A woman charged in the murder of a local business owner was found dead in her cell early Sunday morning.

According to Jefferson County Sheriff Dave Marshak, staff discovered Laurel Leeker, 48, of Hillsboro, dead in her cell shortly after 5 a.m. of an apparent suicide.

“The inmate was in a single cell by herself and was found hanging and unresponsive by corrections officers,” said Marshak. “The initial investigation revealed no signs of foul play. Prior to the discovery of the inmate on her bunk this morning, the inmate had exercised and showered prior to bed time at 12:15 a.m.”

Leeker had been in the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Department’s custody since Aug. 22, after being charged with murder in the first degree and armed criminal action.

Marshak said the investigation is ongoing and the final determination of cause of death will be made by the medical examiner’s office.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with the many family (members) and friends impacted by the death of Leeker and the victim, Steven D. Pettit,” said Marshak. “Mr. Pettit was the owner of Blackwoods Firearms in Festus.”

On Aug. 17 at 7:11 a.m. the sheriff’s department was called to the 10,000 block of Vail Drive in the Hillsboro area for a burglary with shots fired. When deputies arrived they found the renter, Pettit, 49, dead of an apparent gunshot wound.

Deputies found Pettit’s live-in girlfriend, Leeker, and her two kids, a 14-year-old son and a 16-year-old daughter, all unharmed. They found Pettit's body inside the home.

It was reported that Pettit appeared to have been shot and was found lying in his bed in the master bedroom. At the time Leeker suggested to deputies that someone entered the home and shot Pettit while she was in the master bedroom shower. However, the investigation showed no evidence consistent with her statement.

During the investigation the sheriff’s department conducted interviews with the children and collected a lot of evidence at the scene. Through those interviews and evidence it was determined there was probable cause to arrest Leeker.

Neither Leeker nor Pettit had a criminal history of any size.

According to court documents the St. Louis Post-Dispatch obtained, Pettit was found "nude, unarmed and lying in a manner to suggest he was asleep at the time of the incident.

The documents also said two minors, previously described as Leeker's son and daughter, 14 and 16, saw no one emerge from the bedroom before Leeker. She reportedly came out of the bedroom after shots were fired and asked someone to call 911.

Authorities found no evidence of a break-in, and windows of the bedroom where Pettit was found were locked when deputies arrived.

Renee Bronaugh is a reporter for the Daily Journal and can be reached at 573-518-3617 or rbronaugh@dailyjournalonline.com

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