New details revealed in Baltimore police investigation of Detective Sean Suiter's death

When Baltimore Police Detective Sean Suiter was shot in West Baltimore last fall, responding officers found their dying colleague lying face down in a vacant lot. He’d been shot once in the head — and his freshly fired service weapon was beneath his body.

Moments before his death, surveillance cameras showed, Suiter had paced back and forth on the street. Then he darted out of view and into the lot where three shots rang out.

This and other previously undisclosed evidence, described by sources to The Baltimore Sun, lies behind contradictory theories within the police department about Suiter’s still unsolved killing.

Some say the evidence — including the location of the gun, the pacing as though preparing himself — suggests Suiter could have committed suicide staged to look like a murder.

But others see that interpretation as an easy out for the department in a stalled case. They point to other evidence as bolstering their view that Suiter likely scuffled with an assailant before his death.

Sources say the bullet that ultimately killed Suiter entered behind his right ear and traveled forward, exiting from his left temple. The path of the bullet is not typical of a suicide, some note.

In this view, dirt found on Suiter’s clothing, an unintelligible transmission over his radio, and the two other shots from his gun all support the theory that he struggled with an assailant who has eluded detection. Police have said Suiter was killed with his own gun, though the shooting could have happened during such a struggle.

“The realistic version of this is that there are two things that are possible: suicide and murder,” one source said. “I could convince anybody why it’s a murder, and I could convince anybody why it’s a suicide.”

Suiter’s death is one of the only unsolved killings of a police officer in the Baltimore department’s history. New Police Commissioner Darryl De Sousa has said he is preparing to open the case to outside investigators for an independent review. He has declined to share his opinion.

The detective was shot the day before he was to give testimony before a federal grand jury investigating Baltimore’s corrupt Gun Trace Task Force. Suiter was not a target of that investigation, police have said.

The Sun has not viewed the surveillance footage or other evidence in Suiter’s killing — which includes body-camera footage from the first officers who reached his side — but spoke with five law enforcement sources knowledgeable about it. These sources had different interpretations.

The new details help to explain public comments made by police that previously lacked context.

» Sources say Suiter’s partner that day, Detective David Bomenka, told investigators he did not see the shooting but saw Suiter just after and there was no suspect in sight. That prompted concerns the shots could have been fired from the windows of a home, and led police to lock down the area for days.

» Sources say police received a tip that a woman was harboring a suspect who had been injured during the shooting. The tip did not pan out.

» Police said publicly at the time that they believed Suiter had been attacked, and that the suspect had been wounded. Sources say that was based on blood found in the vacant lot where the shooting occurred. One blood spot turned out to be from an animal, but another was linked to a drug user. He was located, interviewed and discounted as a suspect, sources say.

» Days after the shooting, during a deeper search of the vacant lot, then-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said he was “very encouraged” by the discovery of new evidence. Sources say it was a bullet found embedded in the dirt, which investigators at first believed could be from a suspect’s gun. After testing, police concluded it was the fatal bullet but came from Suiter’s gun.

The evidence sheds new light on a case that began as a manhunt for a killer with authorities dangling a six-figure reward. Now it’s a case with no leads and subject to competing views. Officially, Suiter’s death was ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner’s office and continues to be investigated that way.

Family and friends of Suiter say there’s no way he took his own life, and say such speculation is without merit and undermines the search for his killer. They say he was a good cop, a happy father of five who showed no signs of distress. They believe some within the police department want his cause of death changed because detectives have failed to solve the case.

Suiter was shot about 4:30 p.m. Nov. 15 in a vacant lot in the notoriously violent 900 block of Bennett Place in Harlem Park. He was in the area doing a follow-up investigation of a triple homicide, and was accompanied by Bomenka. Bomenka said Suiter did not act unusually while they were together, sources say.

Before the shooting, sources say, Suiter took a call from his lawyer about meeting that evening to go over his appearance before the federal grand jury the next day. His lawyer declined to comment for this article, citing attorney-client privilege.

Police have said that 20 minutes before the shooting, Suiter and Bomenka saw a man who was acting suspiciously. That observation formed the basis for a vague suspect description — a black man wearing a black jacket with a white stripe — released by the department.

Suiter directed Bomenka to a position around the corner from the vacant lot. Sources say surveillance footage shows the two separate, with Suiter pacing back and forth near the entrance to the lot. The footage shows Suiter darting into the lot suddenly, gun in right hand and his radio in his left hand. Some say that shows he was pursuing a suspect. Others say his pacing suggests he was building himself up to carry out the act.

