By Mike Sherman
I hesitate to bring up the details of this particularly gruesome crime, so if you are sensitive in that regard you might want to pass on this week’s discussion. The lessons learned, however, are important and will be discussed at the conclusion of this week’s article.
On the night of July 12, 1971, Clarence Otis Smith entered the Dog Bar campground, located on the Bear River in Nevada County, California. He entered the tent of Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Garbe, attacked them, pursued them outside, then attacked other campers, hacking and stabbing with a curved knife which witnesses compared to a sickle. When the episode had run its course, two campers were dead and two were seriously wounded. The assailant disappeared.
A closer look
On the evening of the attack Mr. and Mrs. Garbe were in their tent at the Dog Bar campground, playing cards by the flickering light of a lantern. A strange man entered the tent, greeted them and reached for Mrs. Garbe with his hands. Kenneth Garbe saw that the man had a knife; he told his wife to get out and go to the next tent for help. Mrs. Garbe slipped underneath the side of the tent and went to the Parker/Fitzhugh tent nearby. She told Marie Parker and Donna Fitzhugh what was happening and went inside their tent and hid. She heard weird growling sounds and yelling outside.
Kenneth Garbe tussled with the man, who inflicted numerous knife wounds on him. Garbe broke away and ran toward some nearby campers, seeking help. Receiving no affirmative response, he returned toward the Fitzhugh tent.
John Simmons, a neighboring camper, came toward the Fitzhugh tent. Simmons was wearing a .41 Ruger pistol in a holster tied to his leg. The assailant approached him, knife in hand. Simmons pulled out his pistol; he and the attacker started to wrestle. Simmons fired one shot from his pistol and the man then fatally stabbed him in the stomach with his knife.
Donna Fitzhugh and Marie Parker went to their tent and brought out a .22 rifle, but neither was able to fire it. Kenneth Garbe took the rifle and attempted to fire at the assailant, but the gun misfired. Mr. and Mrs. Garbe then attempted to get all nearby campers to flee across the river. Although Marie Parker and Donna Fitzhugh had commenced to leave the scene, they returned toward their tent, fearful for their children who were inside. Mrs. Parker was near the Fitzhugh tent when the assailant attacked her with his knife, then fatally attacked Donna Fitzhugh.
Clarence Otis Smith was one of Placer County’s trash collectors – someone who was a visible part of the community. Smith was eventually hunted down in Mexico and returned to be held to answer in the killings. Sentenced to a life term, Smith died in prison in 2008 at 80.
RVers enjoy a higher level of protection being inside their rigs, but this case could have easily involved RVers sitting around their campfire. Also, there are parents that allow their mature children to sleep in a tent just outside the RV. This killer employed the element of surprise. The campers were armed – one with a rifle and the other with a pistol – yet two died, two were seriously injured, and the suspect got away. That is not how we want to see something like this end.
We never know where we will end up when we set out on our journey. Having reservations in an established RV park or campground can easily be interrupted if you experience a mechanical breakdown and can’t make your destination. Being forced to spend the night in a rest area on the roadside is always a possibility.
Being armed offers no guarantees. Fortunately, this type of crime is extremely rare, but it demonstrates the need to be aware.
For more information on this case, go to CaseLaw.FindLaw.com and read the Decision from the California Court of Appeal, Third District, in People v. Smith, rendered June 25, 1973.
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Mike Sherman is a retired street cop and investigator with 30+ years of RV experience as a traveler, camp host and all-around advocate for the joys of living on the road. His articles are for general discussion purposes only – you should always consult your local authorities or legal counsel for specific answers if necessary. Write him at MikeShermanPI@gmail.com if you have questions, or leave a comment below.