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Michael Brown Spent Last Weeks Grappling With Problems and Promise

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FERGUSON, Mo. — It was 1 a.m. and Michael Brown Jr. called his father, his voice trembling. He had seen something overpowering. In the thick gray clouds that lingered from a passing storm this past June, he made out an angel. And he saw Satan chasing the angel and the angel running into the face of God. Mr. Brown was a prankster, so his father and stepmother chuckled at first.

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“No, no, Dad! No!” the elder Mr. Brown remembered his son protesting. “I’m serious.”

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And the black teenager from this suburb of St. Louis, who had just graduated from high school, sent his father and stepmother a picture of the sky from his cellphone. “Now I believe,” he told them.

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In the weeks afterward, until his shooting death by Darren Wilson, a white police officer, on Aug. 9, they detected a change in him as he spoke seriously about religion and the Bible. He was grappling with life’s mysteries.

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Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor.

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Brandon Lewis, right, says Michael Brown used his size to avoid confrontations.

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At the same time, he regularly flashed a broad smile that endeared those around him. He overcame early struggles in school to graduate on time. He was pointed toward a trade college and a career and, his parents hoped, toward a successful life.

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But then came the fatal encounter with Officer Wilson. Shortly after the confrontation in the convenience store, Mr. Brown and a friend were walking down the middle of a nearby street when Officer Wilson told them to get on the sidewalk. The police say Mr. Brown hit the officer and scuffled with him over his weapon, leading to his being shot.

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Mr. Brown’s friend said he swung after the officer grabbed his neck and was shot after running away, hitting the ground with his hands raised in surrender. He was hit at least six times, twice in the head. His 6-foot-4 frame lay face down in the middle of the warm pavement for hours, a stream of blood flowing down the street.

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Mr. Brown was born in May 1996 in the nearby town of Florissant. He was the first child of teenage parents, Michael Brown Sr. and Lesley McSpadden. Growing up, he lived under one roof with his parents, paternal grandparents and, later, a younger sister.

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As a boy, Michael was a handful. When his parents put up a security gate, he would try to climb it. When they left out pens and pencils, he would use them to write on the wall. He used to tap on the ground, so his parents got him a drum set; his father played the drums. He grew into a reserved young man around people he did not know, but joking and outgoing with those close to him.

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After his parents split up, he stayed with his mother though he remained close to all of his family, who lived near one another in north St. Louis County.

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In the ninth grade at McCluer High School in Florissant, Mr. Brown was accused of stealing an iPod. His mother said she went to the school, eventually showing a receipt to prove the iPod was his. He left McCluer and went to two other high schools before going to Normandy for most of his final two years.

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When his mother moved out of the Normandy District, he moved in with his paternal grandmother so he could remain at that school. But he continued to alternate between his parents and maternal grandmother.

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He did not have a criminal record as an adult, and his family said he never got in trouble with the law as a juvenile, either.

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Lesley McSpadden, Mr. Brown’s mother, says she relied on family and friends, including a retired juvenile officer, to help mentor her son.

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CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times

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“You may see him on a picture with some friends that may have been in a gang,” Ms. McSpadden said. “He wasn’t in a gang. He just knew how to adapt to his surroundings. Michael was so cool that he could just get along with anybody.”

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Mr. Brown showed a rebellious streak. One time, his mother gave him her A.T.M. card so he could buy shoes, said Mr. Brown’s friend Brandon Lewis. Mr. Brown bought himself a PlayStation console. His mother made him give the system to his brother.

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There were times when her son would talk back, Ms. McSpadden said. She relied on family and friends, including a retired juvenile officer, to help mentor her son.

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Mr. Brown occasionally hinted at frustration with his family. Last August, he posted a message on Facebook that it was wrong “how yo own family dont wanna see you do good.” And just a week before he was shot dead, he commented that some of his friends treated him better than “my own family.”

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Still, some of Mr. Brown’s closest confidants were family members. Mr. Brown’s uncle Bernard Ewings remembers talking to his nephew about how to interact with police officers.

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“I let him know like, if the police ever get on you, I don’t care what you doing, give it up,” Mr. Ewings said. “Because if you do one wrong move, they’ll shoot you. They’ll kill you.”

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Mr. Lewis said he recalled Mr. Brown getting into one fight. A contemporary they knew from the neighborhood was upset with Mr. Brown because of something Mr. Brown had said to the young man’s girlfriend. So one day the fellow, who was much smaller than Mr. Brown, took a swing at him. Mr. Brown backed up and pushed him back in the face.

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“I don’t think Mike ever threw a real punch,” said Mr. Lewis, 19.

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The young man’s father confronted Mr. Brown, Mr. Lewis recalled, asking him why he put his hands on his son. Mr. Brown’s father got involved, Mr. Lewis said, and they settled the dispute and went their separate ways. Mr. Brown rarely got into physical confrontations, Mr. Lewis said, because he was so big that nobody really wanted to test him. Mr. Brown tended to use his size to scare away potential trouble, Mr. Lewis said.

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Mr. Lewis, 19, a longtime friend of Mr. Brown’s.

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CreditRichard Perry/The New York Times

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“He’ll swell up like, ‘I’m mad,’ and you’ll back off,” he said.

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Mr. Brown was not the best student. “His grades were kind of edgy,” Michael Brown Sr. said. “That’s why I said I had to keep my foot on his neck to keep him on track.”

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In his senior year, Mr. Brown was a few credits short. He was enrolled in the school’s credit recovery program, which allows students to work at their own pace to try to catch up.

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“It seemed like Mike was probably the person that was the most serious in that class about getting out of Normandy, about graduating,” said Terrence Hamilton, the Normandy athletic director.

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After graduating in May, Mr. Brown talked to Mr. Lewis about getting a job at the grocery store where Mr. Lewis worked. He also planned to pursue heating and cooling technician courses at a technical college.

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He was an avid video game player. His favorite games were Call of Duty Zombies and PlayStation Home, a simulation game in which he created an avatar and a city. He was deft with technology and his hands. Once, when his cousin’s PlayStation broke because a disc was stuck in it, Mr. Brown took it apart, fixed it and reassembled it.

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Mr. Brown, who constantly wore his Beats by Dre headphones, also was a big fan of rap music. He knew of Kendrick Lamar before he became famous. His favorite group was Migos. And within the past year, he began producing rap songs with friends.

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The content varied. He collaborated on songs that included lyrics such as “My favorite part is when the bodies hit the ground.” But he also derided fathers who “don’t pay child support” and rapped glowingly about his stepmother.

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He occasionally smoked marijuana and drank alcohol, according to friends. But for his music he adopted a persona to appeal to hip-hop fans, said his cousin, Bryan Douglas, a music producer who was going to help Mr. Brown pursue his music career.

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Mr. Brown was sometimes philosophical, as he showed in his final hours.

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“Everything happen for a reason,” he posted to Facebook the night before he was shot. “Just start putting 2 n 2 together. You’ll see it.”

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A version of this article appears in print on August 25, 2014, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: A Teenager Who Was Grappling With Problems and Promise.

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DMU Timestamp: August 12, 2014 17:47

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