Shot in the Act

Two off-duty St. Louis County cops. One dangerous game.

St. Louis County police officer Patricia March was fighting for her life when the question came: Who shot you?

Wounded in the face by a .40 caliber bullet fired from close range, March was about to undergo fourteen hours of surgery at Barnes-Jewish Hospital and would spend two days in critical condition. The 29-year-old March was no rookie. Before joining the county force in November 2001, she'd worked as a police officer in St. Louis. As a county officer she patrolled Hanley Hills, which contracts with St. Louis County for police services. A veteran street cop, she knew that the more information she provided investigators, the better chance they had of solving the case.

The seriousness of the injury aside, this was proving a tough interview for investigators. The wounded officer said she knew who had shot her five hours earlier. But when asked for the shooter's name, she was silent.

Free on bond, former St. Louis County police officer Thomas S. Zeigler may face up to twelve years in prison
Free on bond, former St. Louis County police officer Thomas S. Zeigler may face up to twelve years in prison

As it turned out, there was a good reason for March's reticence in the hours after the dawn shooting last March 3. The alleged circumstances behind the incident aren't the kind anyone would want known outside their bedroom. Cops are accustomed to fits of rage, greed and stupidity that result in gunplay. But a drunken escapade that sends a fellow officer to the emergency room is a different matter entirely.

When he rolled up to the apartment complex in Oakville at 5:23 a.m., St. Louis County police officer Joseph Bruckner wasn't sure what he had on his hands.

Bruckner had been dispatched to a shooting somewhere at the complex on Southfield Drive, but he didn't know where to look. "The call came in as 'any apartment,'" Bruckner would later recall from the witness stand in St. Louis County Circuit Court. Suddenly he heard a familiar voice shout, "Hey, over here!" It was fellow officer Thomas S. Zeigler, off-duty, dressed in sweats and standing next to his 2001 Nissan Pathfinder.

March, also off duty, was sitting on the Pathfinder's front passenger seat, leaning against Zeigler as he held a towel to her face. At first it wasn't clear how badly she'd been hurt. "I remember Patty was saying things," Bruckner testified. "I don't remember what they were -- just words." Given that March was able to talk, Bruckner told Zeigler he thought she'd be OK. "He said, 'No, you haven't seen the wound yet,'" Bruckner recalled. "Just as the ambulance was arriving, Patty slid off the passenger seat onto the ground. The towel came off her face. I could see the wound."

Zeigler insisted he didn't know how it had happened but thought March had shot herself. His inability to recall basic details was odd, given his reputation as a savvy cop and a role model for young officers.

Like March, the 30-year-old Zeigler had previously worked for the city of St. Louis. Now he was a field training instructor in the county's South Precinct, where fresh recruits rode with him to learn firsthand how to do police work. Potential field training instructors must be approved by a precinct captain and the commander of the department's patrol division. After at least two weeks of full-time training at the county academy, instructors are given privileges not accorded other patrol officers, including clearance to take home department-issued AR-15 rifles, civilian versions of the military M16.

Zeigler had won public praise from department brass on at least two occasions. In the spring of 2002, he was lauded for spotting a stolen car, following it to the police station and arresting the driver, who was picking up a friend who'd just been released from custody. Less than two months later, Zeigler earned another atta-boy in the department's newsletter when he arrested a suspected murderer less than an hour after a woman was stabbed to death in her home.

Zeigler and his wife, Erin, owned a brick home on a quiet road in Jefferson County. They had an infant son and a daughter nearing her second birthday. But all was not well in the Zeigler household. He'd moved out of the couple's home near Eureka and into the Southfield Drive complex. Less than a week before Bruckner got the shooting call, Zeigler had filed for divorce.

Sergeant Robert Shelvey, Zeigler's supervisor, soon joined Bruckner and other officers beside the Pathfinder. "I asked, 'Tom, are you saying she tried to commit suicide?'" the sergeant later testified. "He said, 'I'm not sure. I don't remember what happened. ' I asked him where the weapon was. He said it was in his apartment. I said, 'Let's go get it.'"

The gun was on the apartment floor, inside a fanny pack. When Shelvey looked inside the bedroom, he saw blood on one wall and bloodstains on the sleeping bag, blanket and pillows that served as a bed.

Although Zeigler wasn't officially considered a suspect, investigators tested his hands for gunshot residue at the scene. Then, while his colleagues pieced the puzzle together, he sat down in a patrol car and fell asleep.

Detective Ray Absolon doesn't remember exchanging a single word with Zeigler during the drive to police headquarters in Clayton.

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