Chasing a killer: Inside a Baltimore homicide investigation

First in a five-part series taking a look inside a Baltimore police homicide investigation.

Police officers escort the skinny young man into the brightly lit interview room. Detective Thomas Jackson, a member of the Baltimore police homicide unit, takes a seat next to him.

It’s been two days since the killing of Kevin Cannady. The 29-year-old was gunned down in the middle of the afternoon on a busy street corner in Northwest Baltimore. He was the youngest and last of three brothers lost to the city’s violence.

Police believe at least a dozen people saw the shooting, but so far no one has come forward with the information they need to solve the case.

Jackson, 41, grew up with Cannady’s oldest brother. He knows his mother. He is investigating a killing in his old neighborhood.

He believes the young man in the witness box saw the shooting. Now he’s pleading with him.

“You can’t kill your way out of the ’hood,” Jackson says, his voice rising. “It’s not gonna happen!”

Jackson has investigated hundreds of shootings in his 17-year career, but he’s never seen anything like 2015. Cannady’s death in September was the city’s 242nd homicide of the year — and there would be scores more to come.

When killings surged after the riots of April, officials and observers called it a spike. But the violence didn’t settle back down. By year’s end, the body count would set records.

Jackson turns to his young subject.

“So when you think it’s gonna stop?” he asks.

“It’s never gonna stop,” the young man says.

“It has to,” Jackson says.

No witnesses

Jackson and fellow detective Damon Talley, veterans of the 50-member homicide unit, picked up Cannady’s killing on Sept. 21.

When the partners arrived at the crime scene in the 4800 block of Cordelia Avenue in the Langston Hughes neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore, Cannady’s body was gone.

So, too, was anyone who might have witnessed his broad-daylight execution. As a light rain fell, the only people who approached the crime scene tape were pedestrians trying to pass through. They seemed irritated at the inconvenience.

A thick pool of blood lay on the sidewalk. A sign nearby welcomed visitors to the onetime “clean block winner.” Just around the corner was Fear Avenue.

The first officers to arrive at the scene greeted the detectives and relayed what information they had been able to gather.

When Jackson heard the victim’s name, he winced and tilted his head back. He recognized the name as the younger brother of his old friend, Anthony Cannady.

Now all of Diane Frederick’s sons were dead. And it fell to Jackson to deliver her justice for the last killing.

Blistering pace

The uptick in violence began with the death of Freddie Gray. The 25-year-old Baltimore man died in April after suffering a severe spinal cord injury in police custody.

There followed the protests against police brutality. And on the day Gray was buried, the riots.

Then the killings. Forty homicides in May, the city’s deadliest month in more than four decades. Twenty-nine more in June. Then 45 in July — a record.

The city has averaged more than a killing a day since Gray’s death.

On Nov. 14, Baltimore suffered its 300th homicide of 2015. It was the first time since 1999 that the city had reached that grim milestone.

Through Saturday evening, the death toll stood at 338.

The sheer volume has left overworked homicide detectives in a constant state of triage.

The Baltimore Police Department granted The Baltimore Sun exclusive access to the homicide unit as it investigated the Cannady case. A Sun reporter accompanied detectives on the street, watched them pore over leads and interview suspects, and followed them as they picked up additional cases.

The work of the homicide unit was grueling and unforgiving even before the uptick in violence. The blistering pace of 2015 has jolted the detectives’ sense of reality. They’re working harder but getting less accomplished.

Jackson, a married father of five, has also been stretching the patience of his family, who know that Dad may have to run out at any time. He regrets missing important events like his son’s prom in the spring, but any work that could take a killer off the streets comes first.

“It’s a lot more hustle and bustle right now, but this is what we signed up to do,” Jackson said. “A lot of times I ask myself, ‘Well, what’s gonna be the turnaround point?’ … Honestly, I don’t know.”

Low closure

Talley, 40, worked in drug units and served warrants before he joined homicide four years ago. Broad-shouldered and quiet, he favors Gucci eyeglasses and bow ties.

He is the primary detective, and headed to an alley shortly after arriving at the scene. An anonymous tipster had dialed 911 to tell police where the gunman had ditched the weapon.

Sgt. Sean Jones, the detectives’ supervisor, counted it a small victory.

“That tells me we have at least one citizen that gives a s——.”

A couple of decades ago — the last time the city saw so much killing — Baltimore’s homicide unit closed more than 70 percent of its cases. Veterans talk of returning to the office from a crime scene to find a fistful of tips waiting for them.

But the widening gulf between police and the community since then has made witness cooperation a rarity.

Forensic science has advanced, and surveillance cameras have grown common in the city. But detectives say witnesses remain the most important element in successfully bringing charges against a suspect.

The challenges are not exclusive to Baltimore, but are being felt here more acutely. Among similar-sized cities in 2014, the average for cases closed — through arrest or other means, such as the death of the suspect — was 56 percent.

In Baltimore, it was 45 percent. This year, it has fallen to 31 percent.

