The leaders of the Independent Review Board hired by the Baltimore Police Department to investigate Det. Sean Suiter’s mystifying death last November said today that their findings “have built a compelling case” that Suiter committed suicide the evening of Nov. 15, 2017, at Bennett Place.
Almost equally compelling is the narrative that police officials misled the public about the entire investigation in those first hours and days afterward. Shortly after Suiter was shot, then-Commissioner Kevin Davis told the world the veteran homicide detective was mortally wounded by a “cold, callous killer” while following up on a 2016 triple murder. He said that individual and Suiter had conversed briefly, that the shooter may have been wounded himself in an ensuing struggle and that police were “canvassing doctor’s offices and hospitals,” the report noted.
But “it is not clear why Commissioner Davis made these statements,” the seven-member review board wrote this week after a four-and-a-half month investigation. “Neither the IRB nor the homicide detectives involved saw any evidence that: 1) Detective Suiter approached a man in the vacant lot; 2) they had any conversation; or 3) that the shooter may have been wounded.”
The board’s newly published findings suggest Davis may have been speaking at best preemptively, and at worst misleadingly. Doctors at University of Maryland Shock Trauma, who received Suiter that night, initially determined a bullet had entered the left side of his skull. Running with that information, police “assumed a suicide was highly unlikely,” since the bullet would have entered on the right, rather than the left, if Suiter had intentionally shot himself, the report said.
It wasn’t until the medical examiner performed an autopsy four days later—delayed by organ donation—that was found to be incorrect. The bullet had actually struck through the right side of his head.
Asked today if this amounted to “sloppiness” by the medical examiner, James “Chips” Stewart, chair of the IRB, said, “I would not characterize it that way.”
In the “rush” by hospital staff to save Suiter’s life, “that was perfectly understandable that these kinds of errors would be made,” Stewart said. “The difficulty is that all of a sudden it gets into a permanent narrative and you hear about it, and you keep saying, why are you changing the story.”
The medical examiner officially rendered its opinion that Suiter’s death was a homicide on Jan. 9 of this year, the IRB report said. It remains classified as such, and Acting Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said today that only the medical examiner, not the department, can change it.
Subsequent discoveries offered additional signs Suiter’s death may not have been an act of murder. The IRB’s report said evidence showed the barrel of the detective’s gun had touched his head, and his DNA was found inside, and blood spatter was found inside his shirt sleeve, “indicating that Suiter’s hand and arm were in as high a position as was the entrance wound at the time the fatal shot was fired.”
It became public knowledge last November that Suiter was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury as part of the Gun Trace Task Force police corruption probe the day after the shooting. Suiter had been involved in a 2010 case in which corrupt cops pursued two men, years later proven to be innocent and exonerated, in a high-speed chase that ended with them striking another car, killing one of the people inside. The GTTF members arranged for another officer to come plant heroin in their trunk. Suiter responded to the scene and found the drugs, which were used to charge the men.
While Davis said last November that Suiter had been tricked, one GTTF cop, Momodu Gondo, told federal investigators the late detective had knowingly planted the drugs, and had also taken part in robberies while serving as an officer in the Western District in 2008, the IRB report said.
FBI agents reached out to Suiter for an interview in October 2017, which he declined. He was then served with a grand jury subpoena. Suiter hired attorney Jeremy Eldridge to represent him. In an arrangement, federal prosecutors offered Suiter limited immunity to discuss the 2010 incident.
Eldridge had been advised “that Suiter was not a target of the investigation,” the IRB report said, but he was a “subject” of the investigation, defined as “a person whose conduct is within the scope of the grand jury’s investigation.”
The IRB report revealed Suiter had been texting and calling with his lawyer in the days leading up to his death, but stopped responding minutes before the shooting. Around the time a mortally wounded Suiter was being placed in a squad car to be taken to a hospital, Eldridge texted him the time he was due to meet with federal prosecutors and appear before the grand jury the next day.
After not hearing anything back, Eldridge texted, “Dude, what the **** is going on.”
Stewart disclosed today that the IRB asked Eldridge “several times to interview, and he declined on client privilege.” Strangely, “after the report was completed and handed in, he called up and said, ‘I’d be glad to talk now,'” Stewart said. “So I don’t know what’s going on there.”
