In the racially mixed Shaw neighborhood Thursday, the differences about what happened were as sharp as day and night. A day earlier, an off-duty white police officer shot and killed an 18-year-old African American, and whether the dead man had a gun was a hotly disputed question.
Vonderrit D. Myers Jr. was killed by the unidentified officer, who was working for a private security company. The officer was wearing his uniform, police say, and patrolling the neighborhood, which includes two-story brick apartment houses as well as run-down shops and areas of gentrification. Police say Myers fired three times at the officer, who fired 17 rounds in response.
The killing comes two months after a white police officer in the suburb of Ferguson killed an unarmed black man, Michael Brown, on Aug. 9, touching off weeks of protests and unrest. Friday is the beginning of what activists call a “Weekend of Resistance,” where protesters plan to highlight the Ferguson shooting and call for the county prosecutor to step aside.
“In case we needed another reminder, this is not about the city of Ferguson,” St. Louis Alderman Antonio French tweeted. “This is about all of St. Louis -- and beyond.”
Some people in the area disputed the police narrative, as did Myers’ family.
“All I know is he came out the store with a sandwich,” an emotional Tyrone Myers, an uncle, said in a telephone interview. “Next thing, he’s shot several times by a cop who was chasing someone else.”
Myers said he did not witness the incident.
Neighbor Blanche Campbell, 38, said she saw Myers on Wednesday night. He had just bought a sandwich from the Shaw Market, where he was a regular customer.
“The young man, he didn't have a gun. He had a sandwich,” Campbell told reporters in front of the store Thursday, adding, “It's strange how you mistake a sandwich for a damn gun. ... I think these police officers need to think about what they're doing.”
Berhe Beyent, the store's manager, said, “Like six minutes after I sold him a sandwich, he got shot. ... He wasn't armed when he was here. He didn't have a hoodie.”
That detail differs from the police version of events. A police statement said the officer and the suspect “got into a physical altercation, with hands on each other. During the altercation, the suspect’s hooded sweatshirt came off of him.”
Police also said that a 9-millimeter Ruger that had been reported stolen was recovered at the scene, and that the unidentified white officer, 32, has been on the force for six years. He has been placed on administrative leave.
The incident began about 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Police Chief Sam Dotson said, when the officer was patrolling in a car and saw three males near Shaw Boulevard and Klemm Street.
The officer was wearing his uniform, but working for a private security company that employs several St. Louis police officers. The officer was working the second job with the department’s approval, police said, and even off duty, had the same responsibilities and authority as when on duty.
One of the trio started to run away but stopped, Dotson said. The officer did a U-turn and then all three men ran, with the officer in pursuit in his car. The officer left his vehicle and continued to follow on foot through a gangway.
According to a police statement, the officer observed the running man “holding his waistband, causing the officer to believe the suspect had a gun.”
“When the officer went through the gangway, he saw the three gentlemen had come back together,” Dotson told reporters. “One of the gentleman started to approach the officer in an aggressive manner. The officer was giving verbal commands, telling them to stop, telling them how to surrender, telling them that they were under arrest.
“The suspect continued to come towards the officer until they got into a physical altercation,” the chief said. “The suspect and the officer were hands on with each other. At that time, the suspect's gray hooded sweatshirt comes off and the suspect starts to run up a hill.”
The officer said he saw what appeared to be a gun, the chief continued.
The officer “wanted to be certain that it was a gun and did not fire at that point. The suspect pointed the gun at the officer and fired at least three rounds at the police officer. We believe this to be true because there are three projectiles that we recovered with trajectories going towards the officer, down the hill, and one piece of ballistic evidence located behind the officer. At that point, the officer returned fire. As the officer moved towards the suspect, the suspect continued to pull the trigger on his gun,” Dotson said.
The gun jammed, but the man continued to point the weapon and pull the trigger, police said in the statement.
Dotson said he didn't know how many of the officer’s bullets struck the man, or why the officer, who was unhurt, fired that many times.
The medical examiner, Dr. Michael Graham, told the media that a preliminary autopsy showed Myers was killed by a shot that entered his right cheek, and was hit six or seven times other times in the lower extremities.
The incident is under investigation.
“When the investigation is complete and during the investigation, in consultation with the circuit attorney’s office, we will present that case to them and ask them to review it to make a decision about the officer’s actions and if they were appropriate in that situation,” Dotson said.
Dotson wouldn’t discuss Myers’ record, but said he was known to authorities.
Online court documents show that Myers was charged in June in St. Louis with unlawful use of a weapon, a felony, and misdemeanor resisting arrest. A hearing that had been scheduled for Monday was continued until Nov. 17. In July, Myers was put on electronic monitoring and house arrest overseen by Eastern Missouri Alternative Sentencing Services, according to court records.
Missouri Rep. Jeff Roorda, an official of the St. Louis police union, alluded to the charges Myers faced, saying he would "be alive today if the courts would have embraced" a program to keep weapons suspects behind bars before trial.
The officer would be exonerated if he had been wearing a camera, said Roorda, a Democrat. He added: "I've known dozens and dozens of officers who have been in a situation to take a life, and they never take it lightly."
Whatever charges he was facing, to Campbell and others in the neighborhood, Myers was "kind of quiet" and friendly, she said. “He always speak and keep going and holler at folks.”
Campbell, who lives up the street from the store, said on Wednesday night, young people — “elementary to high school students” — had gathered across the street. She was outside the store when a white police officer pulled up nearby. Campbell said she heard the officer say he was “looking for somebody who robbed a house... He said he was looking for four young men” in connection with a potential home burglary. It was unclear if the burglary had already happened or might be about to happen.
She said that Myers was one of the young men the officer spoke with, and that the officer got out of his vehicle and followed Myers.
Campbell said she went inside the store and was at the register with her 4-year-old son when she thought she heard a Taser, then heard two shots, “pow-pow,” but said she might have missed something because she was inside.
“Everything went scary,” she said, adding that she quickly left with her son and that young men at the scene were running.
“When the kids was running, everybody was running,” Campbell said, adding, “the kids said it was the police officer shooting.”
Ahmed Aidarous, 32, who lives on the second floor of an apartment house near the shooting scene, said he heard three or four gunshots, followed by a fusillade of more gunshots, one after another.
“After that, somebody cry [out],” like a loud shout, said Aidarous. He didn't know whether it was the officer or Myers, but “after like 30 seconds, more police [arrived], like magic,” said Aidarous, snapping his fingers.
In the shooting’s aftermath, at least 200 people took to the streets, jeering at police and blocking traffic on Grand Boulevard, television footage showed.
Some chanted, “Hands up, don’t shoot,” a slogan Ferguson protesters used after the Brown shooting. Some witnesses have said Brown was trying to surrender as he was shot.
On Thursday evening, a crowd gathered at the shooting scene for a vigil. Mourners lit white candles and held red balloons.
The Rev. Doug Hollis, Myers’ cousin, warned them against the media.
“What you give them, they put out, and they twist it,” he said. He told mourners not to answer reporters' questions but to refer them to him or the family's pastor, the Rev. Willie Kilpatrick.
Hollis cautioned anyone who planned to join protests not to be violent or damage property. The family believes in the justice system, he said.
Later, several dozen protesters began marching down Shaw Boulevard and into the night.
Times staff writers Ryan Parker, Kurtis Lee and Connie Stewart in Los Angeles contributed to this report.