By Stephen Janis, Special to the AFRO
There have been few leads and even fewer clues as to how and why Baltimore Homicide Detective Sean Suiter was fatally shot in the head with his own gun in a vacant lot in West Baltimore more than a week ago.
Baltimore Homicide Detective Sean Suiter. (Courtesy Photo)
But one fact which has emerged from the case is only stoking community suspicions and raising more questions about the department tasked with solving the case: the widening of an investigation into eight officers charged with stealing from residents, racketeering, and drug dealing.
At an impromptu press conference on Wednesday, Baltimore Police Department Commissioner Kevin Davis revealed that Suiter was set to testify before a federal grand jury as part of an ongoing investigation into the now-notorious Gun Trace Task Force. The charges brought against that group have continued to reverberate throughout a department already under a federal consent decree and battling a record wave of crime.
“I am now aware of Detective Suiter’s pending federal grand jury testimony surrounding an incident that occurred seven years ago with BPD police officers who were federally indicted.” the commissioner said. “The acting US attorney and the special agent in charge of the Baltimore field office have told me in no uncertain terms Detective Suiter was not the target of any ongoing criminal investigation.”
The bombshell announcement came more than week after Suiter was killed. The 18-year veteran was shot in the head after what Davis characterized as a brief struggle.
But tangible leads in the slaying have been scarce, according to investigators familiar with the case. That fact has not stopped Davis from publicly expressing his theories on what happened—among them, that Suiter’s impending testimony and his murder are not linked.
“It appears to be nothing more than a spontaneous observation of man acting suspiciously, and a spontaneous decision to investigate his conduct,” Davis said.
Still, the fact that Davis’ comments came during the widening ongoing federal investigation of the department, and during a high-profile murder investigation, have raised questions both inside and outside the department.
“Everyone was surprised that he’s been talking so freely about the case,” a source familiar with the investigation who did not want to be named told the AFRO.
Suiter was not the only officer who worked with the Task Force who received a summons to appear before a federal grand jury. Sources told the AFRO that at least one other officer who had worked with the Gun Trace Task Force received a letter last week compelling them to testify, indicating federal prosecutors are far from done with the scandal.
It’s unclear which aspect of the case investigators are currently exploring. However, Baltimore NBC affiliate WBAL-TV and The Baltimore Sun reported that federal prosecutors have reopened an accident case that involved Suiter and Wayne Jenkins, one of the eight Task Force officers already indicted. In 2010, the pair engaged in car chase with a suspect who ultimately crashed into another vehicle, killing the 86-year old father of a Baltimore police officer. The suspect was charged with possession of heroin, but has asked a federal judge to reopen his case.
Meanwhile, questions still surround the few details police have disclosed about what happened in that vacant lot in the city’s Harlem Park neighborhood, a crime scene that remains cordoned off. An aspect of the case that troubled one former homicide investigator is how a suspect could take Suiter’s weapon and shoot him while his partner was nearby.
“We would cover someone,” said former Baltimore Homicide Lieutenant Stephen Tabeling. “I would have been right behind him.”
However, Davis has said that the detective who accompanied Suiter that day, who has yet to be identified, was allegedly not in the immediate vicinity when the shooting occurred.
“Upon the sound of gunfire, Suiter’s partner sought cover across the street and immediately called 911,” Davis said. “We know this because it was captured on private surveillance video that we’ve recovered.”
“The evidence refutes the notion that Detective Suiter’s partner was anything but just that, his partner,” Davis said.
Tabeling also noted that Baltimore police officers usually wear safety holsters, which are designed to prevent suspects from taking a gun during close contact.
“They make it pretty tough to get the gun,” Tabeling said.