Dorian Johnson: A Year After Mike Brown's Death, He's Still Grappling With the Fallout

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Dorian Johnson, one of the few to witness Michael Brown's death. - PHOTO BY DANNY WICENTOWSKI
  • Photo by Danny Wicentowski
  • Dorian Johnson, one of the few to witness Michael Brown's death.

Ask Dorian Johnson what happened on August 9, 2014, and he'll tell you that the story begins just past noon. He'll say that he and Michael Brown Jr. had been walking down Canfield Drive in Ferguson when they were stopped by a police officer in an SUV — and that the last thing Brown ever said to him was, "Keep runnin', bro."

As the officer moved to exit the SUV, something happened. Witness accounts differ: Maybe Brown blocked the door and began punching and throttling the officer through the open window. Then again, maybe it was the officer who violently slammed the car door into Brown and instigated the struggle.

What we do know is that two gunshots went off inside the vehicle, and one struck Brown in the hand. That's when Brown and Johnson took off running.

Johnson says he ducked behind a stopped gray Pontiac and watched as Ferguson officer Darren Wilson pursued his six-foot-five, 280-pound friend down the street. Seconds later, Johnson saw bullets tear through Brown's body. The eighteen-year-old crumpled onto Canfield Drive as the life drained out of him, staining the pavement red.

The August 9 shooting brought the weight of the world's scrutiny on the modest north county suburb of Ferguson, but a significant portion of that burden fell on the narrow shoulders of Dorian Johnson. The wiry college dropout with a checkered past and mismatched eyes - one blue, one brown - became a national lightning rod almost overnight.

To a grieving community seeking answers and justice, Johnson, then 22, was the key witness to the reality of both Brown's death and the black experience in Ferguson, and his emotional testimony became the gospel of a burgeoning protest movement. The "Hands Up; Don't Shoot" mantra was based, in part, on Johnson's account of how Brown raised his hands and told the advancing Wilson, "I don't have a gun," before the final shots rang out.

But Johnson also drew the ire of people skeptical about the movement taking hold in Ferguson. They combed through his statements, drawing jagged circles around the inconsistencies and omissions. They blogged, tweeted and commented that Johnson was no truth-teller - in their view, he was an accomplice, a proven liar, just another young black thug claiming victimhood and angling for a payday.

For a time, Johnson's face appeared in newspapers and on television across the world, but for the past eight months he's mostly avoided direct contact with journalists. Last week, however, he sat down with Riverfront Times for a 60-minute interview, describing the months of secrecy and strain that followed Brown's death - as well as the surprising silver lining to his recent, highly publicized arrest by the St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department.

He's currently suing the City of Ferguson, its police department and the now-retired officer Wilson. He says he lives in fear of retaliation from vigilantes and law enforcement.

It's been almost a year since Michael Brown was shot to death on Canfield Drive, and the shockwaves of those frenzied moments are still pushing Johnson toward an unknown destination. Try as he might, he can't escape what happened that day. Michael Brown told him to run. In some ways, Dorian Johnson has been running ever since.

The spot where Michael Brown died became a memorial and gathering place for protesters. - R. GINO
  • R. Gino
  • The spot where Michael Brown died became a memorial and gathering place for protesters.

The first day after the shooting was pure panic. Johnson's own family didn't know his whereabouts, and early news reports of a dead body discovered near a Domino's fueled rumors that the witness to the Brown killing had himself been killed. Johnson's brother, Damonte, remembers their mother obsessively clicking through social media feeds and Twitter, searching for updates on her son.

Even the police couldn't locate him.

Two days later, on August 11, Dorian walked through the door of his family's small St. Louis apartment. He was accompanied by two male friends acting as security.

"I had never seen my brother so shook up," Damonte Johnson says. "This was the first time we saw him after the shooting. Everybody was sitting on the floor, on the windowsill, sitting around like it was story time. He was telling the story, he was shaking, sweating bullets, telling us step by step."

