Friday, June 9, 2023


RVer Safety: A case study – Murder on the Bear River

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 and read the Decision from the California Court of Appeal, Third District, in People v. Smith, rendered June 25, 1973.

As always, your comments are appreciated and informative.

Note: We know what we discuss in this column may be controversial. While we invite your polite, constructive comments, inflammatory remarks will be immediately deleted.

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 if you have questions, or leave a comment below.




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2 years ago

I am literally at the bear River campground right now.. in a tent with my sleeping fiance.. accidentally came across this article because I saw weird lights outside my tent and heard footsteps and was seeing if anyone else has ever experienced strange things here,.. I am not sleeping anytime soon.. only campers here..

Terry Dickson
4 years ago

Being armed is just part of the equation. Saw many Texans that went through a Carry Class that couldn’t hit the broad side of a barn. If your going to carry a gun, first ask yourself, “Can I Kill Another Person”, then learn how to use it, then learn how to hit what your shooting at.
Never touch your weapon unless your ready to draw your weapon, never draw your weapon until your ready to use it, Never use your weapon unless your ready to kill someone. Never apologize for being alive, and tell the Grand Jury you were in fear for your (or someone else’s) life.

4 years ago
Reply to  Terry Dickson

I stress the psychology of lethal force as much as mechanics in my classes. Everyone thinks they would kill if must, but many hesitate. So, I stress a PRE-THOUGHT, automatic escalation plan of threat/response. What you’ll do at each threat level, realistically. Insult: nothing. Slap: walk away. Mugger: decoy. Serious assault, BANG! Automatically.

First, avoidance by awareness, then possibly test by decoy. Ultimately, if your “lethal” line gets crossed, you’ve already resolved that it IS necessary, and you’ll hesitate less. You will NEVER have time to think IN a real justifiable force situation, so set your threshholds NOW.

I teach only touching a sidearm when you expect to drop the hammer. I don’t bluff, or threaten, or hold a threat at gunpoint for any time period. IF jerk sees my holster, he’s already done something that I will STOP in another second or two if it continues.

I would not advise, and you should never “shoot to kill”… i stop something jerk makes me stop. If that requires lethal force, attacker made THAT choice after politeness, pursuit, decoys, and warnings. Words and lesser deterrance options failed, so their choice.

Captn John
4 years ago

After 2 tours in Nam I hope to never need to kill again. Hope not to does not mean I would hesitate for a split second!

4 years ago
Reply to  Captn John

First, thank you for your service.

Second, absolutely. I quip that if we’re truly successful, all your CCW licenses and hardware and training and practice will HOPEFULLY be a complete waste you never use. But will, if must.

4 years ago

Several years ago one or more prisoners in the Arizona State Prison escaped with the assistance of one of the prisoners’ wives. They made their way out of AZ and into New Mexico where they accosted a husband and wife who were refueling their RV at a gas station in Santa Rosa. They forced the couple to drive to an isolated area where they killed husband and wife in cold blood. For some reason they had pity on their dog and turned it loose while they set fire to the couple’s RV.
Thankfully such black deeds are rare, even less frequent than home invasions.

4 years ago

I agree with the idea that the pace of the attack might have been too fast for Simmons to deploy and use his weapon.
I also believe the average citizen who is armed, even when trained, is not psychologically prepared to shoot/kill another human being. I hear you, “ I’ll take out any bad guy in a New York minute!”
Witness officers of the law who froze during school shootings. That pause, to check evidence pointing to the need to shoot, is driven by our deepest moral fiber – to do no harm (thou shalt not kill).
Evidence is irrefutable concerning the damage to first responders and military members who shoot and kill another, the event changes them at the deepest levels. Moral Injury, PTSD.
My dad always said, “Don’t carry a weapon unless you are prepared to use it against someone you care about.” He believed there’s a (however remote) chance that anybody could fall off the rails and rage to kill.

Diana Sherman
4 years ago
Reply to  Lizzy

It’s TRUE Lizzy first responders/military can get sick of having to use weapons to take others lives and experience PTSD. YET, I as a mother and grandmother happen to have the instinct of a mother bear who must at all costs save her offspring- to me its personal. You mess with my family and I will not hesitate to choose to be judged by a jury of my peers than to put flowers on my little ones’s graves.

3 years ago
Reply to  Diana Sherman


Daniel Bell
4 years ago

I lived near dog bar and enjoyed the area since I was a kid… I dated a girl who was there during that episode but escaped!

mary cuneo
4 years ago

My husband, brother, 4 young sons and I were tent camping in that same area at that time and heard about it on the radio. They had not caught the man and we were all terrified. I remember the fear we had kept us awake all night. Longest night of my life.

Primo Ruy's Roadhouse
4 years ago

Yes, being armed is no guarantee. Being armed and trained is better, but still no guarantee. Being alert is always good. Fortunately, this was an isolated incident from history.

4 years ago

I guess I am wondering why Mr. Simmons, who was armed with a pistol and facing a man armed with a knife chose to wrestle the attacker instead of shooting him. Perhaps this was a case of a person carrying a weapon, but unwilling to take a life, even to save his own and other lives?? Or maybe it just happened so close and fast that even though he drew his weapon from the holster he did not have the time to bring it to bear. ?

Tommy Molnar
4 years ago
Reply to  bfisher003

I’m guessing ‘stuff’ was happening quickly. Too quickly to make that decision to pull the trigger. As they say, “hindsight is 20-20”.

4 years ago

As I tell all Winter Texans in my Conceal Carry classes our age group and physical levels we are prime targets for the criminal element in our areas. Always be prepared and have a plan for any circumstance. Situational awareness is a must to stay safe.

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