Note: The following narrative of the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson on August 9th was assembled from the grand jury testimonies of Darren Wilson and Dorian Johnson, as well as official medical records, autopsy reports, and Ferguson Police Department dispatch records. Additional sources are noted in the article.
After waking up on the morning of August 9th, 2014, 28-year-old police officer Darren Wilson pulled on a pair of navy blue pants and buttoned up his matching French blue uniform shirt. A Ferguson Police Department badge was stitched on both shoulders, and his name rested just above the right breast pocket. He also wore his standard duty belt: magazine pouches, mace on the left, a baton, two sets of handcuffs, his radio, and a firearm on the right, a Sig Sauer P229 .40 Caliber.
It was early–his shift started that day at 6:30 am, but Wilson didn’t mind. He’d had his share of ups and downs, but being a police officer for the past five years was the job of his life, he’d later say. On February 11th, 2014, his father, John Wilson, posted a picture of his son on Facebook receiving an award for subduing a suspected drug dealer until assistance arrived. A large amount of marijuana was recovered from the car. “Very proud of my son, Darren Wilson, on his receiving a Commendation from his Police Department. Congratulations Son,” his father typed with pride. Later, the photo would be scavenged by a fleet of internet trolls and sent to “Yahoo!News,” where it would then be posted and used to alert the country of whom Wilson was, and what he looked like.
Later that morning, Wilson went to the pharmacy to pick up some heartburn medication for his fiancée, 37-year-old Barbara Spradling, also a Ferguson police officer. In 2012, Spradling was awarded a Medal of Valor for helping detain and negotiate a peaceful surrender with a car robbery suspect, who had fired gunshots at her and another officer. Wilson and Spradling lived together in a one-story brick house in Crestwood, Missouri, with a pool and a basketball hoop. Potted plants and a garden hose sat out front.
It was hot on the morning of August 9th, but strangely it wasn’t oppressively humid in St. Louis that day, which Wilson noted as he patrolled the area in a marked Chevy Tahoe. Midmorning, he was dispatched to attend to a three-month-old baby, whose parents had reported that the infant was having difficulty breathing. 911 calls in the area first go to the Ferguson Police Department, which then forwards the call to paramedics and dispatches a police car to arrive with the ambulance. “It is an anti-police area for sure,” Wilson later said of Ferguson, while testifying in front of a grand jury about a month later on September 16th. “There’s a lot of violence in that area, there’s a lot of gun activity, drug activity. It is just not a very well-liked community. That community doesn’t like the police … There are good people over there, there really are, but I mean there is an influx of gang activity in that area.”
At 12:01 pm, Wilson first came in contact with two young black men walking down Canfield Drive. He didn’t learn their names until the next day. One of the teenagers, 18-year-old Michael Brown, lived in Ferguson with his grandmother. Wilson’s DNA would later be found on Brown’s left palm. Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, had him when she was 16, but she was determined to get her son to graduate from high school and attend college. Brown had just graduated from Normandy High School that May, unlike 40% of his classmates, who had not.
Brown planned to attend Vatterott College in the fall, where he’d pursue heating and cooling technician courses. He loved working with his hands, and could fix almost anything–an avid gamer, his cousin’s PlayStation broke once and he took it apart, repaired it, and put it back together. He also loved rap, and had just started writing his own songs in a makeshift studio assembled in his grandmother’s basement.
Brown, like his parents, was aware of the vital need to graduate. He’d recently began posting his songs online via SoundCloud, where he went by the name Big’Mike. In a song called “My Pain,” posted on August 3rd, 2014, Brown says, “I’m new to this rap shit. You know what I’m saying? I want to express myself, you know … I just want to be one of them who make it out the hood, you know what I’m saying. Come back, help my people out, my hood, and the people I grew up with. You know what I’m saying? Deuces.” His deep voice husks over a selection of stock beats, several of which last four to five minutes and only have one or two minutes of Brown’s voice recorded over them.
He’s still building confidence and finding his voice in the songs–listeners can hear him inhaling deep gulps of air after he’s finished several sentences in a row. At his most vulgar, he also sounds most timid, with lines like “Kung fu grip on that tit, Fuckin’ with me you gonna end up in a trash bag.” Later, his song lyrics would become famous. They’d be picked apart and used as proof that he was the kind of person who would assault a police officer.
Dorian Johnson, an acquaintance of Brown who was walking with him that day, remembers Brown as quiet, somewhat reserved, but very into sports, music, and fashion–you could catch him changing his shoelaces to match the rest of his outfit. His father says he was silly, could easily make you laugh, and would playfully show off to impress girls. “He was just being a teenager. Just living life.”