As Johnson tells it, he went into hiding immediately after Brown's death. He fled his Canfield Green apartment and says he was contacted by Adolphus Pruitt, president of St. Louis NAACP, who immediately arranged for "protective custody."

His life became a series of hotel rooms shared with his girlfriend and young daughter. He watched TV compulsively. The images of looters, tear gas and violence overwhelmed his waking moments.

"I was crying," Johnson says. "It was so real to me, but it was unreal at the same time. It was almost like, every time I stepped away from the TV, it was like a dream. But when I go back to the TV, it made it more real."

Johnson would ultimately move in with a family member in late October. By then, he'd been interviewed on local TV stations and cable networks. Each time, he told the same story: That Wilson initiated the confrontation with Brown, grappled with the teen through the driver's side window, pursued Brown down Canfield Drive and fired bullets into his body. Johnson insisted that Brown had never threatened Wilson or reached for the officer's gun. He told KSDK (Channel 5) that Brown had been shot "like an animal." He told MSNBC's Chris Hayes that Wilson shot Brown in the back.

But Johnson's character quickly became part of the story. By August 14, media had discovered his criminal history, which included a guilty plea for making false statements in 2011, when he was a college student in Jefferson City. (He'd been busted stealing a backpack and told a cop his name was "Derrick Johnson" and that he was 16. The officer found Johnson's ID, complete with his real age, 19, tucked away in his sock.)

The other shoe dropped a day later, on August 15. Ferguson police released surveillance footage showing Michael Brown stealing cigars from Ferguson Market and Liquor* minutes before his fatal confrontation with Wilson. Johnson, who accompanied Brown but did not appear to participate in the robbery, had never mentioned the crime in his initial media interviews.

"Isn't that lying through omission?" CNN's Don Lemon asked Johnson's lawyer, former St. Louis mayor Freeman Bosley Jr., later that day.

"Not at all," Bosley Jr. answered. "Lying is when you say something that's not true. Nobody asked him, 'What you all did before you came in contact with the officer?' If he [Wolf Blitzer] had asked him, we would have told him. But we had the duty to tell that to the FBI and they got the full story."

Dorian Johnsons' first TV interview, on August 9, was the only time he made a media appearance without an attorney. - IMAGE VIA
  • Image via
  • Dorian Johnsons' first TV interview, on August 9, was the only time he made a media appearance without an attorney.

In media appearances, Johnson was almost never seen without his lawyers, Bosley Jr. and the New Orleans-based James Williams. One (and sometimes both) would accompany Johnson to TV interviews. When Johnson's cabin fever reached a boiling point, it was Williams who drove him to Ferguson so he could watch the protests from the safety of the passenger seat.

"I met Dorian for the first time in one of those hotel rooms," Williams says. "One of the things Dorian would always say to me is how he wanted to get out there. Just for his safety we had to limit it. One night we rode down there, just so he could get out there and see what was going on. But it was still a very dangerous environment."

Indeed, various conspiracy theorists and right-wing blogs had latched onto Johnson, fixating on his testimony and his role in the creation of the "Hands Up; Don't Shoot" narrative. His TV interviews were collected and uploaded as YouTube compilation videos, which users picked over for proof of his deceptions. He was dubbed a "serial liar," and much worse. His Facebook inbox filled up with apoplectic rants and veiled threats. He stopped Googling his name.

He'd become a public figure, merely by virtue of what he'd witnessed. In December, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported that Johnson had landed a temporary job with St. Louis city, as a forestry worker. The story was published before he could even log his first day on the job.

"At the time I was working there, there were incidents where cars were following me to work," Johnson says. "I can't walk out of my house without someone I don't know knowing me. They ask me for autographs, pictures, hugs, can I come to their church. I've been invited to meet people's families. I speak to anyone who speak to me, and it's good and bad. You can't really trust someone you don't know."

