Panel finds Baltimore Police Det. Sean Suiter's death was likely suicide, not murder, attorney for widow says

The independent panel appointed to review the death of Baltimore homicide Det. Sean Suiter has concluded that the officer likely took his own life, according to an attorney for his widow.

Paul Siegrist, an attorney for Nicole Suiter, said his client was informed of the determination last week.

“She is shocked by their conclusion,” said Siegrist, who said he would offer additional commentary after having a chance to learn the details.

A spokesman said there was no timetable for the report’s formal release. The chair of the panel, James “Chips” Stewart, said he could not comment because the report was still being finalized.

Contrasting opinions about the case had been swirling within the Baltimore Police Department since early in the investigation, even as the state medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide. Some believed the evidence pointed to his death being a suicide staged to look like a killing, while others said that theory strained credibility and was a convenient out for an agency struggling to solve the death of one of its own.

Suiter was fatally shot in November while conducting a follow-up investigation on a triple homicide in West Baltimore. Police locked down the surrounding neighborhood of Harlem Park, and a reward for Suiter’s killer reached more than $200,000.

A source who had reviewed an unreleased draft of the report said the panel reached the conclusion Suiter used his service weapon to take his own life based on “the totality of the evidence.”

The panel members cited forensic evidence that a portion of the gun barrel was in contact with Suiter’s head, that his DNA was found inside the barrel and that blood splatter was found inside his right shirtsleeve, the source said. The panel found there was no evidence of any other gun being used in the incident, the source said.

Video footage and testimony from two witnesses that the panel reviewed indicated any assailant would have had just a couple of seconds at most to disarm Suiter, kill him, cover up his or her involvement and flee the scene without being seen or heard, the source said.

The panel also cited Suiter’s impending testimony before the federal grand jury investigating the corrupt Gun Trace Task Force and the fact that he was considered a subject of that investigation as evidence bolstering its conclusion that Suiter had committed suicide, the source said.

Police had said Suiter was shot with his own gun, and The Sun first reported in March that body camera footage from the first responding officers showed the weapon was found under his body. Suiter had been shot behind the ear, with the bullet traveling forward. Sources who watched a surveillance video from the neighborhood said it showed Suiter pacing in front of a vacant lot before darting in.

His death occurred the night before Suiter was set to testify before a grand jury investigation into corruption allegations involving a member of the police department’s Gun Trace Task Force. In 2011, Suiter had taken part in an arrest in which federal prosecutors now say drugs were planted on a man who fled the officers and got into a deadly crash. Then-police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he was told by federal authorities that Suiter was not a target of that investigation.

Investigators never recovered DNA or fingerprints of a suspect. While Davis said there was evidence that Suiter had been engaged in a “violent struggle,” sources said the evidence of that was dirt on his knee.

“There are probabilities and possibilities,” Davis said at a news conference last year. “Any time we have an investigation like this we have to examine every possibility. … But based on our evidence and based on the investigation that pursues that particular possibility, there is no evidence that [suicide] was probable.”

Suiter was with a partner, Det. David Bomenka, who is on tape ducking behind a tree across the street from where the shooting occurred. The panel to review the case was appointed by then-Commissioner Darryl De Sousa, who later would step down after being indicted by federal prosecutors on failure to file taxes charges.

The panel is headed by Stewart and James “Chip” Coldren Jr., who worked for CNA Consulting in Arlington, Va. Stewart served on previous independent panels that looked at controversial Baltimore cases, including the 2011 “friendly fire” shooting outside the Select Lounge that killed Officer William H. Torbit Jr. Stewart also led the panel that reviewed the 2013 death of Tyrone West in Baltimore police custody.

Also on the Suiter panel is Charles P. Scheeler, senior counsel with the DLA Piper law firm; two retired Baltimore homicide detectives, Gary Childs and Marvin Sydnor; Rick Fuentes, a retired New Jersey State Police superintendent who served in the administration of Gov. Chris Christie and a reported finalist to head the Drug Enforcement Administration in the Trump administration; and Peter Modafferi, a retired chief of detectives in the Rockland County, N.Y., district attorney’s office.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

This story was featured in The Sun's Alexa Flash Briefing on Aug. 27, 2018.

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