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MURPHYSBORO — Brandi Holderfield was on top of the world.

Like hundreds of other Southern Illinoisans, she’d headed out Thanksgiving night to get a jump on Black Friday sales.

“We went to Walmart, Penneys, just shopping with my mom and having a good time. I felt on top of the world,” she said.

So when her phone rang around midnight, she answered the call from her friend Tom Miller, who earlier in the day had given her leftovers from his Thanksgiving dinner.

Miller, 54, was a friend of almost five years and often did thoughtful things like that for Holderfield and many others. The two first met when Holderfield, 28, was working at a gas station near his house on Oak Street in Murphysboro.

“He was a customer and then a friend. There was a group of us girls at the station and he would take us out to eat. He tried to help single mothers because he said he knew how hard it was for us,” she said.

After Holderfield left that job, the friendship continued. Miller, a house painter, often paid her to help him on the job or to do some cleaning at his house.

He was generous, too, surprising her 7-year-old son with a $100 bill once and bringing souvenirs back from his trips away.

“He was like that to a lot of people. We were friends. I was with him painting houses way out in the country, was alone with him a million times and was never scared. He never did anything to make me think he would hurt me. He helped me. I thought he had my best interest at heart,” she said. “When he called that late on Thanksgiving, I didn’t think anything of it. He made a big deal of me bringing his bowl back and asked if when I got there could I help him with something.”

When she arrived at his house, “Things were completely normal, just as they’d been earlier in the day. We had regular conversation, he asked about the shopping. He asked if I’d help with his couch and when I turned my back to go to the couch, he hit me in the head with a big rubber mallet.”

The next 30 to 45 minutes were a blur of frenzied attacks and a life-or-death struggle to get out of the house, she said.

“He hit me and I felt the blood gushing down my face. He tossed me on the couch and slammed my face down. He got on top of me and I couldn’t breathe. I thought, I’m going to die here,” she said. “I kept trying to get to the door and he’d pull me back, putting his fingers in my mouth and his hand across my nose so I couldn’t scream. I kept wiggling away from him when I could but he’d come right back at me.”

She said she pleaded with him to let her go.

“I was crying please don’t kill me. I don’t want to die. I have a kid. You’re going to leave my kid with a murdered mom? Please don’t kill me,” she said.

She finally made it past the front door, grappling with Miller until she got the screen door of the porch open and ran screaming across the street.

“I looked back and he turned around and went back into the house,” she said.

The first house she went to was vacant so she ran to a friend’s house about a block away. The friend called for police and an ambulance.

As Holderfield was rushed to the hospital, police responded to Miller’s house to ask about the allegations she made against him.

When officers arrived, a man who didn’t identify himself called 911 and said he would blow his house up if police tried to enter. He reportedly said he was filling the house with gas.

Officers spoke briefly to Miller through the front door of his residence and quickly determined he was the caller, as the smell of natural gas was obvious.

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Additional officers contacted Miller by phone. Meanwhile other officers turned off the home’s gas.

A short time later, Miller said he had a firearm, at which time officers backed away from the front door.

At that time, Miller apparently ignited a fire in the living room. Within minutes, an explosion blew out the east windows of the house. A second explosion was heard minutes later inside the house.

Firefighters found Miller unconscious in a hallway. He was later pronounced dead at St. Joseph’s Memorial Hospital, where Holderfield was undergoing initial treatment for her injuries before she was transferred to a St. Louis hospital.

Holderfield has 10 staples in her head from the mallet blow; seven stitches on her broken nose, which will be reset next week, and fractures around her eyes.

“I’m still in shock about it. I can’t believe it. It was definitely a nightmare and will be a recurring one in my head for I don’t know how long,” she said. “I’ve never been a victim of violence, never feared for my life in any situation. I’ve never been scared like that.”

She said she doesn’t know why Miller attacked her.

“It was out of the blue. He’d get moody sometimes but nothing like this. When I asked him why he said I screwed him over so many times that he didn’t know why I was asking. But he was fine earlier in the day. He was like normal,” she said. “I think he had it planned. I think he knew what he was going to do and wanted to take somebody with him.”

Looking at photographs of the gaping door and windows of Miller’s house are a grim reminder of the night.

“It looks like hell and that’s what it felt like, like I was escaping from Hell,” she said.

— Jeff Wilson contributed to this story.

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