The Fort Worth-born police officer who fatally shot an unarmed black 18-year-old and ignited racial upheaval in a St. Louis suburb has been characterized as either an aggressor whose deadly gunfire constituted a daylight execution or a law enforcer wrongly maligned for just doing his job.
An incomplete picture of Ferguson officer Darren Wilson has emerged since Aug. 9, when authorities say the white six-year police veteran killed Michael Brown during a confrontation in the predominantly black city where all but three of the 53 police officers are white.
Although Wilson has dropped out of sight, snippets of his life and family background have emerged. His parents were married only four years before divorcing in 1989 in Texas.
When Wilson was born on May 14, 1986, at All Saints Episcopal Hospital in Fort Worth, his parents lived in Azle. Tonya Wilson was a 19-year-old receptionist at the Metro YMCA and John Wilson, 32, was a teacher and coach in a public school.
The Wilsons divorced in 1989; his mother married Tyler Harris and moved to the St. Louis area. They had a son, Jared, in 1991. In the late 1990s, they moved into a four-bedroom, two bath house in St. Peters. The Harrises divorced in 1998, and Tonya Harris later married Daniel Robert Durso.
In February 1998, Tonya Harris was charged in St. Charles County with three counts of stealing by deceit for cashing bogus checks at Truman Bank. In May 2000, she was charged with stealing and forgery for taking another woman’s credit card and passing a forged check for $9,000. She pleaded guilty to both cases and was sentenced to five years’ probation in 2001.
The Dursos struggled financially, filing for bankruptcy in June 2002. On Nov. 18 of that year, Tonya Durso died of blockages in arteries in her lungs.
In October 2003, court records show, Tyler Harris filed for limited guardianship of Darren Wilson, so he could register for school and obtain medical insurance. Wilson wanted to finish his senior year at St. Charles West High School. His father signed off on the guardianship, which was canceled when Wilson turned 18.
He graduated from St. Charles West High School in 2004 where he is listed on several pages of the yearbook. The first page shows him with a mop of hair, more like a surfer or rock star than the crew-cut police officer depicted in a recent photo. He was on the yearbook staff and played varsity hockey.
Wilson married Ashley Brown on Oct. 15, 2011. They bought a house in Troy, in Lincoln County, in June 2012, but sold it a year later, two months after Darren Wilson filed for divorce, and four months after the couple separated. The divorce was finalized on Nov. 18, 2013.
He bought a home in October 2013 in Crestwood, which he now shares with his girlfriend, Ferguson police officer Barbara Spradling.
The 28-year-old officer has gone underground since the shooting, with relatives contacted by media organizations refusing to reveal his whereabouts or discuss the shooting or Wilson’s background.
He’s taken a different path than central figures of almost every other major national crime story from the past decade. In those cases, clues could be found on Facebook, Twitter and other social media, or they were described by friends and loved ones.
Additionally, authorities have released essential details in other major crimes. That has not happened in Ferguson.
“I can’t remember any time in the last 10 years, at least, where somebody’s completely gone into hiding, for fear of his life,” said Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management in Los Angeles. “Frankly, if I’d been advising his family, the first thing I would have said was hide. In the near term, saving his life is more important than anything else.”
A friend speaks
A few friends have stepped forward. Kevin Gregory, 22, a friend of Wilson for nine years and an aspiring police officer, said he rode along with Wilson on a relatively slow Tuesday night in March and came away impressed with Wilson as a dedicated officer who loved helping people.
“There isn’t even the slightest doubt in my mind: I’m 100 percent sure he feared for his life,” Gregory said. “He reacted just like you’re trained to be as a police officer. You fire at center mass. The largest part of the body of the threat. You’re not trained to fire a few times; you’re trained to fire until the threat is over, and that’s how you get home safely to your family.”
Gregory said there was one condition of the ride-along: He had to wear a bulletproof vest.
Wilson “explained, ‘You’ll see some stuff you probably haven’t seen in other places,’ ” Gregory recalled.
He said they responded that night to help ambulance workers with an intoxicated woman of about 40 who was cursing and demanding to be taken to a hospital. He said Wilson told her several times to calm down, explaining he couldn’t let her in the ambulance if it would be dangerous for the paramedics.
“It was more warnings than I think I would give,” Gregory said. “But he made the determination that no way he could let her get on.” He suggested the family take her in their car; the woman’s mother and a sibling took her inside.
An online fundraising drive on Wilson’s behalf as of Thursday had drawn more than $77,000 in donations for the tall, slender and blond-haired cop. And a longtime friend – former high school classmate and hockey buddy Jake Shepard – publicly has come to Wilson’s defense, insisting in interviews that the shy Wilson would never maliciously take a life and fears possible retribution.
‘Kind of struggling’
Having talked to Wilson since the shooting, Shepard said, “I think he’s kind of struggling a little bit, but I think he’s doing OK.”
“He didn’t really want to talk much about it,” Shepard, also 28, said of Brown’s death. “But I can tell you for sure it was not racially motivated. He’s not the type of person to harbor any hate for anybody. He was always nice, respectable and well-mannered, a gentleman. He doesn’t have anything bad to say about anybody, ever. He’s very genuine.”
Similar depictions of Wilson, who has been on paid administrative leave since Brown’s death, have come from his boss, Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson.
During a Ferguson City Council meeting in February, Wilson got special recognition from Jackson for what the chief said then was his role in responding to a report of a suspicious vehicle, then struggling with the driver and detaining him for arrest until help arrived. Jackson said the suspect was preparing a large quantity of marijuana for sale. His proclamation in hand, according a video of the meeting obtained Tuesday by the AP, Wilson returned to his seat with a broad grin.
“He was a gentle, quiet man,” Jackson told reporters last Friday while publicly identifying Wilson, a four-year veteran of the department after spending two years policing in nearby Jennings, as the officer who shot Brown, noting that Wilson has no prior disciplinary record. Calling Wilson “distinguished” and “a gentleman,” Jackson added that “he is, he has been, an excellent officer.”
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report, which includes material from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and The Associated Press.