By Stephen Janis
Special to the AFRO
It started with the hunt for a mysterious assailant who police claimed shot Baltimore homicide detective Sean Suiter in a West Baltimore alley in cold blood two years ago. But it has since turned into a case that continues to raise doubts throughout the community, becoming a symbol of just how deep the distrust is between residents and law enforcement in a city wary of police.
When Suiter was found on the afternoon of November 16th, 2017 suffering from a fatal gunshot wound to the back of the head, police initially cited a lone black male as the possible shooter and began a neighborhood wide lockdown.
But the suspect vanished into thin air, never to be mentioned again. Instead, the department shut down the area for nearly a week, raising suspicions that the death of the veteran cop was more than just a random act of violence at the hands of an unknown assailant.
And now after many twists and turns – including internal findings the veteran cop committed suicide – the death of the former homicide detective is again causing controversy.
Last week the Maryland State Police endorsed the conclusions of a special review board made up of former Baltimore detectives which determined Suiter took his own life. State investigators cited the same evidence the so-called internal review board said irrefutably pointed to suicide. Suiter was shot with his own gun, and surveillance video which proved that an assailant could not have shot him and escaped undetected.
But like many of the official pronouncements made since the veteran cop was shot on a vacant lot in broad daylight, the MSP’s endorsement has prompted pushback.
Last week Suiter’s family gathered outside city hall to call for the investigation to continue. They cited lack of evidence that Suiter was contemplating killing himself and the Maryland State Medical Examiner’s ruling his death was a homicide as proof the case should remain open.
“Two years later, on this day, I’m angry; I’m frustrated,” Suiter’s daughter Damira told The Baltimore Sun.
Several days after the state police weighed in, Baltimore Police Commissioner Michael Harrison declared the case closed. But The Sun reported the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office sent a memo to the city’s top cop, declaring that the investigation was still ongoing.
The continuing controversy of over Suiter’s death is not surprising. Since Suiter was fatally wounded by a lone bullet from his own gun, his death has been a point of contention for residents and community leaders alike.
“We may never know the truth,” Maryland State Senator Jill P. Carter told the AFRO.
Investigators say three shots were fired, all which came from Suiter’s gun. Blood spatter found on the inside of his right shirt sleeve was indicative of a self-inflicted wound. An indecipherable radio transmission made by Suiter shortly before, was deemed too garbled to be useful.
Yet for some contradictory evidence and a lack of transparency continues to prompt doubts.
“What I find troubling about this case is that there’s an independent investigation allegedly happening in the State’s Attorney’s Office that we know almost nothing about,” Justine Baron, an investigative reporter who published a groundbreaking six-part series on the case for The Jewish Journal.
“We learned that SAO was looking at video evidence and DNA evidence. We learned that SAO was keeping the case open as a homicide, even though the Suiter family said that nobody from that office spoke to them,” she added
But for others, the evidence still suggests suicide.
“I’ve investigated similar cases where a suspect takes an officer’s gun,” former Baltimore City Homicide Detective Stephen Tabeling told the AFRO. “And I just can’t believe that someone could take his gun and shoot him at close range like that, he would have been fighting for his life.”
Carter says the revelations that Suiter was set to testify in front of a federal grand jury in a case involving the notorious Gun Trace Task Force just a day before he died makes the suicide finding suspect.
“The only constant is that we cannot trust the representation or investigations of the Baltimore Police Department when it investigates itself, “Carter told the AFRO. “I support independent investigations of all police involved shootings and killings.”
Then commissioner Kevin Davis waited for over a week to disclose the fact that Suiter had been subpoenaed to testify. Cater believes the delay in disclosing his relationship with the notorious Gun Trace Task Force whose members were convicted of dealing drugs and robbing residents raises doubts about the department’s credibility.
“There are still too many unanswered questions, “Carter said.
Suiter’s pending testimony involved a 2010 car stop initiated by Suiter and Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, the acknowledged ringleader of the GTTF.
The pair tried to block the car of Baltimore resident Umar Burley whom Jenkins falsely claimed was involved in a drug deal. After a high-speed chase Burley ‘s car collided with a vehicle driven by the 87-year old father of a Baltimore police officer, who later died.
After the accident Jenkins had drugs planted in Burley’s trunk. Burley was later convicted of narcotics possession and manslaughter. But the charges were dropped after eight members of the GTTF, including Jenkins, were charged.
Federal prosecutors said at the time Suiter was not a target of the probe. Family members insist Suiter had done nothing wrong and was innocent.
But for Carter the case remains emblematic of a larger problem, a disconnect between the community and the police department. A lack of trust which fuels suspicion Suiter’s death was not a suicide as police contend, but the result of something more nefarious.
“This is why we need an independent oversight board run by and for civilians,” said Carter. “The police department can’t investigative itself.”