FERGUSON, Mo. – The small city of Jennings, Missouri, had a police department so troubled, and with so much tension between white officers and black residents, that the City Council finally decided to disband it. Everyone in the Jennings police department was fired. New officers were brought in to create a credible department from scratch.
That was three years ago. One of the officers who worked in that department, and lost his job along with everyone else, was a young man named Darren Wilson.
Some of the Jennings officers reapplied for their jobs, but Wilson got a job in the police department in the nearby city of Ferguson.
On Aug. 9, Wilson, who is white, killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown after Brown and a friend had been walking down the middle of a street.
Wilson, 28, has completely vanished from public view. He has not explained publicly what happened in that brief, lethal encounter. His lawyer did not answer phone calls or emails. The police union is mum. His ex-wife is publicly silent. His friends aren’t speaking out.
Wilson is under the protection of the Ferguson Police Department, which has chosen from the beginning of this case to opt against transparency. The department did not reveal Wilson’s identity for nearly a week after the fatal shooting of Brown. By that time, his social media accounts had been suspended.
But everyone leaves a record, and Darren Dean Wilson is no exception.
Wilson was born in Texas in 1986 to Tonya and John Wilson, and he had a sister, Kara.
His parents divorced in 1989, when he was 2 or 3 years old.
His mother remarried Tyler Harris, and they lived in Elgin, Texas, for a time, records show.
Tyler and Tonya Harris had another child, Jared.
The family later moved to the Missouri suburban town of St. Peters, where Wilson’s mother again got divorced and married a man named Dan Durso, records indicate.
Wilson attended St. Charles West High School, in a predominantly white, middle-class community west of the Missouri River. He played junior varsity hockey for the West Warriors but wasn’t a standout.
There were problems at home. In 2001, when Wilson was a freshman in high school, his mother pleaded guilty to forgery and stealing. She was sentenced to five years in prison, although records suggest the court agreed to let her serve her sentence on probation.
She died of natural causes in November 2002, when Wilson was 16, records show. His stepfather, Tyler Harris, took over as his limited guardian, which ended when the boy turned 18.
A family friend, who spoke on the condition of anonymity out of fear of threats, said Wilson sought out a career in law enforcement as a way to create a solid foundation in his life that he’d been missing.
He had a rough upbringing and just wanted to help people, the friend said. In Wilson’s childhood, there was just no structure.
After going through the police academy, Wilson landed a job in 2009 as a rookie officer in Jennings, a small, struggling city of 14,000 where 89 percent of the residents were black and poverty rates were high.
At the time, the 45-employee police unit had one or two black members on the force, said Allan Stichnote, a white Jennings City Council member.
Police faced a series of lawsuits for using unnecessary force, Stichnote said. One black resident, Cassandra Fuller, sued the department claiming a white Jennings police officer beat her in June 2009 on her own porch after she made a joke.
The Jennings department also had a corruption problem. A joint federal and local investigation discovered that a lieutenant had been accepting federal funds for drunken-driving checks that never happened.
All the problems became too much for the City Council to bear, and in March 2011 the council voted 6-1 to shut down the department and hire St. Louis County to run its police services, putting Lt. Jeff Fuesting in charge as commander.
Fuesting, who overlapped for about four months with Wilson during a transitional period, described him as an average officer.
My impression is he didn’t go above and beyond, and he didn’t get in any trouble, Fuesting said.
Robert Orr, the former Jennings police chief who retired in 2010, said of Wilson, He was a good officer with us. There was no disciplinary action.
On Saturday, Wilson supporters staged a Support Darren Wilson rally at Barney’s Sports Pub, which is frequented by current and former officers.
The people here don’t know him, but law enforcement is family, said Rhea Rodebaugh, the bar’s owner and a former sheriff. He was doing his job.
About 100 people, most of them white, showed up. A table held stacks of navy blue T-shirts for sale, each with a police badge on the front and the words Officer Darren Wilson We Stand By You 8-9-14.