WASHINGTON ― Edward Crawford ― the man featured clad in the American flag and holding a bag of chips as he hurled a flaming tear gas canister in what became the iconic image of the 2014 unrest in Ferguson, Missouri ― was found dead in St. Louis on Thursday.
The medical examiner’s office said Crawford’s death appeared to be a suicide, according to the St. Louis Police Department. Two people told police they had been driving with Crawford late Thursday evening when he started to talk about being “distraught over personal matters.” They then heard him “rummaging in the backseat” and heard a gunshot, then saw he’d “sustained a gunshot wound to the head,” according to the police report. Crawford’s father told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he did not believe his son took his own life.
Crawford, a father of four who would have turned 28 later this month, was still facing charges in St. Louis County Municipal Court over his actions on a summer night in Ferguson in August 2014. He participated in protests against the broken policing system in the St. Louis region following the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown. Prosecutors waited a year to charge him and dozens of others who had been arrested in the flawed police response to the Ferguson protests, which brought national attention to policing issues.
Crawford had been scheduled to meet with his attorney Jerryl Christmas on Thursday afternoon at 4 p.m. to discuss a potential plea deal, his lawyer told HuffPost. But Crawford didn’t show.
“I was going to discuss with him a resolution that they had offered, or we were going to go to trial,” Christmas said. “I thought the deal that they offered was not a bad deal.”
Christmas said that as part of the deal, charges would have been dropped after Crawford completed community service, but it would have meant Crawford had to initially plead guilty. St. Louis County Counselor Peter Krane declined to talk about the plea deal, saying negotiations were confidential despite the “unfortunate” and “tragic” circumstances of the case.
Crawford had been charged with interfering with a police officer in performance of his duty and assaulting a person. In justifying the assault charge, prosecutors alleged that in addition to throwing the burning tear gas canister “at police officers,” Crawford made “physical contact” with Officer Michael McCann (see disclosure), “causing him to be knocked to the ground.”
Crawford “was adamant that he was not guilty of what they were alleging,” Christmas said. The St. Louis County Police Department has well-established issues with telling the truth. A federal investigation found a “pattern of light discipline in investigations involving ethical failings and untruthfulness” within the department.
Crawford “enjoyed life and being around his children,” Christmas said. But Christmas said Crawford was in a difficult financial situation. Crawford had worked as a server, and had crowdfunded legal fees after he was charged in August 2015. His father told the Post-Dispatch he was training for a new warehouse job.
“He was always looking for that next job,” Robert Cohen, the photographer who captured the iconic photo of Crawford, told HuffPost. Cohen said he was “floored” by the news of Crawford’s death, and that they had developed a friendly relationship. He last spoke with Crawford a few months ago and discussed Crawford’s baby. He called him a “good guy,” and recalled how Crawford came to his aide when Cohen was pepper-sprayed while covering protests in Ferguson on the first anniversary of Michael Brown’s death.
“He saved my butt that night, after I got pepper sprayed,” Cohen said. “That’s the Ed Crawford I knew.”
Crawford’s attorney Christmas said they were in a dispute with the Post-Dispatch over the rights to Cohen’s prize-winning photograph. (Cohen said he was unaware of the conflict.) Christmas said Crawford was “upset” that the Post-Dispatch would not relinquish any rights to the iconic photo.
“He was working, but he was not a high earner at all,” Christmas said. “Our hope was that we would garner some interest in that photograph and be able to market that, and it would be able to help him earn enough revenue where he would get an advanced education and also be able to take care of his children. So we had a lot riding on that, and it was very troubling to him, and it was an issue that we had discussed.”
Christmas said they had a marketing plan in place in case they had been able to reach a deal with the Post-Dispatch. “We looked at bobble heads, we looked at possibly writing a book,” Christmas said. “There’s a number of things we could have done.” Christmas said he planned to continue trying to reach a deal with the Post-Dispatch on behalf of Crawford’s children. A spokeswoman for the Post-Dispatch did not immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment.
In a 2015 interview with HuffPost, Crawford explained how he believed videos and social media had helped shine a light on police abuse after the Ferguson unrest.
“In some parts of the world, this is unfamiliar,” Crawford said. “The police crimes are very low, police officers are respectable in a lot of places. Every police officer isn’t bad. There’s a lot of good police officers out there who protect and serve. But you also have some who seem to not.”
(Disclosure: St. Louis County Police Officer Michael McCann, whom prosecutors claimed Crawford “knocked to the ground,” arrested the author of this story in Ferguson on Aug. 13, 2014. McCann purposefully slammed his head into a glass door, lied to internal affairs investigators about his conduct, was cleared, and was promoted to sergeant. Krane attempted to prosecute the author of this story in connection with his arrest.)
If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. You can also text HELLO to 741-741 for free, 24-hour support from the Crisis Text Line. Outside of the U.S., please visit the International Association for Suicide Prevention for a database of resources.