Mahir Smajic was the kind of guy people noticed.
Growing up in the Bosnian community of south St. Louis, he had become interested as a teenager in working out, and later transitioned into bodybuilding. He even competed in his twenties, and though those days on the stage under the lights were behind him, he maintained a hulking, powerful frame.
"He was five-ten, 260 or 270 pounds," his oldest brother, Mersad Smajic, says. "Wasn't afraid of anybody."
It was more than just his size and strength. The 35-year-old had a certain confidence and charisma, popping into the coffee shops, markets and bars along Gravois Avenue to chat up business owners and regulars. His easy smile and sharp jawline attracted more than a few young women, and Mahir was not shy about courting their attention. Friends concede he could be a little overconfident, and the gun he habitually carried in his waistband concerned his family, but scores of newly arrived refugees knew him as the big guy who moved donated furniture into their apartments when they didn't have anything.
"He had friends all over," says his best friend Ilir, who asked the RFT to withhold his last name. "He was full of life — that's what Mahir was."
And so it came as a shock to his friends and family this summer when they learned he had been shot to death in a rundown neighborhood in Cahokia, Illinois. Police responding to reports of gunfire at 3:30 a.m. on August 22 arrived in front of a small white house at 785 Mildred Avenue to find Mahir's GMC Yukon Denali half in the road, the back bumper extending through a neighboring fence. The big man was slumped in the driver's seat, shot in the left side of his head. In his right hand, he held a .380-caliber Glock handgun, according to a search warrant application.
Mersad says more than three months later, the family still doesn't understand why he was at that house or why he was shot. He believes his brother was ambushed and executed. Mahir was too strong, too well trained with a gun to be killed so easily, he says."If he would have seen someone coming, and they had a gun on him," Mersad says, "he would have pulled his gun and killed them — 100 percent."
Before the sun was up on the morning of the shooting, the Major Case Squad of Greater St. Louis had cranked into action to help Cahokia police with the case.
The coalition of veteran investigators from metro area law enforcement agencies began canvassing the neighborhood and interviewing potential witnesses. The first Cahokia patrolman on the scene that morning had already spoken to a neighbor who said he heard shots and hurried outside in time to see a man run behind the house at 785 Mildred.
"They are shooting out here," the neighbor told Cahokia police Officer Cody Mersman. "Be careful."
Shortly after, the officer reported, a man emerged from the rear of the house with his hands in the air. Police identified the man as Grayland Miner Jr. and said he told investigators he had been living in the basement. Miner, a 33-year-old ex-con, told Mersman he heard multiple gunshots and came outside where he saw the Denali had crashed into the fence across the street. When Mersman checked the SUV, he noted two bullet holes through the window. Mahir had been shot near the temple, authorities say. Police believe he was backing out of the house's driveway when he was killed.
Later that morning, a deputy commander for the Major Case Squad, St. Clair County Sheriff's Captain Bruce Fleshren, briefed reporters on the shooting.
"At this time we're still in the beginning of the investigation, trying to determine what the victim was doing here in town, who he met with and who caused his death," Fleshren said at a news conference in the Cahokia Police Department. "We are developing leads as we speak."
Five days later, on August 27, police provided an update in the case. The Major Case Squad announced in a news release that investigators had identified a "person of interest" and had already taken him into custody on August 25 in Godfrey, Illinois. But when they handed their evidence over to the St. Clair County state's attorney, prosecutors refused to issue any charges.
However, the situation quickly changed. About three hours after the first news release, the Major Case Squad announced prosecutors had now completed a review and would be charging their suspect after all. The suspect's name was Celdre Ross, 24, whose address was listed in court papers as Godfrey but, according to police, stayed at 785 Mildred. Prosecutors had not charged Ross with the actual killing, only with being a felon in possession of a gun. He was jailed on $50,000 bond and has been locked up in St. Clair County jail ever since. In late November, prosecutors added a second charge, aggravated unlawful use of a weapon. Assistant State's Attorney Chris Allen, a spokesman for the office, declined to discuss the reasoning behind the charges or specifics of the prosecution, given that the case has yet to go to trial. Speaking generally, he says prosecutors can only charge crimes if they have strong enough evidence to convince a "reasonable trier of fact" an incident happened.
Cahokia police, who have resumed control of the investigation, did not respond to a request for comment. Ross' attorney also did not respond to phone messages. However, Mersad says detectives told his family that Ross confessed to pulling the trigger but claimed to have fired in self-defense.
