The two officers shot in Ferguson, Mo., this week may have been unintended victims, according to the confession of a 20-year-old man who said he pulled the trigger but was not aiming at the police.
Police on Sunday charged Jeffrey Leehoust Williams of St. Louis County in the shooting Thursday that seriously wounded two officers during a protest in Ferguson.
According to a criminal complaint, Williams was in an older model Pontiac Grand Am just after midnight when he fired three shots in the direction of the Ferguson Police Department. Two of the three shots struck officers standing in a police riot line.
St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch told reporters Sunday afternoon that Williams claims police were not the intended targets. Williams told investigators he was involved in a feud at the time and had fired the shots in connection with that dispute, according to McCulloch.
“I’m not sure we completely buy that part of it,” the prosecutor said. “I wouldn't say he wasn't targeting police. I’m saying right now the evidence we have supports filing the charge that he may have been shooting at someone other than police and struck the police.”
McCulloch said some statements made by Williams are supported by physical evidence, but others aren't.
A .40-caliber gun officers recovered when they arrested Williams about 10:30 p.m. Saturday matches shell casings from the scene, police said. The shots were heard and were believed to have been fired from about 125 yards away, across the street from the Police Department.
St. Louis County Police Chief John Belmar initially described the shooting as an “ambush” and said he felt confident the “shots were directed exactly at my officers.”
But on Sunday, McCulloch acknowledged: “it is possible that he was firing at someone other than the police.”
Williams is charged with two counts of first-degree assault, one count of firing a weapon from a vehicle and three counts of armed criminal action. He faces up to life in prison if convicted. Williams remained in the St. Louis County Jail late Sunday with a cash-only bail set at $300,000.
Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement that the charges send “a clear message that acts of violence against our law enforcement personnel will never be tolerated.”
Officials haven't ruled out more arrests as the investigation continues. McCulloch said police are still not certain Williams was alone in the car.
Neither of the two officers received life-threatening wounds. Both were rushed to the hospital in serious condition, but are now recovering at home. A 32-year-old officer from nearby Webster Groves was struck in the face, and a 41-year-old officer from St. Louis County was shot in the shoulder.
The Ferguson Police Department building has been a point of convergence for protesters and national media since the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown. The incident sparked on-and-off clashes between demonstrators and police, but violence had been muted in recent months, until last Wednesday.
Witnesses told reporters the evening had been mostly peaceful before the officers were shot, though the crowd had grown larger in the hour following the resignation of embattled Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson on Wednesday afternoon.
Williams, who lives five miles from the Ferguson Police Department, according to an address provided by police, participated in the protests before firing the shots, McCulloch said.
“He is a demonstrator,” McCulloch said. “He was out there earlier that evening as part of the demonstration. He’s been out there on other occasions as part of the demonstrations.”
McCulloch’s claim was quickly rejected by St. Louis pastor Derrick Robinson, who has organized many of the Ferguson demonstrations.
“He’s never been protesting,” Robinson said live on CNN. “It sets up like five steps back to say that it was a protester who did it.”
Robinson, pastor of the Kingdom Destiny Fellowship, said he knows Williams from the community and church.
“He admitted to me that he had never protested,” said Robinson, who visited Williams in jail on Sunday.
Robinson said the shooting may have been motivated by Williams’s claims that he was robbed that evening.
“But he could not identify who robbed him,” Robinson said.
The pastor said he wished Williams had come to him or one of the many police officers at the protest instead of apparently trying to retaliate.
“This doesn’t look good,” Robinson said. “It’s going to be a bit harder to build the trust within the community all the way around.”
(This story has been updated since it was originally published.)
Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).