In May of 1986 in Fort Worth, Texas, 19-year-old Tonya Wilson gave birth to her first son, whom she named Darren D. Wilson. She had married John Wilson, 32, a public school teacher, and was working as a receptionist at the local YMCA. They divorced three years later when she was 22. Tonya soon remarried a man named Tyler Harris and moved to the St. Louis area–the couple had another son, Jared, in 1991. Tonya and Tyler divorced in 1998, and that same year, Tonya was charged in St. Charles County, Missouri with three counts of stealing by deceit for cashing bad checks.
In May 2000, she was charged again, this time for opening credit cards in another woman’s name: Sandra Lee Finney, a neighbor who lived across the street, and thought they were friends. At the time, Darren was 14. Tonya had been stealing her mail, obtained a copy of Finney’s driver’s license, and had a key to her front door. She purchased thousands of dollars of candles, home decor, furniture, clothing, hockey gear, and clothing from American Eagle outfitters. Darren played hockey at St. Charles West High School, and American Eagle was his favorite store at the time. For the crimes, his mother received five years of probation. Soon after, Tonya married her third husband, Daniel Robert Durso, but still struggled financially. They filed for bankruptcy in June 2002.
On November 18th, 2002, Tonya died of blockages in her arteries and lungs at age 35. Her second husband, Tyler, filed for guardianship of Darren, who was 16 at the time, so he could finish his senior year at St. Charles West. He graduated from high school in 2004 and married his first wife, Ashley Brown, in October of 2011, when he was 25. They purchased a home in Troy, Missouri, but soon divorced.
Midmorning on August 9th, Michael Brown was walking down Canfield Drive carrying a cluster of stolen cigarillos with Dorian Johnson. Johnson, 22, had recently moved into the Canfield Green Apartments with his girlfriend, daughter, and a roommate.
Johnson grew up in Walnut Park, a neighborhood of St. Louis City where he lived in a house with his mother, aunt, and their combined 19 children. After high school, he studied at Lincoln University in Jefferson City for two semesters before dropping out and returning home. Shortly thereafter, his 16-year-old brother, a student at the Northwest Academy of Law magnet high school, was killed while drag racing–he lost control of the vehicle and it slammed into a tree. Johnson ran to the scene, where he fought so hard against the police to see his brother that he was handcuffed and detained in a holding cell.
Upon moving to Ferguson, Johnson quickly learned police-civilian relations were strained, at best. “Every day I hear different stories about people’s different encounters with Ferguson police. Whenever you’re coming outside the door, people are always giving you a warning,” he later testified, remembering neighbors who would tell him, “They are down the street” or “They are up the street now.”
He met Brown for the first time a few months beforehand–they weren’t good friends, but hung out sometimes, played video games, and listened to music. The timeline of when Johnson and Brown met is difficult to pin down because the jurors could not get a straight answer out of Johnson about what would seem to be innocuous details. One juror asked, “You only met Mike, I think you said about three months before this incident occurred, is that correct?” Johnson replied, “One or two months … or five.”
For Johnson, the morning of the ninth began like any other day. He got up around 7 am, showered, and asked his girlfriend what she’d like to eat for breakfast. Normally he smokes some pot in the morning on his days off, but on this particular morning he was out of cigarillos, which he’d carefully empty of their tobacco and roll into a blunt. He knew someone in the apartment complex who sold them, and walked out onto the balcony of his unit where he saw Brown helping his aunt load her kids into a car. He remembers Brown wearing a white t-shirt, long khaki shorts, yellow socks, and a red New Era flat bill hat with the Cardinals logo embroidered in white thread. The price tag was still on it–36 dollars. Brown wanted to smoke too, and they decided to walk to the local market together for cigarillos.
On the stand, Johnson surmised over an hour passed before they started walking to the store. They talked for a bit, shot the shit on that warm summer day. “Our conversation was drifting from topic to topic, but really based on sports, design, girls, or what our future plans was,” Johnson recalled, before they walked together to the Ferguson Market on West Florissant, about a 10-minute walk from the Canfield Green Apartments. According to this timeline, they began walking to the store around 8:30 or 9. However, security footage shows Johnson and Brown entering the market at 11:51 am, at least a few hours later. “It could have been more than an hour before we started walking,” said Johnson.
On their way to the market, Johnson said Brown asked him questions about how he made it out from a rough upbringing. “I was just telling him a few things that I went through in my life that made me change and stuff like that. I knew he wasn’t someone like me, I knew he didn’t grow up where I grew up from, where there was a bunch of violent gangs and violent stuff occurring all the time,” said Johnson.
According to the security camera footage, Brown swung open the door of the market and briefly held it for Johnson. A few customers milled about as Brown walked up to the clerk, his hands behind his back, Johnson standing just behind him. Brown turned around and handed Johnson a box of cigarillos while other customers paid for their purchases. Johnson looked down at the box, examined it blankly, and looked up as Brown began to have a dispute with the clerk.
