FERGUSON, Mo. — Authorities in this restive suburb of St. Louis on Friday began telling their version of the events surrounding the fatal shooting of an unarmed black teenager by a white police officer, but the halting, contradictory nature of the account revived popular anger here and brought criticism from other law enforcement agencies.
Nearly a week after 18-year-old Michael Brown’s death sparked days of protests, police identified the officer who killed him as Darren Wilson, who has six years of service with no disciplinary record. But they provided virtually no information about the officer, instead focusing on linking Brown to a convenience store robbery that occurred just before the shooting.
At a tense early morning news conference, Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson said Brown had been the prime suspect in that robbery — in which several boxes of cigars were stolen — and that his description was broadcast over police frequencies just before his encounter with Wilson. Police dramatized the allegation, releasing security camera photos showing a person they identified as Brown towering over and menacing the store clerk, images that were circulated nationwide.
Yet, despite the implication that Brown was stopped because of the robbery, Jackson later appeared to reverse himself, saying at a second news conference that the confrontation “was not related to the robbery.” Instead, he said, Brown was stopped because he and a friend were walking in the street.
Hours later, Jackson returned again to the robbery theme, telling the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that the officer saw cigars in Brown’s hand and realized he might be the robber.
Read the documents
The confusion appeared to further inflame tensions roiling this community of 21,000. Scattered protests continued, and the police actions drew a rebuke from Brown’s family, which accused Jackson of deliberately besmirching the teen’s character.
“The family feels that was strategic,” Anthony Gray, an attorney for Brown’s family, said during a news conference Friday. “They feel it was aimed at denigrating their son. It was an attempt at character assassination.”
Added Eric Davis, a cousin of Brown’s mother: “It infuriated us.”
There were also signs Friday of a rift among state and local authorities involved in the case, only one day after political and community leaders mounted a renewed effort to tamp down the violence and find ways to prevent future outbreaks while multiple investigations of the shooting proceed.
In an unusual public disagreement, the law enforcement official newly in charge of security in Ferguson appeared to question the decision to name Brown as a robbery suspect. “I would have liked to have been consulted,” Missouri State Highway Patrol Capt. Ronald S. Johnson said Friday, adding that he would meet with Jackson to discuss “how that was released.’’
Johnson, an African American who grew up in the Ferguson area, had been put in charge Thursday by Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon (D) when the governor announced that the State Highway Patrol would take over security operations after days of images of riot police and tear gas in the streets.
Law enforcement officials typically strive to present a united front, yet Nixon’s decision prompted an unusual public attack from St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch, who was angered that the move would take control of the scene away from St. Louis County police. “For Nixon to never talk to the commanders in the field and come in here and take this action is disgraceful,” McCulloch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “It’s shameful what he did.’’
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley later said he is leading an effort to remove the county prosecutor from the investigation because of bias. McCulloch is the person who will decide whether state charges will be filed against the police officer.
It was not clear Friday whether the evident turf battles would hamper the state investigation of Brown’s shooting. The Justice Department and FBI, which are conducting a parallel investigation to determine whether Brown’s civil rights were violated, are deferring for now to state investigators but are also monitoring them.
The announcements from police identifying the officer and naming Brown as a robbery suspect came after the calmest night in Ferguson since Brown was killed. His death has sparked outrage and protests, with hundreds marching in the streets in the days that followed.
Little information about the shooting has been publicly released, and the media frenzy to learn more about Wilson yielded only scattered bits of information.
According to public records, Wilson, 28, was an honor roll student at St. Charles High School near Ferguson in the ninth and 10th grades. His mother died when he was 16.
The officer, who is on administrative leave, a few days ago left his neighborhood in Crestwood, a city of 11,000 people about 18 miles southwest of Ferguson. Dark blue unmarked police cars were parked outside his house on Manda Lane, with a marked police car in the parking lot of a church to the rear of the house.
Most people in the neighborhood of brick ranch houses and manicured lawns declined to comment. A sign on the door of a neighbor next to Wilson’s house read: “We have two children. Do not knock. No comment.”
Joe Adlon, 49, whose parents’ house is about a block away, described Wilson as “a nice person. Very, very good. It’s tragic this happened. It is a shame.’’
Jackson, the police chief, described Wilson as “a gentle, quiet man” and “a distinguished officer.”
The sequence of events in Brown’s shooting is still unclear. According to a friend who says he witnessed the encounter, Brown was walking along a Ferguson street when a police officer in a car ordered him to get on the sidewalk. Brown had his hands in the air to show he was unarmed when the officer shot him multiple times, the friend said.
The police say Brown attacked the officer in his car and tried to grab his gun.
Police gave far more detail Friday about the robbery at the convenience store, handing out a 19-page packet of documents.
According to the documents, Ferguson police officers received a call at 11:51 a.m. Saturday about a robbery in progress at the store and were given the description of a suspect: a black male in a white T-shirt walking north toward a QuikTrip convenience store.
“I did not see the suspect in the area,” an unidentified officer wrote in the report.
The officer wrote that the store clerk described the suspect as wearing a white T-shirt, khaki shorts, yellow socks and a red St. Louis Cardinals baseball cap. The officer was also told that another black male was with the suspect.
A partially redacted witness report in the packet — which did not state who provided the information — said that a woman inside the store came out of the bathroom during the altercation.
She told police she saw Brown tell the store employee that he and his companion wanted several boxes of cigars from behind the counter.
“As [redacted employee name] was placing the boxes on the counter, Brown grabbed a box of Swisher Sweet cigars and handed them to [Dorian] Johnson who was standing behind Brown,” the report states. Johnson has said in interviews that he was with Brown when he was killed.
The witness said that the store employee then told Brown he had to pay first, but Brown reached over the counter and grabbed more packs of cigars, then turned to leave the store.
According to the witness account, the employee called 911 and tried to prevent Brown from leaving the store by standing in front of the door.
“That is when Brown grabbed [redacted employee name] by the shirt and forcefully pushed him back in to a display rack,” the report says.
The police report goes on to state that surveillance video from the store shows Brown handing a pack of Swisher Sweets to Johnson.
“An apparent struggle or confrontation seems to take place with Brown, however it is obscured by a display case on the counter,” the report states. “Meanwhile, Johnson sets the box he was handed back on the counter.”
Wilson had been responding to a different call shortly before noon Saturday. A description of a suspect and the suspect’s location were also given over the radio, police said.
Wilson left the call to which he had been responding and encountered Brown on Canfield Drive at 12:01 p.m., Jackson said. These details, provided by police early Friday, helped to create the impression that Wilson knew about the robbery.
Minutes after their encounter began, Wilson fatally shot Brown, although the exact circumstances of how this occurred remain unknown.
Jerry Markon, Alice Crites and Julie Tate in Washington, and DeNeen L. Brown and Wesley Lowery in Ferguson contributed to this report.