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Officer saw suspicious person at garage before attack, documents say

Baltimore police Sgt. Keith Mcneill was sitting in his Toyota Tundra, about to leave the garage where his vehicle had been repaired, when he noticed someone lurking around the East Baltimore business.

The off-duty officer called the shop's owner, who had left moments earlier. The man immediately doubled back and returned to Higgs Automotive just in time to hear the gunfire that would pierce the Tundra's doors and leave Mcneill struggling for life.

Court documents released Tuesday provided a clearer picture of the circumstances surrounding the shooting Friday — even as a motive remained elusive. Gregg Thomas, 34, was ordered held without bail after police found the gun he used, prosecutors said.

Police say in court records that the auto shop owner, who is not named, saw a blue Lincoln Town Car fleeing the scene near Belair Road and North Avenue.

The shop owner tried to block the car from escaping, police say. He did not succeed, but his account helped officers find and stop a vehicle answering the description moments later.

Thomas was not inside, but police say the stop helped point investigators to his family as they zeroed in on him as a suspect.

Thomas says he is innocent. Amid a citywide manhunt, he turned himself in Sunday evening to face charges of attempted murder.

Mcneill, a 19-year veteran assigned to the Eastern District, is the first city officer shot in more than three years. Colleagues have stood vigil since Friday in the intensive-care unit at Maryland Shock Trauma, where he remains in critical condition.

"It's really difficult for all of us to see him in the condition that he was in," said Sgt. Monique Brown, a friend of Mcneill's since 10th grade. She described the 41-year-old veteran as a caring friend full of helpful advice.

Brown, who works in a child abuse unit, said she spoke with Mcneill earlier Friday. He told her he was headed to check on his truck. He often used the vehicle to haul around the two racing bikes he rode in competitions at tracks in West Virginia and elsewhere.

Brown, 39, met Mcneill as he courted her best friend, Danielle, now his wife. As decades passed, the three became inseparable.

Sitting on her couch Friday night, watching television and scanning Twitter, Brown saw reports that an officer had been shot. Word around the department had it that Mcneill was the victim. She called and texted him, but got no answer.

Finally, Brown said, she reached Danielle, asking: "Where's my brother?"

She said she didn't know, and Brown set off for the Mcneills' house to brace Danielle for the news.

"Thick, thin, we've been through it together," Brown said. "He and I and his wife and us."

Across the city, police began a major operation to find the suspect. They served six search warrants for Thomas, whom they named the department's "Public Enemy No. 1."

Police say the first break came minutes after the shooting, when officers stopped the Town Car at Pulaski Highway near Erdman Avenue.

The driver told officers that Thomas had given him the car, a prosecutor said in court Tuesday. Police traced the Lincoln to its registered owner, Thomas' sister Shalena Gadson. Armed with that information, authorities obtained a search warrant for Gadson's home in the O'Donnell Heights neighborhood of Southeast Baltimore.

Police say officers recovered evidence of the shooting at the home, but did not describe what they found. They said in court documents that they also found large quantities of marijuana and just over $1,000.

That second discovery led to Gadson and Thomas' mother, Sharon Walker, being charged with drug offenses Saturday. The charging documents filed against them provided the most detailed account of the shooting that authorities have released; police have not said what led them to Thomas.

Walker was released on her own recognizance and Gadson posted bail. Neither could be reached for comment Tuesday.

Gregg Thomas had his first court appearance Tuesday, a day after snow closed the court system. He sat in the back row of the courtroom wearing a yellow jail jump suit. He did not speak during his bail review hearing.

Thomas was represented by a public defender, who said Thomas has twin 12-year-old daughters.

He pleaded guilty in a 2003 murder and was released in January 2013 after serving about 10 years of a 15-year prison term. His lawyer said he had worked at Sears for some of the time since his release.

As the case against Thomas moves forward, Brown said she has basically "moved in" to the Shock Trauma waiting room along with another close friend, Detective Christopher Hall.

Growing up in the Eastern District, Mcneill saw the crime and despair that made him become a police officer so he could help fix his own neighborhoods, Brown said.

"Keith was a changer," she said. "He wanted to make a difference and make a change."

He started his career in 1995, and was a patrol officer in the Eastern District until 2003, according to Baltimore police Lt. Eric Kowalczyk. He spent time in the Southwestern and Southeastern districts, and was also part of the "Diamond shift," a group of officers who filled in for other units that were in training classes.

In 2012, he was promoted to sergeant and assigned again to the Eastern District, where he worked in an administrative role monitoring reports, tickets, crime statistics and training documents.

Away from the job, Mcneill was a loving husband and father to his son, Keith II, colleagues said.

Brown joined the Baltimore Police Department five years after Mcneill, and she said he looked out for her through the police academy and beyond. As she studied a few years ago for the sergeant's test, he was again the encouraging influence assuring her that she would pass. She did.

Hall, 36, served as Mcneill's partner in the Southeastern District and they became fast friends. The two officers' birthdays are a week apart, and in January they shared a party for about 200 people at the Fraternal Order of Police lodge.

Besides motorcycles, Mcneill is a Baltimore Ravens fan who has often worked overtime shifts at games. He has also served as the commissioner and occasional champion of the Hard Knockers fantasy football league, in which Hall also participated.

Nicknamed "Mcbama" for no meaningful reason, Mcneill is as fun as he is sincere, Hall said, offering help or a listening ear whenever any of his friends needed it.

"He's a good guy, all-around guy, spiritual, grounded," said Hall, who is now assigned to the Regional Warrant Apprehension Task Force. "He would be praying for you and with you."

Baltimore Sun reporter Brandi Bottalico contributed to this article.

jgeorge@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justingeorge

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