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'A tragic accident' | Prosecutors say foul play ruled out in death of prominent St. Charles County attorney

Blood evidence didn't make sense to investigators, but prosecutors say technology served as turning point in investigation
Credit: St. Charles County
John Watson, attorney for St. Charles County and former chief of staff to former Gov. Jay Nixon

LAKE ST LOUIS, Mo. — The homicide investigation into the death of a prominent figure in Missouri’s Democratic circles who most recently served as an attorney for St. Charles County has ended with an undetermined cause of death – and no suspects, 5 On Your Side has learned.

John Watson, 60, was found dead in his Lake St. Louis home Aug. 28. Investigators said he appeared to have fallen on some stairs connecting the first floor to the second. Watson’s office inside the St. Charles County administration building had been sealed with crime scene tape in the weeks following his death.

Ever since, Lake St. Louis police, St. Charles County police, St. Charles County Prosecuting Attorney Tim Lohmar’s Office and St. Louis County Medical Examiner Dr. Mary Case have been investigating the death, but have since ruled out foul play. 

Blood evidence at the scene initially had investigators thinking it could be a homicide, but technology proved them wrong, Lohmar said.

“There were certain things in the crime scene that didn't seem to add up to somebody being by themselves, but there were also explanations for those things that were plausible and I have no reason now to believe otherwise,” Lohmar said. “I think this was just a tragic accident.”

Lohmar described the investigation as “exhaustive.”

“I can tell you the men and women of the Lake St. Louis Police Department as well as some members of the St. Charles County Police Department, put in hours and hours and left no stone unturned,” he said. “So again, in the absence of anything that we're not already aware of, this matter's closed.”

John Davis of Kessler Williams law firm sent a statement to 5 On Your Side on behalf of Watson's widow, Julie Watson. It read: "The family thanks Mr. Lohmar for his work. John's death was a tragedy. His family misses him every day."

After the death, Watson's daughters obtained separate legal representation from their mother. Their attorney, Lucas Glaesman, said his clients had nothing to add beyond their mother's statement.

The autopsy

Dr. Case concluded this past week Watson died from head trauma exacerbated by “significant blood loss from scalp lacerations,” according to the autopsy obtained by 5 On Your Side.

Hypertension is listed as another significant condition.

But the manner of death -- or what caused him to fall -- is listed as undetermined.

Toxicology reports show he had a blood-alcohol level of .067. 

But the alcohol level in other fluids suggests that, at one point in the night, the level was as high as .084 – barely above the state’s legal limit to drive.

He was also taking blood thinners and anti-anxiety medication, according to the report.

“It’s not extremely rare to have a cause of death be undetermined, but it’s another way of saying, ‘We don’t know,’ and we try not to guess,” Dr. Case said.

The months it took to complete Watson’s autopsy, she said, “had a lot to do with medical records, which are hard to accumulate.”

The investigation

While Dr. Case waited for reports to come in, police and investigators began their probe into the case. 

Lake St. Louis Police Chief Chris DiGuiseppi said the medical examiner's initial findings suggested Watson's injuries were not consistent with a fall.

Blood evidence at the scene also suggested Watson may have died about 20 feet away from where his body was found, Lohmar said. 

But, it's possible he moved on his own, grabbing for something to hold himself up before dying, he said.

The autopsy also showed he had a cracked sternum, which is sometimes caused during CPR attempts. 

"We were thinking CPR, somebody came in, tried to save him, realized they couldn't they just left," Lohmar said. "That's not what happened."

Investigators believe Watson could have fallen onto a post with a square along the stairs, Lohmar said.  

"That's conceivable, it's unlikely, but it's conceivable," Lohmar said. "It's the only thing that would really explain it."

DiGiuseppi said his department's investigation included 50 supplemental reports and about 150 pieces of evidence. 

Lohmar said investigators determined Watson’s wife of 29 years was about 15 to 20 miles away from the house hours before and after the fall based on cellphone data, Lohmar said.

An app on Watson’s phone he used to keep track of his steps and calorie intake also kept track of whether he was ascending or descending, Lohmar said.

He also opened the camera app on his phone 52 seconds before he stopped ascending the stairs, Lohmar said.

“The timestamp during a period in which he was walking and ascending happened to be right about the time we believe that he, for whatever reason, loses his balance and fell down to the bottom of the steps,” Lohmar said. “And we knew that there were no other individuals in the home during that time.

“We were able to interview everybody who was associated with the home, including family members. They've all been cleared of any suspected wrongdoing so that that piece of electronic data was the turning point for us.”

DiGuiseppi said he is proud of the collaboration across all of the agencies involved in the investigation but wishes the outcome would have been more clear.

"Our goal was to determine what occurred – was a crime committed or was this a tragic accident?" he wrote. "It’s frustrating to have the conclusion stay as an 'undetermined death' as we desire a more definitive outcome for the benefit of Mr. Watson’s family and friends, but at this time we are out of new leads and information. 

"Should new evidence or information arise, we will once again continue our investigation in pursuit of the truth."

Watson’s public life

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.

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

During an October interview with 5 On Your Side, Ehlmann said: “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, 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.

“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.