A man being sought for skipping a court appearance was shot and killed yesterday by a plain clothes Baltimore police officer who apparently mistook a cellular phone he was carrying for a gun, a Police Department spokeswoman said.
Police confirmed accounts from several witnesses who said the man, Mardio House, did not have a weapon when he was shot at least three times in the abdomen by Officer Christopher Graul about 11 a.m. at Llewelyn and North Montford avenues in East Baltimore.
Authorities said they had an intense search for House on Thursday, when a federal judge charged him with failing to appear for a detention hearing in U.S. District Court.
Agent Angelique Cook-Hayes, a city police spokeswoman, said Graul and an unidentified Drug Enforcement Agent were looking for House as part of a fugitive tracking team when they saw him in the 1500 block of North Patterson Park Ave.
Cook-Hayes said House and Graul made eye contact with House and he immediately started running. Graul and the agent, both wearing plain clothes and in an unmarked car, chased him on foot.
She said the chase wound down several streets and through alleys. Twice, according to the officers, House reached into the front of his pants, Cook-Hayes said, a common maneuver made when a gun is tucked in the waistband. She said Graul did not see a weapon.
Cook-Hayes said Graul fired three shots that missed House when he made the gestures. House stopped at North Montford Avenue near Llewelyn Avenue and crouched next to marble steps leading to a rowhouse.
Graul and the DEA agent took cover about 20 feet away, she said, and believing House was armed, repeatedly shouted for him to drop a weapon. "Put your hands up," Graul said at one point. "Throw the gun out."
Cook-Hayes said that House "unexpectedly jumped out and put his hands out, holding a black object. He was shot at least three times." She said officers recovered a dropped cell phone, but no weapon.
Reginald Gibson, 41, said he witnessed the final confrontation and saw that House did not have a weapon. He said he shouted to Graul that the man was unarmed.
"I told the officer he didn't have a gun in his hand," Gibson said. "Then the guy came up and the officer reacted."
Gibson, who lives in the neighborhood and was interviewed by detectives at headquarters, said he was about 20 feet from Graul. He said he heard three shots and saw the wounded man fall and drop a black flip-up phone from his right hand. He said he did not know House.
"The officer didn't have to do it," Gibson said.
Walter Harris, 28, said he heard the officer shout at House to "drop it" and then saw House stand up from behind rowhouse steps, holding the phone.
"He hesitated and [he officer] shot him," Harris said. "He didn't do anything but hold a phone in his hand."
The shooting left many residents and onlookers angry at police, who hauled away reluctant witnesses in handcuffs and spent hours searching nearby rooftops, alleys and sewers for a weapon.
Five homicide detectives descended onto the scene, along with scores of uniformed officers, supervisors and agents from the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, for which the officers were assigned.
"The relations between the police and people in the neighborhood are not the best," said Eddie Bo, 42, who verbally sparred with Detective Irvin C. Bradley of the homicide unit at the scene. "All they do is want to bust us up or lock us up."
Bradley, who waded into an angry group searching for witnesses, and found two, shook his head as he walked away. "What are people scared of?" he said. "Just tell us the truth."
Graul, 41, an 18-year veteran and former homicide detective, has been placed on routine administrative duty. As with all police-involved shootings, police will turn their findings over to the city state's attorney's office, who must decide whether to convene a grand jury.
House was one of 15 suspects indicted last year on a conspiracy charge in connection with a suspected drug gang in O'Donnell Heights called the "Nickel Boys. He had been charged as part of an circle accused of being linked to four homicides, many of them retaliatory hits.
He had been released on bail last year and restricted to home detention. Police sources said he was wearing his home monitoring bracelet when the incident occurred. He died at Johns Hopkins Hospital during surgery.
House's lawyer, Harry McKnett, described his client's role in the alleged gang as minor. He said the hearing he missed Thursday could have resulted in his being jailed during his trial, which was to begin Monday.
Though charged as part of a wide-ranging conspiracy that included homicide and facing a maximum life sentence, House was accused only of being linged to the minor sale of drugs, McKnett said.
"The thought of going to jail just terrified him," McKnett said, adding that House had gotten married while on bail. "He struck me as a very quiet, very gentle person. He did not strike me as a person prone to violence."
Hours after House was killed, two members of a rival gang were each sentenced to concurrent life terms in U.S. District Court in Baltimore for the cold-blooded murder two years ago of alleged Nickel Boy gang member Anthony "Smiley" Hamilton and for conspiring to sell drugs.
Marshawn D. Stokes and Ahmad S. Linton, were convicted of the murder and drug charges in July.
Ballistics evidence produced at the trial linked Hamilton's slaying to that of Rocco Colavito Cash, a star quarterback at Northern High School, whom prosecutors said was mistaken for a Nickel Boys' gang member and shot from a passing car in 1997.