Tuggle said homicide investigators have “already attempted a follow-up” with Eldridge, “and they’ll continue to do so.”
Along with the report, the board released video footage filmed further down the 900 block on Bennett Place that reviewers said showed Suiter pacing behind a white van before entering the vacant lot where the shooting occurred.
“The Bennett Place Video shows [Suiter’s partner that day, Det. David] Bomenka running towards Schroeder Street (away from the lot) just eight to nine seconds after he began running towards the lot where Suiter was shot,” the report said. “Accordingly, all of the actions that led to Detective Suiter’s death must have occurred in a time period of less than nine seconds.”
Given the context and evidence surrounding Suiter’s death, why did Davis continue pursuing the narrative that Suiter had been killed?
After one reporter at today’s press conference posited that portraying the case publicly as a homicide case, rather than a potential suicide, may have provided a more sympathetic storyline for police, Stewart responded, “I’m not able to speculate what was in the commissioner’s mind.”
He did refer to a previous interview with Davis, noting the former police commissioner said “suicide was always a possibility in his mind, but that he felt that it was unlikely—that the most likely situation was in fact that there was an unknown killer that had done this.”
For his part, Davis criticized the IRB’s findings in an interview with The Sun this week, after the gist of the report leaked. He defended Suiter’s reputation, and said his former department had faced pressure to reclassify it in light of the infamous GTTF corruption.
“I think if we’re not careful, and we make a premature determination that this is a suicide when the facts don’t stand up to that, then we could be letting someone get away with murder,” he told the paper.
Suiter’s widow, Nicole, today spoke out against the IRB’s suicide determination as well. “He wouldn’t have went out like that, he would not leave his family like this,” she said in a clip posted by WMAR’s Brian Kuebler on Twitter. “He had no reason to.”
The review board’s leaders acknowledged persisting public mistrust about the Suiter investigation, including their ultimate determination that he committed suicide. Reporters brought up a factual error within the report–it says former GTTF member Daniel Hersl “pled guilty and agreed to cooperate with the Government,” and sent a letter to BPD through his lawyer on Dec. 10, 2017, saying Suiter and Gondo had been “in recent contact.” But Hersl didn’t plead guilty or cooperate; he went to trial and was ultimately sentenced to 18 years for racketeering and other crimes.
Asked by Salon‘s D. Watkins if there were other significant mistakes in the report, IRB co-chair James “Chip” Coldren responded: “That’s your judgment to make, sir. If you find other mistakes and if they’re overwhelming and overbearing, then come to your conclusion. We stand behind this report, unanimously, 100 percent. And if we made a mistake like that, we’ll fix it.”
The IRB’s report made several recommendations for changes within the Baltimore Police Department, chief among them the implementation of the Incident Command System (ICS), a standardized structure of command for emergency responses like the aftermath of a shooting. BPD commanders reportedly thought this system was only applicable to large-scale events such as the Preakness, the review board’s report said.
“The great utility of ICS resides in its ability to integrate and collaborate across many diverse response components; namely planning, logistics, operations, media, investigations and intelligence, finances, and administration,” the board said in its findings.
At her press conference this morning, Mayor Catherine Pugh said she was waiting to meet with members of the IRB before accepting their internal findings that Suiter killed himself.
While she said she agreed with many of the recommendations for changes within the department put forth by the board, she added that it would be incumbent on the next police commissioner to make any changes, and that judicial oversight from the consent decree with the Department of Justice will hold the city accountable.
“As I’ve said before, when the police chief comes in who will run this department, they will have full authority to make all the changes that are needed, to implement the changes that are necessary and to implement this consent decree that is to bring about reform for this police department,” she said.
But Pugh dismissed the idea that Baltimore could disband its police department the way Camden, New Jersey did.
“They have nowhere near the number of police officers that we have, and nowhere near the population that we have,” she said. “This is not Camden, New Jersey. But there is a need for reform in this police department.”
Pugh said the allegations made in the report about the way Davis relayed information on the investigation to the public did not play a role in her decision to fire him in January. They didn’t discuss the case that many times, she said.
Like the general public, Pugh said she was finding out about certain aspects of the investigation for the first time.
“According to this report,” she said, “we’ve all been misled.”