Darren Seals at the 2014 funeral of Michael Brown in St. Louis, Mo. Photo: Brett Myers/Youth Radio
By Brett Myers, Senior Producer
It's been three weeks since the body of 29-year-old Ferguson, Missouri protester Darren Seals was discovered inside his burning vehicle with a gunshot wound to the head. St. Louis County police say the homicide investigation is still without leads. However, some community members are questioning the legitimacy of that investigation.
Darren Seals was one of the most visible and vocal activists to emerge from Ferguson following the 2014 police shooting of unarmed black teenager Michael Brown. Seals was known as a "day one-er" - meaning he was a visible presence from the very beginning.
Watching, from just outside the yellow police tape on the afternoon of August 9th, 2014, as Brown's body lay in the middle of Canfield Drive, and then demonstrating later that same day just a few blocks away on West Florissant Avenue - where clashes between police and protesters would eventually capture the world's attention.
Youth Radio first interviewed Darren Seals in August 2014, just steps from where Michael Brown had been shot. Talking to Youth Radio reporter Myles Bess and myself, Seals described watching Brown's body baking in the sun for four hours while medical examiners and police investigated the crime scene.
"Back in the day, when a slave master would hang a slave, he would leave him there for a long time so people could see it, and strike fear in their hearts. But what they [Ferguson Police] don't understand is them doing that, it didn't make us scared. It made us more furious."
When asked what he thought when he first heard news of Brown's death, Seals responded with his characteristic fire and directness.
"My first reaction was fight back. It's the same reaction you have as when someone comes up to you and punches you in your face. You hit 'em back.
The way we've been raised in life, we've been taught from day one we were nothing. We come from slavery. Church tell you you're nothing but a sinner. Police tell you you're nothing but a n*****.
They don't got nothing here. That's why everybody fights back. We don't got nothing to lose. We've been teargassed, we've been shot, we come back the next day like nothing's happened. And you know why? Because we don't got nothing to lose."
Two years later, activists in Ferguson are grappling with the meaning of Darren Seals' death.
In the early morning of Tuesday September, 6th - around 1:18 a.m. - Seals' black Jeep Wrangler was found engulfed in flames in a parking lot outside a Riverview, Mo. apartment complex, a northern St. Louis suburb about five miles east of Ferguson. Only after extinguishing the flames did authorities discover Seals' body inside the wreckage, dead from an apparent gunshot wound.
Was Evidence Left At The Crime Scene?
Photographs from the site where Seals' body was found spread quickly across social media. Shared thousands of times on Twitter and Instagram, images show what appears to be the charred door from Seals' Jeep and shell casings that were purportedly left behind by investigators, prompting many to accuse police of conducting a shoddy investigation.
The St. Louis County Police Department, which is leading the Seals homicide investigation, categorically denies that evidence was left behind. Department spokesperson Officer Benjamin Granda told Youth Radio,
"The crime scene was thoroughly processed by seasoned, trained detectives. There were no shell casings left on scene. Those photos were posted to social media days after the original incident.
That particular area, unfortunately, sees higher amounts of gunfire and the casings could be from anywhere. Our detectives have viewed the photos and are confident they are not a part of our investigation."
However, a group of community members disputes the claim by police. Darnell Singleton, a 46-year-old a freelance videographer from Dellwood, Mo., first visited the crime scene with a group of community leaders, fellow activists, and friends of Darren Seals.
Singleton posted the now famous crime scene photos to his Twitter account at 7:30 a.m. Central Time September 7th, only one day after the murder of Seals: not multiple days as claimed by county police.
But more to the point, Singleton says that he actually captured those images on the very same day that Seals was murdered. He provided Youth Radio with screenshots (below) which suggest that the original photographs were snapped just after 3 p.m on September 6th, only a few short hours after police completed their crime scene investigation.
In response to the statement from St. Louis County Police that the shell casings could be from another incident, Singleton questioned,
"So you're telling me that in nine hours someone was over there shooting and no one said anything? No one reported it to the police?"