Upon hearing shots, Bomenka ran back toward the lot, taking cover behind a tree across the street. A source described what Bomenka could see of the lot from his new vantage point as just a “slice of the pie” — an angled position where Bomenka could partially see Suiter, but not what was, or wasn’t, right next to him.

Bomenka’s movements are confirmed on surveillance video, sources say.

He did not have his radio with him, and called 911 from his cell phone. He did not approach Suiter until responding officers arrived.

What took place in the lot is estimated to have lasted eight seconds or less.

Once back-up arrived, body-camera footage shows the responding patrol officers approached Suiter as he lay in the lot and turned him over. The cameras captured key information as to how he was found — his pants dirty, his gun beneath him, his radio still in his hand — before the officers picked him up and put him into a patrol car to be rushed to the Maryland Shock Trauma Center.

Some say there are few scenarios that would prompt a homicide detective to rush a suspect in a lot. Others note that Suiter was a veteran drug cop before joining homicide and would have had no problem mixing it up, speculating he might have wanted to take someone into custody to generate new leads in the triple homicide case.

The apparent pursuit, the radio transmission, the dirt on his clothes and the multiple shots all support the idea that he was engaged in a struggle, proponents of that theory say.

Dirt on Suiter’s knee appeared to have been ground into his pants, as if he was twisting around on the knee before falling, according to some sources. Others said it simply shows he fell to the dirt, and nothing more.

“To me, that’s nothing,” one source said. “Dirt on the knee tells me one thing only: that he was on the ground.”

Because of the wound path and the fatal bullet being found in the ground, sources agree Suiter likely was shot while in a prone position or as he was going to the ground.

Another source said he struggles with the idea that Suiter’s death was a suicide; if it was, Suiter would have needed “the presence of mind to act like” he was engaging a suspect, knowing Bomenka was close and could possibly see what happened.

A third source noted it was still light out when the shooting occurred; the block where it happened, while mostly vacant, is not abandoned.

“If you’re going to plan a suicide, you’re gonna do a better job than that,” that source said.

Examinations of Suiter’s computer and phone did not reveal any evidence of preparation for a suicide, police said.

Those who believe the shooting was self-inflicted say there's simply no evidence of a suspect, and the circumstances don't look like a suicide because it needed to appear that he was killed in the line of duty. An officer’s family will not receive certain benefits if he commits suicide.

“There’s no question the path of entry was within his ability to discharge,” a fourth source said.

Looming over the shooting is that Suiter was set to give witness testimony regarding an incident in which another officer planted evidence. It has stirred some concerns in the community that Suiter’s death may have been a “hit” to prevent his testimony, though investigators have dismissed the idea, saying it clashes with the evidence.

The incident Suiter was to testify about took place in 2010, when Suiter and then-Detectives Wayne Jenkins and Ryan Guinn surrounded Umar Burley, a man they said was a drug suspect. Burley fled by car and crashed into another vehicle, killing the 87-year-old father of another police officer. Afterward, Suiter recovered drugs from Burley’s vehicle, and Burley was sentenced to prison for manslaughter and federal drug charges.

Jenkins has pleaded guilty and admitted to years of robberies, including that he stole looted drugs during the April 2015 riots.

Burley has been released following revelations that the drugs were planted by police. In court documents, federal authorities have said Suiter was unaware that the drugs were planted.

But Burley’s account of the incident raised questions. He contends that the officers, including Suiter, were wearing masks and rammed into his vehicle. He says he fled because he believed he was being robbed. Then, during the Gun Trace Task Force trial, a convicted officer, Det. Maurice Ward, testified that he had stolen from people along with Suiter and other members of their drug squad.

Cooperating defendants say Jenkins carried around masks and tools to commit crimes.

Davis, the commissioner at the time, asked the FBI in early December to take over the investigation into Suiter’s death after Jenkins was indicted, saying information about the corruption case being withheld by federal authorities could be important for the detectives investigating Suiter’s killing.

The Sun has also learned that before Davis sent the letter to FBI director Christopher Wray asking the agency to take over the investigation, the head of the Baltimore field office of the FBI, Gordon Johnson, told him the FBI had no interest in taking over the case.

FBI Assistant Director Stephen E. Richardson rejected Davis’ request on behalf of Wray and the FBI in late December, saying the agency had no evidence to suggest Suiter’s death was “directly connected” to the corruption probe or any other federal case.

Police haven’t publicly discussed the Suiter case since.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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