It’s a scene that has played out repeatedly across America: A white cop stops a black teen. Sometimes there is an exchange of profanities. Maybe an arrest follows. Mostly, these events are forgotten, except perhaps by those involved. But a handful are not. That’s the case in Ferguson, Mo., where an Aug. 9 encounter between Michael Brown and officer Darren Wilson ended in death, explosive violence, protest and another bout of national soul-searching about race.
In the months since, Wilson — a tall man, nearly 6-foot-4, with soft, doughy features — was absent from public view while his name became famous. He skipped out on a court appearance. No one in his family spoke on his behalf. His lawyers ignored requests for comment. Even Ferguson’s police chief said he hadn’t spoken to Wilson since Brown’s killing. Wilson was a ghost: a man known in name, but not in flesh. Unanswered questions simmered.
The September testimony he delivered to the grand jury, released Monday after a prosecutor announced that Wilson would not be charged, provides the first and most detailed account directly from Wilson of Brown’s shooting. It varies from many previously published stories — and accusations — about a cop who brazenly shot a youth trying to surrender, some said, with his hands up.
On a hot August day, Wilson drove down a street and spotted two young black men walking down the middle of the road. One wore a black shirt. The other held cigarillos. The details of a robbery earlier that day, blared out on a police radio, clicked into Wilson’s head. Were they suspects? He told the two young men, one of whom was Brown, to move to the sidewalk.
Things then happened very quickly. Wilson said Brown was at his car window, enraged. Wilson said Brown hit him in the face, grabbing for his gun. Two shots fired. Brown bolted down the street. Wilson pursued. As Wilson told it, Brown charged the officer, reaching into his pants. Wilson raised his .40-caliber Sig Sauer and aimed for a lethal shot.
“All I see is his head, and that’s what I shot,” Wilson recalled during a Sept. 16 grand jury session in St. Louis.
Wilson told the story of three minutes of hot confusion, shattered glass, a misfired gun, fear and a look of anger that came across Brown’s face that Wilson said made him “look like a demon.” Wilson said he hasn’t recovered from the shock. “I’m just kind of in shock of what just happened,” he told the grand jury. “I really didn’t believe it because like I said, the whole thing started over ‘will you just walk on the sidewalk.'”
The first thing that struck Wilson about the two young men he saw walking down Canfield Drive’s yellow line was the size difference between them. “Either the first one was really small, or the second one was really big,” Wilson said he thought. After he told the men to get out of the street and walk on the sidewalk, Wilson recalled Brown, the big one, turning to him.
“Brown then replied, ‘f— what you have to say.’ And when he said that, it drew my attention to Brown. It was very unusual and not expected response from a simple request,” said Wilson, who decided the men were possible robbery suspects. He radioed for backup and cut them off with his car, peering out at Brown from inside his squad car.
“As I’m opening the door, he turns, faces me, looks at me and says, ‘What the f— are you going to do about it,’ and shuts my door, slammed it shut,” Wilson said. “… He was just staring at me, almost like to intimidate me or to overpower me. The intense face he had was just not what I expected from any of this.”
Wilson told Brown to “get the f— back,” but Brown allegedly hit Wilson in the side of his face “with a fist…. There was a significant amount of contact that was made to my face,” Wilson testified.
Wilson, who weighs more than 200 pounds, said he grabbed the 6-foot-4-inch Brown. “When I grabbed him, the only way I can describe it is I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Thoughts raced through Wilson’s head, he said. “What do I do not to get beaten inside my car?” he said he thought.
Was mace an option? Wilson said he decided against it: “The chances of it being effective were slim to none. His hands were in front of his face, it would have blocked the mace from hitting him in the face.” What about his Taser? Wilson wasn’t carrying one. “It is not the most comfortable thing,” he said. “They are very large; I don’t have a lot of room in the front for it to be positioned.”
There was only other option he said he had. “I drew my gun…. He is standing here. I said, ‘Get back or I’m going to shoot you.’ He immediately grabs my gun and says, ‘you are too much of a p—- to shoot me.'” The men struggled for the gun, and Wilson pulled the trigger.
Nothing. “It just clicked,” Wilson testified. “I pull it again. It just clicked. At this point, I’m like ‘why isn’t this working,’ this guy is going to kill me if he gets ahold of this gun.'” It finally goes off and the car’s interior explodes with shattered glass and globs of blood. Wilson looked at the unarmed teen and the teen looked back. “He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face. The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon, that’s how angry he looked. He comes back towards me again with his hands up.” But then, Wilson said Brown hit him again, and the cop couldn’t get his gun to work. It clicked again, until it finally discharged a second time.
Brown took off running, Wilson said. At this point, Wilson said he was confronted with a choice: get out of his car and pursue — or stay put and wait for reinforcement? He chose the former. “My main goal was to keep eyes on him and just keep him contained,” Wilson said. “… If I could buy 30 seconds of time, someone else will be here, we can make the arrest, nothing happens, we are all good. And it didn’t happen that way.”
What did happen, according to Wilson: Brown stopped running at a light pole and confronted Wilson. The cop said he yelled at the youth to get on the ground. “When he looked at me, he made like a grunting, like aggravated sound and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back towards me,” Wilson recalled. “His first step is coming towards me, he kind of does like a stutter step to start running. When he does that, his left hand goes in a fist and goes to his side, his right one goes under his shirt in his waistband and he starts running at me.”
Wilson opened fire. He missed a few times. But he also hit Brown, who “flinched.” What Wilson remembered as “tunnel vision” came over him, homing in on Brown’s right hand in his waistband. “I’m just focusing on that hand when I was shooting.” But the shots, Wilson said, didn’t deter Brown, who continued to charge toward him.
“He was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting him,” Wilson said. “And the face that he had was looking straight through me, like I wasn’t even there, I wasn’t even anything in his way.”
Wilson took aim at Brown’s head for the shot that would kill the unarmed teen. “When he fell, he fell on his face,” Wilson recalled. “I remember his feet coming up … and then they rested.”
Then came the end.
“When it went into him,” Wilson said, “the demeanor on his face went blank, the aggression was gone, it was gone, I mean I knew he stopped, the threat was stopped.”