Singleton says he came to the crime scene not to play detective, but to pay his respects. He says the group was surprised to find the charred door lying there on the asphalt. Surprised that police had left it behind. Then he claims someone noticed a spent shell casing in the parking lot. And before long, "there's another one, and here's another one, and here's another one."
Of the investigation, Singleton said, "It really kind of communicated to us that they (the police) are not going to investigate."
Vernon J. Geberth, a retired New York City police commander and author of a widely used textbook on homicide investigations, reviewed Darnell Singleton's photographs at Youth Radio's request. He was careful to note that one photograph or even a small series of photographs does not offer enough information to draw categorical conclusions. However, for Geberth the images are extremely troubling.
"You only have one chance to get it right in a murder investigation. Anything and everything is considered evidence until proven otherwise."
"Preservation of the crime scene is paramount in an investigation. If you do not collect every piece of evidence, you are going to be embarrassed."
As for the door to Seals' vehicle which was left behind by investigators, St. Louis County Police Sergeant Shawn McGuire told Youth Radio, "I leave it up to the professionals that have experience with crime scenes on what they determine needs to be seized."
McGuire told Youth Radio that detectives with the department's Bureau of Crimes Against Persons and Regional Bomb and Arson Unit, "investigate multiple crime scenes, and have gone to multiple classes and hours of training that specifically train them on how to handle a crime scene. If they didn't seize the evidence, the items were not needed as evidence."
Why Don't Police Have Leads?
Of the diverse group that traveled to the crime scene the day Darren Seals' body was discovered, Amir Brandy said there was one thing they had in common, "We all met in the streets of Ferguson."
Darrell Singleton, who recently spread Darren Seals' crime scene photographs online, is known for documenting area protests on camera. Brandy, a 50-year-old St. Louis resident who regularly reviews police investigations for his work as a paralegal, is also one of the Peacekeepers, known for de-escalating tensions between police and protesters, sometimes locking arms to form a human barrier between the two groups.
Standing near the ashy debris where Darren Seals' Jeep had burned to the ground, these activists' individual skills proved valuable as they approached residents of the nearby apartment building, and conducted their own investigation of what happened.
Brandy and Singleton say that day they met two people who claimed to be eye-witnesses and separately told very similar stories about what they saw. Singleton recorded one of those conversations on video, which he posted online and later removed at the request of the eye-witness who said he was receiving death threats.
Singleton, did however share the video with Youth Radio so it could be analyzed for this story.
The eye-witness is a compelling character. He describes what he saw with a striking level of detail - like that Darren Seals' Jeep was being trailed by a Chrysler 300, which he guesses had a Hemi-type engine due to the roar the car made.
The witness says he assumed the whole affair was over a stolen vehicle.
"[The suspect] got out the car with some white socks on his hands."
He describes that the man didn't know how to drive stick, that he had trouble getting Seals' vehicle into gear, almost landing it in the bushes.
"I was like 'Ah man, how are you going to steal a car when you don't know how to drive it?'"
Then, another man emerged from the trees and set the Jeep on fire, says the witness who only later realized that Darren Seals' dead body was inside the Jeep the whole time he watched.
Brandy and Singleton say that members of the group took it upon themselves to call the personal cell phone of St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar that night. They say they described the sloppy evidence gathering, and asked that the department send officers immediately to collect both what they found and what they recorded. However, Brandy and Singleton both contend that officers did not return to the crime scene until the following day.
"There seemed to be no urgency at all about what we were seeing and saying," said Darnell Singleton. Amir Brandy agrees, and says he's surprised that the county police department isn't investigating Seals' case more aggressively, especially given the brutality of the murder.
"He didn't kill. He over-killed. He killed the guy and then burned him up. I mean, who does that?"
Rumors, Suspicions, And Enemies
Despite the gruesome manner in which Darren Seals was murdered, he isn't alone. In fact Seals was the sixth St. Louis area man to die in similar circumstances in the last two years. Darnell Robinson (9/4/2014), Antonio Jones (11/10/2014), Terrell Beasley (12/19/2014), and Vincent Cascella (2/15/15) were all found shot to death inside burning vehicles. Even though some of these murders have led to arrests, rumors swirl about the possibility that they are somehow connected.
