In Ferguson, mundane choices lead to tragedy

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Posted: Nov 28, 2014 10:25 AM
In Ferguson, mundane choices lead to tragedy

Michael Brown spent part of his last morning chatting with some workmen about Jesus. Police officer Darren Wilson got a call to help a feverish child. Dorian Johnson got up at 7 a.m. with the intention of getting breakfast for his girlfriend.

It was a mundane start to a Saturday, but by noon, all three had made a series of wrong turns that led to Brown's death in a burst of gunfire.

There are still parts of their story the public may never understand. People looking for clear answers won't find them in the thousands of pages of testimony, interviews and other records released by prosecutors after a grand jury decided not to indict Wilson in Brown's death.

But the trove of documents offers the most complete picture yet of the key moments where things went so wrong.

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Brown, 18, and Johnson, 22, had only known each other a few months when they bumped into each other in a parking lot outside their Ferguson, Missouri, apartment building, but they had awoken Aug. 9 with the same bad idea: Let's get high. All they needed were cigarillos to make a blunt.

"When I told him I was going to get cigarillos, he was like, 'I need one, too. Let's walk to the store,'" Johnson recalled in testimony.

It took them awhile to get moving. Brown — who'd recently taken to rapping about God — stopped to speak with a landscaper who had been cursing about a chain saw that wouldn't start.

"He told me that the Lord Jesus Christ would help me with my anger problem," the worker later told the grand jury.

It got to be late morning before Brown and Johnson started toward the market, about a half-mile away. Johnson said they talked about their lives as they walked.

"He was telling me he was going off to college," Johnson recalled.

Not far away, Wilson, 28, was partway through his 12-hour shift.

During his five years as a police officer, he had never fired his weapon at another person. He had shot someone once with a Taser, but he almost never carried one. It was too bulky, he told the grand jury.

A dispatcher relayed a call for help with a sick 2-month-old baby.

"I'll be en route," Wilson responded. It was 11:47 a.m.

Minutes later, Brown and Johnson walked into Ferguson Market & Liquor.

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Johnson told the grand jury that, at first, he thought he was being pranked when Brown leaned over the counter and grabbed a handful of cigarillos without paying. The clerk intercepted Brown as he headed for the door. Brown, who weighed 289 pounds, shoved him away.

"It shocked me a lot," Johnson said. "So I was asking him, I was like, you know, 'Hey, I don't do stuff like that. What's going on?'"

Brown told him to relax, Johnson said.

"But in my head I'm like, I can't be calm. I can't be cool. Because I know what just happened, and we were on camera," Johnson said.

A Ferguson police dispatcher radioed officers at 11:53 a.m. that a theft was in progress, saying "He took a whole box of Swisher cigars."

Johnson testified that Brown held the stolen cigarillos in plain view in his hands as the two walked in the center of the street.

Wilson finished his call to assist the sick baby. He radioed to fellow officers: "Do you guys need me?" He got no reply. But as he drove down Canfield, he spotted the two men and pulled alongside.

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"I told 'em, 'Hey guys, why don't you walk on the sidewalk,'" Wilson told an investigator the day after the shooting.

Johnson said it was a ruder exchange: "Get the f--- on the sidewalk!"

Wilson said he started to pull away, but shifted into reverse when Brown cursed at him. He also radioed for help.

Wilson told the grand jury he said, "Hey, come here," to Brown, and tried to open his door. The officer said Brown shoved it closed. The two men began grappling through the window.

Watching from a few feet away, Johnson said he felt paralyzed.

"At the time I couldn't open my mouth, I couldn't speak. I wanted to say, 'could someone calm down,'" he said.

Wilson said Brown punched him in the face.

"I felt that another one of those punches in my face could knock me out or worse," the officer testified.

The officer drew his gun and threatened to shoot. He said Brown grabbed the firearm.

Wilson squeezed off two shots. One struck Brown's hand.

Brown bolted.

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Witnesses offered divergent accounts as to what happened next. Some said the officer chased Brown, firing his gun as he ran. Others said the officer held his fire and yelled at Brown to stop. By all accounts, the chase was brief. Brown stopped and turned to face the officer.

According to Wilson, Brown charged, paused briefly when he was hit by the officer's fire, then kept coming. That account was backed up by some witnesses.

"He has his arms bent towards his chest and he's running like, you know, almost like a tackle running," said one witness. "The officer was backing up as he kept coming closer to him and he didn't stop."

But other bystanders said Brown simply took a wobbly step or two toward the policeman, and never posed any real threat.

When Brown turned "he had the weirdest look on his face and he started coming forward. Not like he was going to attack him. It's like he's coming to him like to (plead) with him to stop," said another witness. "The officer did say 'stop, stop, stop.' Well after that third time, he let loose. He kept firing. Until he hit the ground."

By the time Brown went down, twelve discharged cartridge cases lay scattered.

Arriving on the scene a few minutes after the shooting, a police sergeant testified that he found Wilson sitting behind the wheel of the Tahoe, staring at the dashboard.

"I had to shoot him," Wilson told him.

Ordinarily, the sergeant said, Wilson would have been instructed to wait at the scene until he could be interviewed. But as a crowd massed, the sergeant told him to go to the station.

Wilson said he went into the bathroom, washed Brown's blood off of both his hands and sealed his gun in an evidence envelope.

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Associated Press writers Catherine Lucey, Garance Burke, Michael Kunzelman, David A. Lieb, Nomaan Merchant, Paul J. Weber, Holbrook Mohr, Jeff Donn and Phillip Lucas contributed to this report. Adam Geller can be reached at features@ap.org. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/AdGeller