FBI rejects Baltimore police request it take over investigation of Det. Sean Suiter’s death

The FBI has rejected calls for it to take over the investigation into the fatal shooting of a Baltimore homicide detective who was set to testify in a federal police corruption case, saying it has no evidence to suggest Det. Sean Suiter’s death was “directly connected” to the corruption probe or any other federal case.

“For this reason, we believe it prudent for your office to continue as the lead in this investigation, with our current commitment to assist and support you fully, including providing FBI analytical, forensic, and investigative support,” FBI Assistant Director Stephen E. Richardson wrote to Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis in an undated letter reviewed by The Baltimore Sun.

Richardson wrote that the agency would “take appropriate action” if it uncovered any new information that changed its assessment.

Davis, who had asked the FBI to take over the case in his own letter to FBI Director Christopher Wray more than three weeks ago, said the FBI’s response suggests the federal agency has no reason to believe Suiter’s death last month was the result of a conspiracy by other officers to kill him before he could testify in the corruption case. Davis called that a theory floating around Baltimore that he now hopes will be dispelled for good.

“If Detective Suiter’s pending testimony was somehow a factor in his death, I believe the FBI would have taken [the case] in a heartbeat, and I believe they would have taken it in grand style. I think they would have brought in every resource at their disposal to Baltimore to get to the bottom of it,” Davis said. “The fact that they didn’t tells me that they don’t believe it.”

The commissioner was not the only person to ask the FBI to get more involved. Suiter’s widow, Nicole Suiter, and officials from across the city and state — including Mayor Catherine Pugh, members of the city council and Baltimore’s delegation to Congress, Gov. Larry Hogan and police union president Lt. Gene Ryan — had all supported Davis’ request, suggesting outside investigators would be beneficial to the case.

Both Davis and Pugh said they are now considering bringing other outside experts in to provide an independent set of eyes and perhaps advise the Baltimore homicide detectives working the case.

“I'll have a conversation with the commissioner and some other folks with expertise so we can move forward,” the mayor said.

Davis said the FBI’s decision resolves concerns he had that the federal agency might be withholding information from his own homicide detectives, who he said can now continue their investigation with more confidence that they aren’t missing something. Still, the case has “extraordinary circumstances attached to it,” Davis said, and he knows many people in Baltimore remain “very skeptical” about the police department’s investigation.

“If there is a final chapter to this where the truth is known, I think then and only then will people finally come off of their very strongly held beliefs about what happened,” he said.

The FBI declined to comment Wednesday, as did the U.S. Attorney’s office in Baltimore, and Nicole Suiter.

City Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee, said he doesn’t understand why the FBI rejected the city’s request, especially since Attorney General Jeff Sessions came to Baltimore this month and said the FBI would “probably be able to act” on the request. “For him to say that and then for them not to do it just shows me again that this president's administration is not up to the task and doesn’t live up to their own word,” Scott said.

Both Scott and Ryan, the police union president, said although extra attention on the case from the FBI would have been beneficial, they have confidence in the city homicide detectives working the case.

“We have every confidence in that unit, and hopefully this will come to some sort of conclusion sooner rather than later,” Ryan said. “We can never forget about the Suiter family.”

A Hogan spokesman said the Maryland State Police are providing support to the Baltimore police and will continue to do so. Doug Mayer, the spokesman, also praised the Baltimore homicide unit as having “the experience and knowledge to bring this investigation to its conclusion,” and said they enjoy “the full support of this administration.”

Suiter was shot in the head Nov. 15 with his own gun in a vacant lot in the notoriously violent 900 block of Bennett Place in the Harlem Park neighborhood of West Baltimore while investigating a triple homicide there from 2016. Police quickly put out a description of a suspect in a black coat with a white stripe, and described a brief but violent attack on the 18-year veteran officer, a married father of five. They moved into the neighborhood in huge numbers, and subjected residents to investigative stops in far greater numbers than is normal following a city killing — sparking some complaints, including from the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland.

The month-old case has been the subject of significant public doubts, as police have made little investigative progress despite a $215,000 reward for information leading to an arrest.

