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.

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.

The interview began about 9 a.m. Zeigler's story didn't add up.

"He indicated he didn't know who shot her but thought she'd shot herself, but he didn't know how," Absolon recalled from the witness stand during a December 5 hearing in St. Louis County Circuit Court.

Zeigler told Absolon he'd met March shortly after he got off work and had spent six hours with her, drinking beer and Southern Comfort. He claimed he'd been about to drive March home when he leaned over to adjust the car stereo, heard a loud pop and looked over to see her bleeding from the left side of her face.

Absolon couldn't figure out how March could have reached for a Glock lying on a center console just behind the front seat and pointed it at herself without Zeigler noticing anything amiss until the gun fired -- even though he sat less than a foot away. "It just didn't seem to make a lot of sense," Absolon testified.

Absolon took a break at 10:15 a.m., when word arrived that March had spoken to investigators at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. "She was asked if she shot herself; she said no," Absolon would recall. "They asked if she knew who shot her and she said yes. They asked who it was, and she didn't say anything."

Upon learning that March said she hadn't shot herself, Absolon re-entered the interview room and attempted to advise Zeigler of his Miranda rights. "He said he wasn't going to initial anything or sign anything," Absolon testified.

Within hours, police obtained a search warrant for the Pathfinder, which was littered with empty beer bottles. Investigators found crack and marijuana pipes, 1.64 grams of cocaine and nearly a quarter-ounce of pot as they went through Zeigler's belongings, including a duffel bag marked with a "Police Officer of the Month" logo. They also took samples of his blood and saliva. Similar samples were obtained from March with a rape kit, which is typically used to gather evidence from sexual-assault victims.

Zeigler seemed puzzled when Sergeant Michael McFarland, armed with a search warrant, gathered his samples at 2 p.m. "He asked why we were doing this," McFarland would testify. "I told him it had to be done. We really didn't have any choice. He asked me what I thought he should do. I told him I couldn't tell him that. As distasteful as this was, it had to be done."

Less than two hours later, Zeigler told McFarland he wanted to make a statement and would sign a form acknowledging he'd been advised of his rights and understood them. After McFarland summoned Absolon, Zeigler described a bizarre game that had nearly cost March her life.

Zeigler confessed that he and March had been using his gun as a prop or toy during a sex game, and that they'd done the same thing in the past. "They had it out and they were using it," Absolon would testify.

The detective already knew that Zeigler's relationship with March was out of the ordinary. "I guess you want to know how the blood got in the bed," he'd volunteered earlier, then gone on to explain that March had repeatedly slashed his chest with a razor blade during sex. (Despite the bloody bedding, county police spokesman Mason Keller says investigators have determined that March was shot in Zeigler's Pathfinder.) Zeigler told Absolon that he and March had been drinking Southern Comfort and beer. Tests showed that she had a blood-alcohol content of .349 percent, according to Chet Pleban, Zeigler's attorney, who acknowledged during the December 5 hearing that his client had also been drinking heavily.

Zeigler still insisted he hadn't shot March, but Absolon wasn't convinced. Zeigler agreed to answer questions from Detective Kenneth Schunzel, the department's polygraph examiner.

Schunzel spent three hours interviewing Zeigler but never administered a lie-detector test, because Zeigler eventually admitted he'd been holding the gun when March was shot. Following Schunzel's interrogation, Zeigler described the shooting to Absolon in an audiotaped statement. Zeigler was subsequently charged with second-degree assault, armed criminal action, felony possession of cocaine and misdemeanor possession of marijuana.

Neither the audiotaped confession nor a videotape of Schunzel's interview with Zeigler has been made public. "It is very flat, to the point of being emotionless as he recounts this," testified Dan Cuneo, a private-practice psychologist who has heard the audiotape and has seen Zeigler at least 25 times since the shooting. "There's a sense of numbing and detachment. It is nearly expressionless." Zeigler suffered from an acute stress disorder immediately after the shooting, which accounted for his demeanor and which might also have caused amnesia, Cuneo opined.

County Circuit Court Judge Melvyn Wiesman didn't allow much detail about the contents of the tapes, cutting Absolon off as he recounted the accused officer's statements. Reciting what Zeigler had said would needlessly prolong the hearing, which had been convened to determine whether investigators had improperly coerced a confession, the judge said.