Brown suddenly leaned over inside the clerk’s cubicle and grabbed a fist full of cigarillos, many of which fell to the ground. He bent over to pick them up, with some difficulty. Johnson replaced the box Brown handed him on the counter, and did not stoop to help Brown gather up the fallen cigarillos. He later reasoned that Brown must not have had any cash that day, which surprised him. “I never thought that he didn’t have any money because like I said, when I did see him … he dressed nice.”
As they prepared to leave, the clerk dashed out from behind the cubicle while a woman and a young boy watched the scene unfold. As Brown headed for the door, his right hand full of cigarillos, the clerk rushed over to prevent him from leaving. Brown forcefully pushed him out of the way, where he fell into a neighboring rack of potato chips and snacks bagged in foil and cellophane.
In an interview with a detective on August 13th, 2014, Johnson claims the incident wasn’t particularly menacing. “He didn’t wrestle or punch the man or pull any weapon out on him. Man, he put his hand on him … one hand and just moved him out the way. Now, the man didn’t fall on the ground so I can tell he didn’t use that much force. The man kinda stumbled over and we continued to walk.”
Before that day, it hadn’t occurred to Johnson that Brown would steal. “He didn’t strike me as a person who would do anything like that. It shocked me a lot,” he said. As they walked back to the apartments, Johnson told him, “Hey, I don’t do stuff like that. What’s going on?” Brown laughed it off, telling him to “be cool, be calm.” Johnson was panicked. He remembered thinking, “I can’t be calm, I can’t be cool because I know what just happened and we were on camera.” Walking back along West Florissant and then to Canfield, they saw two police squad cars. Johnson thought the store clerk had called the cops and they were about to be thrown in jail, but neither car stopped to apprehend them.
The Ferguson Police Department later issued a warrant to obtain the security footage from the market, which depicted Brown assaulting the clerk. The Department of Justice beseeched police chief Tom Jackson not to release it to the public. Jackson released it anyway, citing media requests for the footage that legally forced him to make it publicly available under the Freedom of Information Act. However, no requests made in writing for the video have been recovered from the Ferguson Police Department’s open records requests.
Brown walked out of the store, following Johnson, at 11:54 am. 10 minutes later, Johnson and Brown would meet Officer Wilson for the first time. What ensued in the 90 seconds after they met would become front-page national and international news for months.
The Ferguson Police dispatcher radioed a stealing in progress at Ferguson Market at 11:53 am on August 9th. 19 seconds later, they had a description: a black male in a white t-shirt. “He’s running towards QuikTrip. He took a whole box of Swisher cigars,” said a woman’s voice over the radio. Four minutes later, between 11:57 and 11:58, an officer gathered more details, describing Brown. “He’s with another male. He’s got a red Cardinal’s hat, white t-shirt, yellow socks, and khaki shorts,” he said, relaying the outfit Brown had put together that morning. At noon, Wilson reported he was back in service from assisting with the sick infant. He radioed to two other officers on duty, asking if they needed his help.
While on the sick case call, he’d overheard bits and pieces of the dispatcher’s report about the stealing, and that the suspects were headed towards QuikTrip. “I didn’t hear the entire call, I was on my portable radio, which isn’t exactly the best. I did hear that suspect was wearing a black shirt and that a box of cigarillos was stolen,” Wilson testified.
After he didn’t hear back from the other officers, Wilson was headed to pick up some lunch before beginning the afternoon portion of his shift. At 12:01 pm, driving west on Canfield Drive, Wilson came across Brown and Johnson. “I observed two men in the middle of the street,” he said, describing them walking single file. He came towards them and stopped his car a few feet in front of them, letting them walk towards him. Later, when asked if the officer who stopped Brown and Johnson was aware of the robbery call, police chief Tom Jackson said, “I don’t know. I don’t know what came out in his interview–I know his initial contact was not related to the robbery. It was related to blocking the road.”
Wilson testified that he said to them, “Why don’t you guys walk on the sidewalk?” Johnson agrees with Wilson in that he and Brown were walking single file in the middle of the street on the double yellow line, but described the initial interaction a bit differently. Johnson said Wilson told them to “Get the fuck on the sidewalk,” antagonizing them immediately. “This is what I’m thinking in my mind–we are just walking down the street, we are not causing anybody harm,” he said. “It was more like a chastisement than you are breaking law or you are committing a crime.” He admitted what they were doing “could be considered crime jaywalking.” Johnson called out to Wilson–who also testified this happened–and said, “We’re almost to our destination,” pointing northeast.
This is where the details continue into obscurity. Wilson said Brown then told him, “Fuck what you have to say.” According to Johnson, Brown didn’t say anything. Wilson said he then noticed Brown holding cigarillos. “That’s when it clicked for me because I now saw the cigarillos, I looked in my mirror, I did a double-check that Johnson was wearing a black shirt, these are the two men from the stealing,” said Wilson, under oath. However, Wilson’s description was incorrect–nowhere in the Ferguson dispatcher’s audio transcripts is there a description of a robbery suspect wearing a black shirt. In his first recorded statement to a detective, Wilson also confirmed he called for backup before he recognized Brown and Johnson as robbery suspects. Yet in his grand jury testimony, he said he called for backup after he allegedly realized Brown had committed a crime.
