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The Strange Case of Darren Wilson’s Mysterious Disappearing Duty Belt

Documents released after the Ferguson grand jury declined to indict officer Darren Wilson revealed a troubled investigation and inconsistent testimony. In the middle of it all was the bizarre journey taken by Wilson's duty belt.
Photo via St. Louis county prosecutor

On August 9, after he shot and killed 18-year-old Michael Brown, Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson called his superiors to the scene.

Wilson then drove himself to the Ferguson Police Department where he washed his hands and inspected his gun. He sealed it, still bloodied, in a yellow envelope he handed over as evidence.

After he took off his uniform shirt, Wilson was brought to a local ER to treat his injuries; he left the shirt and duty belt at the police station. According to both a 200-page police report on the investigation and testimony given to the grand jury tasked with deciding whether or not to indict Wilson, an unnamed St. Louis County Police officer then took the belt into custody.


But for some reason, that belt did not remain in police custody. According to testimony, the belt somehow ended up in the trunk of Wilson's personal car — the grand jury was never told how or why the belt was returned to Wilson — where it remained for more than a month until his lawyer submitted it to authorities as evidence in the ongoing investigation into Brown's death.

"Officers in officer-involved shootings don't drive themselves anywhere. They do not wash up. They do not handle evidence. They are sequestered, escorted to the station or hospital, and monitored for stress or trauma," Ron Martinelli, a forensic criminologist specializing in police practices and a former cop, told VICE News. "After an officer-involved shooting, the officer's gun and his duty belt are going to be confiscated, and they're not going to be given back to the officer. They're going to be sequestered so we can forensically examine those objects."

'State of Emergency.' Watch the first VICE News dispatch from Ferguson here.

Testimony presented to the grand jury offers contradicting accounts about when the belt was analyzed: Wilson's lawyer told VICE News the belt was examined on August 9, but prosecutors and a St. Louis county detective in charge of the investigation said the belt was not confiscated and analyzed until more than a month later, when Wilson's lawyer handed it in on September 12. A St. Louis county civilian employee told jurors he checked the belt for fingerprints, finding none that were usable, but did not specify when he did so — though he carried out other fingerprint examinations before August 11.


Additionally, Wilson's lawyer told VICE News he didn't know why the belt was returned to his client, but that when it was returned, the belt no longer contained the items that were on it when Wilson relinquished it on August 9. Seemingly contradicting that account, the officer who collected the belt from Wilson's lawyer a month later wrote in a report that a number of items were then turned in with the belt.

But none of the records made available to the public explain what happened to the mace officer Wilson claimed to have been carrying that day.

* * *

More than five months after the shooting, the public still doesn't know what exactly happened to Brown. Did he have his hands up in surrender when he died? Did he assault Wilson? Was he reaching for Wilson's gun?

The investigation and grand jury proceedings — both marred by leaks, lies, and controversy — didn't definitively answer those questions. Following the non-indictment, St. Louis county prosecutor Bob McCulloch released the redacted transcripts of testimony given to the grand jury as well as evidence and documents presented during the proceedings in an apparent effort at transparency. The documents revealed inconsistencies and omissions in statements presented to the grand jury, and exposed flaws in the investigation, experts who studied the evidence told VICE News.

'Wouldn't everything on police officer Wilson be considered evidence?' the juror asked the St. Louis County Police detective.


Prosecutors were accused of a number of irregularities — from knowingly presenting perjured testimony to confusing the grand jury on legal principles — that prompted ethics complaints, a lawsuit by one of the jurors, and a formal request that a new grand jury reconsider the case. Last week, a St. Louis County judge rejected that request, made by the NAACP.

Skepticism about the process had been present from the start. McCulloch made a relatively unusual decision to task a grand jury with deciding whether to charge Wilson instead of making the call himself. Also unusual was the fact that the grand jury proceedings took place while the investigation was still ongoing.

Emblematic of it all was the handling of Wilson's duty belt.

* * *

The assistant prosecutor and the St. Louis County Police detective who interviewed Wilson the day after the shooting told the grand jury that Wilson's duty belt was not handed in as evidence until more than a month later. That contradicted what had been said earlier by Wilson and written in a police report about the investigation, but prosecutors never pursued the inconsistency.

