A float trip on the Meramec River this weekend took a tragic turn when a homeowner -- allegedly angry about a man urinating on his private property -- pulled out a gun and shot a man to death, cops say.
The suspect, 59-year-old Steelville resident James Crocker, told cops, "It's my property, and I was going to protect it," according to court records released today.
After fatally shooting the victim, identified as 48-year-old Paul Dart Jr. from Franklin County, Crocker reportedly went to a woman's home nearby and "asked her to call 911 because he had just shot someone on the river," the Crawford County Sheriff's Office says.
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When Missouri Highway Patrol officers and state conservation agents arrived to the area on the river west of Steelville, they found "several people on a gravel bar next to the river," the sheriff's office says. "They were led to a man lying on the ground bleeding from an apparent gunshot wound to the head."
The department says in a news release, full document on view below:
Officers began giving aid to the victim while other officers began their investigation as to what had happened. According to numerous witnesses on the scene, an argument ensued between some men over whether one of the men was standing on private property or public property. Witnesses stated the argument escalated and at one point one of the men pulled a gun and fired several shots striking one of the men in the head.
Dart, the victim, was transported to a nearby funeral home where Crawford County coroner Paul Hutson pronounced him dead, officials say. Crocker was subsequently taken into custody and charged with second-degree murder with a cash bond set at $650,000.
Referencing court records released today, the Post-Dispatch has a slew of additional troubling details about the dispute.
The paper says:
In the court papers, Detective Zachary A. Driskill of the Crawford County Sheriff's Office explains that he interviewed Crocker after the shooting. Crocker told him he had seen a man urinating and told him to leave the gravel bar.
Crocker "stated that he told the male that the gravel bar was his property and he did not want him to urinate there and that he needed to leave," Driskill wrote. Crocker said the man refused to leave. Crocker walked back to his vehicle and then turned back and again walked back to the gravel bar. When Crocker returned, men were yelling at him "stating that they weren't going to leave and that the gravel bar was public property."
The victim's widow, Loretta Dart, tells the paper that about 50 of them started an annual seven-mile float trip at 9:30 a.m. and that they had decided to stop so that she could get a beverage and her cousin could urinate.
She offered the P-D this heartbreaking account of the shooting:
"This guy comes out of nowhere. My cousin Bobby went up to go pee in the woods, and this guy comes out behind him with a gun and says, 'This is my private property. Get the (expletive) off of it.'
He's waving his gun at everybody. He shot between Bobby and Paul on the ground. He shot in the air, too....
My husband tried to calm the guy down. He went to the guy's arm to try to stop him, but the guy jerked back and popped him in the face....
I watched him be shot in the face and fall down. I watched my husband bleed to death. He was a wonderful man. He didn't deserve this..."
The woman told the paper that the gunman looked crazed. The paper also notes that property rights along the river are not always clear because the vegetation line changes with river levels.
Here's the full press release from the sheriff's office: