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."
Holtmeier, 59, found success as a part-owner of a nurses' staffing agency. She says Brasier encouraged her career. "He was the most unchauvinistic man I ever met." Keeping her maiden name, she adds, "seemed to bother everybody but Ernie."
The couple moved to St. Louis in the 1980s, and Brasier devoted himself to his growing family. His life revolved around St. Clement of Rome, where his children went to school.
Brasier volunteered for all the kids' school activities – Indian Princess with Kelly, Boy Scouts with Jeff and Zach. He coached soccer on the tiny field next to the church parking lot.
Brasier's professional life moved along smoothly, until he was abruptly fired from a national insurance company, The Hartford, in 2003. He'd worked in the company's downtown St. Louis office as in-house counsel for about two years. "He just couldn't believe it," Holtmeier says.
Holtmeier speculates that Brasier's boss didn't appreciate his unhurried manner. "Ernie is slow and deliberate in what he says," she explains. One coworker, Holtmeier remembers Brasier telling her, complained that he took too long to get his point across.
The termination shattered Brasier's ego. "He was so beaten down," Holtmeier says. "He was destroyed." Brasier reached out to colleagues, who pointed him toward Beth Boggs, who hired him right away. "He just took something quickly."
Working at Boggs, Boggs & Bates was a more high-pressure environment than he'd experienced before. After the firm named Brasier as a partner, Holtmeier says her husband was told he would have to increase his billing to 50 hours a week or take a pay cut.
Brasier strained to keep up. Many of his cases were based in southern Illinois. Holtmeier would sometimes ride along in his blue BMW convertible to keep him company. "He'd be dictating and driving, and trying to get all this stuff done," she says. "That billing consumed him."
The week before he was killed, Brasier brought his wife a dozen long-stemmed roses. It was to celebrate the news that the firm was putting him in charge of a new client, the Fireman's Fund. He wouldn't have to sweat the 50 hours of billable work each week, Holtmeier says. "What it really translated to was that Ernie wasn't going to have to work so hard."
Gretta Treiber reported for work shortly after 8 a.m. the day after the murder. Walking through the front doors of the Guild Building, the young secretary was surprised to find one of the law partners, Mark Bates, standing sentry.
Bates told her that Brasier was dead and that Beth Boggs wanted everyone to stop in at the first-floor conference room. "I go in there, and there are like a half a dozen cops," Treiber recalls.
Treiber sat at a desk right outside the third-floor office where Brasier was killed. "My alibi was rock-solid," she says. She was working at her second job, a Hollywood Video store.
The Guild Building in downtown Clayton is a utilitarian-looking, four-story structure, adorned with relief elements of muscled laborers. Inside, dingy tan carpet covers the narrow hallways that lead to various law offices, located behind windowless doors.
Listing 23 partners and associates, the Boggs firm takes up the fourth floor, as well as two-thirds of the third floor, where Braiser's office overlooked Bonhomme Avenue. The firm's name – now Boggs, Avellino, Lach & Boggs – is spelled out in tall letters over double doors that lead to the office suites.
"Usually, Ernie and I were the last two to leave at night," says Jeffry Thomsen, a senior attorney who retired in 2007. Thomsen left at 5:30 that December evening. It was raining when he stepped out the back door and onto the parking lot. "If someone specifically wanted to kill Ernie," he still wonders, "why wouldn't they just wait until he went out to his car, and hide in the lot, instead of taking the chance of being seen in the building?"
Frank Anzalone, a criminal defender on the second floor, was visiting with a client in his office at around 6:30 p.m. the night of the murder. "We didn't hear anything," he remembers.
Then, shortly before 7 p.m., the janitor, an older man whom Anzalone calls "the reverend," came in to his office. He looked worried. He said a lawyer was laying on the floor upstairs. An attorney who worked in Anzalone's office grabbed his cell phone and went with the janitor to take a closer look.
Brasier lay on his belly. His head and shoulders were under the desk, and his legs stuck out in full view. He didn't breathe or move. "It was pretty silent," says the lawyer, who assumed Brasier suffered a heart attack. He immediately called 911. The lawyer asked that his name not be used for fear of drawing the killer's attention. "There's a weirdo out there."
At the Boggs firm, a fearful and suspicious atmosphere lingered for months, Thomsen says. "Everybody still thought, 'Maybe the murderer is sitting next to me, or maybe they're going to come back.'"
Brasier wasn't shot in his own office. He was one door down, using a computer in the office his colleague Dan Bennett left vacant after taking a leave of absence that September. Thomsen remembers Bennett saying he felt burned out. "He was going to go down to Central America with his son and open a bar."
Bennett spent less than a year at the Boggs firm, and in that time his personal problems became obvious. Fellow attorney say he would pace around the parking lot and scream into his cell phone. Bennett's wife, Sharon Cliffe, filed for a legal separation in October 2006, while he was in Costa Rica.
Bennett was due back at work in mid-December, but didn't return. Some lawyers gossiped that he had gambling debts and speculated that a professional hit man was looking for him. Cliffe vigorously denies the allegation. "There was no gambling debt," she says. "I don't even know who started that."
Bennett, who died in September 2007, didn't fit the buttoned-down lawyer mold. He started law school in his late 30s, after an eighteen-year military career. He hung out in blue-collar bars. Tattoos covered his forearms.
Clayton detectives interviewed Bennett as soon as he returned to St. Louis, early in 2007, Cliffe says. They asked Bennett whether the killer might have been looking for him, she says. Bennett told them no.
Bennett remained separated from his wife. Never returning to the Boggs firm, he took by-the-case work from a lawyer downtown. He spent his evenings at Wagner's Sports Bar, a smoke-filled watering hole in the gritty southern tip of St. Louis.
Then in September 2007, Bennett didn't show up at Wagner's for a few days. The Post-Dispatch reported that a drinking buddy found him dead in his apartment on West Courtois Street.
Cliffe says she's aware that many people wonder whether her husband's death was somehow connected to Brasier's. An autopsy showed that Bennett died of heart disease at the age of 48. "Life brought some changes for us," says Cliffe, a 52-year-old schoolteacher. "Unfortunately, it ended with him dying. It's just that simple."
The noise of her barking dogs rousedNancy Quackenbush out of a deep sleep in the wee hours of December 20, 2006. Two detectives with the county's Major Case Squad were at her door. They wasted no time in finding the lawyer who'd been fired from Boggs, Boggs & Bates that October.
Quackenbush has cropped brown hair and fingernails bitten to the quick. Chain-smoking over a lunch of Chinese food, she recalls standing outside her home in Maryland Heights in sweats, and shivering in the cold as detectives told her that Brasier was dead from a gunshot wound. "I started shaking and crying," she says.
Brasier had been her confidant at the firm, and they would take long walks together at lunchtime. Quackenbush says she told the detectives, "I loved that man!"
Detectives thought Quackenbush might be a jilted lover. But she told them, "If you knew Ernie, you'd know how stupid that was." She let police search her car for the receipts that would show she'd been out running errands the evening of the murder.
Later that same day, Quackenbush recalls getting a phone call from yet another detective. "Did I know anything about an anonymous memo accusing the firm of billing fraud?" After Quackenbush departed in mid-October, Beth Boggs became the target of anonymous complaints about her billing. First, some of the firm's insurance-company clients received a letter that claimed, according to people familiar with the matter, that Boggs logged as many as 400 hours in a single month.
Then in December 2006, after Brasier died, the Office of Chief Disciplinary Counsel in Jefferson City notified Boggs that it had received a similar letter.
Quackenbush denies that she's the source of the letters.
Brasier's widow, though, says she's often wondered whether they came from her husband. "If he saw something dishonest," Pat Holtmeier says, "I will tell you, he'd turn me in."
Treiber, the former secretary, says, "I know he didn't agree with Beth's billing practices." Boggs had a policy of reviewing all attorneys' correspondence before secretaries sent it out on letterhead. Brasier would type quick, routine letters himself, Treiber says. "He would hand-write at the bottom, 'You were not billed for this letter.'"
Beth Boggs declined Riverfront Times' request for an interview. Instead, her media representative, Geri Dreiling, coordinated the firm's response via e-mail. The firm flatly denies that Boggs overcharged clients, stating, "There was no finding of overbilling."
The ethics complaint resulted in a "letter of admonition" to Beth Boggs on March 17, 2008. Signed by Cheryl Walker, a St. Louis attorney appointed to the local disciplinary committee, the letter says there was "reasonable cause" to believe that Boggs violated Supreme Court Rule 4-8.4(c), which prohibits "conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit, or misrepresentation." Specifically, the letter says, the infraction was "a result of your billing clients under your name for work done by other attorneys in your office."
"The matter was fully investigated with Beth's complete cooperation," states an e-mail sent through Dreiling. The firm's e-mail adds that an "issue" related to "an antiquated billing system" has been fixed, and reiterates, "There was no finding of overbilling."
Lawyers know Beth Boggs as an aggressive marketer who keeps a tight rein on day-to-day business. At one point, ex-employees say, attorneys weren't allowed to have individual e-mail accounts. John Cooney, a Clayton lawyer who also does insurance work, says he hears stories from Boggs' alumni. "She runs that place with an iron fist."
In the wake of Brasier's murder, Boggs hired Scott Rosenblum, a prominent criminal defense lawyer. The firm explains, again via e-mail, that the purpose of hiring outside counsel was to "coordinate all requests for information" from police. The firm stressed that it retained Rosenblum only after the Major Case Squad had finished its work.
Thomsen says he wanted no part of the plan. "I wanted to cooperate freely with the police," he says. "I think it made it more difficult for the police to do it on Beth's schedule, rather than theirs. It might have slowed things up for them."
Brasier's killing, meanwhile, took an emotional toll on Boggs' employees. Treiber went to work the day after the murder planning to have lunch with Brasier, attorney Jamie McCune and Brasier's secretary, Mary Dalton. She'd even brought Brasier a Christmas gift, a DVD of Good Night, and Good Luck., the movie about broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow. "Ernie was so cool," she says.
When she learned that Brasier had been shot in the head, Treiber says, "I lost my mind. I was crying. I couldn't handle it."
She returned to work the next day, but started crying again at the sight of fingerprint dust on the door frame to Bennett's office. "Beth yelled at me in front of three or four other people," she recalls. "If I couldn't pull myself together, I should just go home."
The Boggs firm submits, via e-mail, that it was not at all insensitive. In fact, the firm allowed workers to stay home as long as necessary. They also hired a grief counselor and security guards who would escort people to their cars. Computers were purchased for attorneys who didn't already have them at home, so they could spend less time in the office after hours. "The firm," states the e-mail, "attempted to deal with employees' needs as comprehensively as possible."
Treiber left the firm in April 2007 and says she doesn't hold a grudge against her former boss. "Beth is a good person. She's just extremely difficult to have a professional relationship with. She gets carried away."
Vince Venker, another of Brasier's associates, did not answer his cell phone on Saturday, August 9, 2008. The next day, his friend Iggy Yuan says, a cousin found him in bed at his apartment.
Yuan and others close to the 51-year-old lawyer assume he died of natural causes. But Brasier's widow wondered publicly how two of her husband's colleagues could turn up dead in a year's time. In a widely disseminated Post-Dispatch article, Holtmeier said, "There's something crazy going on at that law firm. It's almost like a John Grisham novel."
Thomsen, the retired Boggs attorney, says he too found Venker's death troubling. "It's too much coincidence, I think."
Venker came from a big Catholic family, which has run St. Louis-based Barnard Stamp for four generations. The line at his wake extended out the door of Assumption Catholic Church. "That was a good tribute to Vince," says Yuan, a friend since law school at Saint Louis University.
Venker's friends say he was smart – he finished college in three years – and sociable. It was his drinking, they say, that finally pushed his wife to file for divorce, finalized in June 2007.
At his son's high school graduation party this year, Venker seemed to be his usual self, Yuan says. He was rail-thin and had a cigarette in his hand. For that, Yuan reminisces, "I was giving him grief, always."
Yuan is one of the Kirkwood City Council members who escaped troubled resident Cookie Thornton's shooting rampage in February. After the Kirkwood ordeal, Yuan and Venker talked again about the senseless nature of Brasier's murder. "There was no motive," Yuan says. "People do crazy things for money. There was no money involved. Why would he do it?"
At first, police leaned hard on Venker. He was the last to leave the third floor that night, and he owned a .22-caliber gun. "I think they even took him into custody for a bit," Thomsen says. "He was real shaken up by that."
Captain Murphy will say nothing about what significance, if any, Venker had in the case. The Monday following Venker's death, Murphy visited Holtmeier at the Kumon Math and Reading center that she owns in west St. Louis County.
The police captain has visited Brasier's widow several times since the murder. "He just came to tell me about it, which was a very nice courtesy once again, so that I wouldn't read about it in the paper," Holtmeier says.
Venker's death stirred up Holtmeier's anxiety. She began to worry that the investigation was stalled, and police were giving up. Frantic, she called Murphy the next day and told him, "You cannot let the death of this wonderful man just drop. You cannot!"
Murphy maintained his usual professional silence. Still agitated, Holtmeier drove to Clayton, and demanded that Boggs let her see the office where her husband was killed. She wanted to know: "Ernie, did you see the person? Or did they come behind you?"
Holtmeier saw that the office was being used to store shoes, which the firm collects for needy children. Reality settled in. "I asked a couple of questions. Then I left," she says. "Sometimes I just blow my gasket."
Dark circles surround Holtmeier's bright blue eyes. She now avoids Mass because it carries too many reminders of Ernie. "It sends me to tears," she says. Instead, she sits on the memorial bench that some of his friends bought and placed outside St. Clement's prayer chapel. "I ask God, Why? Why? Why?"
Answers are not forthcoming. "I've been telling myself to be patient," Holtmeier says. "There's this part of you that just has to know."