by Sam Levin
On Saturday afternoon, Steelville resident Carol Smelser, 61, heard shots and screaming. With a home along the Meramec River where loud float trip groups frequently pass by, she didn't think much of it at first, she says.
"I thought maybe it was fireworks, but it sounded really close," she tells Daily RFT. "This one seemed different."
Soon, she heard a bang on her door, and when she responded, she didn't recognize the man standing there.
"'You need to call 911,'" he told her, she recalls. "'I just shot somebody down at the river.'"
"I thought he was kidding me," Smelser says. "I said, 'You're kidding me, right?' He said, 'No, I'm not. I need you to call 911.'"
Smelser called police. Meanwhile, down at the river, family and friends of 48-year-old Paul Dart Jr. were waiting for an ambulance. Dart had been shot in the head. He was pronounced dead by the Crawford County Coroner Paul Hutson a short while later.
The float-trip shooting on the Meramec River near Steelville got a lot of attention this week after a day on the water turned into an unimaginable nightmare for the grieving widow of Paul Dart.
The man who showed up at Smelser's door -- splattered with blood -- was James Crocker, a Steelville resident who had just turned 59 and is now facing charges of second-degree murder with bond set at $650,000. The tragic incident has sparked heated debates about property rights along the river as well as gun laws in the state.
According to police and testimony from Dart's family and friends on the float trip, the group had stopped near his property along the river for a break and got in a verbal confrontation with Crocker, who was armed and told them they were trespassing. Crocker was reportedly upset that one of the men was urinating. Dart allegedly tried to intervene and was shot in the head. Court records say that Crocker, after he was apprehended, told police, "It's my property, and I was going to protect it."
Smelser, who has lived in her property by the river for nineteen years, says that when Crocker showed up at her door, he did not appear crazed.
"He was really kind of calm and very polite to me," she says. "I was scared, but I thought, 'Well, he's being nice to me.'"
At first she didn't recognize him, but when she saw his car, she realized that he was a neighbor a few doors down.
Smelser says the 911 operator asked her to ask Crocker a series of questions.
"He answered everything asked of him," she says.
Name, address, location of the weapon (in his car) and more, she recalls. Smelser says she thinks he came to her house, because he was trying to escape the crowd from the float trip who were potentially chasing after him.
"He was very calm," she says. "I think he was in a state of shock."
Smelser's husband soon arrived, and eventually police showed up to their home and took Crocker into custody.
In the wake of the fatal shooting, officials have said that the property boundaries along the river are sometimes murky, since vegetation lines change with river levels.
Smelser, a local realtor who also runs a boutique shop, says that this is a terrible tragedy, but is not surprised that there are tensions around trespassing and property boundaries along the Meramec.
"I'm not advocating what he did, but I understand how it could have possibly escalated," she says.
She and her husband have access to the river from their property, but they don't use it, she explains, because people on float trips cause such problems for them.
"It's a sad story," she says, but adds, "We have had a lot of incidents...of all these rafters thinking that if they rent a canoe they have every right to destroy, tear up and get on your land and do whatever they want to.... We've had people...starting fires, shooting fireworks at our house...naked people, people with guns, people drunk and drugged up."
She continues, "We have little law enforcement."
Complaints to police about trespassers go nowhere, she says. (Daily RFT left a message with Crawford County Sheriff Randy Martin earlier this week and has not yet heard back.)
"We pay exorbitant taxes to have a recreational property that we cannot use," says Smelser, who says she plans on contacting her local lawmakers to see if they can help try and fix the problem.
Crocker, whom her husband knew better than she did, had spent a lot of money fixing up the road from his property to the river, she says. "He intended to fully use his property."
She says that Crocker had turned 59 and had recently invited a next-door neighbor of hers over for catfish.
Of the shooting, she says, "I wasn't there. I don't know what really happened. But it's very, very sad for both parties."