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 River 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. Authorities allege that James Robert Crocker, 59, confronted the group with a 9 mm handgun, and in an altercation over property rights fatally shot Dart’s husband in the head from a few feet away.
Paul Franklin Dart, 48, of Robertsville, died 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 said. “I watched my husband bleed to death. He was a wonderful man. He didn’t deserve this.”
Authorities have charged Crocker with second-degree murder.
Crocker told police that the shooting came as the culmination of a dispute over whether the group was trespassing, 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.
Crocker lives in a white-framed bungalow on a shaded gravel road on a bluff above the Meramec about eight miles west of Steelville, which bills itself as the “floating capital of Missouri.”
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. 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.
Neighbor Kathy Gilliam said Crocker wasn’t the type to start trouble. “Something else must have happened down there to set him off.”
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 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, 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.
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.”