Float trips are always a dangerous proposition. If you make it out with only a few scrapes and bruises, some sunburn, and a monster hangover, then you’ve done your best. Getting blackout drunk on a river and under the beating summer sun is basically a recipe for disaster, though a really fun one. The shores are lined with river patrol officers (some more zealous than others), exciting rope swings and cliff dives overlooking water that is only anywhere from 4 to 10 feet deep (hello severe head trauma!), and of course the terrifying locals, or as I like to call them, “river people.”
River people are fucking weird. They are high level rednecks. River people are worse than lake people, but not quite as menacing as hill people. Still, river people aren’t to be trifled with. You never know what kind of backwoods logic they live their lives by, how much meth is flowing through their veins, or how eager they are to seek some vigilante justice. Unfortunately for one Missouri man who needed to relieve himself while floating on the Meramac River near Steelville, Missouri, he ran into a particularly crazed river man, a river man who was apparently really tired of people peeing on his property.
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.
That escalated quickly…and tragically. According to some University of Missouri fraternity members who were also floating the river that same day, they were only a half hour or so ahead of the victim and his party. They do not recall whether or not they peed on Crocker’s property.
James Crocker, by the way, looks exactly what you would expect him to, that being something from your hillbilly nightmares.
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.
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.
I’m all for the 2nd Amendment and the right to defend your property, but it’s clear that Crocker is kind of psycho. He shot the guy closest to him, in front of that man’s entire family, even though he was unarmed, and the most heavily armed person standing against Crocker was only holding some rocks. Crocker is currently charged with second degree murder and being held in Crawford County Jail.
To be fair to Crocker though, however deranged and backwoods he may look and act, there was a “Keep Out” sign posted on the gravel bar. Crocker gave the offending parties several opportunities to leave, and he did not fire without warning. Dart and his stepson, however, were (likely) drunk and feeling combative.
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.
So essentially what you have here is this: some drunk assholes went to pee, a territorial asshole comes down to the river with a gun and tells them to leave, the drunk assholes puff out their chests and act tough, the territorial asshole pulls out a gun and acts tougher, NO ONE is smart enough to backdown (particularly the gunless party), and eventually it ends in tragedy. One of the men confronting Crocker claims they were trying to reason with him, but saying “put down the gun and we’ll see who’s tough,” while holding rocks, doesn’t really sound reasonable. Who was being stupid here? Fucking everyone. I’m sure a hefty debate will break out in the comments, but if you want my opinion, there was no need at all for lethal force at the moment it was used.
Regardless, when someone tells you to leave, you should probably just leave unless it’s a wildly unreasonable request. Another Mizzou fraternity member who was floating the river that day put it this way, “I would hope that none of us would be reckless enough to try and fight a man with a 9mm over whether or not we could pee on what is possibly his property.”
Another problem with the case is the murky Missouri property laws along rivers. It’s unclear whether Crocker’s property extends to the gravel bar or not. Essentially, it boils down to this: no one knows where the property lines end. Some say the vegetation line, but that can vary. Some say the property line extends out to where the river is navigable, which can change literally by the day. This, however, is the most reasonable answer I read.
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.
So to all fraternity floaters out there, pee in the river, and if some scary river people tell you to leave, LEAVE. It’s not worth getting shot, let alone have your skin peeled off and turned into jerky, only to be sold on the side of the road to floaters coming down next weekend.
[Pictures and Story via STLToday.com]