As Freddie Gray case closes, slain detective mystery lingers

The Harlem Park alley near where Baltimore homicide Det. Sean Suiter was shot last week stood quiet, empty and cold on Thanksgiving afternoon.

No armored vehicles. No cameras. No crime scene tape.

A solitary police cruiser drove slowly up the 900 block of Bennett Place as the afternoon gave way to dusk. The officer behind the wheel peered out his window at a makeshift memorial of small American flags to mark Suiter’s death, the latest blow to a department just pulling out from under the specter of Freddie Gray.

“I’m just passing through to pay my respects,” the officer said before driving off.

As he left, Shaketia Santiful, 32, and her 9-year-old daughter came walking down the same street, dressed in their holiday best as they prepared to leave for Thanksgiving dinner. It appeared to be a simple enough moment, but one the mother and daughter haven’t been able to share in a week.

“Today is the first day we parked on our block,” Santiful said.

They were heading to White Marsh to eat Thanksgiving dinner with Santiful’s mother. For the past week, Santiful’s daughter has stayed at her aunt’s East Baltimore home because police had cordoned off most of the neighborhood, forcing Santiful to park two blocks away and show identification at a police checkpoint to be allowed onto her block.

“The presence of the police has been heavy,” she said.

She worked a 3-to-11 p.m. shift as a nursing assistant at Sheppard Pratt Health System for the past week and did not like having to walk the longer distance from her car.

“The neighborhood isn’t so safe,” she said.

Suiter, 43, was shot on Nov. 15 just a half block from Sanitful’s house. The 18-year veteran died the next day, leaving a wife and five children.

Police have said the detective was investigating a 2016 triple homicide that occurred in the 900 block of Bennett Place, and returned to the block with a partner to locate a witness. Police say he was shot in the head.

Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said that Suiter is believed to have been killed with his own service weapon, which was fired at close range, and that there was evidence of a struggle before the shooting.

The blocked-off search area was reopened this week as Davis announced a major new development in the case on Wednesday. He said Suiter was scheduled to testify to a federal grand jury in the case against a squad of indicted Baltimore police officers on the day after he was shot. Davis said that federal authorities have told him that Suiter was not a target of their investigation into the Gun Trace Task Force.

Police have not identified a suspect or made arrests in Suiter’s shooting.

Santiful said the whole neighborhood is buzzing about the killing, and that no one is even mentioning the major development in a different case that has rocked the police department: On Wednesday, Davis announced he was dropping all administrative charges against Sgt. Alicia White, the last of six officers who faced possible discipline in the case related to the 2015 death of Gray from injuries sustained in police custody.

All six who were accused in the arrest and death of Gray will keep their jobs.

At the corner of Mount and Presbury streets where Gray was arrested in 2015, a wall-sized mural of him stared out over a trash-strewn lot.

“No one is focused on Freddie Gray,” said Steve Dixon, president and chief operating officer at Penn North Recovery, a drug addiction treatment center located near where Gray was arrested. “All the discussions around the dinner tables are what happened to the police officer.”

“It’s a major coincidence that he was going to the grand jury the next day and he ends up getting murdered?” said Dixon, reflecting what residents have been discussing.

He said the murder of Suiter and of an off-duty Washington police officer earlier this month, as well as the killing of one of his employees, have left him and many others feeling less safe than ever.

“The saddest thing is the city is on fire with homicides,” he said. “Two police officers getting killed shows you how this is really not a safe city.”

Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the Baltimore Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 3, said the public needs to allow the investigation of Suiter’s death to unfold before rushing to judgment.

“I don’t speculate or guess, especially with an open investigation,” Ryan said. “Everybody needs to take a step back [and] let the investigation run its course. They’re working around the clock. They’re going to find out what happened.”

Even as officers are mourning Suiter, they’re thankful that White and the other officers involved in Gray’s arrest were cleared of all charges, said, Kenneth Butler, first vice president of the FOP.

“It couldn’t come at a better time” than Thanksgiving, Butler said of Davis’ decision.

“We were hoping the charges would be dropped, but I didn’t think they would because of politics,” Butler said. “The commissioner made the right decision.”

The officers charged with violating department policy in Gray’s arrest and detention have endured two holiday seasons with uncertainty about their future as city police officers, he said.

“What really got them through was a lot of support,” he said. “It was a very rough time in the history of Baltimore. It’s always going to be part of our history from now on. But everyone has to move on. The police department. The community. Freddie Gray’s family. We’re not saying we’ll forget it. We just have to move on.”

But the Suiter case, he added, is just beginning.

Baltimore Sun reporter Alison Knezevich contributed to this article.

ddonovan@baltsun.com

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