The indignation was instantaneous. Neighbors in Canfield Green poured from their apartments and stared at 18-year-old Michael Brown, unarmed, facedown in the street, shot dead by a Ferguson police officer.
Then, fueled by camera phones and social media, the outrage jumped out of this suburban apartment complex, crossed St. Louis County, traversed the country and, over the weeks, spread across the world.
The Rev. Al Sharpton, preaching at Brown’s funeral two weeks later, said the teen was left in the street “like nobody cared,” as if his life “didn’t matter.” A national magazine, too, zeroed in on the four hours Brown’s body lay on the ground. “Dictators leave bodies in the street,” the author wrote. “Warlords leave bodies in the street.” Not, “an advanced society.”
Politicians, pastors, police chiefs and picket lines all criticized the delay. The outrage continues more than a month later.
“They shot a black man, and they left his body in the street to let you all know this could be you,” Ferguson resident Alexis Torregrossa, 21, said almost four weeks after the shooting. “To set an example, that’s how I see it.”
To determine why the body remained on the street for hours, the Post-Dispatch analyzed public records, police testimony, medical examiner procedures and data from previous crime scenes, and interviewed medical examiner staff, police officials, Canfield Green residents and others. The newspaper has put together the most comprehensive public account chronicling the police response in the hours after Brown’s death.
As crowds gathered, investigators found a scene so volatile, so dangerous, it caught them by surprise.
Forensic professionals from across the country and local police officials contacted for this story acknowledge that sometimes bodies remain at a crime scene even longer than Brown’s did. But they agree that four hours is a long time on a public street, particularly at a scene when police have killed a man.
Now, five weeks later, some police officials say they have learned from the experience and wish they had moved more quickly to get Brown’s body off Canfield Drive and quash the flash point that fed the crowd’s anger.
“The other option would have been just to, you know, scoop up Michael Brown, take some photographs and get the hell out of there,” said Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson. “Future lesson learned. And I am not trying to in any way excuse or justify why this took so long. I’m just saying, ‘This is what happened.’”
A RIBBON OF BLOOD
Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson shot Brown in the moments after 12:02 p.m. Aug. 9.
It’s still unclear exactly why. Police say Brown scuffled with Wilson. Some witnesses have called Wilson the aggressor and said Brown was giving in, hands raised.
When the last of the six rounds hit Brown’s body, he pitched forward and landed facedown on the double yellow line in the middle of Canfield Drive, surrounded by long sidewalks, green grass and 14 multiunit apartment buildings.
The street sloped slightly. Brown’s blood, which otherwise might have pooled underneath him, ran in a wide ribbon several feet down the hill.
Two minutes earlier, Wilson had left a 911 call a half-mile away, on Glenark Drive, police and emergency logs show. He had accompanied an ambulance to the home, where a 2-month-old was having trouble breathing.
About 12:05 p.m., that same ambulance, infant in the back, came across Brown’s body in the road, said two ambulance administrators. The paramedic got out, walked into the crime scene, which was already roped off with yellow police tape, kneeled down, checked Brown’s radial pulse, then his carotid pulse, circled the body once, kneeled down again, and wiped his own brow.
When the paramedic determined Brown was dead, the care of his body legally transferred to the St. Louis County Medical Examiner. By law, police cannot touch the body. But since most medical examiners won’t set foot in the crime scene until it is processed by police, the fate of Brown’s body was back in police hands.
And for at least 10 minutes, videos taken by multiple residents show that his body lay uncovered.
The videos also show the crowd slowly building along the police tape.
About the same time, miles away, Chief Jackson was driving to visit his kids, who live about 50 minutes from Ferguson, Jackson said. The call from his sergeant came about 12:05 p.m., he said.
He said he called Jon Belmar, chief of the St. Louis County police, to take over the investigation. He turned his car around. He stopped at the side of the highway to change into his uniform, which he carries with him.
At this point, accounts don’t clearly line up. Jackson said he called Belmar immediately. Belmar said he got the call 23 minutes after the shooting and called his chief of detectives moments later, about 12:30 p.m.
St. Louis County detectives on duty that day weren’t close to Ferguson then. They were at St. Anthony’s Medical Center, near Sunset Hills, 30 miles south. Six hours earlier, a man with a gun had entered a hospice house there, taken a clerk into the building to find drugs and then disappeared. The hospital had been on lockdown for hours. County SWAT teams had sent at least 13 cars to the scene.
When a St. Louis County watch commander, one of the first county brass to arrive at Canfield, contacted dispatch to get help in Ferguson, the dispatcher said, “They’re all working on that call down in South County. Let me know if you need them, and we’ll try to raise them. It’ll be an ETA from South County, though.”
Brown’s mother, Lesley McSpadden, told NewsOne.com that police would not allow her to identify the body. “There were some girls down there had recorded the whole thing ... (one) showed me a picture on her phone. She said, ‘Isn’t that your son?’ I just bawled even harder. Just to see that, my son lying there lifeless, for no apparent reason.”
By 12:50 p.m., logs show, detectives were on their way. The first to arrive checked in at 1:30 p.m. Logs show the rest checked in about an hour later. County police did not make detectives available to explain the delay, but Belmar said detectives often are immediately drawn into the investigation and don’t check in until later.
All the while, chaos was building at Canfield.
‘KILL THE POLICE’
A St. Louis County first precinct dispatcher was initially bewildered by the requests for backup. “We just called Ferguson back again, and they don’t know anything about it,” she said at one point.
A Ferguson dispatcher first told the ambulance district someone had been Tased.
But at 12:10 p.m., county police began to flood the scene with cars: By 1 p.m., they had dispatched more than a dozen units, according to the county log. By 2 p.m., a dozen more, including two with police dogs.
And the scene was about to get much more turbulent.
At 2:11 p.m., Ferguson police logs captured reports of shots fired. At 2:14 p.m., ambulance dispatch noted additional gunshots, then a Code 1000, calling all available jurisdictions to help. Over the next 20 minutes, the first precinct dispatched more than 20 units from at least eight different municipal forces, from Bel-Ridge to St. John to Velda City.
At some point, Chief Jackson said he urged crime scene detectives to hurry up their work. “We’ve got to expedite,” Jackson said he told them. “They said, ‘OK, we’re expediting.’ But then we had a shooting over here, crowd’s coming in, and it’s really not secure there.”
About 2:30 p.m., Calvin Whitaker, the livery service driver, arrived to pick up Brown’s body. One end of Canfield was blocked off by police and emergency vehicles. At the other end, a crowd stood in his way. “They were screaming, ‘Let’s kill the police,’” he said. People flung water bottles at his black SUV, he said, cussed at his wife and called them murderers.
A police officer told them to stay in the car. “You guys do not have vests,” he told them. “The best thing for you to do is get down.” Whitaker and his wife reclined their seats and hunkered down.
Police dogs, newly arrived, pushed the crowd back some, Jackson said. But when the dogs stepped back, the crowd surged forward, he said, even angrier than before. Jackson began to circle the perimeter with Brown’s mother.
McSpadden pleaded with the crowd, Whitaker said. “‘All I want them to do is pick up my baby,’” he remembers her saying. “‘Please respect him. Please move back.’ She would get a crowd moved back, and then another group would move up.”
The scene was so tense, commanders in charge stopped the investigation at points and directed investigators to seek cover. Detectives also were pulled away to help manage the crowd.
At 2:45 p.m., four more canine units arrived. At 3:20 p.m., tactical operations officers — the county SWAT team — began pulling in.
Finally, about 4 p.m., police officers gave the medical examiner investigator, then Whitaker and his wife, the go-ahead to take Brown’s body to the morgue.
Whitaker moved behind the barriers that had eventually been put up around the body. Police stood shoulder to shoulder alongside Whitaker’s cot and lined the path to his vehicle holding up sheets to block the public’s view.
Whitaker, 42, said he has transported hundreds of bodies over the years under contract with the city of St. Louis and St. Louis County. “That is the worst situation I’ve ever been in,” he said.
He estimated it took him no more than 15 minutes to drive Brown’s body the five-mile trip to the morgue. Workers signed the body in at 4:37 p.m. and rolled the gurney into a cooler.
GETTING IT RIGHT
Experts say some of the delays could have been caused by inexperience. Computerized medical examiner reports in St. Louis County list only a handful of officer-involved fatal shootings where the victim died at the scene. They took place in the early morning on weekdays.
This shooting was on a Saturday, with a skeleton crew on duty and an earlier incident miles away that delayed detectives from getting to Ferguson.
Jackson and others said the scene was so chaotic that there were moments when they didn’t know if they were going to get out without getting hurt or hurting someone else.
Several medical examiners and coroner officials from across the country said every crime scene is different. Some take all day to process.
“Sometimes it’s a little disconcerting in an open scene for the family to see a body lying there,” said Dave R. Fowler, chief medical examiner in Baltimore. “But this is not ‘CSI.’”
The best way to serve the public and the victim’s family is to do your job properly, they all said, and get as close to the truth as possible.
There are absolutes in police work, Belmar said in an interview Friday. Protect the crime scene. Investigate thoroughly. “What would we have gained by taking pictures of Mr. Brown’s body and simply getting him out of there as fast as we could?” Belmar asked. “... It might have moved (the timeline) up an hour and a half.”
Or would that have left the grand jury — convening now on this case — without the benefit of a thorough crime scene investigation? “It really is a double-edged sword,” Belmar said.
But for many in Ferguson, none of that will matter. Regardless of the evidence, the experts, the gunshots and the crowds, a young man’s body left on the street for four hours just doesn’t make sense.
“You’ll never make anyone black believe that a white kid would have laid in the street for four hours,” said Mike Jones, an African-American and chief aide to St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley. “It defies any understanding of reality.”
And that anger won’t go away soon, several Canfield residents recently said.
Torregrossa can still see Brown’s feet and head sticking out from the white sheet, too small to cover his tall frame. “The image in my mind, him laying in the street, that baffles me,” Torregrossa said.
“That’s the only image I have of this young man, and I can’t shake it.”
Timeline: Four hours after the Michael Brown shooting
|12:02 p.m.||Ferguson police Officer Darren Wilson reports "disturbance in progress" in Canfield Green housing complex.|
|12:03 p.m.||Resident tweets: "I JUST SAW SOMEONE DIE OMFG"|
|about 12:05 p.m.||Ambulance on unrelated call comes upon scene. Paramedic checks Brown for pulse, decides injuries "incompatible with life," leaves body in street.|
|12:08 p.m.||Ferguson police call St. Louis County to report shooting.|
|about 12:10 p.m.||Firefighter covers body with sheet.|
|12:51 p.m.||St. Louis County homicide detectives dispatched.|
|1:02 p.m.||Crowd grows to hundreds. Police dispatch canine units.|
|2:12 p.m.||Shots fired on Canfield by unknown assailant.|
|2:14 p.m.||Chief Jackson calls Code 1000, summoning police from all available jurisdictions.|
|2:18 p.m.||Crime scene unit arrives on scene.|
|2:30 p.m.||Driver arrives to take body to morgue. "Let's kill the police," he hears. Medical examiner's investigator also arrives; police say he can't work until crowd calms down.|
|2:36 p.m.||Resident tweets again: "Homie still on the ground tho".|
|2:45 p.m.||Tactical operations (SWAT) dispatched for crowd control.|
|3:07 p.m.||Crime Scene Unit takes its first photos of the scene.|
|about 4 p.m.||Brown's mother pleads with crowd, saying: "Please move back. All I want them to do is pick up my baby."|
|about 4:15 p.m.||Driver loads Brown's body for five-mile trip to morgue.|
|4:37 p.m.||Body checked into morgue.|