By Chris Hoenig
A history that raises questions about his ability to fairly lead the investigation into the shooting death of Michael Brown has led to calls for St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney Robert McCulloch to step aside. But he’s not going anywhere, and he has a significant ally on his side.
McCulloch has been the county’s prosecutor since 1991. He first made headlines later that year for chasing Guns N’ Roses frontman Axl Rose across the country, charging him with misdemeanor assault and property damage following a concert-turned-riot that injured 40 concertgoers and 25 policemen.
But it’s McCulloch’s past when it comes to police-involved violence and shootings that have thousands believing he should allow a special prosecutor to be appointed to investigate Brown’s death and lead any prosecution.
McCulloch comes from a police family: His mother was a clerk with the St. Louis Police Department, and his father, brother, nephew and cousin were all officers there. He planned to become an officer, as well, until he lost his leg in a battle against cancer as a teenager.
“I couldn’t become a policeman, so being county prosecutor is the next best thing,” McCulloch told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
On July 2, 1964, McCulloch’s father, St. Louis Police Officer Paul McCulloch, was shot and killed in the line of duty. A canine officer with 15 years of experience on the force, Paul McCulloch was chasing Eddie Glenn, suspected of kidnapping a woman just an hour earlier and then firing on other police officers, through a housing project. As he rounded a corner, McCulloch was shot in the head by Glenn.
Robert McCulloch was just 12 at the time. He watched as Glenn—who was Black—was found guilty and sentenced to death a year later, though the sentence was reduced to life in prison by the Missouri Supreme Court.
His father’s death played a major role in McCulloch’s campaign for county prosecutor, featuring prominently in his campaign ads.
A decade after his highly publicized pursuit of Axl Rose—he told reporters at the time that arresting Rose would be easy because “wherever he goes, we’ll be waiting for him. If he wants to cancel his whole schedule, fine. If he leaves the country, we’ll notify Customs to get him when he comes back”—McCulloch made headlines again after a police-involved shooting.
Two undercover Dellwood police officers—both white—shot and killed two Black suspects in the parking lot of a Jack in the Box fast-food restaurant in 2001. The officers’ report said that Earl Murray and Ronald Beasley, both of whom had past drug and assault convictions, drove their car at the officers as they tried to flee. The two officers fired 21 shots, killing Murray and Beasley.
Tensions began rising when a federal investigation determined that Murray and Beasley were not moving forward when shots were fired into their car, and both men were unarmed.
McCulloch then inflamed prosecutors and attorneys when he said of Murray and Beasley, “These guys were bums.” He declined to prosecute the officers, citing the investigation’s conclusion that the use of deadly force was justified because the officers feared for their safety.
“The print media and self-anointed activists have been portraying the two gentlemen as folk heroes and have been vilifying the police,” McCulloch said at the time. “I think it is important for the public to know that these two and others like them for years have spread destruction in the community dealing crack cocaine and heroin.”
McCulloch also denied that his father’s death impacted his approach as prosecutor to police-involved shootings.
“My father was killed many, many years ago, and it’s certainly not something you forget, but it’s certainly not something that clouds my judgment in looking at a case,” McCulloch told the Post-Dispatch. “It certainly makes you more aware of the severity of it.”
But several lawmakers don’t believe that’s the case.
“We don’t have any confidence in the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney’s office,” U.S. Representative William Lacy Clay said, accusing McCulloch of tainting any potential jury pool when he released surveillance video of Brown allegedly robbing a convenience store at the same time he released the name of the officer who shot Brown, Darren Wilson. The Clay family has represented Missouri’s 1st Congressional District, which includes northern St. Louis County, in the U.S. House of Representatives for nearly a half-century—Clay replaced his father, who retired in 2000 after serving for 32 years.
State Senator Jamilah Nasheed, a Democrat representing St. Louis, has launched an online petition calling for a special prosecutor to be appointed to replace McCulloch.
“The death of Michael Brown at the hands of Ferguson, Mo., police has stoked tensions and caused unrest across our community, state and nation,” the petition reads. “This racially charged climate demands an independent, impartial investigation that the St. Louis County prosecutor’s office simply cannot provide.”
More than 64,000 people have signed the petition as of Wednesday morning.
“He doesn’t have the fortitude to do the right thing when it comes to prosecuting police officers,” Nasheed told CNN on Tuesday.
St. Louis County Executive Charlie Dooley said McCulloch’s support of the Ferguson and the St. Louis County police departments in handling the protests that followed Brown’s death—including taking an aggressive stance, tear-gassing protesters, raising assault rifles at crowds and positioning snipers in full military armor atop armored personnel carriers—just further proves he is not competent to lead the investigation. McCulloch publicly criticized Governor Jay Nixon’s decision to have the Missouri Highway Patrol take the lead in policing Ferguson.
“He injected himself in a matter in a way that further exacerbates the community distrust of him,” Pat Washington, Dooley’s spokeswoman, said. “Rather than stay focused on the investigation, the prosecuting attorney decided to wade over into a whole other area and challenge the governor. He inflamed the community, which already distrusts him.”
But Nixon is refusing to step in and remove McCulloch from the case, suggesting instead that McCulloch needs to recuse himself as prosecutor on his own. “There is a well-established process by which prosecutors can recuse themselves,” Nixon said in a statement. He said he worried that the governor’s office forcing McCulloch off the case could “potentially jeopardize the prosecution.”
That, however, does not appear to be happening anytime soon.
“Mr. McCulloch is going to continue to do his job as he was elected to do,” Ed Magee, McCulloch’s spokesman, told CNN.