Michael Brown and Dorian Johnson, the friend who witnessed his shooting


Dorian Johnson, who is one of the key witnesses in the fatal police shooting of Michael Brown, leaves Brown's funeral at in St. Louis, Missouri. (Robert Rodriguez/EPA)

Dorian Johnson had just moved from his mother’s house in St. Louis to a two-bedroom spot in the Canfield Green Apartments that he was sharing with his then-pregnant girlfriend and another roommate.

Sometime in March, a buddy stopped by with a stranger.

“Wow,” Johnson said, “that’s a big dude.”

The dude, Michael Brown, was 6-foot-4, and he had brushed past Johnson with barely a hello as he headed to the video-game console and began to play.

“I asked, ‘Why he don’t speak?’ ” Johnson recalled in a 90-minute interview with The Washington Post last week — his first interview since federal authorities questioned him shortly after the shooting, his attorneys said.

Hillary Rodham Clinton said Thursday that the fatal shooting of an unarmed Missouri teenager and the violent protests that followed resulted from frayed bonds of trust in his racially-divided community. (AP)

“He don’t like to talk to people,” the buddy said.

“He’s in my house, he’s going to talk to me,” Johnson replied — then he engaged Brown. Johnson soon had the answer to his own question.

“His voice didn’t fit his body. He might as well have been my size,” said Johnson, who is a lean 5-foot-7.

“Everybody we came around felt a little intimidated by him,” he said. “When he opened up his mouth . . . you’d say, ‘Naw, this guy wouldn’t hurt anybody.’ When he talked, you heard the kid in his voice.”

Five months later, Brown, unarmed, lay dying in the street, shot multiple times by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson. Johnson, who hid behind a nearby car during the Aug. 9 shooting, is in federal protective custody out of fear for his life, his attorneys said.

Johnson described his friendship with Brown as more casual than close. The two young men were both in transitional moments: one a 22-year-old father newly determined to provide for his daughter, the other a recent high school graduate preparing for trade school and chasing dreams about a music career.

By the time they met, Johnson was trying to move beyond a series of challenges, including difficult encounters with police.

Relatives and community leaders including the Rev. Al Sharpton shared memories and guidance for moving forward at a funeral held for 18-year-old Michael Brown in St. Louis, Mo., on Monday. Brown was fatally shot by officer Darren Wilson in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 9. (Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Now he is one of two key witnesses to an event that again has forced the country to confront the tattered relationship between law enforcement and black Americans.

On the morning of the fatal encounter, it was Brown who reached out to Johnson, looking for someone to talk to about starting school and other anxieties, according to two people who have spoken with Johnson.

“He just wanted someone to talk to,” said Damonte Johnson, one of Dorian Johnson’s younger brothers. “So my brother said, ‘I’m headed to the store. Come and walk and talk with me.’ ”

Federal investigators have interviewed Dorian Johnson about that day. But his attorneys did not allow him to discuss the shooting or what happened on that trip to Ferguson Market, a liquor and convenience store where Brown was videotaped allegedly taking a box of Swisher Sweets and shoving the store’s manager. That video also shows Johnson placing some Swishers that Brown had handed him back on the counter. The cigars are often emptied of their tobacco and used to smoke marijuana.

As Brown pushed the clerk, Johnson is seen exiting the store.

Minutes later, Brown and Johnson encountered Wilson.

Johnson and police have differing accounts. In an earlier interview with The Post, Johnson’s attorney, Freeman Bosley Jr., described his client’s account: Johnson said Wilson was the aggressor, ordering the two to get out of the street and confronting them again when they said they were near Johnson’s apartment. Johnson said Wilson, still in his cruiser, grabbed Brown by the neck and, as Brown tried to pull away, threatened to shoot. Then he fired. Brown fled as Wilson shot multiple times, including, Johnson said, appearing to strike Brown in the back before he turned to surrender and was shot again.