"My brother is dead, so he can't talk," Mersad says. "But the other guy can say whatever he wants."
Mahir Smajic was the youngest of three brothers who fled with their parents from the mass killings of the 1990s in Bosnia.
After first landing in Greensboro, North Carolina, the family moved in 1999 to St. Louis where thousands of displaced Bosnian Muslims had already begun to resettle. He was fifteen years old when the Smajics arrived in south city. Like a lot of the young refugees, the teen became part of a bridge generation of kids who were fluent in the traditions of their old lives but quick to adopt large strains of the American culture swirling around them in St. Louis' public high schools. As Mahir grew older, he was equally comfortable in the Bosnian coffee shops of the Bevo Mill neighborhood and the thoroughly St. Louis nightclubs along Washington Avenue. Mersad, who is four years older, didn't always understand everything his little brother did. He thinks the bodybuilding circuit ushered in a faster lifestyle.
"He grew up too fast," Mersad says over coffee on a recent afternoon. The two occasionally butted heads, particularly when Mersad offered unheeded life advice. Friends describe Mersad as the "quiet brother." Being older, he integrated into American society differntly than his youngest sibling, focusing instead on business. He worked his way up through the car dealer industry for fifteen years before starting a successful property development and real estate business.
While Mahir liked the nightlife, Mersad is more of a work boots and dinner at home with his wife and kids kind of guy. "Night and day" is how he describes himself and his youngest brother. Still, Mersad respected Mahir's work ethic and generous spirit. Mahir was a regular guest at Mersad's house and a favorite uncle to Mersad's two kids.
"The guy was unreal," the older brother says. "Nicest guy in the world, laughed all the time."
Mahir regularly volunteered at House of Goods, a nonprofit that supplies new refugees with furniture, food, clothes and anything else they need to get started in their new lives. A Facebook post on the organization's page recounted how Mahir had spotted some perfectly good furniture on the curb during a recent trip to Atlanta: "He put it in the box truck and drove it all the way from Atlanta to St. Louis House of Goods Baitulmal."
Ilir met Mahir at Soldan International Studies High School, a magnet school in the Academy/Sherman Park neighborhood. The two soon became best friends. Mahir was the more outgoing of the two. "Very talkative," Ilir recalls. "Way more talkative than me." That gregarious nature helped Mahir move easily through the cultural mix of the often divided city.
"He had a lot of white guys who were friends," Ilir says. "He had a lot of black guys as friends."
Mahir never showed the same interest as his oldest brother in the career track, but he worked for fifteen years as a banquet waiter for a Sheraton hotel. Lately, he had been gutting houses for his brother's company.
In his late twenties, he became a father. Mersad says Mahir and the boy's mother split up after about five years together, but he remained a dedicated dad and spent time with his son every day. Ilir says it was often the three of them — Mahir, Ilir and Mahir's eight-year-old son.
"Me, him and his son hung out all the time," Ilir says.
It is hard for Ilir to talk about Mahir too much. He too has questions about how his friend was killed, and he wonders why Celdre Ross is not facing more serious charges. But he has resisted focusing too much on the criminal case because, he says, he is not ready to deal with it yet. Mahir isn't coming back no matter what he learns.
"He was somebody I spoke to daily for the last fifteen years," he says. "He was in my life daily."
There were aspects of his brother's life that Mersad says he only learned after the shooting.
Much of it was good. He heard stories he never knew about his brother helping people — accounts of him jumping in his truck in the middle of the night to move furniture were among dozens of tales about his acts of kindness. Mersad estimates between 2,000 and 3,000 people came to the funeral.
"Everybody knew him," he says.
And while he already knew that was true around the city, Mersad says he later found out Mahir was also well known at the east side strip clubs. He has heard one of his hangouts was Bottoms Up, a club in Brooklyn, Illinois. Police have said Mahir and Celdre Ross knew each other before the fatal shooting, and Mersad wonders if they connected at the club.
"Did he meet him there?" he asks. "Did he meet him somewhere else?"
Early on the morning of August 22, both Ross and Mahir were inside the white house at 785 Mildred, according to authorities. Detectives told Mersad that Ross was among three men and one woman, hanging out there with his brother in the early morning hours. Mersad was not given many details by police, but he assumes they were partying or had been partying. He says he was told his brother may have gone to the house with the woman and later got into a disagreement with some of the others, eventually going out to his SUV to leave. Police say Mahir was backing out of the driveway when he was shot, and the Denali kept rolling across the road until it crashed into a neighbor's fence.
