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A Youth, an Officer and 2 Paths to a Fatal Encounter

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FERGUSON, Mo. — Michael Brown let his 16th birthday come and go without bothering to apply for a driver’s license. There was no need, his family said. He preferred to walk.

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In Ferguson, where Mr. Brown was living with his grandmother, he walked nearly everywhere: on Canfield Drive, where his grandmother kept a small apartment, and several blocks away on the bustling commercial strip of West Florissant Avenue, a four-lane road full of hair salons and cheap restaurants that is the de facto downtown of the neighborhood.

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It was during one of Mr. Brown’s walks down Canfield Drive one week ago when he would have an unlikely collision. It involved Mr. Brown, a black teenager who seemed to have avoided most of the traps that dragged down many of his peers, and a white police officer, Darren Wilson, with an admirable record. When it was over, Mr. Brown was dead and Officer Wilson was facing an uncertain legal and professional future.

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Chief Thomas Jackson of the Ferguson Police Department, at a hastily called news conference on Friday morning, revealed Officer Wilson’s name for the first time. He has been a police officer for six years, but Chief Jackson offered scant information about his life and work.

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Flowers, candles and other remembrances were left near the site where Michael Brown was fatally shot by a police officer.

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CreditWhitney Curtis for The New York Times

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Officer Wilson, 28, who has roots in Texas, has worked for four years in Ferguson, an inner-ring suburb that has the feel of a place in transition: One business strip has been spruced up with a historic Main Street feel, with cheerful painted signs, a wine bar and a frame shop. The neighborhood where Mr. Brown died is a less appealing pocket of town: a two-bedroom apartment in his grandmother’s building goes for about $550 a month.

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Before that, he worked in the police department in Jennings, a neighboring suburb.

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He lives a half-hour drive away, in the town of Crestwood, southwest of St. Louis, interviews and property records show. About six months ago, neighbors said, Officer Wilson moved into a new house, a fixed-up ranch with a small pool in the back and a wicker love seat on the porch. The mailbox rises from a tub of flowers, and letters on red, white and blue stars hung from the door spell out “Welcome.”

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Records indicate that he was divorced last year and now lives there with Barbara Spradling, also a police officer, who has received an award for valor. The two rarely mixed with neighbors or struck up casual conversation, neighbors said.

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Two middle-aged women sat across the street from Officer Wilson’s home on Friday; one, who gave her name only as Kathy, was visiting her 93-year-old grandmother who bought the house when it was built in 1958.

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“All of the neighbors will tell the same story,” she said. “People would just see him and wave, and that’s it.”

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Officer Wilson’s professional record suggests someone who has avoided trouble. There has been no disciplinary action taken against him, Chief Jackson said Friday.

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“I’ve known the officer for years and have every confidence in him,” Chief Jackson said.

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Officer Wilson received a commendation for “extraordinary effort in the line of duty” in February. Greg Kloeppel, a lawyer for the union representing Ferguson police officers, confirmed the commendation that Officer Wilson received, but he declined to provide information about what kind of person the officer is or any details about his life.

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One neighbor said he knew Officer Wilson was on the Ferguson police force, and figured out that he might be linked to the shooting of Mr. Brown when police cars, marked and unmarked, started showing up in the neighborhood several days ago. Then on Tuesday, Officer Wilson began mowing his lawn, but “he did not finish,” said the neighbor, who wore a faded Cardinals T-shirt and camouflage shorts. “It appears they left in a hurry.”

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Since then, people have come to take the couple’s mail in and picked up their dogs, but the two have not been seen.

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“I don’t expect them to return,” the neighbor said.

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Ron Gorski, who lives on the block and was walking his English bulldog, Darla, told reporters that he did not know Officer Wilson, but that his 15-year-old grandson and his friends were allowed to swim in the officer’s pool. “When he finds out all this happened, he’ll be shocked,” Mr. Gorski said.

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He said Mr. Wilson cleared out days ago, but “we knew something was going on because police were going up and down the block for a few days now.”

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Twenty miles away, in Ferguson, the Brown family said it was no closer to understanding the circumstances that led an unarmed 18-year-old to be shot to death by a police officer in the middle of the day.

