Steelville, Missouri homeowner James Crocker, already under arrest after shooting a man he believed to be a trespasser point-blank in the face, now faces additional charges related to the incident.
The incident, which cost Paul Franklin Dart his life, began after Dart and his family rented canoes and embarked down the Meremac River early on that June morning. When they reached the property of James Crocker — five hours later — Dart and his stepson Josh Kling went into the woods to urinate. There, Crocker confronted them with a loaded 9 mm handgun.
The man who rented the Darts the canoes, Paul Wilkerson, told the St. Louis Post Dispatch that the family had signed a release saying that they would avoid littering and politely listen to the requests of any property owners they should encounter. Crocker told police that the Darts did nothing of the sort, responding to his request to vacate his property by yelling “they weren’t going to leave and that the gravel bar was public property.”
According to witnesses, Crocker replied “I have the power, I have the power,” to which Kling responded “Put that gun down and we’ll see who has the power.” Kling then picked up a rock. At this point, Paul Dart attempted to intervene, standing between Crocker and Kling.
“My husband tried to calm the guy down,” Loretta Dart told the Post-Dispatch. “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.”
Explaining himself to police, Crocker said “I just shot the one closest to me.”
This incident is just the latest to call attention to the so-called “castle doctrine,” the more lenient cousin of justifiable homicide that allows homeowners who feel imperiled to defend themselves and their property with lethal force. Justifiable homicide statutes, in contrast, require people to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that an attempt was being made on their lives or the life of someone else close to them.
The question in this case is whether the Darts were actually on Crocker’s property. State law in Missouri dictates that waterfront properties extend to the middle of the river on which they’re situated. Much like a road, these rivers are considered public easements, available for use by all. But the land immediately adjacent is usually considered private property, and Crocker had posted signs to that effect at regular intervals along the vegetation line. However, given that the location of the vegetation line changes from year to year, Missouri law states that land adjacent to a “navigable stream” is part of the public easement.
What constitutes a “navigable stream” is itself up for debate. A Missouri lawyer contacted by the Post-Dispatch, Harry Styron, said that “[t]hese cases are really very confusing. They are difficult to interpret. 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.”
However, he added that the definition navigable “obviously doesn’t have anything to do with people shooting people. We don’t have a stand-your-gravel-bar law yet.”
Watch an earlier KSDK 5 report on the incident here: