Thank you MONICA DAVEY and FRANCES ROBLES
As a teenager, Darren Wilson lived in St. Peters, Mo., a mostly white city of 54,000 about 20 miles west of Ferguson, where his environment was chaotic. He was the eldest of three children of Tonya Dee Durso, who, records show, carried out financial crimes, including against Sandra Lee Finney, who lived across the street and had believed they were friends.
“It’s a terrible thing that has happened now, but he did have a troubled childhood,” Ms. Finney said in an interview, adding that Officer Wilson’s family had somewhat awkwardly stayed in the neighborhood — moving just one door down — even after his mother was convicted of stealing and forgery in 2001.
After her bank informed her that it was freezing her accounts, Ms. Finney said she learned that numerous credit cards had been opened in her name, her mail was being stolen, her phones were secretly forwarded across the street, and the thief had managed to obtain her driver’s license and a copy of the key to her front door. Among the purchases: tens of thousands of dollars of candles; home decorations; furniture; clothes, including some from American Eagle Outfitters, which Ms. Finney says was Officer Wilson’s favorite store at the time; and hockey gear.
“All the while, she’d come over and sit at my kitchen table to chat and say how she would help me with this terrible thing that was happening to us,” Ms. Finney said of Ms. Durso, whom she described as a thin, blonde woman who seemed upper-middle class. “What hurt me more than all of it was what she did to those kids.”
Ms. Durso pleaded guilty and was sentenced to probation. Not long after, in 2002, when Officer Wilson was a sophomore in high school, Ms. Durso died at age 35 and one of his stepfathers was granted guardianship until he finished high school. An obituary cited natural causes.
Years later, Ms. Finney said she was stunned when she saw her former neighbor appear outside the old house in a police uniform. “My husband and I thought, ‘How did he get to be a police officer?’ ”
After attending the police academy, Officer Wilson began work in Jennings, another suburb, in June 2009. Robert Orr, the former chief of the Jennings Police Department, said he had no recollection of Officer Wilson and had to call the mayor last week to jog his memory. “Sure enough, the mayor said he was one of ours,” Mr. Orr said. “That must mean he never got in any trouble, because that’s when they usually came to me.”
Yet Officer Wilson’s formative experiences in policing came in a department that wrestled historically with issues of racial tension, mismanagement and turmoil. During Officer Wilson’s brief tenure, another officer was fired for a wrongful shooting, and a lieutenant was accused of stealing federal funds. In 2011, in the wake of federal and state investigations into the misuse of grant money, the department closed, and the city entered into a contract to be policed by the county. The department was found to have used grant money to pay overtime for D.W.I. checkpoints that never took place.
When the department folded, the county hired 12 of the roughly 40 officers who worked in Jennings. Mr. Wilson was not among them. Instead, in October 2011, he went to Ferguson, where he now makes $45,302 a year.
There, Chief Thomas Jackson has reported no disciplinary actions against him. “He was a gentle, quiet man,” the chief said. “He was a distinguished officer.”
Yet on the streets of Ferguson, some residents say they question the very environment that Officer Wilson was functioning in, and they argue that inappropriate stops have become pervasive. Data on municipal courts across Missouri in 2013 — gathered by a nonprofit group, ArchCity Defenders, as well as The New York Times — show that relative to the size of the city, Ferguson had the highest rate of warrants issued in the state among cities larger than 5,000 people, as well as some of the highest rates of fines collected and non-traffic violation cases filed.
Feb. 28, 2013, Officer Darren Wilson answered a police call of a suspicious vehicle where, the police said, the occupants might have been making a drug transaction. After a struggle, Officer Wilson subdued the suspect and grabbed his car keys before help arrived, the police said.
A large amount of marijuana was found in the car, the police said, and the 28-year-old suspect now faces seven charges, including possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute and resisting arrest. The incident won Officer Wilson a commendation, presented by the police chief this year as Officer Wilson stood, hands clasped before him, and city officials looked on.
It was, until this month, the work for which Officer Wilson was best known in his five years with the police. But two weeks ago, Officer Wilson gained far wider attention when he fatally shot an unarmed black teenager named Michael Brown, setting off many nights of unrest in Ferguson and reopening a national debate over issues of race and policing.
Darren Wilson as a sophomore in the 2002 St. Charles West High School yearbook. “I’m a little shocked,” said Doris Stewart, the aunt of the man arrested in the vehicle, after learning for the first time her nephew’s arrest had resulted in an award for the same officer who had fatally shot Mr. Brown. “I’m also a little relieved Christopher Brooks wasn’t badly injured,” who, like Mr. Brown, is black.
In the case involving Mr. Brooks, for which Officer Wilson won a commendation, Mr. Brooks’s family questioned what probable cause had led to the arrest, and said there were similarities to Michael Brown’s circumstances. Mr. Brooks was just sitting in a car in his grandmother’s driveway when Officer Wilson confronted him according to relatives.
A spokesman for the city declined to comment on the case. In the formal presentation of the commendation this year, Chief Jackson read, as Officer Wilson stood before him: “In recognition of outstanding police work while investigating a suspicious vehicle call, acting alone you struggled with one subject and was able to gain control of the subject and his car keys until assistance arrived.”
Family members who were present during the arrest declined to comment or did not return calls. Mr. Brooks himself responded by text message: “I would love to but I gotta talk to my lawyer.”
Family members who had heard descriptions from others said that Mr. Brooks had refused the officer’s order to get out of his car. Then, when he was finally out of the vehicle, Georgia Austin, his grandmother, said, Mr. Brooks locked the car and refused to open it for Officer Wilson. “His mama said that’s when the cop arrested him,” Ms. Austin said.
Ms. Stewart, Mr. Brooks’s aunt, said he had been hurt while being handcuffed. As a large person, he had been unable to place his hands comfortably behind his body.
In the end, Ms. Austin, 73, said, she was upset both with the officer and with her grandson. She said he had denied having drugs, but she was not sure whom to believe.