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The 2014 riots in Ferguson, Mo., began the day after 18-year-old Michael Brown was fatally shot by policeman Darren Wilson. The shooting sparked a national debate about the relationship between law enforcement and African-Americans and the use of deadly force.
Ferguson is in the social media spotlight nearly five years later, as people connected to the protests have been found dead.
One Facebook post, shared more than 3,500 times, cries foul play, saying that the deaths of "six of the most prominent activists" was no coincidence as they were all found "burned to death in their cars," implying that they were victims of a larger conspiracy theory.
The full post reads:
"I need people to wake up and realise that SIX of the most prominent activists during the Ferguson riots have all been found burned to death in their cars. There are no coincidences here. It’s systemic."
The July 15 post was flagged as part of Facebook’s efforts to combat false news and misinformation on its News Feed. (Read more about our partnership with Facebook.)
Here’s what we found: Some people involved in the Ferguson protests, or connected to people who were, have died since 2014. But they were not all found burned to death in their cars as the post claims. The other cases were ruled as suicides, an accidental drowning and a fentanyl overdose.
Let’s break this down.
On Nov. 24, 2014, the morning after a grand jury declined to indict Wilson, 20-year-old DeAndre Joshua was found dead, reportedly inside a burned car after being shot in the head.
The timing, as well as Joshua reportedly being close friends with Dorian Johnson, who was with Michael Brown on the day of the shooting, led many to speculate if the events were connected. But Joshua’s family dispelled rumors that he was a "key witness" in Brown’s case, saying in a New York Times article "he had known nothing about Mr. Brown’s death and never testified before the grand jury."
Shawn Gray, a 23-year-old who went missing the same week Joshua died, was later found drowned in the River Des Peres. The city’s medical examiner later ruled that the cause of death was an accidental drowning, with alcohol poisoning as a major contributing factor, the St. Louis Post Dispatch reported. There were unproven rumors that Gray, like Joshua, was killed after testifying in front of a grand jury in the Brown case. But Gray’s family also dismissed those rumors, saying he had no connection to the case.
Neither Joshua nor Gray were "prominent activists." It’s important to note that even if both men had testified, their deaths came after the grand jury chose not to indict Wilson.
In September 2016, 29-year-old Darren Seals suffered a similar death to Joshua: his body was found inside a burning car after having been shot. Seals was a prominent figure in the protests and is seen in a video comforting Brown’s mother after the grand jury’s decision.
At the time of Seals’ death, St. Louis County police acknowledged the similarities of the tragedies and told outlets "anything’s a possibility" and that detectives are "always going to look into different avenues, or if it’s the same kind of motive."
Sgt. Benjamin Granda, a St. Louis County Police Department spokesman, confirmed to PolitiFact that the agency investigated both homicides.
"There is no information that exists that would indicate they are related in any way," Granda wrote in an email. "Gunshot wounds were identified as the cause of death of both victims. Both investigations remain ongoing. We always remind people to please contact the St. Louis County Police Department at (636)529-8210 to speak to investigators regarding the incident."
Of the three remaining deaths, two have been ruled as suicides and one an overdose.
If you or someone you know needs emotional support, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-8255
Edward Crawford Jr.
Edward Crawford Jr., 27, was featured in a famous photograph from Ferguson throwing a gas canister back at police. Police determined that he died by suicide in May 2017.
In October 2018, 24-year-old Danye Jones was found dead in the yard of his St. Louis home. It was ruled a suicide. Jones’ mother, Melissa McKinnies, who was an active Ferguson demonstrator, said in a TV interview she thought it was foul play.
The latest death happened in November 2018 when Bassem Masri, a 31-year-old Palestinian-American who livestreamed videos of the Ferguson protests, was found unresponsive on a bus. Toxicology results showed he died of a fentanyl overdose.
A seventh man who died in February 2016 has sometimes been included in this theory. Ferguson protestor and Black Lives Matter activist MarShawn McCarrell II, 23, of Columbus, Ohio, reportedly died by suicide involving a gun outside of the Ohio statehouse.
A news investigation’s findings
"This American Life," a weekly public radio program produced in collaboration with Chicago Public Media, aired a segment on the conspiracy theory in March 2019. Writer Jelani Cobb traveled to Ferguson to speak with the community and found people pondered "all kinds of possible culprits … from white supremicists to local and federal law enforcement, to armed militia members" to explain the deaths.
Cobb went over some ways in which the theory doesn’t quite hold up: "St. Louis proper has one of the most alarming homicide rates in the country. In 2017, it was the most alarming, having the highest murder rate, according to an analysis of FBI data. By comparison, Chicago was No. 9. So, lots of people get shot in St. Louis."
A viral Facebook post says six "of the most prominent activists during the Ferguson riots have all been found burned to death in their cars. There are no coincidences here. It’s systemic."
Multiple people directly and indirectly connected to the Ferguson protests have died in the nearly five years since Brown’s death, but not all were involved in the Brown case, as unproven rumors claimed. They were also not all discovered "burned to death in their cars." Suicide, accidental drowning and drug overdose were also listed as official causes of death.
This claim contains an element of truth but ignores critical facts that would give a different impression. We rate it Mostly False.
Facebook post, July 15, 2019
NBC News, Deaths of six men tied to Ferguson protests alarm activists, March 17, 2019
"This American Life," "Anything Can Be Anything," March 29, 2019
Snopes, Were Deandre Joshua and Shawn Gray Murdered After Testifying in Ferguson?, Accessed July 22, 2019
The Washington Post, Police investigating death of man whose body was found after protests in Ferguson last week, Dec. 2, 2014
The New York Times, Another Killing in Ferguson Leaves a Family Grappling With the Unknown, Dec. 1, 2014
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Protester featured in iconic Ferguson photo found dead of self-inflicted gunshot wound, May 5, 2017
St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Death of man found in River Des Peres in St. Louis called 'suspicious', Dec. 4, 2014
Email interview, Benjamin Granda, St. Louis County Police Department public information officer, July 24, 2019
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