St. Louis County police arrested a 20-year-old man who has confessed to shooting and wounding two police officers during a demonstration outside the Ferguson Police Department last week, officials said Sunday.
But uncertainty remains about whether Jeffrey Williams, who lives near Ferguson, intended to shoot the officers or whether he was aiming at someone in the crowd of protesters over a personal argument, officials said.
“He has acknowledged firing the shots,” St. Louis County prosecutor Robert McCulloch said at a televised news conference. “It’s possible he was firing shots at someone other than the police but struck the police officers” over a dispute that had “nothing to do with the demonstrations.”
McCulloch said investigators doubt that account, however. “It’s possible there was a dispute” and Williams was targeting someone in the crowd, the prosecutor said. But he said that investigators were “not sure we completely buy that part” and that “it’s possible he was targeting the police officers.”
Williams was arrested Saturday night after a three-day manhunt and several days of renewed tension in the St. Louis suburb, which is still reeling from protests and unrest that followed the Aug. 9 police shooting of Michael Brown, 18.
Williams said he had been robbed by someone in the crowd before the shooting, said a pastor who spoke with him in jail Sunday. Bishop Derrick Robinson of the Kingdom Destiny Fellowship said Williams told him he regretted shooting the officers.
Wednesday night’s protest began a few hours after Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson announced his resignation and one week after the U.S. Justice Department reported that his officers were unconstitutionally targeting and harassing the town’s predominantly black residents.
Demonstrators gathered in part to celebrate Jackson’s resignation, which is effective March 19, and to call for Mayor James Knowles III to resign. The protest drew about 200 people at its peak and included a few tense moments, including a shoving match in the crowd.
But the situation calmed down, and only a few dozen demonstrators remained when about four gunshots rang out from a hill overlooking the police station shortly after midnight. Bullets whizzed past demonstrators and hit two police officers, one in the face and one in the shoulder. Both have been released from a hospital and are expected to recover.
Investigators said that Williams had opened fire from a 2003 Pontiac Grand Am and that members of the public supplied the information leading to his arrest.
Officials found a .40-caliber handgun at his home that matched shell casings at the scene, McCulloch said. Federal investigators with the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives helped examine the ballistics evidence, U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said.
“This arrest sends a clear message that acts of violence against our law enforcement personnel will never be tolerated,” Holder said in a statement.
Williams is being held at the St. Louis County Justice Center in lieu of a $300,000 cash-only bond, McCulloch said. He faces two charges of first-degree assault, one count of firing a weapon from a vehicle and three counts of armed criminal action. If convicted, he could face life in prison. It was unclear whether he had an attorney yet.
Robinson, the pastor, said in an interview that Williams regretted what had happened.
“He was very remorseful, very apologetic, saying that’s not what his heart’s desire [was] to do, and he wished he could replay it over again,” Robinson said.
McCulloch said Williams had attended previous demonstrations and had been at Wednesday night’s protest. But several local activists, organizers and journalists said they didn’t know Williams or recognize him from his mug shot.
“I don't know him at all,” said Tony Rice, who witnessed the shooting. “I have more hours on the ground than anyone. This guy is a lone wolf.”
Lawrence Bryant, a photographer for the St. Louis American newspaper who has extensively covered the protest movement since last year, said that he saw Williams for the first time on the night of the shooting, and that Williams was hanging back with a group of other new faces.
“I paid attention to him because he was a new face,” Bryant said. “New faces tend to be behind everybody, and that’s where they were.
“I know when I see a new face. I’ve been out there 200 days, and I know who’s out there protesting and who’s out there” not seriously participating.
DeRay Mckesson, another prominent activist who witnessed the shooting, tweeted, “No, I cannot recall ever seeing the suspected shooter, Jeffrey Williams, at any protests, including the night in question.”
No one under the name Jeff or Jeffrey Williams appears to have given media interviews at demonstrations over the last few months, according to a search of news reports on Google.
Robinson said Williams told him he was not a regular at the protests. “He hasn’t protested. He wasn’t actually a protester. He was actually coming out to support one night and just kind of being there to support the people,” Robinson said.
“He said he had been robbed by some of the protesters, and I asked him if he had got robbed, he should have not reacted out of frustration or anger, but he should have allowed the leaders that were present to address it and handle it right then,” Robinson said.
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