James Crocker was protecting himself — and his property — when he shot and killed a man who was part of a Meramec River float trip party, Crocker's attorney said Friday at a preliminary hearing.
Despite defense attorney Michael Bert's claims, Crawford County Associate Circuit Judge Scott Bernstein ruled that there was probable cause for the second-degree murder trial for Crocker to move forward. Bernstein's ruling followed more than an hour of testimony in a small courtroom crowded with more than two dozen friends and relatives of the victim.
Crocker, 59, is accused of killing Paul Dart Jr., 48, of Robertsville. Dart was among nearly 50 members of an extended family on a July float trip down the Meramec River, a scenic, meandering waterway in eastern Missouri.
The next court date is Wednesday on a request to reduce Crocker's $650,000 cash-only bond.
Crocker lives along the river outside of Steelville. He spotted members of the float trip stopped on a gravel bar that he considered part of his property. Whether that's true isn't clear — experts concede Missouri law is vague on where property lines along rivers begin and end.
Crawford County prosecutor William Camm Seay called witnesses who testified that Crocker began shooting without warning or provocation. Bert sought to show that Crocker acted in self-defense and was protecting his property.
The defense is expected to be a test of Missouri's castle doctrine, which allows for lethal force against threatening intruders.
A member of the float trip, Robert Burgess, said the family had been out for a few hours. He and his wife Regina were in a canoe that stopped near Crocker's land, apparently unaware they were on or near private property.
Burgess said he was about to urinate when Crocker approached with a gun and shot toward him, the bullet striking near his foot. Another bullet came so close to Regina Burgess it left marks on her arm, the couple testified.
Dart was shot in the face at point-blank range, Robert Burgess said. He died at the scene.
On questioning from Bert, Burgess said some people in the float party had been drinking, and said he had three beers that day.
Crocker has claimed some with the float trip were carrying rocks. Bert said in an interview with The Associated Press that Crocker was struck in the head by a thrown rock. But Burgess said no rocks were thrown, and Missouri State Highway Patrol trooper Joseph Peart said he saw no evidence that Crocker was injured. Police have said Dart did not have a rock.
Burgess said he eventually picked up a rock, but only in self-defense after the shooting.
"I'm standing there unarmed and the guy's got a gun," Burgess said.
Crocker did not testify. In a closing statement, Bert said Crocker was "fearful for his life" as he argued with members of the float trip. He said the group intruded despite "no trespassing" signs.
Page 2 of 2 - "It's our contention that Mr. Crocker had a right to defend his property," Bert said.