STEELVILLE, Mo. • It was just supposed to be a pit stop.
A group of family and friends on an annual float trip stopped at a gravel bar in the Meramec on Saturday afternoon to refresh drinks and answer the call of nature, according to Loretta Dart, who was on the trip. Her cousin went into the woods to urinate.
In doing so, he apparently ignited the ire of a property owner along the river fed up with people traipsing on his property. James Robert Crocker, 59, confronted the group with a 9 mm handgun, and in an altercation over property rights that rapidly escalated to gunfire, fatally shot Dart’s husband in the head from a few feet away, authorities say.
Paul Franklin Dart, 48, of Robertsville, died in an ambulance on the way to a hospital, less than five hours after setting out on a leisurely float along the river. An Army veteran and a union carpenter, he had married Loretta Dart about two years ago.
“I watched him be shot in the face and fall down,” she sobbed in a telephone interview Monday. “I watched my husband bleed to death. He was a wonderful man. He didn’t deserve this.”
Crocker told police the shooting came as the culmination of a dispute over whether the group was trespassing or not, and he fired after a man approached him with rocks in his hands. Paul Dart wasn’t the one with the rocks.
“I just shot the one closest to me,” Crocker said, according to police.
Authorities on Sunday charged Crocker with second-degree murder. He was being held Monday in lieu of $650,000 bail at the Crawford County Jail.
Crocker lives in a white-framed bungalow on Meramec Estate Lane, a shaded gravel road on a bluff above the Meramec about eight miles northwest of Steelville, which bills itself as the “floating capital of Missouri.” Crocker worked in Steelville for Poly Systems, a company that makes culverts, according to neighbors.
Herb Smelser described Crocker as courteous, hardworking — and territorial about his property, which, like every house on the road, extends down the bluff to the river. “Jim put in a lot of hours and sweat fixing his access road to the river and had his property down there looking really nice,” Smelser said.
But people came on his property to urinate, said Smelser, 77. They drank and smoked and partied down there. It irritated Crocker. He posted a “Keep out” sign on a gravel bar, facing the river.
“It bugged all of us, to tell you the truth,” Smelser said. “I got so sick of it I just quit going down there.”
‘YOU BETTER CALL 911’
Loretta Dart said her group of floaters didn’t mean any harm when they stopped at the gravel bar. They had started the seven-mile float about 9:30 a.m. after renting canoes at the Rafting Co., about three miles outside of Steelville. Some of the floaters were drinking alcohol, according to Josh Kling, Loretta Dart’s son and Paul Dart’s stepson.
Paul Wilkerson, owner of the Rafting Co., said the float has been an annual event for the group for at least the last five years.
“They’re a real nice group of people,” Wilkerson said. “We never had any trouble or complaints regarding them.”
He said there haven’t been any problems stopping on gravel bars in the past, but the company does require floaters to sign a release saying they’ll avoid littering, stay out of posted areas and leave quickly and courteously when asked by a property owner.
Loretta Dart said they stopped at the gravel bar before 2 p.m. but weren’t there long before Crocker confronted them with a gun, starting with her cousin who went to urinate. The man said they were on private property and to get out. He waved his gun around and fired it in the air and into the ground near Paul Dart and her cousin, Loretta Dart said.
Crocker told a detective that men were yelling at him “stating that they weren’t going to leave and that the gravel bar was public property,” court records say.
At one point, Crocker told Kling, “I have the power here. I have the power,” Kling said.
Kling said, “Put that gun down and we’ll see who has the power,” according to Loretta Dart. Kling, 24, of Robertsville, said he and his stepfather were trying to reason with the man.
Then, Loretta Dart said, her cousin picked up a rock. (Crocker told police the man had a rock in each hand.) Her husband stood between her cousin and the gunman.
“My husband tried to calm the guy down,” Loretta Dart said. “He went to the guy’s arm to try to stop him, but the guy jerked back and popped him in the face.”
On Saturday afternoon, Smelser heard his wife yelling and emerged from the shop behind his home to see Crocker in the front yard. The right half of his face, neck and torso were splattered with blood, Smelser said. At first he thought Crocker was hurt, but Crocker said he was OK.
“I just shot a guy down at the river,” he told Smelser. “This is his blood. You better call 911.”
A trooper from the Missouri Highway Patrol arrived and handcuffed Crocker, Smelser said. He sat Crocker down next to a tree. Police found his semi-automatic pistol in his Ford Mustang.
Two floaters came up from the river looking for Crocker, Smelser said. He said they appeared inebriated.
“The highway patrolman asked them what they wanted,” Smelser said, “and one of the guys pointed over at Crocker and said, ‘We want that S.O.B.!’”
The trooper sent the floaters back down to the river.
MUDDY PROPERTY RIGHTS
On Monday afternoon, empty medical supply packets lay next to the bloody spot on the gravel bank where first responders treated Dart. Police tape fluttered from the “Keep Out” sign that Crocker had planted in the gravel.
“He wasn’t the type to start trouble,” neighbor Kathy Gilliam said. “Something else must have happened down there to set him off.”
That something appears to be the dispute over his property rights, according to what Crocker told authorities.
“It’s my property, and I was going to protect it,” he told them.
But who has rights to do what isn’t always clear on the river.
Smelser, Crocker’s neighbor, said that he was not sure himself where his property line ended, but that he believed it extended to the middle of the river. Various people in state government gave varying answers for who can go where. Some referenced the vegetation line, but that can change. Others said it depends on whether a river is deemed “navigable,” which can also be difficult to pin down. The issue of private property laws along Missouri's streams and rivers is guided by a Missouri Supreme Court decision from 1954, called Elder v. Delcour, which talked about streams that are navigable or non-navigable.
Rob Brandenburg, an agent who covers Crawford County for the Missouri Conservation Department, said property lines actually go to the center of the river. The public’s right to use this property is an easement much like a public road, Brandenburg said. A property owner owns a county road to the center of the road, for example, but a person can use that road.
Another Conservation Department employee, a spokesman for the department, said it is a complicated aspect of Missouri law and that, typically, the question is answered on a case-by-case basis by county prosecutors.
“This is an area of Missouri law still up in the air,” he added.
A lawyer from Ozark, Mo., Harry Styron, has researched extensively the topic of property rights along streams and rivers.
“These cases are really very confusing. They are difficult to interpret,” Styron said. “You are on private property, but you have a right to be there if it’s a navigable stream and as long as you are on a gravel bar that is submerged during parts of the year, because it’s part of the stream bed.”
The property issues can be hard to sort out, he said. But either way, he said, “it obviously doesn’t have anything to do with people shooting people. We don’t have a stand-your-gravel-bar law yet.”