Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has requested the FBI take over the investigation into the death of Det. Sean Suiter. (Lloyd Fox / Baltimore Sun)
Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis has asked the FBI to take over the investigation into the death of Detective Sean Suiter.
Davis made the request in a letter submitted Friday to FBI Director Christopher Wray in Washington. An FBI spokesman had no comment on whether the agency would agree to the request.
Davis announced his decision at a news conference Friday, saying it was prompted in part by a lack of information about a federal police corruption probe in which Suiter was scheduled to testify the day after he was shot. Davis has said Baltimore police weren’t told of Suiter’s pending testimony for nearly a week after his death. He said Friday he fears his detectives are in the dark.
“Our homicide detectives, some of the best in the business, some of the best I’ve ever seen, can’t do their jobs effectively if there is a perception or a reality that we don’t possess all the information that we need to conduct the investigation,” Davis said.
Acting U.S. Attorney Stephen Schenning on Friday afternoon disputed Davis’ account, saying he told the police commissioner the day Suiter died of the pending testimony. Davis is “mistaken about the timing,” Schenning said.
Davis said late Friday that he was informed of Suiter's pending testimony the day Suiter died — the day after he'd been shot. Davis said his previous comments about when he had been informed about the testimony had been misinterpreted.
Two City Council members on Thursday had urged Davis to ask the FBI to take over the investigation to assure the public it would be objective, reasoning Davis agreed with Friday.
“The community needs to know that I am willing, and this police department is willing, to invite any extra sets of eyes or resources … to look at this incident to try to figure it out,” he said.
The decision comes amid a divide among Baltimore police officials over the cause of Suiter’s death, with some investigators believing he was killed and others believing he could have committed suicide.
Suiter, a homicide detective, was fatally shot in the head Nov. 15 during what Davis has described repeatedly in recent weeks as a violent struggle with an unknown suspect on a troubled block in West Baltimore.
Davis said Friday that investigators also have looked into the possibility Suiter committed suicide, but have found no evidence supporting that theory. “There is no evidence whatsoever right now that leads us to suspect that,” Davis said. But he also said police have not recovered any DNA or other forensic evidence to prove Suiter was shot by another person.
Inside the Police Department, officials are divided about where the evidence points. While some share the commissioner’s view that the case appears to be a homicide, some lean toward suicide as the most likely explanation, sources have told The Baltimore Sun.
“The evidence we have could mean a lot of different things,” one source knowledgeable about the investigation said. “There's no particular evidence that would indicate murder, accident, or suicide.”
Maryland’s chief medical examiner, Dr. David Fowler, said his office ruled Suiter’s death a homicide last week but has been continuing to gather information and review evidence. He said his office has been meeting with investigators regularly, and “people have come to us with alternative stories since day one.”
“If any other evidence comes up that we need to amend, we will do so,” Fowler said. “From day one, within a reasonable degree of medical certainty, the medical examiner was very comfortable calling it a homicide.”
There’s “nothing we see that would indicate anything else,” he said. “We can always amend if we have to.”
City Council President Bernard C. “Jack” Young and Councilman Brandon Scott, chair of the public safety committee, had called on police to turn the investigation into Suiter’s death over to the FBI.
On Friday, Young and Scott said they were pleased Davis had made the request.
“It’s the right thing to do,” Scott said. “It’s the thing we should have done all along. It gives the homicide detectives a chance to do what they need to do: mourn and heal and deal with the trauma.”
Mayor Catherine Pugh had criticized the councilmen Thursday, but said Friday she firmly supported Davis’ decision. She said she and Davis have both wanted greater FBI involvement in the investigation but wanted to wait to consult with Suiter’s family after his funeral had taken place.
Five Democratic members of Maryland’s congressional delegation who represent Baltimore — Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen, and Reps. Elijah Cummings, Dutch Ruppersberger and John Sarbanes — also issued a joint statement Friday backing Davis’ request that the FBI take the lead in the investigation.
Davis said he discussed his decision with Suiter’s widow, Nicole, and his family, and that they seemed to understand it.
Suiter was on duty at the time he was shot, investigating a triple killing in the neighborhood that happened last year. There have been no arrests in the case, despite a $215,000 reward for information leading to one.
Davis disclosed last week that Suiter had been scheduled to testify the day after he was killed before a federal grand jury in a police corruption case involving Sgt. Wayne Jenkins — one of eight members of the department’s Gun Trace Task Force who have been indicted on federal racketeering charges.
“The circumstances surrounding Detective Suiter’s killing are significantly complicated by the fact that he was to appear before a federal grand jury the following day,” Davis wrote in his letter to the FBI director. “I am growing increasingly uncomfortable that my homicide detectives do not know all of the facts known to the FBI or [U.S. attorney’s office] that could, if revealed to us, assist in furthering this murder investigation.”
“I respectfully request the FBI to investigate the murder of Detective Suiter,” Davis wrote.
On Thursday, federal prosecutors filed a new indictment against Jenkins, alleging he duped Suiter seven years ago into finding drugs that Jenkins had planted in a man’s car.
Jenkins, who is incarcerated pending trial, has not entered pleas in the cases against him. Several other members of the Gun Trace Task Force have pleaded guilty.
Davis on Friday said he had suspended another officer involved in the 2010 case, who is identified in court records from the original arrest as then-Detective Ryan Guinn. Guinn has declined to comment on the case.
Police have maintained that Suiter’s intended testimony was not related to his shooting. Davis said Friday that FBI and federal prosecutors have told him they also believe there is no connection. Still, the timing has led to swirling speculation around the case.
Davis said he had already made the decision to request the FBI take over the case days ago, but was waiting for Suiter’s funeral, which was held Wednesday, before he discussed it with Suiter’s family.
Davis said he did not feel that the request had to be made immediately because the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives have been assisting with the case from the beginning.
“They’re already embedded with our detectives, so I don’t think I lost anything with waiting until after the funeral,” he said.
Davis said he believes the Police Department will remain involved in the investigation even if the FBI agrees to take it on as the lead investigating agency.
David M. Shapiro, a professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice and a former prosecutor and FBI agent, said the FBI taking over such a case would be unusual.
The FBI would likely continue to coordinate with the Baltimore Department as the investigation moves forward and would be forced to rely on much of the initial work the police department did, Shapiro said.
But the FBI also would bring needed independence, he said.
Witnesses who are unwilling to deal with police, either because they fear retaliation or have criminal problems of their own, might be more willing to talk to FBI agents, he said. And agents would likely approach any witnesses inside the police department — such as Suiter’s partner — more skeptically.
It was not clear Friday when the FBI would respond to Davis’ letter.