The sixth case has stirred the greatest number of conspiracy theories. On November 25, 2014, the partially burned body of 20-year-old Deandre Joshua was found shot inside a vehicle in Ferguson -not far from where Mike Brown was killed.
Joshua was murdered just hours after it was announced that former Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson would not be charged for Michael Brown's death. No arrests have been made in the Dorian Joshua homicide investigation, and like Darren Seals, the St. Louis County Police are also handling that case.
In the years following the death of Michael Brown, Darren Seals remained a central figure in St. Louis-based activism. He was known to be unflinching and outspoken, willing to take on a wide range of opponents - even fellow activists.
"When the rebellion started, we were the first ones to hit the ground and we stayed there ever since," said friend and fellow activist Bassem Masri. However, complained Masri, "Out of towners became the faces of the movement. Seals called those people actor-vists, questioning their true commitment to local issues.
It's not difficult to find St. Louis area activists who are critical of Black Lives Matter, an organization with no local chapters St. Louis or Ferguson, but Seals was one of the loudest critics.
He argued that Black Lives Matter organizers swooped in from across the nation, using resources local activists didn't have access to, in order to sway the agenda - often away from the issues that mattered most to locals.
A target for racist attacks, Seals published screenshots from one 2014 Facebook exchange, in which a user threatened Seals, referencing the KKK.
Seals also remained on the radar of the Ferguson Police Department. An eyewitness video posted on Facebook Live in July, shows Seals and his fourteen-year-old brother in handcuffs surrounded by at least four police vehicles.
After being released by Ferguson officers, Seals makes his way to the eyewitness (minute 10:05).
It's a moment of incredible savvy and composure. He asked the eyewitness who is live-streaming if he would also use Seals' own phone to record live.
Then, Seals provides a full account of what he says happened. He accused officers of surrounding his vehicle at gunpoint, pulling him from the driver's seat by his hair, and holding him in handcuffs while they conducted a search without his permission. Afterward, he said in the video and in subsequent Tweets, officers asked him whether he had protested against Donald Trump, and then advised him to, "Choose your enemies wisely."
Me and my little brother just got slammed, guns pointed at our faces, and detained by Ferguson PD for being activist against Trump
Posted by Darren Seals on Tuesday, June 7, 2016
Seals also wasn't a stranger to gun violence. He frequently told media outlets, including Youth Radio, that he had been shot seven times in 2013, but St. Louis County Police say they don't know anything about the incident.
Most of Darren Seals' friends and fellow activists wouldn't comment directly about the shooting. They talked about how he once slung dope and ran with a rough crowd, and how those days were behind him. The recounted that after getting out of the hospital, Seals vowed to fight against gun violence, and that he worked six days a week at a G.M. assembly plant.
"The Passion of a Lion"
Seals rose to prominence protesting the death of Michael Brown, but two years after Darren Wilson killed the unarmed teen, not much has changed in the St. Louis area when it comes to the issue of trust between community members and police.
This past week, new videos were released in another case against a former St. Louis police officer who is facing charges of first-degree murder amid allegations that he planted a gun after shooting a man during a failed drug arrest.
"We're in the same situation that we were in two years ago. Nothing changed," said friend and fellow activist Bassem Masri. "We've been having instance after instance of police murdering people."
Masri, 29, says he is trying to hire a private investigator to look into the murder of his friend. He says Darren Seals, "Had the passion of a lion," and was a fierce protector. "He watched my back and risked his safety so that I could capture the essence of the protests," said Masri whose Livestream videos out of Ferguson have logged millions of hits.
Masri says people swarmed to Ferguson in those early days of protests searching for "riot porn."
"They left as soon as they found it," he said. "But, after the cameras left, Darren was still there trying to create change and heal our community."
Darren Seals told Youth Radio back in August of 2014 that he wanted to build a youth center in Ferguson. It was a goal Seals never gave up on, said Masri, who now hopes to complete the community center in his friend's honor - naming it The Darren Seals Youth Center.
Click here to listen to the full 2014 interview Youth Radio conducted with Darren Seals.