-degree murder. A judge subsequently handed him a 25-year-sentence.
Crocker, who appeared comfortable in the witness box, attempted to portray his actions as an accidental shooting.
He testified that he fired a warning shot when Dart’s group of revelers on the river refused to leave property he thought he owned. When an argument grew to fever pitch, Crocker pointed a 9 mm pistol at them, urging them to get back.
“That’s when I believe I got hit in the head (with a rock) and the gun went off,” Crocker testified about Dart’s killing.
Nobody else during a day and a half of testimony described the incident that way.
The jury had the option of considering voluntary manslaughter, but instead chose second-degree murder, a more serious crime. Circuit Court Judge Kelly W. Parker adhered to the jury’s recommended sentence of 25 years.
Dart’s widow, Loretta Dart, of Pevely, was grateful for the verdict.
“Thank God for the jurors, that justice did prevail,” she said.
“There’s no stand-your-ground law in Missouri,” said Larry Byler, 64, of Union and a good friend of the victim. “People need to know that. It might be able to save some lives.”
The case has called attention to navigable Ozark streams that fill up during the summer with tourists on rafts, canoes and inner tubes. Locals here often try to avoid the debauchery that plays out on the weekends.
Crocker had recently bought a place along the Meramec and testified that he frequented the gravel bar in question and a grassy camp nearby, sometimes with his grandchildren. There were “Keep Off” signs posted, but he testified that floaters often destroyed them and defecated, urinated and left tampons behind on the land he cherished.
After a land surveyor testified Wednesday that Crocker’s property boundary was 381 feet from the crime scene, more than the length of a football field, there was more focus on self-defense.
Prosecutor William Seay told the jury in closing statements that Crocker’s new story of what happened, including a photograph of an alleged head wound he sustained from being hit by a rock, was far-fetched, given other testimony.
Seay said it was the unarmed floaters in swimsuits who had to defend themselves. He said Crocker had set the hostile tone on the gravel bar and reverted to previous military training.
“He was on a mission that day … to clear the riverbank of people peeing on the rocks, rocks he doesn’t own,” Seay told the jury.
Defense attorney Michael Bert pointed to testimony that Dart was drunk when he was killed.
“(Crocker) stood his ground, he had no duty to retreat,” Bert told the jury, adding that officials ignore bad behavior on the river because it brings in a lot of money to the area.
“Send a message out to the community that we are done with condoning the party atmosphere down here,” Bert said. “What happened to the days when families could go down to the river? ... Enough is enough.”
Assistant prosecutor Michael Randazzo countered: “Is the message you want to send that you can go out and murder people next weekend and the next?”
Randazzo supported a detective’s previous statement that Crocker acted like the Lone Ranger that day last summer on the Meramec River, instead of calling police.
Then, pointing right at Crocker, he told the jury: “Ladies and gentlemen, hi-yo, Silver! Put that man away.”