FERGUSON, MO. — As a grand jury began investigating whether a Ferguson police officer should be criminally charged for the death of Michael Brown, the embattled community, hit by violent protests the past 11 days, enjoyed its first night of relative calm since the teen was killed Aug. 9.
By 12:30 a.m. local time Thursday, many of the 150 protesters who had paced back and forth on Ferguson's West Florissant Avenue had gone home, tensions defused by community leaders, a more relaxed posture by police, the arrival of U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and evening rain and lightning storms.
Dasha Jones, 19, marched with a sign that read, "The Whole Damn System is Guilty." She said she saw Brown's body lying in the street for hours after his death. The image traumatized her. "I feel like that could have been any one of my family members,'' said Jones, who has been protesting since the day the unarmed Brown was killed. "I'm not tired because he doesn't have justice," she said.
"Tonight was a very good night for Ferguson,'' said Missouri Highway Patrol Capt. Ron Johnson, who thanked community leaders, clergy, teens and law enforcement officials. Police made six arrests, compared with 47 arrests Tuesday night and early Wednesday morning. "We saw a different crowd that came out tonight ... less agitators," Johnson said.
Pockets of anger remain. Wednesday night, a white woman carrying a sign calling for justice for officer Darren Wilson — the Ferguson policeman who shot 18-year-old Brown — walked among throngs of black protesters for about 10 minutes. Many of them taunted and yelled at her as several police officers surrounded her before rushing her from the scene.
Earlier Wednesday, an officer from neighboring St. Ann was suspended indefinitely for pointing his semiautomatic assault rifle at protesters and then threatening to kill one after a verbal exchange Tuesday night, the St. Louis County Police Department said. A county sergeant ordered the unidentified officer to lower his weapon and escorted him away. The confrontation was captured on video by a protester and posted to YouTube and other social media sites.
Meanwhile, a spokesman for St. Louis County prosecuting attorney Robert McCulloch said local investigators have interviewed Wilson, 28. He will be "offered the opportunity'' to testify before the grand jury if he wishes, said spokesman Edward Magee.
McCulloch told KTRS radio that it could be mid-October before his office has presented all of the evidence to the grand jury, which convenes on Wednesdays. About two dozen protesters Wednesday gathered outside the St. Louis County Justice Center in Clayton, where the grand jury meets.
Holder, in Missouri Wednesday to meet with Brown's parents, community members, law enforcement officials and Missouri's congressional delegation, said the Justice Department is conducting its own federal civil rights inquiry.
"Our investigation is different," Holder said, surrounded by top local federal officials, including FBI agent-in-charge William Woods and U.S. Attorney Rich Callahan. "We're looking for possible violations of federal civil rights statutes."
He promised that the inquiry would be "thorough and fair."
Speaking in Washington to reporters on Thursday, Holder said he found a "real fracture" among the people of Ferguson but also "a desire to be seen as equals, a real desire to have healing."
In the end, he said, the people of the community "gave me hope."
"Out of this tragedy comes a great opportunity to reforming that community," Holder said.
The attorney general also said the Justice Department was "keeping all options open" in it's review of the Ferguson shooting, including a possible examination of whether the local police department engaged in a pattern of excessive conduct.
Wilson, a four-year Ferguson Police Department veteran, is among 50 white officers on a 53-member force in the predominately African-American community.
According to the Associated Press, Wilson's relatives refused to talk about him or reveal his whereabouts. He remains on paid administrative leave.
Brown, who was unarmed, was shot six times, including twice in the head, according to a preliminary autopsy requested by the family.
In February, Wilson received a commendation at a Ferguson City Council meeting from Police Chief Tom Jackson for what the chief said then was his role in responding to a report of a suspicious vehicle, then struggling with the driver and detaining him for arrest until help arrived. Jackson said the suspect was preparing a large quantity of marijuana for sale. His proclamation in hand, according to a video of the meeting obtained by the AP, Wilson returned to his seat with a broad grin.
By Wednesday night, an online fundraising drive on Wilson's behalf had drawn more than $77,000 in donations for the officer. Longtime friend and former high school classmate Jake Shepard said Wilson would never maliciously take a life and fears possible retribution.
Shepard said he had talked to Wilson since the shooting. "I think he's kind of struggling a little bit, but I think he's doing OK," Shepard said.
"He didn't really want to talk much about it," Shepard, also 28, said of Brown's death. "But I can tell you for sure it was not racially motivated. He's not the type of person to harbor any hate for anybody. He was always nice, respectable and well-mannered, a gentleman. He doesn't have anything bad to say about anybody, ever. He's very genuine."
Online court records show that Wilson's mother — Tonya Durso, also known as Tonya Harris — pleaded guilty in 2001 to a dozen felony counts of stealing and forgery in Missouri's St. Charles County just west of St. Louis. She was sentenced to five years on probation; the judge suspended a five-year prison sentence. Durso was 35 when she died in 2002, and Wilson was placed under the guardianship of Tyler Harris until a St. Charles County judge dissolved that in mid-2004.
Contributing: Gary Strauss, William Cummings, Doug Stanglin, John Bacon, Michael Winter and the Associated Press.