Ferguson police said Wilson, 28, is in their protective custody. They released his name nearly a week after the shooting, simultaneously releasing the store video and accusing Brown of “strong-arm” robbery. Family members, federal authorities and others criticized the move. Police offered conflicting accounts about whether Wilson knew of the store incident when he engaged the young men. Brown struggled with Wilson for his gun and assaulted him, said the St. Louis County police, who are investigating the case, which is before a grand jury.

A Justice Department probe is also underway.

But before the shooting — and the at-times-explosive protests it spawned — a friendship formed between two young men who could not have been more different.

Johnson is outgoing, a jokester who worked for a contractor with the local transit system and liked spending time on the neighborhood basketball courts. Brown, Johnson and others have said, was more reserved, a young man who had few friends but who found that his musical interests could help him connect with others.

They shared a passion for dressing, often complimenting each other on the coordination of their sneakers and clothes. Big Mike, as he was called, was known to change his shoelaces daily to match his outfit.

The time he and Johnson spent together included activities common for some their age: They played video games late into the night, occasionally smoked weed, made music and talked about better lives.

Trouble and tragedy

Johnson grew up in Walnut Park, one of St. Louis’s tougher areas, where he lived in a house shared by his mother and aunt, who had 19 children between them.

Gangs were a constant presence, Johnson said, looking to recruit neighborhood kids.

“I was never in a gang, but I was definitely aware of them. I saw guys standing on the corner, doing hand to hand,” he said, using a term for selling drugs.

To avoid the gangs, Johnson said he turned to sports, playing football for the St. Louis recreation department’s Junior Rams. He was one of the smallest players, but he was fast, he said.

Not fast enough, however to avoid Walnut Park’s violence. While exiting a school bus in 2007, he said, he was caught in crossfire and shot behind his left knee. The bullet, still in his leg, ended football. He tried gymnastics for a while.

Johnson also struggled academically. Like Brown, he eventually earned his diploma through a special program, graduating in 2010. The next year he enrolled at Lincoln University, a historically black college in Jefferson City, Mo., where he spent two semesters, and where he ran into more trouble.

In an off-campus incident in 2011, he was arrested and charged with a misdemeanor, the theft of a package — which contained a backpack — and given a court date. When he did not show up, a bench warrant was issued. It instructed police to detain Johnson if he was stopped within 50 miles of Jefferson City but not to pursue him beyond those perimeters. Johnson said someone else in the group he was with took the package. (He was also charged with filing a false report because he gave a false name, which he admits he did.)

He soon left Jefferson City, in part, he said, because he believed police targeted students from St. Louis. And with his many tattoos — “more than my mother would appreciate” — he stood out.

In September, not long after he returned home, Johnson’s family faced a tragedy.

His younger brother D’Angelo, a popular 16-year-old student at Northwest Academy of Law, was killed while drag racing. He lost control of the Pontiac Grand Am he was driving and slammed into a tree. His older brother heard the news and ran to the scene.

Police stopped Dorian Johnson before he reached the car. He fought them so hard that he was handcuffed and taken to a holding cell.

“It was split in half,” Johnson said of the burgundy car. One of its five occupants was thrown from a window, and three others were hospitalized. D’Angelo was pronounced dead in an ambulance.

“I was angry,” Johnson said. “I was telling [the police] this is my little brother. I watched my little brother die.”

Two months later he encountered police again when they stopped Johnson and other occupants of a car. They ran his name, discovered the Jefferson City warrant and held him so authorities could pick him up.

Johnson said he sat in a holding cell for two weeks before St. Louis County police realized that Jefferson City police were not traveling 200 miles to get him. He had been detained well outside the warrant’s jurisdiction.

St. Louis County police did not respond to an inquiry about Johnson being held for two weeks. His attorneys said they are working to resolve the case.

Music — or ‘Plan B’

It was music that bonded Brown and Johnson. Both fantasized about careers.

