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."