The seeming disregard of the duty belt prompted one juror to question it.

"Considering this is a crime that we are sitting here discussing, wouldn't everything on police officer Wilson be considered evidence?" the juror asked the St. Louis County Police detective. "Why wouldn't his duty belt be detained the day of the shooting when pictures were taken of him before he went to the emergency room…. How could you do an investigation if you haven't collected evidence?"


Ferguson officials aren't telling you what happened to Mike Brown. Read more here.

The detective replied: "Clearly we collected evidence. We just did not seize that duty belt on that particular day, meaning on August 9. We did seize, obviously, his weapon and his clothing and those things, but we did not seize his duty belt."

At that point in the proceedings, assistant prosecutor Kathi Alizadeh stepped in, confirming that the duty belt "wasn't seized that day" or the day after — again, despite the fact that Wilson's testimony and the police report both indicated it had been seized briefly on August 9.

"Prior to departing the police department" to take Wilson to the ER, "Detective [redacted] indicated he would maintain custody of P.O. Darren Wilson's duty belt, shirt, and firearm," the St. Louis County Police report shows. Wilson said in his testimony that he left the belt at the station because someone told him to, and because he felt "more comfortable" that way.

'The issue of whether the mace was present or not is relevant by Wilson's own testimony. This is one of many opportunities for cross-examination missed by these prosecutors.'

The Ferguson Police Department confirmed that Wilson was required to carry OC spray — another term for mace — but referred all other questions from VICE Newsto the St. Louis County Police Department, which was in charge of the investigation and evidence. St. Louis County Police declined to comment and referred all questions to the prosecutor's office, which did not respond to our requests for comment.


Wilson's lawyer, Neil Bruntrager, told VICE News that "the belt was a non-issue." He said that it was examined by St. Louis County police on August 9 and then returned to Wilson without any items on it.

"I don't know why St. Louis County returned the belt," Bruntrager said, adding that when he became "aware" of the fact that it was in Wilson's possession, he decided to turn it in because he "wanted the county to look for blood or DNA" on it.

"We recovered it from the car trunk and called the county police," he said. "I don't know whether it was examined. We had nothing to hide and thought it might be relevant."

Bruntrager said the belt was empty when he turned it in. But by the time it made its way to the St. Louis County civilian employee in charge of examining the belt for Brown's fingerprints — no usable ones were found — the belt was no longer empty according to his statements to the jury.

"It had handcuffs… baton holder, the walkie-talkie holder, there was no gun in there, the holster, five keys, handcuff keys… two fully loaded magazines," the employee told jurors and prosecutors. Asked specifically about the mace, the employee said he did not recall it being there.

Police and prosecutors checked the gun for fingerprints instead of DNA because, they told the grand jury, doing one test might erase evidence required for the other.

Here's a first look at the Ferguson Police Department's internal code of conduct. Read more here.


"It's more important to do the DNA swab because DNA is going to tell us a lot more than just fingerprints," Martinelli said. However, missteps in the course of an investigation are routine, he added.

* * *

The mace Wilson claimed to have on his belt the day of the shooting was never recorded as evidence, and jurors were never told what happened to it.

"This is the kind of detail that an aggressive prosecutor would use on cross-examination of the defendant," Lisa Bloom, a civil rights lawyer at the Bloom Firm, told VICE News after reviewing the documents. "The issue of whether the mace was present or not is relevant by Wilson's own testimony. This is one of many fertile opportunities for cross-examination missed by these prosecutors."

Nicholas Mirzoeff, a professor of media, culture, and communication at New York University, analyzed the evidence and testimony presented to the Ferguson grand jury and initially alerted VICE News to the inconsistencies regarding the belt and mace. "Something that was not properly documented took place at some point, and that belt went from police custody back to Darren Wilson," he said.

Darren Wilson to grand jury: 'I had to kill him.' Read more here.

Marcia McCormick, a St. Louis University law school professor who has also been combing through the grand jury documents, said that whatever the reason is for the inconsistencies, they don't add credibility to an already troubled case.


"It is impossible to say for sure whether this was poor judgment or a deliberate attempt to hide something," she told VICE News. "This may be a small thing not relevant to the legal question of whether officer Wilson was justified in using deadly force. There are reasons, though, that these issues keep getting raised. The law may not require officers to use non-deadly alternatives to deadly force, but I think that people want them to do so."

