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St. Charles County attorney's death now homicide investigation

At least one family member has retained a defense attorney

ST. CHARLES COUNTY, Mo. — Initially, the death of long-time public servant and St Charles County attorney John Watson was called an accident.

But sources familiar with the case tell 5 On Your Side that it’s now being investigated as a homicide.

Lake St. Louis police were called to his home at about 1:15 p.m. Aug. 28 where they found the 60-year-old dead at the bottom of some stairs.

Police Chief Chris DiGuiseppi said the preliminary assessment his officers did at the scene suggested his death was a “tragic accident.”

“However, investigators are continuing to gather information and are awaiting official reports from the medical examiner’s office and other investigative/forensic units,” he wrote in a statement.

DiGuiseppi said his department has turned over its investigation to St. Charles County Prosecutor Tim Lohmar.

“It was a tragic event that caught everybody by surprise,” Lohmar said. “Initially it was reported as an accidental death, but once the officers got on the scene to secure the scene, they began asking questions and it wasn’t long after that that the circumstances were suspicious, and that led to a much more in-depth investigation, which is still ongoing.

“The crime scene evidence appears to be inconsistent with an accidental death and that’s a big piece of what the detectives were looking at initially. Perhaps the autopsy and the Medical Examiner’s report will help us answer some of those questions.”

Watson is survived by his wife of 29 years and three daughters, according to his obituary.

At least one family member has retained a prominent criminal defense attorney, who did not return a call for comment.

No one has been charged.

Watson worked as Jay Nixon’s chief of staff for nearly 18 years when Nixon was the state’s attorney general and when he was the governor.

He stepped in to serve as the state’s auditor after the death of Thomas Schweich in 2015.

Credit: St. Charles County
John Watson, attorney for St. Charles County and former chief of staff to former Gov. Jay Nixon

St. Charles County Executive Steve Ehlmann hired him as the county’s attorney about 20 months ago.

Ehlmann declined to comment about the investigation into Watson’s death.

“John’s a former Division 1 college athlete at the University of Missouri and he seemed to be in very good health and it’s just a tragedy that this has happened to his family and to all of his friends and to the people of St. Charles County,” Ehlmann said.

Ehlmann, a former Republican senator, said Watson was known as a “consensus builder,” among opposing political parties during his time in Jefferson City.

Watson, who served the democratic governor, played a “significant role” in desegregation legislation that was controversial, Ehlmann recalled.

That’s why Ehlmann, a Republican, had no problem hiring the former important player in the Democratic party.

As the St. Charles County Counselor, Watson served as a mentor to the younger attorneys in the office. They are taking the news of his death the hardest in the office, Ehlmann said.

Watson’s office inside the St. Charles County administration building had been sealed with crime scene tape in the weeks following his death.

“The young attorneys especially, and those on my staff including myself who spent most amount of time with him, were totally shocked by it,” Ehlmann said.

Watson helped shape the county’s COVID-19 response, according to his obituary in the News Tribune.

“During the early days of the pandemic, he routinely paid for dollar-menu items with $20 bills so fast food workers had extra cash,” according to the obituary. “Around the holidays, he bought bikes and helmets and hand-delivered them to children whose parents did not have money for presents. When he encountered a person in need, he drove them to a nearby hotel and paid for their room so they could shower and rest while they got back on their feet.”

Ehlmann said he and Watson were working together on some legislation that Ehlmann said would “help improve the St. Louis region.”

“I will continue to proceed with those,” Ehlmann said, pausing to compose himself. “But I sure wish John was still there at my side to help me.”

He said Rory O’Sullivan is filling in as the interim county counselor, and the council is working to hire a permanent replacement.

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