“They kept walking, as I said, they never once stopped, never got on the sidewalk. They stayed in the middle of the road,” he recalled. At 12:02 pm, Wilson radioed the Ferguson dispatcher. “Put me on Canfield with two. And send me another car.” The call triggered two officers to head his way. He then backed up his vehicle and angled it in the road, blocking Brown and Johnson’s path and street traffic going both directions. Johnson said he sharply reversed, almost hitting them, then thrust open his door, hitting mostly Brown but also Johnson. According to Wilson, when he attempted to exit his vehicle, Brown came up to the driver’s side door, said, “What the fuck are you going to do about it?” and slammed it shut.
Witnesses have given conflicting testimonies about what happened in the car. Wilson and Johnson have both independently testified that Brown was at the window of the car, with Wilson holding on to his right arm–but they disagree about why. Johnson said Wilson pulled Brown into the car and began assaulting him, both of them angrily yelling and cussing at each other. “At the time I couldn’t open my mouth, I couldn’t speak,” Johnson said.
Wilson said Brown reached into the police car, began throwing punches, and reached for his firearm. “I felt that another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse … he’s obviously bigger than I was and stronger,” he said, telling them Brown had already punched him twice. “The third one could be fatal if he hit me right,” Wilson testified, describing that he held onto Brown’s right arm to prevent him from throwing another punch.
Johnson became more and more afraid. “I’m still standing there, more shocked than ever because I see it is escalating, I can see and hear the cuss words, I can see the frowns on their faces getting more intense,” he recalled. Of Wilson, he said, “He was the aggressor by initially just the way he reversed and opened his door and the grab, it was overaggressive. I felt like it wasn’t needed.”
At this point in the fight, Wilson told jurors he ran through a litany of potential options: mace, a baton, his flashlight. He doesn’t carry a taser. “It is not the most comfortable thing. They are very large, I don’t have a lot of room in the front for it to be positioned.” He said Brown then reached for his gun and shoved the barrel into his hip, telling him, “You’re too much of a pussy to shoot me.” Johnson disagreed. “In order for Big Mike to have touched the gun, it is almost like his whole top half of his body had to be inside the vehicle, and that never happened. His arm, yes, but like I said, the officer had it.” Brown’s blood was later found on the gun, and all over the car.
Somehow Wilson was able to remove the gun from his leg, and pulled the trigger. “My gun was already being presented as a deadly force option when he was hitting me in the face,” he said. Johnson heard Wilson say, “I’ll shoot!” and assumed he meant a taser. Gunshots were fired–according to forensics, two went off in the car. One struck Brown’s right hand, the only wound he sustained at close range, corroborated by skin tissue later found on the car and gunshot residue on his skin. Forensics photographed a bloody handprint on the back window of Wilson’s car, trees and apartment buildings reflecting in the glass. The glass in Wilson’s driver’s side window exploded. “I think that kind of startled him and me at the same time,” Wilson said. A piece of glass rose up, covered in Brown’s blood, and struck Wilson’s right hand.
Johnson was in shock. “I saw the gun and the barrel,” he said, describing how getting shot is the worst pain. “I felt so afraid that I couldn’t talk.” Brown, also stunned, moved back and began to run–Wilson saw a cloud of dust in his wake. Johnson, fearing for his life, ran and hid behind a car. “I couldn’t give them a full description of the officer because when you are in shock, I’m not at this time focused on the specific details on the officer so much as making sure that I’m not in the line of fire,” said Johnson. Brown ran past him, saw him hiding, and said, “Keep running, Bro.” Johnson stayed put, squatting behind a nearby car, which had passengers in it. Then he heard the unoiled creak of a door opening–the officer getting out of his car. Johnson begged the passengers to let him in their car.
Wilson radioed, “Shots fired, send me more cars,” to dispatch, but amidst the altercation, his radio had been jolted to the wrong channel. Brown ran up the street towards Copper Creek Court, near a neighboring parking lot and a street light post. Wilson pursued him, following with his weapon drawn. Johnson attests he saw Wilson fire a shot at Brown as he was running away–but Brown had no gunshot wounds in the back. “I don’t really know what was going on in his mind. I was so shocked by the whole interaction, because this escalated so quickly from a simple request to now, a fight for survival,” said Wilson.
Again, the details here are ambiguous: Wilson said Brown stopped when he got to the light post at Canfield and Copper Creek Court, and turned around. He yelled at him to get on the ground, and Brown didn’t comply. “He made like a grunting, like aggravated sound and he starts, he turns and he’s coming back towards me,” Wilson testified. Some witnesses said Brown turned around with his hands up, surrendering. Some supported Wilson’s story, saying Brown was hostile towards Wilson and charged at him. No witness was able to corroborate that Wilson told Brown to get on the ground. Wilson said Brown looked at him, his left hand twisted into a fist, as his right hand reached into the waistband of his pants, and then proceeded at a full charge towards him. According to Johnson, this never occurred.
