Ferguson gunman who shot police officers remains at large

Chief now admits protesters could have been intended targets

Paramedics lift one of two police officers who were shot while standing guard in front of the Ferguson Police Station during a protest on Thursday, March 12, 2015, in Ferguson, Mo. A 32-year-old officer from nearby Webster Groves was shot in the face and a 41-year-old officer from St. Louis County was shot in the shoulder, St. Louis County Police Chief Jon Belmar said at a news conference. Both were taken to a hospital, where Belmar said they were conscious. (Laurie Skrivan/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/AP)

An intense manhunt for the gunman who shot and severely wounded two police officers in Ferguson, Mo., has yet to yield a suspect, St. Louis County Chief of Police Jon Belmar announced late Friday.

“I cannot tell you at this time that an arrest is imminent,” Belmar said at a news conference.

Investigators are following dozens of leads, but still need the public’s help, the chief said.

“We've received scores of tips … but we haven’t been inundated,” he said.

The shooting occurred early Thursday in front of the Ferguson Police Department just as a small group of protesters began to disperse.

The injured men, who have not been identified, were standing side by side in a line of 25 officers when three shots rang out.

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. Both were rushed to a local hospital in serious condition, but released about 12 hours later.

“I would hope that they’re going to have a full recovery,” the chief said Friday.

Belmar initially described the shooting as an “ambush” and felt confident the “shots were directed exactly at my officers.”

But under questioning by reporters a day later, the chief said he is unclear if the shooter was deliberately aiming at police or protesters.

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “Regardless of whether we have two police officers or whether or not we have folks in the crowd [shot], it’s a tragedy either way because it undermines everything that everybody is trying to do in this.”

Investigators are fairly certain the shots were fired from a handgun about 120 yards across the street from the Police Department. That would be a lengthy — but not impossible — shot with a pistol, the chief said.

“I wouldn’t characterize this as a miracle shot by any stretch of the imagination,” he said. “I don’t necessarily prescribe to the fact that this has to be a marksman somewhere with a scope. It may turn out to be, but I don't think that would have to have been necessary in this case.”

Belmar also backed off previous comments about the gunman’s potential motivation.

“It’s kind of really hard to speculate what kind of nexus there may or may not have existed regarding the shooters and any individuals who may have been out there,” the chief said. “I don’t know who did it at this point. It doesn’t seem to be a coincidence that it happened there.”

Several protest leaders have publicly denounced the attack. More than 100 people gathered in Ferguson Thursday night for a candlelight vigil to end violence.

[Related: Grisly police photos from Ferguson shooting spark emotional response]

The Ferguson Police Department has been a point of convergence for protesters and national media since the Aug. 9 shooting death of Michael Brown, who was black and unarmed, by a white police officer. The incident sparked on-and-off clashes between demonstrators and police. But violence had been muted in recent months until Wednesday night.

Witnesses told reporters the evening had been mostly peaceful before the shooting, though the crowd had grown larger by the hour following the resignation of embattled Ferguson Police Chief Thomas Jackson on Wednesday afternoon.

Jackson is the sixth Ferguson employee to resign or be fired in the wake of last week's critical Department of Justice report that accused the city of racist and unconstitutional police and court practices.

A separate federal investigation cleared Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Brown, 18. The officer resigned from the department after a St. Louis County grand jury declined to indict him in late November.

Jason Sickles is a reporter for Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter (@jasonsickles).