It seems like a clear-cut case of murder to Mersad.
"He's dead," he says. "I buried him. It's bad. It's just bad."
In a search warrant application for Mahir's Denali, a Cahokia detective wrote that police hoped to find items in the vehicle "which have been used in the commission of or which constitute evidence of the offense First Degree murder ... "
But Mersad says police told him the case was muddied by shifting statements from the others who were at the house. And Mahir was holding a loaded handgun on his leg when he was shot, the kind of detail a defense attorney would undoubtedly seize upon. Still, police say Mahir was backing out of the drive, which makes Mersad believe that whatever happened before was over and his brother was leaving.
"It just makes no sense the way he was killed that it was self defense," he says.
Mersad is convinced there was more to it. His brother had always been someone who could handle himself in a fight. The fact that he seemed to have been driving away and never got off a shot suggests to Mersad that Mahir never saw his killer coming.
"My brother, man, he could have fought ten guys and beat them all in ten minutes," he says. "To me, it was a setup."
He looks back now and replays scraps of information, wondering if they fit into a larger puzzle. The night he was killed, Mahir had canceled plans to visit the home of his other brother, telling a niece that he had some things to take care of and would see them the next day instead.
Whether that had anything to do with the killing, he can't say for sure, but these are the kinds of questions he asks as he waits week after week for answers.
"What was happening behind the curtains?" he says. "I don't know. Nobody knows."
The house at 785 Mildred Avenue is closed up now — not exactly boarded up, but old cabinets hold a sheet of plywood against the front door and pallets are crammed around a back entrance. A yellow-green sign that the Village of Cahokia stuck on a front window proclaims the building "uninhabitable."
"They shut that house down," says a neighbor, who declined to give her name. "There was a murder."
She and another neighbor interviewed by the RFT suspected it was a drug house. It had sold for $8,000 last year, and people seemed to come and go at all hours.
The morning Mahir was killed, a neighbor says she heard maybe three blasts from a gun at about 3:30 a.m.
"I heard the shots, and then I heard a scream," she says.
Police pulled up shortly after. Later, a SWAT team arrived and surrounded the house for hours before entering late in the afternoon, the neighbors say. There was apparently no one inside.
It is a little more than seven miles from the house to the Brooklyn strip clubs — not far, but not around the corner, either.
"My strong gut feeling is that he was lured there, maybe for them to rob him," Mahir's friend Ilir says in a phone interview. "I don't see any other reason for him to be there."
If that was the case, Ilir suspects he was chasing a woman. Another longtime friend, Ibro Suljic, agrees. "His weakness was women," he says.
Suljic says Mahir had been at a Bevo Mill bar called Triple Crown for a drink the night before he was killed and apparently drove across the river to Illinois later. He suspects that if Mahir did, in fact, get into a confrontation with the people at the Cahokia house, Ross would have quickly realized he wouldn't win a fistfight with the strongman. Tall and slim at six feet two inches tall and 180 pounds, Ross would have been no match physically for Mahir, who sometimes worked as a bouncer for concerts and events in the Bosnian community. Instead, Suljic suspects Mahir was taken off guard. He doesn't believe he was killed in self defense.
"If he was in his car, in reverse, how the hell were you afraid for your life?" Suljic asks.
Mersad Smajic has considered marshaling the Bosnian community and Mahir's friends to protest prosecutors and police in St. Clair County over the handling of the case. But he does not know whether that would be effective, and ultimately, they are one of the few avenues for his family to get any more answers about what happened.
"The way he was killed — the way he lost his life — was so miserable it blows my mind," Mersad says. "It blows my parents' minds. It blows my brother's mind."
The worst part is the effect on Mahir's eight-year-old son and five nephews and nieces, he says. Shortly before he died, Mahir took Mersad's son to the mall to look for a pair of shoes. They couldn't find the right ones, so they planned to go back later. There was no reason to think it would be the last time they saw each other. Four days later, a detective contacted Mersad to deliver the bad news.
"My son, man, my son took it so hard," he says.
It has now been sixteen weeks since Mahir's death. Mersad wonders if he will ever know for certain the details, even if they're ugly, of what happened that morning. The little he does know and the questions it raises eat at him. How could someone just walk up and shoot his brother in the head one night in some random neighborhood away from his friends and family?
"It's so cheap, you know what I mean?" Mersad says. "For what?"