After the temporary city job ended, Johnson landed a full-time gig as a server in The Kitchen Sink, a cajun restaurant in the Central West End. Things seemed to be getting back to normal.

It wasn't until the spring of 2015 that he suddenly found himself back in the spotlight — for something that seemed to confirm the worst suspicions of his detractors.

Damonte and Dorian Johnson. - COURTESY OF DAMONTE JOHNSON
  • Courtesy of Damonte Johnson
  • Damonte and Dorian Johnson.

Johnson grew up in the northwest St. Louis neighborhood of Walnut Park, which is almost entirely black. It's there, he says, that he learned how police and black males interact in the real world.

"When you've been born in an urban environment, you don't have to be taught," he says. "That's kind of been my life St. Louis, head on a swivel. You see with your eyes how the police handle somebody else."

Raised by a single mother, Johnson grew up in a house his mother shared with his aunt and her children. It was a chaotic childhood, but instead of joining a gang, Johnson took his competitive streak to the football field — as a member of the St. Louis recreation division's Junior Rams. Despite his small stature (he's now a slender five feet seven inches), Johnson reveled in showing off his speed on the field. He traveled across the country with the team.

But in 2007, a shootout erupted as Johnson was getting off a school bus. Doctors were unable to remove the bullet embedded near a vein in his leg. That was the end of his football career.

Johnson graduated high school. But his first year at a historically black college in Jefferson City, Lincoln University, ended with his 2011 arrest for stealing a backpack. After returning to St. Louis, Johnson landed a job with MetroLink and proudly moved into his own apartment in Ferguson, in the Canfield Green apartment complex. That's where a mutual friend introduced him to Michael Brown in March 2014, just five months before his death.

Dorian's younger brother Damonte had a different upbringing. Damonte spent much of his early years living with godparents in St. Louis County. He attended Chaminade College Prep, an elite Catholic high school in suburban Creve Coeur, and at eighteen moved to Maryland to attend the University of Baltimore, where he says he excelled academically.

Both brothers, though, watched things fall apart in 2012, after D'Angelo, their youngest sibling, died in a drag-racing accident. He was sixteen.

After his little brother's death, Damonte's grades plummeted. He says he couldn't focus on his classes. After a disappointing semester he moved back to Missouri.

"A part of me died with our little brother, and that's been the main thing myself and my family has been trying to overcome," says Damonte. "Dorian and I had always been close, but after that no one knew how to behave or how to react or how to treat an everyday situation. We were at each other's necks and just going at it, and it could be over the smallest thing."

The intervening years softened the tension between them, but didn't heal the rift. That wouldn't happen until nearly a year after Brown's shooting made Dorian Johnson a national name - on May 6, when Damonte, Dorian and their half-brother, Otis McRoberts, were arrested during a block party in north city.

According to court records, someone called the police to report that a group had gathered on the 5700 block of Acme Avenue, and that they might have guns or knives. When the first patrol car arrived, the two Johnsons and McRoberts were part of a crowd of about fifteen people hanging out on the sidewalk.

"They came like they already knew somebody was going to jail," Dorian Johnson says. "Me and my brothers just standing there, like, 'OK, we're not doing nothing, so I'm not finna run and make it seem like we're doing something.' So we just stood there."

Dorian and Damonte Johnson both say at least five more patrol cars pulled up, but it wasn't until an officer grabbed McRoberts — investigating "a bulge in his waistband which I believed could possibly be a concealed gun," as the officer would later write in his report — that things got out of hand.

"That kind of sent a shock to my brother Damonte," Dorian Johnson says. "He wasn't used to seeing police do stuff like that. I'm used to it, but Damonte grabbed both of them."

Damonte Johnson graduating from Chaminade College Prep - COURTESY OF THE DAMONTE JOHNSON
  • Courtesy of the Damonte Johnson
  • Damonte Johnson graduating from Chaminade College Prep

What ensued was a kind of tug-of-war between Damonte Johnson, the officer and McRoberts. More officers arrived to pull Damonte off.

