In Ferguson, three minutes — and two lives forever changed


People gather Saturday next to a makeshift memorial for Michael Brown, located at the site where Brown was shot by police a week ago in Ferguson, Mo. (Charlie Riedel/Associated Press)

It took just three minutes.

A speck of time on a snoozy side street, a stretch of asphalt winding through a modest working-class neighborhood of three-story garden apartment buildings that’s easier to find a way into than out of.

There, two lives intersected when a white police officer named Darren Wilson and a black teenager named Michael Brown — one in a patrol car, the other on foot — found themselves together on Canfield Drive in the middle of a summer Saturday.

When they met at 12:01 p.m. on Aug. 9, the two were coming from different places, different mind-sets —Brown filling free hours with a friend, Wilson coming off an emergency call about a 2-month-old baby struggling to breathe.

Brown, barely 18, stood 6-foot-4 and 292 pounds and wore a St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. Wilson, a lanky 28-year-old with short-cropped blond hair who had six months earlier won a commendation for “extraordinary effort in the line of duty,” steered a police cruiser behind him.

At 12:04, Brown was dead, shot multiple times by Wilson. “Big Mike,” as his friends called him, did not have a gun.

The conflicting accounts of those three minutes — the tortured exercise of assigning blame — have provoked intense protests and turned this inner-ring St. Louis suburb into a parable of race, class and justice. There has been no resolution, no definitive account of what happened in that flash of a hot afternoon or of the two men at the center of it.

Police records, public documents and more than a dozen interviews on the streets here and in other St. Louis suburbs are beginning to reveal details of the killing and clarify points on a timeline that began with a theft of less than $50 worth of cigars from a convenience store and culminated with Brown’s death.

A key witness — Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson — has told the FBI that he thought the robbery was a “prank,” said Johnson’s attorney. In an interview with federal agents, Johnson has said Brown was hit by one bullet, then — as Brown pleaded for his life — Wilson fired “five or six” more times.

And when the shooting stopped, Johnson and his legal team have told investigators, the police officer who pulled the trigger did nothing to save the man he’d just shot. “The officer doesn’t attempt to resuscitate,” Johnson’s attorney, former St. Louis mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., said in an interview Saturday. “He does not call for medical help. The officer didn’t call it in that someone had been shot.”

Different sides of the line

Both men are now forever entwined with Ferguson, but neither had particularly deep roots here.

Brown was only spending the summer with his grandmother while making plans to attend a vocational school. Wilson was in his fourth year on the police force after working for two years on a force nearby. He lives miles away in a house with a swimming pool in the suburb of Crestwood.

Tensions flared once again after police released surveillance video on Friday that allegedly shows Michael Brown robbing a store minutes before he was shot dead by a police officer. The deadly encounter sparked a week of racially charged protests in Ferguson. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

On the streets near the home of Brown’s grandmother, neighbor buddies remember him as a “good kid” who posted up under the basket at a Ferguson playground — more bulk and grit on the court than grace. His nickname, “Big Mike,” about summed it up.

“With his size and frame, I always tried to encourage him to do football, but he was too timid, too mild-mannered,” said Duane Finne, a family friend who lives not far from where Brown’s body lay for hours, in the center of the street, after he was shot. “Growing up in a city like this, that’s hard.”

Brown was the kid who was rhyming hip-hop lyrics. “He just loved music, talked about it all the time,” said Cynthia Barnett, a neighborhood fixture whom Brown called “Miss Cynthia.”

Hip-hop represents the hope of escape to another kind of life for many of the kids in this swatch of St. Louis suburbs, a patchwork of 91 municipalities, each with its own identity and mores. The area is frequently referred to as poor, but the reality is more nuanced.

Brown was staying in a scruffy section of Ferguson, where check-cashing stores perch in frayed strip malls, but the city’s downtown has undergone a revival.

And even in the modest $550-a-month apartments where Brown and his friends partied and traded lyrics, the problem often isn’t that the occupants don’t have jobs — it’s that they don’t have good jobs.

“People go to work and they come home,” said Alice Thomas, 51. “People are aspirational. They want something better for their children. Mike Brown’s mother keeps talking about how she wanted him to go to college, even community college. . . . She wanted better for her child.”

