Recent events have raised questions regarding the safety of float trips on Missouri Rivers. In the past, safety questions had to do with currents, life jackets, water levels, diving, or even drowning statistics; everything to do with water and nothing to do with guns. Unfortunately, all that has changed following the shooting death of a Meramec River floater by a landowner who claimed he was trespassing.
On Saturday, July 20, 2013, forty-eight year old, Paul Franklin Dart, Jr. died of a gunshot wound to the head. While details are still being investigated, Crawford County Sheriff Department have arrested fifty-nine year old, James Crocker of Steelville and charged him with second degree murder.The disagreement between the shooter and victim was purported to have begun when a group of floaters took a break on a gravel bar and one of the male members of the party urinated. An argument then occurred between several of the floaters and James Crocker who claimed ownership of the property, and took exception to people using his land as a toilet. Crocker fired two warning shots before shooting Dart in the face with a 9mm handgun from three feet distance.
Dart’s wife, stepson, and several friends witnessed the shooting firsthand. According to Dart’s widow, he was unarmed and only trying to calm Crocker when he was shot.
Crocker declares that he shot in self defense as several of the men had thrown rocks at him.
Quarrels between landowners and floaters have been an ongoing concern for authorities for years, but rarely have guns been involved, and certainly no one has been murdered. Floaters are advised to obey No Trespassing signs posted along the river banks, and for the most part they do. Some individuals trespass inadvertently when they either don’t see the signs or the signs have faded beyond reading or have fallen down. However, there are a few floaters who purposely do trespass, feeling that laws do not apply to them. It is these people who give all floaters a bad name.
According to Sheriff Randy Martin, floaters are allowed (by law) to get off the river and onto gravel areas or high water marks. He also says that the rules of the river are murky and high water marks are hard to identify. The Sheriff further stated, “We don’t know where the property owners land begins and ends, it makes it a difficult situation for us to enforce.”
The recently expanded Missouri Castle Law which gives landowners the right to use deadly force against people invading their property, outbuildings, or even in their cars if they feel their life is threatened has already been suggested as a possible defense for Crocker. However, since property lines on the river are uncertain, Sheriff Martin doesn’t believe it will apply in this case.
Having just spent last Friday and Saturday kayaking on the same river, I can say that I never felt in fear of my life at any time. I stopped at gravel bars with no signs marking them as private property and avoided those that were marked as such. It’s called river courtesy and respect for another’s property. At the same time, there’s a greater need for respect for human life. No one wins in a tragedy like this.