"After they put the handcuffs on me," says Damonte, "Dorian became more irate. They slammed him on the ground, ripped his pants and messed up his shoulder." In the end, all three brothers were hauled off to the City Justice Center in downtown St. Louis.

No weapons were found in McRobert's waistband. But the arrests were leaked to the media immediately, and Dorian and Damonte's mugshots were blasted over the internet. Citing anonymous police sources, the Post-Dispatch reported that officers had also recovered "cough medication mixed with what police believe to be an illegal narcotic" from a cup Dorian Johnson had supposedly discarded at the scene.

It only took a day for the rumored drug possession charge to evaporate. The cup tested negative for drugs.

"A drug charge was brought to our office," Lauren Trager, a spokeswoman for the circuit attorney's office, said at the time. "It was refused by our office."

The brothers weren't home free. Both Johnsons were hit with a charge for resisting arrest, and Damonte faced an added charge of third-degree assault against a police officer.

In the Justice Center, word quickly spread: Dorian Johnson — yes, that Dorian Johnson — was locked up.

"We had gang unit come down and take pictures of us, and it started a kind of a buzz. So now we get umpteen different officers coming down," Dorian Johnson remembers. "We had two officers come down and look through the window and smirk and laugh. We had a couple officers just coming and pointing. I was telling my brothers, 'Don't pay them no mind, we'll be alright.'

"There was this young officer, he said, 'I had to buy new guns because of you and Mike Brown. You guys ruined my whole vacation, and my whole summer.'"

Damonte Johnson also remembers a parade of curious officers approaching the holding cell.

"The first two days we were in there, it was absolutely horrible. It wasn't an inmate that was a problem, it was all the [corrections officers]. It was this constant, 'This ain't Ferguson, you ain't get no money out of here, fuck you, we're going to fuck you up.' "It was vulgar and in your face," he adds, "almost like they were trying to bait us."

Although McRoberts, the youngest of the three brothers, was released on bond after a few days, the Johnsons were left to stew in an eight-by-ten cell with more than a dozen other men.

One night, Damonte says, around 3 a.m., one of their cellmates woke up vomiting and defecating all over himself. When the guards took him away, they left the puke and shit behind in the cell.

Dorian and Damonte Johnson claim police used excessive force during the May 6 arrest. - IMAGE VIA ST. LOUIS COUNTY POLICE
  • Image via St. Louis County Police
  • Dorian and Damonte Johnson claim police used excessive force during the May 6 arrest.

Dorian objected, asking one of the guards to clean up the mess.

"At this point Dorian gets off the floor, walking toward the C.O. Dorian is just standing there, and that made the C.O. even more mad," Damonte says. "The guard was screaming out our home address, 'I'll be waiting outside your house, I'm going to take my badge off and beat you.'"

But along with the tension came a chance for reconciliation. More than three years after the fact, D'Angelo's death still hung between the pair.

"We had one of those big brother-to-brother talks, letting all our feeling out in this cell," Dorian says.

"We both wanted to be good for our mom. We both want to take care of our family. We were trying to do it on our own."

After D'Angelo died, the brothers had sparred over who would step up, be the man and fix the wounds in their family. Damonte wanted to take more responsibility, and he felt disrespected by Dorian's overbearing attitude as the family's eldest son, the protector.

"We found each other in that place, we found what it meant to be brothers again," Damonte says. "Both of us had been just wrecks after losing our little brother, always doubting ourselves, just messing up and being real tough on ourselves. When we sat down and talked, it was crazy how much we saw eye to eye. He wanted the same thing that I did. He wanted to make it, to do something, to bring the family up and out of this."

Damonte left the Justice Center after five days, while Dorian was shipped to City Workhouse jail for another two days before his own release. A few days later, Dorian lost his job at The Kitchen Sink. The staff, he says, disliked his notoriety and the attention the recent arrest had brought him.