Wilson aimed at Brown’s right hand and arm. “I know I hit him at least once because I saw his body kind of jerk,” said Wilson. “I remember having tunnel vision on his right hand, that’s all.” He has constantly stressed that training controlled his decisions, and that he did his job that day. “It looked like he was almost bulking up to run through the shots, like it was making him mad that I’m shooting at him,” said Wilson. “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.” Johnson said Brown turned around to say, “I don’t have a gun,” and put his hands up to surrender, but Wilson fired more shots before he could get the rest of the words out.
Wilson said Brown continued to come towards him, and he fired the fatal shot when Brown was about eight to ten feet away from him. “I looked down my barrel of my gun and I fired. What I saw was his head, and that’s where it went.” Brown’s face went blank. He pitched forward and landed on his face, hands at his sides. Wilson intermittently fired 12 rounds that day, and had never before fired his gun while on duty. “The aggression was gone,” Wilson said of Brown when he died. “It was gone.”
Brown’s red Cardinals hat and Nike flip flops had fallen off somewhere in the street when he ran away towards the light pole at Copper Creek. The last shot to the top of his head is believed to be the fatal one. Before it, Brown had already been shot at least five times, all of which he likely could have survived.
“I can see how many shots this officer is firing, it is sickening to my stomach,” said Johnson, as he watched what happened. “I’m almost bursting in tears right there. I threw up a little in my mouth, initially. I got in my head that he’s dead. When I see his body hit the ground, in my head I say he’s dead.” No weapons were recovered from Brown–he was unarmed.
Johnson realized Brown was dead and immediately took off running as fast as he could, inhaling huge gulps of air and throwing up on himself, before finally reaching his apartment nearby. “Send me a supervisor and every car you’ve got,” Wilson radioed.
Two officers who’d originally been assigned to the stealing call showed up and asked Wilson if he’d called for an ambulance; he said he hadn’t. They made the call and began cordoning off the area with bright yellow caution tape. “I hear yelling. I hear screaming,” Wilson remembered as he walked back to the police cruiser–a crowd had started to form outside. The bleeding body of the young man lay in the street outside of their homes, a street of apartment complexes and ranch houses. A white Ford truck pulled up next to Wilson–a woman got out and asked who was laying in the street. She recognized the body, screamed, and drove away.
Back at the Canfield Green apartments, Johnson’s girlfriend looked at him, speechless and covered in his own vomit, and asked what had happened. “I’m hyperventilating so much I can’t really tell her,” Johnson said. After a few minutes, he changed out of his shorts, put on a clean tank top, and went back. Maybe Brown wasn’t actually dead–just wounded. Upon arriving, Johnson saw a group of residents gathered, Brown still laying on the street in the same spot. Onlookers took photos and video footage with their phones.
Wilson’s sergeant arrived. Wilson told him, “I had to kill him … he went for my gun.” The sergeant told him to go sit in the car, and Wilson refused. He was then instructed to take his sergeant’s car and drive himself back to the station. Onlookers, including children, continued to gather, pouring out of their homes in large groups. An air of ubiquitous shock and fear soon reshaped into anger.
“Dead body,” said a man as he recorded the scene on his phone. “They killed him in broad daylight,” a woman said. “They shot that boy because they wanted to shoot that boy.” “Fucked up around here,” another man said. Shortly after 12 pm, a paramedic arrived. By this time, Brown’s blood had spilled out several feet onto the street in a thick rivulet. Onlookers shouted, “He dead!” at the paramedic. He leaned down next to Brown anyway, checked his pulse, and deemed him to have “injuries incompatible with life.”
Brown’s body remained outside for almost four hours. Ferguson resident Alexis Torregrossa, 21, told The St. Louis Post Dispatch, “They shot a black man, and they left his body in the street to let you all know this could be you. To set an example, that’s how I see it.”
Upon hearing his nephew could be in danger, Bernard Ewing, Brown’s uncle, rushed past the yellow police tape and knelt down next to the boy in the street, trying to get a glimpse of his face, which had been obstructed by bullet wounds. He was immediately apprehended by a cop and forced back. Imploring the officer for information, he shouted, “A cop did this?” Johnson also recalled Brown’s family pleading with the officers for answers. “He’s basically telling them get back, get back, and move away, move away. I’m just standing there … all they want to know is why their son is laying in the street uncovered.”
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, was alerted by neighborhood friends. “They wouldn’t even let me identify my son,” she said of the police on the scene. “The only way I knew it was my son is from people out here showing me his picture.” She then watched, helpless. “You don’t do a dog like that!” she screamed, as a woman held her back. “You didn’t have to shoot him 8 times! If he was doing something to you and you were trying to stop him, where should the police shoot you? In the leg! You just shot all through my baby’s body!”