The skepticism is in part because of the revelation about a week after Suiter’s death that the detective was scheduled to testify the day after he was shot before a federal grand jury in a police corruption case in which another officer, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, is accused of planting drugs on a criminal defendant in 2010 and then duping an unknowing Suiter into finding them in the man’s car.

The man’s attorney has suggested a more sinister role for Suiter in that arrest, though that has been disputed and prosecutors had not pursued any charges against Suiter.

The same day Davis asked the FBI to take over the case, the commissioner also acknowledged the police department is exploring not just its initial theory that an attacker had shot Suiter, but also the possibility that Suiter may have intentionally shot himself. Although Davis placed little credence in the suicide theory, the revelation raised additional questions about the initial description of an attack.

The confusion was not just in the community, but within the homicide unit in which Suiter served and among some higher-ups in the department.

In his letter to Wray, Davis wrote that the discovery of Suiter’s pending testimony had raised significant questions for him as to whether any other important information was being withheld from the local homicide detectives investigating the case. In the months since Jenkins and seven other members of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force were first indicted on federal racketeering charges, federal prosecutors have worked to maintain a firewall between the police department and the sprawling corruption probe. That had continued through the subsequent indictment against Jenkins that involved Suiter.

“I am growing increasingly uncomfortable that my homicide detectives do not know all of the facts known to the FBI or [U.S. Attorney’s office] that could, if revealed to us, assist in furthering this murder investigation,” Davis wrote.

In an interview, Davis said that the information that Suiter was a witness in the corruption case had hit him “like a ton of bricks.”

Davis said he learned that the day Suiter died, when he was alone in his office in police headquarters. Gordon Johnson, head of the FBI’s Baltimore field office, called Davis and said there was something about Suiter he needed to know, Davis said. They then dialed in Acting U.S. Attorney Stephen Schenning on a three-way call.

Davis said asked Johnson and Schenning about Suiter’s role in the federal corruption case.

“Was he a target? Was he a witness? Was he under suspicion? Was he a dirty cop? What was he?” Davis recalled asking. “And they said, ‘There’s no indication he was a dirty cop. He was not the target of the investigation.’ ”

Davis said he felt it was important to put in writing his request that the FBI take over the case.

He said in the days that followed his public acknowledgment of Suiter’s scheduled testimony, he became increasingly aware that a theory that “this was a conspiracy to commit murder by a cop” had become “a widely held belief” in Baltimore despite there being “no evidence to suggest that it’s true,” and he had to try to address it.

“One way to substantiate that belief or to disprove it is to ask the FBI to take the case,” he said. “And when they respond like this, I think that that lets a little bit of air out of the balloon. I hope.”

Federal prosecutors have declined to comment on the Suiter case, on its connection to the corruption investigation, or on Davis’ request that the FBI take over the investigation of Suiter’s death.

The FBI has said it is providing assistance to Baltimore police in the Suiter investigation, which Richardson reiterated in his letter to Davis. But that assistance stops far short of the sort of resources the agency would be expected to bring had it accepted the lead role in the investigation.

With the FBI’s decision not to take up the case, Davis said, he has been in discussions with Pugh about the possibility of bringing in outside consultants — perhaps retired homicide detectives from other big-city departments — to review the Baltimore police investigation as it progresses as an added layer of accountability, but no decisions have been made.

He also said he is considering releasing some additional evidence in the case, including surveillance footage from the area and a transmission made from Suiter’s radio around the time of his shooting.

He stressed the case is not cold, but acknowledged that many tips have led nowhere.

“We’re not close to identifying a person of interest. We’re not close to identifying a suspect. We’re not close to being able to reveal a motive,” Davis said. “No eye witnesses have come forward. No video of the murder has emerged.”

Davis said it’s possible someone has footage “on a mobile device and hasn’t turned it over,” but he doesn’t think that’s likely considering the potential value of such a video given the $215,000 reward.

Davis said his detectives are focusing on two theories: that Suiter was killed by an attacker, which Davis believes is backed by the evidence; and that Suiter killed himself, which Davis does not believe is currently supported by the evidence.

Davis said he is “hopeful for that 3 a.m. call” where a detective tells him they’ve just locked someone up who is providing new information in the Suiter case. He realizes that could just as easily take two years to occur as two days or weeks or months.

But “you can’t quit,” he said. “You’ve got to keep going.”

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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