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They were outraged that the Ferguson police on Friday released surveillance video and photos of Mr. Brown apparently stealing cigarillos from a convenience store on West Florissant and shoving a clerk as he walked out.

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“Whatever happened in the store is irrelevant,” said Benjamin L. Crump, a lawyer for the family.

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He added, “They are not trying to solve the murder, they are trying to justify it.”

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The family insisted that Mr. Brown had no history of violence or aggression. He had no adult arrest record, according to the police, who said they could not speak to whether he had been arrested as a juvenile.

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Administrators at the chaotic public high school he attended, one of the worst in the state, said he was quiet, shy and a little awkward, hardly one of the “trouble kids,” of which there were plenty.

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“You’d sit in a house with him, watching TV and hanging out, and you’d forget he was there,” said Tim Sneed, 23, a close friend and neighbor. “He had not one enemy. I’ve never heard of him getting in one fight.”

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Mr. Brown was still a teenager: He smoked marijuana with friends in the neighborhood, they recalled, and drank cans of Bud Light with them when he ducked away from the watchful eyes of his family.

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Finishing high school was an effort that required the push of his parents and extended family, who scolded him on the days that he slept late and missed morning classes.

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But he was determined to avoid many of the missteps frequently taken by his peers. “He wasn’t like all these cats out here, selling drugs and having babies with different women,” Kathy Gary, 22, a relative, said earlier this week. “We tried so hard to keep him in school. Sometimes he’d skip classes, and he needed a push. But he wanted to do something.”

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Last Saturday, the day Mr. Brown died, dawned sunny and warm, around 80 degrees, a typically hot August day in Missouri. With a friend, Dorian Johnson, Mr. Brown set out to West Florissant, wearing a white T-shirt, khaki shorts and a red Cardinals cap.

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About 10 minutes before noon, they entered Ferguson Market and Liquor, a run-down store with shelves lined with potato chips, Boone’s Farm wine and tequila.

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Mr. Brown, who was 6-foot-4, had an intimidating appearance — his friends nicknamed him Bodyguard because he was so tall.

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According to the surveillance video, Mr. Brown approached the counter, leaned over and grabbed a handful of Swisher Sweets, then turned for the door. He pushed a clerk who tried to stop him, then left the store.

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At 11:51 a.m., the police said, someone called 911 to report a robbery.

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After leaving Ferguson Market, Mr. Brown and Mr. Johnson walked north on West Florissant, passing a McDonald’s, a hair-braiding shop and a Chinese restaurant. They turned right at the corner of Canfield Drive, where a fence at the corner bears a sign: “We are watching to report suspicious activities or persons to Ferguson Police Dept.”

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Several blocks later, at 12:01 p.m., they were confronted by Officer Wilson while they continued down Canfield, a quiet street that curves gently as it weaves through apartment buildings and one-story brick houses.

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They were stopped not because the police were looking for a robbery suspect, Chief Jackson said Friday, but “because they were walking down the street blocking traffic.”

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Devin Stone, 28, a friend of Mr. Brown’s, was home in his apartment at the time, across the street from the place where the men were confronted by the police.

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Sitting outside his building, Mr. Stone said he was jolted by the sound of two gunshots, followed by several more in rapid succession. The second series of shots “sounded automatic,” he said. “They let it rip.”

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Mr. Stone ran outside and saw two police officers, both white men, standing near Mr. Brown, who was lying on his stomach, his arms at his sides, blood seeping from his head. Another neighbor, a woman who identified herself as a nurse, was begging the officers to let her perform CPR.

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They refused, Mr. Stone said, adding, “They didn’t even check to see if he was breathing.”

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On Friday, speaking to reporters, Chief Jackson said the shooting was “absolutely devastating” to Officer Wilson. “He never intended for any of this to happen.”

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Julie Bosman and John Schwartz reported from Ferguson, and Serge F. Kovaleski from New York. Tanzina Vega contributed reporting from Ferguson. Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.

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A version of this article appears in print on August 16, 2014, on page A13 of the New York edition with the headline: A Youth, an Officer and 2 Paths to a Fatal Encounter.

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DMU Timestamp: August 12, 2014 17:47

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