Rotary Club attendees Wednesday got firsthand insights into the solving of a series of murders that baffled authorities in the late 1990s.
Fulton resident Ruth Montgomery, criminalist supervisor and DNA technical leader at the Missouri Highway Patrol's Crime Laboratory, shared the story of the Scherer double homicide and how she aided in cracking the case. Montgomery assembled a DNA profile for the case that later helped linked it to other murders in neighboring states — though she was quick to give credit to two decades of work by dedicated investigators in eight different investigating agencies.
Montgomery said most cases don't weigh on their investigators day in and day out, but this one, full of brutal murders, sexual assault and missed opportunities for justice, was an exception.
"I'm talking about a case that ended up being very personal because I worked the case for so long," she said.
She said the case also provides an example of how the ability to process DNA evidence has changed investigations.
On March 28, 1998, in Portageville — a town about 155 miles southeast of St. Louis — 47-year-old Sherri Scherer and her 12-year-old daughter, Megan, stayed home to hang out laundry while her husband, Tony, and son, Steven, worked on a nearby farm. As they headed home, Tony called Sherri and offered to pick up a pizza for dinner. He and Steven were further delayed by a car accident on the gravel road leading to their house, so they called again.
"This time, the phone wasn't answered," Montgomery said.
When the two arrived at home, all was quiet. Sherri and Megan lay dead on the floor, each gagged with a sock and shot in the head. Investigators determined Megan had been sexually assaulted.
"Megan was full of life — she loved to dance," Montgomery said.
While Tony and Steven mourned, 42 miles away, a white man attempted to force his way into the residence of a young woman in Dyersburg, Tennessee. Though the woman successfully blocked him from entering, he shot her in the arm. She survived and gave police a description, which they used to produce a composite sketch. Ballistic evidence connected the bullet fired in Dyersburg to those that killed Sherri and Megan Scherer.
An initial DNA profile developed in 1998 — when the science was still young — didn't match any other known cases, and the trail went cold, though the case was featured on America's Most Wanted.
In 2006, DNA science had advanced enough investigators resubmitted the evidence to the Highway Patrol Crime Laboratory, where Montgomery assembled a full suspect DNA profile and entered it into a database called CODIS. She got a match.
In 1990, Genevieve Zitricki, 28, lived alone in Greenville, South Carolina. On April 6, after she failed to show up for her job at Michelin Tire Manufacturing, she was found dead in her apartment. She had been strangled, beaten and sexually assaulted; her killer scrawled a message in lipstick on the mirror designed to confuse police.
"She had no enemies — no one had any idea who would do something like this," Montgomery said.
Once more, the trail ran cold, though investigators in all three states worked to investigate more than 1,000 leads.
It wasn't until 2017 that investigators got their biggest break yet. CODIS spit out another match, this time to a March 11, 1997, rape case in Memphis, Tennessee.
Four females and a baby were home together when a man knocked on their door and rambled about his wife losing her purse. He went to his vehicle and came back with a gun.
"He's prepared," Montgomery said.
After entering the home, he put on dishwashing gloves and restrained the four, then sexually assaulted the youngest, a 14-year-old girl. Investigators took a rape kit, which then sat in storage for 20 years before being processed and uploaded in 2017. They also completed a composite sketch.
"That's pretty much where the investigation ended," Montgomery said.
That case yielded enough DNA evidence that investigators were able to hire a company specializing in forensic genealogy — combing through public DNA databases in hopes of discovering probable relatives of suspects. With enough matches, they can construct a family tree and narrow down a list of suspects.
This time, they got lucky.
"They had compelling information that it was one and only one (possible) individual, which is totally unusual," Montgomery said.
DNA samples from the suspect's living family members confirmed it. The man who had ended three lives and irreparably damaged so many others had a name at last: Robert Eugene Brashers, a man born in Newport News, Virginia, in 1958.
But the case had one final twist to it: Brashers was long dead. In fact, he'd shot himself in 1999 during a standoff with police at a Super 8 Motel in Kennett, Missouri. They'd come to arrest him in connection to a stolen license plate and on a previous warrant related to an attempted burglary. Montgomery speculated perhaps Brashers thought the police knew about his previous murders.
Brashers died six days later without confessing his previous crimes to police. In 2018, Brasher's remains were exhumed and further tests confirmed without a doubt he was the perpetrator.
As it turned out, the incidents leading to his death weren't Brashers' only run-ins with the law. In 1986, he was arrested for attempted murder in Saint Lucie County, Florida. He'd picked up a woman in a bar, then shot her in the head and left her for dead when she refused to have sex with him. She survived, and Brashers was convicted of attempted second-degree murder.
Brashers went to prison but served only 3 years out a sentence of 15. He was released in March 1989 and went on to murder Zitricki a year later. He was also later arrested in Georgia for impersonating a police officer, possession of burglary tools and a list of other crimes; that conviction netted him five years in prison.
A month after his release in February 1997, he perpetrated the rape in Memphis. In 1998, he was arrested again for attempted burglary but skipped bond, ultimately leading to the Super 8 Motel standoff.
"I think — when we're able to look back, I think the system failed at every turn," Montgomery said.
She said she's particularly haunted by Brasher's early release following the attempted murder.
But the investigators, herself included, felt immense relief at finally being able to close the case.
"When the case was finally solved, it was just after the 20th anniversary of the Scherer case," she said. "In this case, it was very unreal (when there was a DNA match). When you do something for as long as we did this case and as much work as it was — the case file is thousands of pages — you're just so overwhelmed with joy when they give you the name."