The fraught relationship between African Americans, a majority in Ferguson, and the nearly all-white police force long preceded the eruption of protests.

In interview after interview, black men and women talked about their fears of random stops while driving in the city, as well as in neighboring municipalities.

Marcus White, an acquaintance of Brown who works for a moving company, said he frequently has to spend the night in his employer’s office because he can’t find anyone to drive him home to Ferguson.

“They’ll tell me, ‘I don’t go past Goodfellow,’ ” he said, referencing one of the streets near the line that separates the county of St. Louis from the city of the same name.

Many here have their own catalogue of towns that they dare not drive through. They sketch long, circuitous routes to avoid the small areas where they feel most targeted, a concern buttressed by statistics that show far higher numbers of traffic stops involving African Americans than whites in the St. Louis suburbs.

“More than four people in the car, they’re going to pull you over,” said Earl Lee Jr., a 41-year-old warehouse worker who lives in a nearby suburb. “Tint on your windows, they’re going to pull you over. Too early in the morning, they think you’re up to something. Too late, they think you’re up to something. When are you supposed to drive?”

Wilson, the officer whose name was released by police on Friday, six days after the shooting, has been a central if off-stage character in the drama playing out here.

Little is known about him — not even the details of his commendation for extraordinary effort. But public records and interviews with people who knew his family indicate that he came from a troubled home that faced serious financial strain.

His mother, Tonya Harris, died when he was 16. Records show that she had a long history with law enforcement, pleading guilty to numerous counts of forgery and stealing. In 2001, she was sentenced to five years in prison, although she appears to have served most, if not all, of it on probation.

Records indicate that Wilson’s stepfather, Tyler Harris, took guardianship of him in 2003.

Wilson, who was recently divorced, is on paid administrative leave. He has left the suburban home he shares with a woman who also is a police officer, and is staying at an undisclosed location.

The house, where beach towels were hanging on a fence around the swimming pool, is being guarded by police.

Final minutes

Brown did not have traffic-stop problems with police because he apparently didn’t drive. He didn’t have a license, and his learner’s permit expired in September.

He was on foot during the final moments of his life, moments that have been parsed and debated as thousands have gathered in Ferguson each night to protest.

About 10 minutes before his death, surveillance video shows, Brown walked into Ferguson Market & Liquor, a small convenience store half a mile from the spot where he was killed.

In the images, the young man whose family described him as gentle reaches over the counter and roughly yanks out a box of Swisher Sweets cigars.

He is accompanied by his friend, Johnson, a slight 120 pounds and four years older, who has emerged as a key witness. In the footage, Brown fills the screen, thickly built and in long khaki shorts, a white T-shirt and sandals.

Boxes of cigars scatter as Brown appears to argue with a clerk. While Brown scoops the cigar boxes from the floor, the clerk comes out from behind the counter, seemingly trying to block his path and close the door.

Brown shoves the much smaller clerk into a snack display. When the clerk comes back at him, Brown puffs his chest and steps toward the clerk in a show of intimidation. The clerk retreats and Brown leaves, carrying cigars worth $48.99.

Johnson, who has not been charged, has told FBI investigators that he thought his friend was doing “a prank,” Bosley, his attorney, said in an interview with The Washington Post on Saturday.

From there, it was only short hop down West Florissant Avenue, a route that took them past faded strip-mall storefronts, a nail salon, a barbershop, a check-cashing business, a burger joint.

As they turned onto Canfield Drive, they were only blocks from Johnson’s home and the apartment of Brown’s grandmother. They walked in the middle of the street, rather than the sidewalk, hugging the center line.

Wilson drove past them in his patrol car.

He told them, “Get on the f------ sidewalk,” Bosley said Johnson has told him. Johnson protested to Wilson that they were almost home.

The officer put his cruiser in reverse, Bosley said, and pulled up so close that when he opened the door, it bumped Johnson and Brown. “Through the window of his cruiser, he grabs Big Mike by the throat,” Bosley said. “Big Mike tries to move away. The officer grabs his shirt.”

Johnson, who was a student at Lincoln University, saw the officer pull out a gun. “He shoots Big Mike somewhere in the chest or arm,” Bosley said. “Dorian sees blood coming from the chest.”