The closure rate is so low that detectives grouse that the year shouldn’t even be counted. One likened it to baseball’s steroid era, when players used performance-enhancing drugs to rewrite the record book. They say this year’s homicide numbers should be marked with an asterisk: The Freddie Gray era.

Detectives say they have suspects in as many as three-quarters of cases, but in many instances they lack the evidence to move forward or can’t convince prosecutors, who in recent years have wielded more authority over detectives’ ability to charge. Police once made the call, but ceded that power to prosecutors who were frustrated with cases that they felt weren’t ready to go to court.

At the scene

In the search for witnesses, the homicide unit has tried to get creative. Talley and Jackson drove to the scene of Cannady’s killing in a new Crimestoppers SUV, a Chevy Tahoe slathered in decals and the phone number for a tip line. Cops call it the Downtown Locker Room truck.

Talley trudged through a trash-strewn alley, where officers were looking for the murder weapon.

Foxtrot, a police helicopter, was deafening overhead, swirling low with heat-detecting technology to search for the weapon.

“It should still be hot,” Talley told an officer. “We’ve got at least 28 minutes until it cools down.”

Talley walked to a corner store that had two cameras trained on the area. Many small businesses use dummy cameras as high-tech scarecrows, but these were rolling when the shooting occurred.

He squeezed behind the bulletproof glass door, wedging himself between shelves of deodorant and a display holding boxes of beef jerky.

He was joined by Detective Joe Brown, who has spent his career in the Northwest District. Brown had been at the intersection moments before the killing, investigating a shooting from days earlier. After 15 years in the district, Brown knows the players in this area well. Before Cannady was killed, he saw two men he knew from previous investigations.

Brown and Talley looked at a computer screen, scanning the footage for confirmation. One of the men was particularly familiar to Brown.

“We’ve looked at him for at least three, four shootings,” he said. “They call him the Golden Child.”

Talley asked why.

“He gets off,” Brown said. “He beats every f—— case.”

Cameras from another business captured the shooting itself. The detectives headed over. An employee had the footage queued up.

“This is where everything is going to start,” the employee said.

“Put it to two screens,” Jackson barked. He realized he was curt. “Please. Pardon me. Thank you.”

The shooting is nearly out of view, and details are difficult to make out, but the actions are clear.

A black vehicle can be seen pulling onto Cordelia and then stopping. Cannady gets out of the passenger side, greets someone with a fist bump and they walk together toward the corner.

A second man had been with the first man, but now lingers behind as he follows the pair.

There are people milling about and cars passing, but the gunman is undeterred. He accelerates his stride, walks up behind Cannady, raises a gun to the back of his head and fires a single shot.

Cannady falls forward to the ground and lies still.

Cannady’s companion and his killer run away together. The car that brought Cannady to the corner speeds off.

“Everybody out there, just standing there as he’s laying on the ground,” Talley said softly to no one in particular as he watched the footage. “Everybody just so casual.”

Police have a strong lead: The Golden Child was one of the men with Cannady right before he was shot.

Patrol officers, meanwhile, uncovered the gun in the alley — a six-shooter revolver manufactured in the 1940s, loaded except for the one spent round, and concealed by brush.

The weapon could hold the shooter’s DNA. The detectives sent it to the crime lab for analysis.

With the gun, the videos and Brown’s knowledge of who was depicted on the tape, the detectives seemed poised to solve the case that night.

At least, that’s how it works on television. In the real world, the detectives’ process is to keep probing. They want to have their information shored up before they confront a suspect.

Parts of the process — such as DNA analysis — will take weeks. And with the volume of cases coming into the unit, there’s no guarantee Talley and Jackson won’t be assigned a new one that would distract them from finding the person who killed Kevin Cannady.

But they don’t think about that now. Instead, they prepare to pull all-nighters for as long as it takes, using the video as a starting point as they begin the methodical process of building their case.

Three brothers

Jackson didn’t plan to become a police officer. He just needed a job. He attended Carver Vocational Technical High School in Coppin Heights and hoped to become a craftsman or work on cars. But after he graduated in 1993, he found himself working dead-end maintenance jobs.

He decided it was time for a change. He applied for jobs with the Police Department, the post office, the Maryland Transit Administration, the corrections system, the Fire Department. The Police Department responded first.

Jackson had a clean record. As a teen, he had played sports and simply “wasn’t interested in the happenings of my surroundings.”

One of his friends growing up was Anthony Cannady, Kevin’s older brother. They went skating at the old Painters Mill on Saturdays and attended under-21 nights at clubs. But they eventually drifted apart.

Jackson became a police officer in 1998. He was 23.

Anthony Cannady had taken a different path, and that same year his problems were coming to a head.

Police believed Cannady was helping supply drug dealers in his Northwest Baltimore neighborhood. He was arrested during a raid on an apartment. Police reported finding three guns and $20,000 worth of crack cocaine.

Four months later, police found the 24-year-old and two other people, a couple who let drug dealers use their home as a safe house, dead in the couple’s basement from shotgun blasts. Their limbs had been bound with duct tape.

Investigators suspected a notorious enforcer for an area drug crew but were unable to prove a link. The triple killing went unsolved.

