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Just after 10 p.m. on December 19, 2006, the pot-bellied corpse of Ernest F. Brasier arrived at the St. Louis County morgue. Brasier had been working late at his office in Clayton, and police said he appeared to have suffered a heart attack. Surveying the body, a coroner's investigator noticed a wound above the 57-year-old lawyer's left ear.
Obscured by Brasier's gray hair, the wound turned out to be a tiny hole, just three millimeters wide. Investigator Joe Lebb ordered an X-ray, which revealed a bullet lodged in Brasier's brain.
"It was not until the body came here that it was evident it was a gunshot wound," says St. Louis County Chief Medical Examiner Mary Case. She declined to say what caliber of bullet was found, as that information remains part of the Clayton Police Department's ongoing investigation into Brasier's murder.
That same Tuesday night in December, police noted a small amount of blood on the desk and the office floor. Case says they presumed that Brasier struck his head as he collapsed. "The officer at the scene did not see anything suspicious."
A janitor found Brasier's body shortly before 7 p.m. Two minutes later, Clayton police received a "man down" call and quickly converged on the Guild Building at 7912 Bonhomme Avenue, a block south of police headquarters.
Police told Brasier's law partners that he'd had a heart attack, but Lebb soon informed Brasier's coworkers of the police's mistake. In a sparse, routine incident report at 10:21 that night, police listed the death a homicide.
Dr. Case issued a full autopsy report on Brasier the following afternoon. By then, two dozen detectives with the county's Major Case Squad had descended on the firm, Boggs, Boggs & Bates, and fanned out to interview friends and family.
"They were interested to know if he had any skeletons in his closet," recalls Martin Hadican, Brasier's longtime golf buddy. Detectives visited Hadican, a criminal-defense lawyer in Clayton, on two occasions.
Skeletons? Not Ernie, Hadican told police. "He was just a good person."
To this day, the murder remains unsolved and police will not say whether they have a suspect or motive. Captain Kevin Murphy, who heads the investigation, keeps a prayer card from Brasier's funeral Mass on his desk. It is a daily reminder of his duty to solve the case.
Brasier was a civil litigator representing insurance companies. "I never worried about Ernie getting hurt – not in insurance defense," his widow, Pat Holtmeier, says. "How much more boring can you get?"
On the evening Brasier was killed, Holtmeier didn't notice that it was past 7 p.m. and her husband had not yet come home. She remembers standing in her kitchen, chatting with her 26-year-old daughter and a friend about making Christmas cookies.
The two young women had just left to shop for ingredients when Holtmeier, who uses her maiden name, heard a knock at the door. Beth Boggs, the managing partner at Brasier's firm, was standing on the front porch, along with her husband, Darin Boggs, and two uniformed police officers.
"He's dead, Pat, he's dead." Holtmeier recalls Beth Boggs telling her. "She said he had a heart attack."
Relatives and friends rushed to the house in Town & Country where Holtmeier and her three children grieved. Later in the night, a longtime neighbor, Cheryl Cova, offered to help Holtmeier make arrangements to retrieve the body of the man she'd been married to just ten days shy of 30 years.
Slipping into the master bedroom, Cova placed what she figured would be a routine call to the coroner – that is, until the man who answered the phone told her, "There's a problem. I found a bullet in his head." Then, Cova remembers the man asking her, "Would you tell his wife?"
The portraits that line Pat Holtmeier's dining room walls and snapshots covering the refrigerator tell the story of her life with Ernie Brasier. In one black-and-white picture, a young, dark-haired Brasier sits at a barroom table with his arm around his tall, blond wife. In almost every frame, Brasier grins and looks at the camera with dark brown, puppy-like eyes.
Brasier's mother-in-law used to say that he was cut out for the priesthood. "He was just good as gold, very patient," Holtmeier says.
Brasier grew up in Robertsville, Missouri, and graduated from the University of Missouri's law school in 1974. After finishing Army Reserve duty at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, he started his practice in San Antonio, concentrating for the most part on immigration law.
Much to his new bride's frustration, Brasier wasn't terribly diligent about billing clients. Holtmeier recalls him saying, "Oh Pat, they just don't have the money."
In San Antonio, Brasier was trying to learn Spanish and would spend time with nuns who were serving a poor Mexican-American community. Holtmeier remembers: "He was very fond of this one particular nun, who said to him: 'Ernie, before you can take care of anybody else, you have to take care of yourself.'"
Eventually, Brasier's law career helped put his daughter and two sons through Catholic prep schools. But, explains Holtmeier, "Anyone who knew Ernie knew he wasn't motivated by money. If it were up to him, we'd live in a tent."