After members of the Baltimore Police Gun Trace Task force were indicted this year for shaking down citizens and falsifying evidence, a federal inmate in a West Virginia prison reached out to the judge in his case. Umar Burley had been charged by a member of the task force. Now he wanted another look at his arrest.
“Could you imagine how hard it is to be here for a crime I didn’t commit and struggling to find clarity and justice on my own,” Burley said in a handwritten letter in June that is included in his court file.
Burley was arrested in 2010 by then-Detective Wayne Jenkins, one of the indicted gun task force members, and by Detective Sean Suiter, who was killed last week in Harlem Park. In court records filed at the time of Burley’s arrest, Jenkins wrote that Suiter found drugs in Burley’s vehicle, which was searched following a chase in Northwest Baltimore that ended with a collision that killed an 87-year-old man.
Federal prosecutors did reopen Burley’s case. And Suiter, on the day after his death, had been scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury still investigating the gun task force, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis confirmed this week.
It is not clear if Suiter’s testimony was expected to touch on Burley’s arrest. The slain detective had also worked with other members of the gun task force. Davis said Suiter was not a target of the federal investigation, and had a sterling reputation in the department.
But the disclosure that Suiter was going to testify brings together two cases that have rocked the city this year: the indictment of an elite unit tasked with taking guns off the street, and the first killing in a decade of an on-duty Baltimore police officer.
Davis said police have no reason to believe Suiter’s death is connected to his testimony, calling the attack “spontaneous.” No suspect has been identified.
Records show that Burley contested the charges at the time of his arrest but eventually pleaded guilty and has been serving a 15-year sentence. Jenkins has not entered a plea in the racketeering indictment. A trial date is tentatively scheduled for January.
Burley’s arrest came after Jenkins and another detective were driving an unmarked vehicle patrolling in the Grove Park neighborhood on April 28, 2010. Federal prosecutors wrote at the time that the officers had received information that the area was being used by “large-scale drug dealers.”
“Detective Jenkins himself had arrested between five and ten defendants in the area and had seized distribution quantities of drugs,” Special Assistant U.S. Attorney Christine Celeste wrote.
Jenkins wrote in a statement of probable cause that he and his partner saw a man who was holding cash enter the passenger side of an Acura parked in the block. Jenkins pulled his vehicle in front of Burley’s Acura. Suiter, in a separate vehicle, pulled up behind.
As Burley began to drive away, Jenkins’ partner pulled out his service weapon and ordered Burley to stop. He pulled away, with the detectives in pursuit. The detectives said they lost sight of Burley’s vehicle, and he crashed at the intersection of Belle and Gwynn Oak avenues.
The collision forced another vehicle into the porch of a home, killing 87-year-old Albert Davis and severely injuring his wife.
In a police report, Jenkins wrote that Suiter conducted the search of the vehicle and found 32 clear plastic bags containing 29 grams of heroin, along with a digital scale.
Burley’s attorney at the time said Burley “disputes much of Detective Jenkins’ statement of probable cause,” and said the detectives had seized and arrested Burley without justification.
“Alleged law enforcement observations of an African American entering a parked car with money in a high crime area do not add up to probable cause,” Burley’s attorney, Thomas Crowe, wrote.
Crowe also said the officers bumped Burley’s car when they blocked it in, and used deadly force by pointing a gun at him. He said police had tried to justify their actions by the later discovery of drugs.
The prosecutor on the case at the time backed the officers.
“The officers believed that a drug transaction was about to take place, based on their experience in seizing drugs from individuals making deals in cars and information provided by informants,” Celeste wrote.
Burley pleaded guilty in state court to manslaughter in the crash death and received 10 years. In the federal case, he pleaded guilty to a heroin possession charge and received 15 years. The suspect seen getting into the car also pleaded guilty, and received 46 months in prison.
In his letter to Judge Catherine C. Blake, Burley argued that Jenkins’ indictment was “relevant to my case.”
Previously, prosecutors in the gun task force case have made accusations against Jenkins involving high-speed chases. In one incident in 2016, they say Jenkins and Detective Jemell Rayam, another member of the unit, pursued a vehicle that crashed near Mondawmin Mall. The officers allegedly stole drugs from the vehicle and re-sold them. Those accusations led to the indictment of a Philadelphia police officer.
Prosecutors also say that in 2011, Jenkins and Rayam pursued a vehicle at high speed, resulting in a crash near Mondawmin Mall, and stole $1,800 from the driver.
Rayam has pleaded guilty to racketeering and is cooperating with authorities.
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Suiter had other connections to members of the gun task force. From 2007 to 2009, Suiter worked with Detective Maurice Ward, who has pleaded guilty in the racketeering case and made arrests with Jenkins in 2011. Suiter also worked a handful of cases in 2008 with Detective Momodu Gondo, who has pleaded guilty.