By this time, bystanders were hollering at the police–the crowd was getting hostile. “Cover him up–there’s kids out here!” said Jenetra Spears, another neighbor. Eventually, an officer wearing a black uniform and rubber gloves walked over to Brown with a white sheet, blood trickling several feet from his head. He pulled the sheet taut in his hands a few times, fluffing it up against the wind, and gingerly laid it over him.
Officer Brian Schellman, a county police spokesman, said, “Until the medical examiner gets there to do their investigation, that body should not move. The crime scene is the crime scene one time. That’s it. One time. You get one shot to do this. Once that body is moved, you’ve tampered with evidence.” Investigators arrived on scene and called for a code 1000, requesting 25 extra units plus five supervisors–30 extra people. Gunshots went off at 2:11, and again at 2:14. Canine units and the St. Louis County SWAT team were dispatched.
“This was a police shooting. I knew he had no weapon on him. So therefore you figure in this situation, they’re trying to plant something on him, or trying to get their game plan together,” said Markese Mull, a neighbor of Brown who heard gunshots and ran out the door, without stopping to put on any shoes or socks. “So I think that’s why everybody stood out there.” Homicide detectives weren’t called until 40 minutes after the shooting. They arrived on the scene at 1:30, and it was another hour before an investigator from the Saint Louis County Medical Examiner’s office arrived.
Investigators marked off Brown’s belongings for evidence: the New Era Cardinals cap and Nike flip flops that had flown off, pools of his blood that had gathered in the street, the bloody handprint on the back of Wilson’s squad car. Angel Goree, another neighbor, said Brown’s blood was beet red when she first saw it outside, but had turned black by the time his body was taken away. They could still see it in the cracks on the ground when firemen came to hose down the road. “I had no knowledge of what was going on on the street,” Wilson said.
Driving back to the police station in his sergeant’s car, Wilson was in shock. He heard the microphone in the car going off with muffled commands, but nothing intelligible was coming out of his own radio. He saw that his microphone had been changed to a different channel–he realized he didn’t know what anyone had or hadn’t heard him say through the radio after the altercation with Brown in the car.
On the way back, he’d discovered blood on the inside of his left hand and the back of his right hand. “Thinking that I was cut with someone else’s blood on me, I had to wash my hands,” he said. “Just from everything we have always been taught about blood, you don’t want it on you, you don’t touch it, you don’t come in contact with it.”
Wilson went straight to the bathroom and washed the blood off his hands. He peed, examined his hands again, and saw that there was still blood in his cuticles, so he washed them again. At some point, he remembered calling his sergeant to let him know there was blood on the steering wheel. “I did call him and say, I don’t know who is going to drive your car later, but I had blood on my hands. You might want to tell them to wipe down the steering wheel or just be cautious of it,” said Wilson.
After washing his hands several times, Wilson went to the roll call room. Another officer, whom he’d befriended, sat at a computer entering warrants for the local municipal court. Looking at Wilson for a moment, he said, “What happened?” Wilson responded, “I just had to shoot somebody.” The officer had been reviewing the department’s CADament screen, which shows the status and location of each police car. All of them were on Canfield. The officer told Wilson, “I was really hoping you weren’t involved in that, you know, because any time every car is involved, you really don’t know what is going to happen, who is going to get hurt.”
Wilson then asked for a pair of gloves, unholstered his gun and dropped it in an evidence envelope. “I knew his DNA was on that gun,” Wilson said, speaking of Brown. “When I first took it out, without even looking at it, I knew he had fingerprints on it and possibly even sweat … When I took it out, I also saw blood on it.” This is highly unusual protocol. Under normal circumstances, Wilson would not have been responsible for preparing his own gun, which could have incriminating evidence against him. On the stand, he was asked if it was his job to prepare his own gun for forensic analysis. “I don’t really know,” he replied.
Wilson’s lieutenant, who was off that day, came in. “Has anybody told you what’s happening?” he asked Wilson. “St. Louis County is investigating,” the lieutenant said. The assistant chief showed up and made the determination that Wilson should go to the hospital. A detective from St Louis County arrived, said he would be investigating the case, and gave them the rundown of what to expect.
Before going to the hospital, Wilson changed out of his uniform shirt, vest, duty belt, and just wore his undershirt, pants, and boots. “I obviously can’t wear my gun, and I don’t want to be in uniform after all this without it,” he said. The assistant chief drove him to the hospital, where he was photographed, x-rayed, and prescribed painkillers for his face.
During his testimony, St. Louis County assistant district attorney Kathy Alizadeh asked Wilson, “Did you, I mean, for your own sake, did you write down in a diary what happened?” she said. “I guess a grown man would call it a journal … did you afterwards, you know, write this out for your own, you know, therapeutic needs?”