* * *

Whatever accounts Wilson gave to police on the day of the killing were not recorded — another breach of protocol, according to several legal and police experts who spoke to VICE News. He gave his first recorded testimony to a St. Louis County Police detective a day later, on August 10.

"I tried to go for my mace, I couldn't reach around my body to grab it, and I know how mace affects me, so if I used that in that close proximity I was gonna be disabled per se," he said then. "And I didn't know if it was even gonna work on him if I would be able to get a clear shot or anything else…. I don't carry a taser, so that option was gone."

Wilson was required by the department to carry mace. He was not required to carry a taser, though Ferguson Police Chief Tom Jackson told the grand jury he had been buying more tasers for his officers because "there were too many incidents when a taser could have been used, but we didn't have them."

Wilson repeated his account when he testified before the grand jury, saying he mentally went through the nonlethal options available to him. "I know what [mace] does to me, and I would have been out of the game," he testified. "I wear contacts, if that touches any part of my eyes, then I can't see at all."


Wilson told the jury that after the mace, he thought about using his ASP baton, but ultimately didn't because he would have had no room to expand it inside the car. He said he then thought about his flashlight, but opted against it because that was in the passenger side of the car. That's when he went for his gun.

Martinelli agreed that mace would have been "completely ineffective" in those circumstances, and said that the mace was probably never recorded because it wasn't considered relevant to the investigation. "If the officer said he never used the mace, what are you going to analyze?" he said. "You have to also look to see if that's relevant to the fact pattern."

Relevant or not, everything on the officer's belt should have been documented and photographed, he added.

* * *

The St. Louis County Police detective who interviewed Wilson the day after the shooting testified that he was unaware then that Wilson's belt was not seized and photographed on August 9 like other evidence.

On September 12, Wilson's attorney contacted the detective, offering to bring the belt in.

"He indicated that the duty belt was placed in the trunk of Darren Wilson's personal vehicle when he left the Ferguson police station, and that is where that duty belt remained until it was brought to our attention," the detective told the grand jury. "And then from there he removed the belt from his vehicle and put it in a box and that box was released to us."


Grand juror in Ferguson case wants the right to speak up and is suing the prosecutor to get it. Read more here.

We asked Bruntrager why he turned in the belt when it seemingly wasn't considered important enough by police to keep on August 9. "I can only speculate that the belt and attendant items on the belt had no evidentiary value because they weren't used in the altercation," he said.

Bruntrager said the belt had been empty since it was first returned to Wilson after the shooting. But the St. Louis County Police officer who collected it on September 12 wrote that it contained handcuffs, a baton, two magazines, and other items (though no mace). Asked about this inconsistency, Bruntrager repeated that the belt had been empty when it was returned to Wilson sometime after the shooting and empty when Bruntrager returned it to police in September. He said it remained in a plastic bag, not a box, at all times.

Following the offer to return the belt, the St. Louis County Police detective consulted the prosecutor, "had a discussion about that," and agreed it would be a "good idea" to get it, the transcript of the detective's testimony to the grand jury shows.

Only at that point were the duty belt and all the items in it photographed, according to the testimony. No photos of the belt or the items on it were released to the public.

"If there [were] things on the duty belt after the shooting, it is obviously conceivable that Darren Wilson, since he had possession of that duty belt from the day of the shooting until it was seized September 12, could have removed things, could have changed things around?" Alizadeh asked during the grand jury hearing.

"That's possible," the detective replied.

But Bruntrager dismissed the possibility.

"Why would Wilson tender his belt if he was attempting to hide or get rid of evidence? Why return it at all?" he told VICE News. "Wilson could have simply thrown the belt away and no one would have been the wiser. What evidence would he have gotten rid of?"

The US Department of Justice carried out a separate investigation into the shooting, and was not expected to file federal charges against Wilson, the New York Times reported last week. The DOJ has not confirmed the report.

"More often than not, the police miss something during an investigation," Martinelli said. "You can always say that an investigation was not done properly. The key question is going to be, Whatever the investigators didn't do, does that really affect the outcome of the investigation?"

Follow Alice Speri on Twitter: @alicesperi