Although Zeigler, under questioning by Schunzel, had admitted holding the gun when it fired, he'd also said he couldn't remember what had happened, the detective acknowledged. Pleban suggested the accused officer had been willing to say anything detectives wanted. "He kept saying, 'If you want to hear this, I'll tell you,'" Pleban said. "At times," Schunzel conceded. "For three hours, he was all over the board, wasn't he?" Pleban pressed. "He was," Schunzel replied.

Pleban also suggested that detectives pried a confession out of his client by offering to make the shooting look unintentional. "Why did you promise Thomas Zeigler that you were going to write the police report like it was an accident?" the defense attorney demanded. "I never promised him anything like that," Absolon answered. Pleban didn't give up. "Did you ever tell Schunzel that if he cooperated, you'd write the report to make it look like an accident?" he asked. Again, Absolon said no. "So, if Schunzel said that on tape, you'd still deny it?" Pleban asked. Absolon again denied saying any such thing. Schunzel testified that he hadn't heard any talk about writing up the shooting as an accident.

Judge Wiesman denied the defense's motion to suppress Zeigler's taped statements, which can now be used against him at trial. The prosecutor's office, which has custody of the tapes that were admitted into evidence, refused to allow the Riverfront Times to examine them. Pleban did not return several phone calls requesting comment for this story.

March underwent facial surgery in mid-November. During a brief telephone conversation last week, she said she has recuperated well, but she declined to be interviewed for this story without clearance from department officials.

County police won't discuss Zeigler or the case, citing pending court proceedings.

Zeigler's family has also suffered, judging by a change-of-venue motion filed by Pleban, who says his client's wife received anonymous threatening phone calls and letters after the shooting.

Free after posting an $80,000 bond, Zeigler may be guilty of a crime even if the shooting was an accident. Under state law, prosecutors don't have to show he intended to harm March; they need only prove he acted recklessly. If convicted and given the maximum sentence, Zeigler faces a dozen years in prison.

This isn't the first time alcohol and guns have spelled trouble for Thomas Zeigler. Less than three months before March was shot, Jefferson County sheriff's deputies seized Zeigler's firearms, including two department-issued weapons, after he got into an argument with his wife and threatened to kill himself. The couple had been drinking, according to deputies, who issued Zeigler a summons for third-degree domestic assault and took him to a psychiatric unit.

Erin Zeigler was crying and fearful when deputies arrived at the couple's home at 2:15 a.m. on December 18 of last year, according to sheriff's reports. The reports don't indicate what sparked the argument, but Zeigler's wife told deputies that he punched a hole through a bedroom door and destroyed a box fan by throwing it against the floor, waking the couple's daughter. Zeigler followed his wife when she went upstairs to calm the child and broke the bedroom door in half when he found it locked.

The couple went back downstairs. When Erin Zeigler mentioned divorce, her husband picked up a pistol, cocked the hammer and said he might as well kill himself if she left him and took the kids away, deputies reported. Zeigler, whom deputies described as calm, denied any threat to harm himself and told deputies he'd purchased the door he broke.

Erin Zeigler declined to press criminal charges, but her husband was admitted to St. Anthony's Hospital after she signed an affidavit saying he was likely to harm himself or others and required 96 hours of mental-health evaluation and treatment. The Zieglers have reconciled since the March shooting, and divorce proceedings are on hold.

Although there was no sign Zeigler had harmed or threatened his wife, deputies issued a misdemeanor domestic-assault summons, on the grounds that he caused her to fear that she would be injured when he broke down the bedroom door. Prosecutors didn't pursue the case. "Charges weren't filed because there was no crime and no alleged victim," explains Shannon Dougherty-Lee, a Jefferson County assistant prosecuting attorney. Erin Zeigler's refusal to assist prosecutors played no role in the decision not to charge Zeigler, nor did his status as a police officer, adds Dougherty-Lee, who reviewed the case within hours after Zeigler was taken into custody -- standard practice in the prosecutor's domestic-violence unit.

The Jefferson County Sheriff's Department notified St. Louis County police of the incident the day it happened, and the internal-affairs division launched an investigation. St. Louis County police officials won't reveal what, if any, discipline Zeigler faced, although they have said that he underwent counseling. He didn't lose his badge, his guns or his standing as a field training instructor. He still had his department-issued AR-15 when his colleagues confiscated his firearms after the shooting.

This time he won't be getting them back. Suspended without pay after his arrest, Zeigler left the department in August. Police officials won't say whether he resigned or was fired.

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