Wilson simply replied, “My statement has been written for my attorney.”
Wilson gave his first and only taped interview after the incident to George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. It was posted on November 25th, 2014, one day after a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson for killing Brown. “You know it’s a possibility, but you never think it’s going to happen. You never really think you’re going to have to use your gun,” said Wilson.
They both wore button-down shirts and microphones in a setting that looks like the well-decorated, nondescript living room of a house. The network reportedly paid Wilson upwards of $500,000 and engaged a bidding war with NBC to secure the interview. “There’s not a cop who goes out there like, ‘I’m going to use my gun today.’ No one wants to. No one ever wants to do that. It just happened. And it happened in a minute,” he said.
He is utterly convinced there’s nothing he could have done to spare Brown’s life. Stephanopoulos pressed him on this. “When you look back at that minute, that 90 seconds on August 9th, and you look back at everything you did and everything that happened–is there anything you could have done differently that would have prevented that killing from taking place?” Stephanopoulos asked.
“No,” Wilson replied.
He said Brown’s own compliance could have spared his life, if he’d gotten on the sidewalk with Johnson. “I probably never would have noticed the cigarillos. I would have gone and gotten lunch, continued my day, he would have continued his,” Wilson said, blinking as he spoke, his voice cracking. “The reason I have a clean conscience is because I know I did my job right.”
According to medical records from Christian Hospital in Florissant, MO, where Wilson was treated after the shooting, he says he was punched twice. This conflicts with his later grand jury testimony, where he mentions at least three times he was punched, if not more. According to medical records his skin had, “few faint superficial abrasion to posterior neck at hairline, no bleeding, no laceration, no ecchymosis” — no bruising. Wilson reasons that once Brown was hitting him in the face, that was enough to warrant the use of force, which is compliant with use of police force doctrine in Missouri.
During the grand jury proceedings, Wilson had to use a laser pointer on photographs of his face to locate his injuries, which were taken as evidence after the incident. He was asked to recite his height and weight: 6 foot 4, the same height as Brown, and 210-ish pounds, although Brown was almost 300 pounds. “It fluctuates between 205, 212, and 213. Something like that,” he said.
While Wilson may have done his job in the eyes of the law, he didn’t do everything he could have done to spare Brown’s life. His death was ruled a homicide by three separate autopsy reports, and he also sustained no gunshot wounds to his legs.
The day after Brown’s death, residents assembled and peacefully protested in large groups. They created a makeshift memorial for him on the spot where he was killed, where they left roses, cards, stuffed animals, notes, and prized possessions–something to ensure he would be remembered. “RIP Mike Brown,” and “Justice for Mike Brown,” were written everywhere. On the street, someone spray-painted “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” in black letters. “One of the chosen ones, Who would have known it was me?” said Brown wrote in a song called “Jennings Station Road.” He posted it on August 6th, 2014, three days before he was killed.
Beginning on the 10th, rioters and looters burned nearby businesses and smashed in their windows. A local beauty supply store on West Florissant near Ferguson Market was burned to the ground, its carcass still in rubble along the business strip. On a large fallen beam among the pile of loose bricks, someone spray-painted “Wake Up America.” Someone else attempted to cover the letters in orange paint, but they remain visible. A flier, haphazardly taped to a neighboring pole, advertises a $10,000 reward for information related to the arsonist.
Police came to Ferguson with military tanks, combat gear, and assault rifles, using tear gas, smoke bombs, and rubber bullets to threaten and disperse protesters. Hundreds of them were thrown in jail. Video footage documents police officers shouting obscenities at unarmed protesters and pointing assault weapons at them. On August 23rd, President Obama ordered an official review into state and local police use of military equipment.
A grand jury was selected to hear Wilson’s case and determine whether or not it would go to trial, where he could face criminal charges. On November 17th, 2014, Missouri Governor Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency in anticipation of the jury’s announcement. On November 24th, 2014, the jury did not return an indictment. Brown’s death exists in a pattern of hundreds of young black men killed by police who rarely face charges for the shootings. The Wall Street Journal reports police officers are convicted of crimes at a much lower rate than the general population, according to a study by a Washington D.C.-based think tank, The Cato Institute.
The night the grand jury decision was announced, some protesters organized and protested peacefully. They carried signs and shouted “Black lives matter!” Rioters burned and flipped St. Louis County police cars. Burning buildings spat flames into the cold November sky, caught on camera by news helicopters. The protests in Ferguson had an international impact–Amnesty International sent a team of organizers to observe the demonstrations and train locals on non-violent methods of resistance, the first time they’d ever sent a team of this nature to the United States.