A decade later, a second Cannady brother was killed — this time by police. Officers were patrolling Park Heights in March 2009 when they saw Shawn Cannady and another person sitting in a Lexus in an alley.

The officers suspected drug activity. They got out of their car with badges hanging from their necks, they said, and approached.

Shawn Cannady began to drive the car in their direction, they said. One fired a single shot, and the car crashed into a home. Cannady, 30, died two days later.

The officer who fired the shot was cleared of criminal wrongdoing, but the family collected a $100,000 settlement from the city.

Both Anthony and Shawn Cannady had been involved in drug dealing. Their younger brother would follow them into the business.

“It was something almost handed down to him,” their uncle, Robert Frederick, told The Sun.

The Cannadys’ father struggled with drugs, Frederick said, and “stepped out of the picture” when Kevin was young. Rudolph Cannady died of a drug overdose in 2003.

The Cannadys’ mother, Diane Frederick, who works in the school system as a teacher's aide, fought to raise them right, her brother said. But she was unable to push away the outside influences that drew them toward the drug trade.

Robert Frederick recalled Shawn Cannady pulling up to the family home in nice cars, and rolling his sleeve to flaunt drug money wrapped around his forearm with rubber bands.

Frederick, a former Marine who worked 30 years for the U.S. Postal Service, and other relatives earned an honest living. They made decent pay and drove regular cars. Frederick once called in a favor and asked a friend to hire Kevin at a local Burger King. But he showed no interest in the job and quit after two weeks.

Frederick recalled fights in the family home over Kevin’s direction. Kevin would curse him and tell him to stay out of his business.

“This is what he felt like he was meant to do,” Frederick said.

The breaking point came a few years ago when Robert Frederick learned Kevin was selling drugs out of the family home. Frederick had bought the home for his mother and his sister — Kevin’s mother — and told Kevin he wouldn’t stand for those kind of activities.

Kevin moved out, and he and Frederick spoke little after that.

Frederick hurts for his sister’s loss, but said there was a feeling of inevitability that Kevin would die on the streets.

“I’d been telling him for years, ‘If you don’t get out of the game, you’re gonna see what’s gonna happen,’” Frederick said.

Police had promised to solve Anthony Cannady’s death, Frederick said, but the family felt they were left hanging with little communication.

Shawn’s death at the hands of an officer turned that frustration with law enforcement to anger.

Now a detective they could trust — Jackson — was tasked with trying to bring justice for the third brother.

Diane Frederick declined to speak to The Sun for this article. Her brother says she’s counting on Jackson.

“She’s placing a lot of faith in him,” Robert Frederick said.

The notification

When Jackson recognized the name of the victim at the homicide scene that night, he kept it to himself. He had been randomly assigned to the case, and wanted to keep emotion and his personal history out of it.

Still, deep down it burned him that Cannady’s mother had lost the last of her three sons.

About 9:30 p.m., four hours after arriving at the crime scene, Jackson and Talley drove to the Cannady home on West Garrison Avenue. They call it a “notification” meeting, because sometimes they are in the position of telling a family of a loved one’s death.

The detectives say it’s imperative to make and maintain a connection with a victim’s family, because they might hear information from the street that would never otherwise reach police. But sometimes relatives tell investigators they want nothing to do with the case.

Cannady’s family had received the bad news already at Sinai Hospital, where Kevin was pronounced dead. The street outside the home was dark, and several people had assembled in clusters on the sidewalk and up to the front porch.

Some greeted the detectives with a subdued “What’s up?”

Diane Frederick sat in the orange-painted living room of the tidy home, under a large clock made from a class picture of Shawn. About 15 relatives and friends were pressed into corners. Above the television was a picture of “The Last Supper.” The room was hushed as the detectives pushed through.

Jackson greeted a few people as he made his way toward Cannady’s mother. Despite his ties to the family, he deferred to Talley.

“How y’all doing,” Talley said quietly.

Talley asked if anyone knew what Cannady might have been doing in the area of Reisterstown Road and Cordelia Avenue. It’s not far from the family home, but considered by people from his neighborhood to be unfriendly territory.

Frederick said Kevin had been keeping to himself recently, but she was not aware of any problems he was having with anyone.

The detectives asked if he had a girlfriend, and who his closest friends were.

Jackson addressed her, but spoke so everyone could hear.

“Something happened, but we don’t know what,” he said. “We’re gonna need as much help as we can possibly get.”

After a conversation that lasted no more than 10 minutes and yielded little, the detectives turned to leave.

“Sorry about your loved one,” Talley said. “We’re going to try our best to find out who killed him.”

Talley walked out, but Jackson hung behind. He told the family they could trust Talley — and reiterated that they would need their help.

Copyright © 2017, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad

About the series

The Baltimore Police Department granted The Baltimore Sun exclusive access to the homicide unit as it investigated the killing of Kevin Cannady, a 29-year-old who was fatally shot on Sept. 21. A Sun reporter accompanied detectives on the street, watched them pore over leads and interview suspects, and followed them as they picked up additional cases.

See the full series

 

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