"This whole incident was excessive use of force against Dorian's brothers," says attorney Williams - who says the treatment only escalated once the officers realized who Dorian was.

But both Dorian and Damonte say the time spent in Justice Center brought them closer.

"The surprising thing was that we said we loved each other, for the first time in maybe five years," Damonte says. "Now we always get off the phone with 'I love you, bro. Stay safe.'"

Damonte and Dorian Johnson - COURTESY DAMONTE JOHNSON
  • Courtesy Damonte Johnson
  • Damonte and Dorian Johnson

Dorian Johnson has found little peace in the year since Brown's death. He lost his apartment, his job and his independence. He also became a national whipping boy after a U.S. Department of Justice report concluded that physical evidence and witness testimony supported Wilson's version of events, rather than his own.

In a column titled "'Hands Up; Don't Shoot,' was built on a lie," Washington Post opinion writer Jonathan Capehart, who is black, wrote that the DOJ report made him ill.

"Wilson knew about the theft of the cigarillos from the convenience store and had a description of the suspects," Capehart wrote. "Brown fought with the officer and tried to take his gun. And the popular hands-up storyline, which isn't corroborated by ballistic and DNA evidence and multiple witness statements, was perpetuated by Witness 101. In fact, just about everything said to the media by Witness 101, whom we all know as Dorian Johnson, the friend with Brown that day, was not supported by the evidence and other witness statements."

Similar arguments metastasized across social media and blogs. And while Capehart concluded his column by emphasizing the serious issues raised by Brown's death and the Ferguson protests, a vast array of naysayers used the same argument to dismiss the entire Black Lives Matter movement as a lie.

As for Johnson, the only major change in his testimony occurred during the grand jury hearings, when he clarified that he did not actually see Wilson shoot Brown in the back, only that Brown appeared to jerk and halt in the same instant that Wilson fired a shot at the fleeing teenager.

Otherwise, Johnson remains steadfast in his testimony — that Brown was murdered on that street with his hands raised.

Unsurprisingly, he's still bitter about the grand jury decision.

"It seems like the prosecutor got what he wanted — a non-indictment, and slowly everything is quieting down, kind of just being swept under the rug," he says, and the hurt is clear on his face. "People are out here trying to get to the bottom of it still, trying to get the clear, correct story. The story that's going to add up, because the story that Darren Wilson told does not add up."

Johnson's testimony lives on, however, in the form of lawsuits. In April, Michael Brown's family filed a wrongful death suit against the City of Ferguson, Wilson and former police chief Thomas Jackson. The suit draws heavily from Johnson's statements, including how Wilson allegedly yelled "get the fuck off the street" before reversing his vehicle to block Brown from walking, and how Brown "raised his arms in a non-threatening matter" before Wilson's fatal shots.

Johnson has his own lawsuit pending against the same defendants. He's seeking at least $100,000 in compensation for "psychological injury, severe emotional distress, medical expenses, lost wages, living expenses [and] incurred additional expenses." The prospect of a monetary windfall, however, seems small comfort in light of how things have shaken out.

No matter how much Johnson has shunned the spotlight in the last eight months, the nation's interest in him continues to border on tabloid obsession. And that, he believes, is in stark contrast to the third man on Canfield Drive that hot day last August - the man he believes bears responsibility for his friend's death and everything that followed.

"It does sadden me that it seems like Darren Wilson just fell off the face of the earth," he says. "I mean, I can pick my nose and it'll be on the news. Who's to say what Darren Wilson is doing right now?"

*Editor's Note: A correction has been appended to this sentence. An earlier version listed Quik Trip as the location from which Michael Brown stole cigars. The actual location was Ferguson Market and Liquor. We regret the error.

Follow Danny Wicentowski on Twitter at @D_Towski. E-mail the author at Danny.Wicentowski@RiverfrontTimes.com

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