A few weeks after the initial shooting incident, Wilson and his family went into hiding at an undisclosed location after receiving death threats. He’d heard people call him a murderer, a racist, a monster who shot an innocent, unarmed teenager. “It hurts,” Wilson told Stephanopoulos. “That’s not who I am at all. All these people making me out to be something that I’m not–all I wanted to do was live. That was it … It still doesn’t make sense to me why it all started and went down that way.”
After the grand jury announcement was released, Brown’s parents released a statement that said, in part, “We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequences of his actions.” Stephanopoulos asked Wilson to respond. “Those are grieving parents who are mourning the loss of their son … There’s nothing you can say that’s going to make a parent feel better,” he said, resolutely. “I did my job that day.”
He rarely, if ever, goes out, for fear of being recognized. For a while he had a beard, which made it easier to go to the store or see a movie, but he is now clean-shaven. Wilson’s lawyers have called him “a poster child for bad race relations.” He remembered watching the protests on TV. “I was like, what just happened? Why is this happening? That’s when we were like, this is something. We just don’t know what yet.”
On November 29th, 2014, Wilson resigned from the Ferguson police department with no severance. His lawyer, Jim Towey, stated he will never be a police officer again. “I do family things, I spend a lot of time at home, with the family, casual events,” he told Stephanopoulos. Now, he lives his life in hiding to keep himself and his family safe. In late October, Wilson and Barbara Spradling quietly married, and she is currently pregnant with their first child. “I would use the word stressful, but that’s an understatement,” he said. “You’re always looking, you’re always wondering if someone’s recognized you, if someone’s following you.”
Brown’s parents were appalled by Wilson’s retelling of the events. “It disgusts me,” said Brown’s father. “He has no sympathy for the family … it didn’t sound sincere to us. It sounded like something that just rolled off his lips.” Lesley McSpadden, Brown’s mother, simply said, “Lies.” In another taped interview, she said of Wilson, “I hope the lord have mercy on his soul.”
Ferguson police Chief Tom Jackson issued an official filmed apology to the Brown family and peaceful protesters. Sitting in front of a camera, he wore glasses and a light red collared shirt, nervously reading from a piece of paper that rippled in his hands. “Overnight I went from being a small-town police chief to being a part of a conversation about racism, equality, and the role of policing in that conversation,” he said. “I am truly sorry for the loss of your son. I’m also sorry that it took so long to remove Michael from the street. The time that it took involved very important work on the part of investigators who are trying to collect evidence and gain a true picture of what happened that day. But it was just too long, and I am truly sorry for that … they were simply trying to do their jobs.”
Brown and McSpadden are represented pro bono by Benjamin Crump, who was also heavily involved with the 2012 Trayvon Martin case in which an unarmed black teenager was killed by a member of the local neighborhood watch. The shooter was acquitted of all charges. “The whole system needs to be indicted,” said Crump, alongside Brown and McSpadden in an interview with Charlie Rose.
In New York City in July of 2014, 43-year-old Eric Garner was forced into a headlock and chokehold by a plainclothes officer, gasping, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe.” Chokeholds are prohibited by the NYPD, and Garner later died due to the resulting complications. The entire incident was filmed on a nearby camera phone. The ambiguity in the case of Michael Brown does not exist in the Eric Garner case, and yet a grand jury still chose not to indict the police officer in question.
Ferguson, Missouri is a resilient place.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Society’s punishments are small compared to the wounds we inflict on our soul when we look the other way,” before he was assassinated at the age of 39. Over five months have passed since Brown was killed, and it’s 16 degrees in the dead cold of winter on Canfield. It’s not a large or busy street. It’s quiet and residential, a smattering of apartment complexes and small one-story houses. Two signs caution, “Sidewalks and streets may be slippery,” and “Freeze alert!” Some cars drive by, and every now and then a resident walks down the street. Not a single reporter is in sight.
Puddles of water have frozen over into slabs of ice, at least an inch thick. Brown’s makeshift memorial is still standing, largely grounded by a cluster of stuffed animals and flower bouquets stacked in the middle of the street. The “Hands Up Don’t Shoot” slogan written in black spray paint has faded, but is still detectable.
Most cars drive by the memorial quickly–a white pickup truck, a shiny black BMW, a bright yellow taxi. A mid-sized dish network truck slows down, gingerly navigating around the large mass of stuffed animals: a brown teddy bear with a proud red bow tie, a stuffed lion, a spotted giraffe, a panda bear wearing a woven straw sunhat, a pink bear holding a heart embroidered with the word “Hug.”
Their coats have faded from their original bright, happy colors, having withstood wind, rain, sleet, snow, and passing mud-covered cars. The breeze rustles sheets of plastic wrapped around bouquets of flowers. In an orange cone, towards where Brown’s head lay on the concrete, someone has placed a bouquet of fake pink carnations, purple hydrangeas, and a single yellow tulip, their artificial colors undimmed.
Did you enjoy this article? Check out our short documentary film featuring the residents of Ferguson and Canfield Drive, posted this past August: http://stlcurator.com/ferguson
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