Johnson has musical notes tattooed on his neck, and Brown was almost never without his headphones — Drake and Kendrick Lamar playing in a near-constant stream.

In that way, they were like many young men who used the music — the bravado about women and cars and fast money — as a means to escape their own realities. The odds of making it in the rap game are long, but some work harder than others for the chance.

Brown appeared to be one of those guys who was putting in the time, even if the skills didn’t quite match his aspirations.

His family called him “Mike Mike,” a name meant to distinguish him from his father. His parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden, were teenagers when he was born. They never married, and Brown, who has two sisters and a brother, bounced between the homes his parents shared with their respective spouses. When his mother moved out of the school district, according to friends, Brown began living with his grandmother in the Canfield Green apartment complex.

Charles Ewing, one of Brown’s uncles, said that even as a boy Brown had two loves: music and technology. He would take a television or computer apart and rebuild it, Ewing said.

Teachers at Normandy High School said he was well liked, a kid who often had a group of people surrounding him as he practiced rap lyrics.

“A lot of my students claim to be rappers. Mike actually wrote songs,” said Douglas Carr, who was Brown’s English teacher during the 2013 summer-school session. “He had a plan. It was his music, and then it was technical school. A lot of kids who think they’re rappers don’t have a Plan B, but Mike really seemed to.”

In July, Asia Jackson, 18 and another aspiring musician, walked into the Ferguson McDonald’s and spotted a friend. Next to him sat Brown.

After introducing himself and realizing they both rapped, Jackson challenged Brown to freestyle, to come up with lyrics on the spot. Brown obliged.

“He really thought through his words while he rhymed,” Jackson said, adding that the two agreed they would have to get together soon for a recording session in Brown’s basement studio.

Brown built that makeshift studio himself at his grandmother’s, and it was there, Johnson said, that Brown would spend hours working on lyrics.

“Ain’t got a care for tomorrow ’cause we too high in the game,” Brown raps in one song he recorded.

In later tracks, God and Christianity are prominent. His uncle said Brown, at the urging of his stepmother, had been recently baptized. In one song, he calls his stepmother, Calvina Brown, his best friend. The last track he posted online was another local rapper’s song that featured a Brown verse: “Devil get up off my back. I knock you off your feet,” Brown said. “Another man down in my city. Why people so petty?”

He had been rapping for a few months, Johnson said, but his real talent was helping others polish their work and offering advice.

“He could find beats,” Johnson said. “He was good at telling people their sound could be better if they’d do something, make a tweak.”

Sleepless nights

Brown was killed before he and Jackson got in that studio time.

The funeral was held Aug. 25 and televised on CNN. His body had been autopsied three times — once each by St. Louis County police, a pathologist hired by Brown’s family and federal authorities. All found that Brown had been shot at least six times, including twice in the head but not in the back.

More than 2,000 people, including a number of celebrities, packed the church.

Several politicians and civil rights activists sitting in front pews recognized Johnson as he tried to quietly slip in from a side entrance.

He sat four rows from the coffin, wedged between his attorneys. His mother and girlfriend sat three pews behind him.

Johnson broke down a number of times during the service, lawyer James Williams said.

“In spite of those who’ve tried to make this about what happened in the store, that these are criminals and thugs, these were unarmed men running away from a police officer,” Williams said in an interview. “You don’t get to shoot them down. It doesn’t justify killing an unarmed person.”

Johnson said he has not slept much since Aug. 9. “I jump out of my bed and check the windows,” he said. “I’m always at the door.”

Before, not a day passed when he didn’t think about his younger brother, the image of the mangled car playing in a nightmarish loop in his mind.

Now it’s mixed with a new reel, Johnson said: the image of Brown being struck by bullets, his mountainous body falling in the middle of the street.

DeNeen Brown and Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Wesley Lowery covers Capitol Hill for The Fix and Post Politics.
Darryl Fears has worked at The Washington Post for more than a decade, mostly as a reporter on the National staff. He currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife.
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