Johnson took off running and hid behind the first car he saw, Bosley said. “Big Mike runs by him. He says to Dorian, ‘Keep running,’ ” Bosley said. “The officer chases Big Mike. He fires a shot and hits Big Mike in the back. Big Mike turns around. [Brown] puts his hands up. The officer shoots him five or six more times.”

After Brown was shot and on the ground, Bosley said, Wilson did not report the shooting immediately or call for emergency medical help.

There was confusion at the emergency call center in the minutes after the shooting.

In audio recordings released last week and confirmed by authorities as authentic, a St. Louis County police dispatcher indicated that Ferguson police were unaware that an officer was involved in the shooting.

The dispatcher noted that she had received two calls about an “officer-related shooting” on Canfield Drive.

“We just got another call about an officer-involved shooting . . . there,” she said.

A few seconds later, the dispatcher said she couldn’t get confirmation from the police in Ferguson. “We just called Ferguson back again, and they don’t know anything about it,” she said.

A robbery suspect

Law enforcement officials have given fragmented accounts that differ from Johnson’s recollection.

In their telling, Brown was the aggressor.

Jon Belmar, the St. Louis County chief of police, has said that Brown reached for Wilson’s gun and that a shot was fired inside the vehicle. Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said Wilson ended up with “a swollen face.”

But Jackson has given a series of conflicting accounts of the event.

In a news conference Thursday, he released video surveillance from the convenience store, leading many to think he was implying a connection between the robbery and the shooting.

Later that day, Jackson reversed himself, saying there wasn’t a connection between the robbery and Wilson’s confrontation with Brown. Hours later there was a revision:

Jackson said Wilson saw cigars in Brown’s hand and “realized he might be the robber.”

“At no time does the officer say, ‘Hey, did you rob that store?’ or ‘Hey, are you coming from that store?’ ” Bosley said. “None of that.”

Brown’s body lay in the street for hours after the shooting — part of that time uncovered.

A photo that Bosley provided to The Post shows Brown lying on his stomach, his right cheek pressed against the asphalt. A long trail of blood extends from his head.

Barnett, the neighbor, said she watched in horror as Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, pleaded with police who were keeping back the crowd.

“Why y’all got my son out in the street?” Barnett said she recalled hearing McSpadden shout.

According to Barnett, the officers responded: “You can’t see your son. You need to calm yourself down.”

Jackson said he was “uncomfortable” with the length of time Brown’s body lay in the open. But he added that the job of processing the crime scene was delayed by the sound of gunshots ringing out, although it was never determined where those shots came from.

At least two autopsies have been performed on Brown — one by government authorities and second arranged by attorneys for his family, according to attorneys for Brown’s parents.

The family is represented by Benjamin Crump and Darryl Parks — the Florida lawyers who represented the family of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed teenager whose death at the hands of a neighborhood watch volunteer sparked national outrage in 2012.

Parks declined to discuss the autopsy results.

Business again

The convenience store where the robbery took place was boarded up, but open for business on Friday. A store manager, who declined to give his name, said he fears for his life and pleaded with reporters not to suggest that he called police.

“It’s very dangerous,” he said. “They kill us if they think we are responsible. People don’t understand that.”

Johnson, Brown’s friend, has receded into the background. He is afraid of the police, Bosley said.

“He has no home right now,” Bosley said. “He is moving from place to place for safety reasons. His life is upside-down. He is traumatized.”

At the Canfield Green apartment complex, steps away from a memorial that has swelled in the street where Brown died, a sign reads: “Caution — killer cop on the loose.”

While protesters paused to mourn earlier this week, Wilson’s boss appeared on television to call him a “gentleman.”

Ongoing local and federal investigations — and perhaps, eventually, a judge or jury — may help reconcile the opposing images of those involved and the saga of what happened here. The robbery, the shooting, the three-minute collision of two lives.

For now, there’s only the stilted phrasing of a Ferguson police report about the robbery.

The case, it says, is “exceptionally cleared.”

Jerry Markon and Julie Tate in Washington contributed to this report.

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a writer in The Washington Post’s Style section. His long-form articles span a broad range of subjects, including politics, power and the culture of Washington, as well as profiling major political figures and authors.
DeNeen L. Brown is an award-winning staff writer at The Washington Post who has covered night police, education, courts, politics and culture.
Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
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