Baltimore Sun crime reporter Justin George got exclusive behind the scenes access of the Baltimore Police investigation into the death of Freddie Gray. (Baltimore Sun video)
In a fourth-floor conference room at Baltimore police headquarters, two training officers in blue T-shirts and blue pants lowered themselves onto the carpeted floor to demonstrate the leg hold officers used to restrain Freddie Gray the day he was arrested — and sustained a fatal spine injury.
As one officer played Gray's role, lying face down on the floor, the other bent his crossed legs back toward his head. Watching closely were members of the police task force investigating Gray's death, and Dr. David L. Higgins, a Maryland orthopedic surgeon who has worked with the U.S. Olympic team.
Higgins had already reviewed cellphone video showing the 25-year-old's arrest in West Baltimore, including scenes with him yelling in pain or protest as officers dragged him to a transport van. Now, Higgins was asked what injuries a person could suffer in such a leg hold.
"From that maneuver, even if you slammed him or dropped him like a wrestling move, you still won't have a neurological injury," said Higgins, continuing to explain in more detail.
"OK," said Maj. Stanley Brandford, the Homicide Unit commander who led the task force. He marked another task complete. Another question about Gray was answered.
The scene on Thursday was part of a high-stakes police investigation — and came as Baltimore was reeling from protests that brought thousands of marchers, and some violence, to city streets. International attention was focused on the city, and many residents were protesting alleged police brutality and calling for criminal charges.
The Baltimore Sun was granted exclusive access to the task force and monitored the investigation for days. The Sun agreed not to publish details about the investigation until Baltimore State's Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby decided whether to prosecute any of the officers involved in the Gray incident, though reporters continued to use other sources for information. On Friday, she announced charges against six officers.
Mosby's announcement came just a day after police provided her with a lengthy report on their probe, but prosecutors had conferred with police from time to time, and Mosby said she also used an independent team of investigators. Her announcement Friday took members of the police task force by surprise.
Officers assigned to the task force had been working for two weeks to complete an investigation that might otherwise have taken months. They canvassed West Baltimore for witnesses and mapped out the locations of security camera footage. To recreate Gray's 45-minute ride in a police van, plainclothes officers rolled a $250,000 laser imaging system on a tripod down potholed roads and cracked sidewalks, ready to tell residents who questioned them that they were city surveyors.
At least 30 members of the Police Department were pulled onto the task force, including staff from the crime lab, Force Investigation Team, Internal Affairs, Homicide, and automobile CRASH team. Each brought with them an expertise to help answer the questions a volatile city desperately needed: how Gray sustained the severed spine and other injuries that led to his death on April 19, a week after his arrest.
They all realized the importance of their investigation and that they were part of a pivotal moment in Baltimore history. There were no days off.
"As I've said before," Col. Garnell Green told the task force Thursday morning. "What happens ... rests on our shoulders."
The investigation was run out of Green's conference room in the Administrative Bureau. Members of the task force met there two, sometimes three times a day, gathering around two large tables that had been pushed together. They employed a checklist to keep track of their investigation, and the list grew daily until it had 145 tasks — many completed, some still open — on Thursday.
On one wall was a timeline that plotted Gray's arrest and all of the police van's stops. Each point on the timeline was outfitted with pictures of Gray, the officers who interacted with him at that location, time stamps and blurry screen shots taken from surveillance video. On another wall, autopsy photos of Gray stared back near a color-coded map listing all the private and public surveillance cameras along the van's route. In the back was a table with Gatorade and water bottles.
The task force worked while being unable to question the six officers, beyond initial statements the officers had provided. Detectives were told to reconstruct the officers' actions not only for April 12 but several days and even years earlier, using internal records and "run sheets," which log officers' daily actions.
While each task force member focused on a specific task — interviewing witnesses, serving search warrants, updating a "living" timeline of events — top-level commanders looked at the big picture with the Police Department's credibility in mind. They knew the investigation would be picked apart by many people in Baltimore, including the thousands of protesters outside their door. Amid the allegations of brutality, they wanted to show that they would leave no stone unturned. They wanted an answer for any question prosecutors, attorneys and the public might ask.
They focused on the task of gathering information, and showed no sign of discomfort while investigating colleagues on the police force — knowing that the decision to bring criminal charges would rest with Mosby and not them. Over and over, they said they "would follow wherever the evidence leads."
Investigators tried to determine what had happened during the foot and bicycle chase that preceded the takedown of Gray. Did he fall? Had Gray been in a fight prior to the arrest? Was the Internet rumor about an insurance settlement for a car accident true (it was not). When was he sitting and when was he "prone," without a seat belt, in the van?
Task force members continued to investigate all possibilities even though they felt confident that Gray had suffered a "catastrophic injury" while being taken from the arrest at Gilmor Homes to the Western District police station. They discovered that the van's video camera was broken and that one of the officers during the transport said Gray had "jailitis" — a faked illness — when he complained about his condition.
And they spent many hours retracing the actions of Officer Caesar R. Goodson, Jr., the wagon driver. Goodson, the investigators said, had heard Gray ask for medical help a number of times — a key factor in the charges Mosby would bring against him. Still, there were gaps along the route where no video or witness statements existed.
The investigators sought to understand why Goodson had made a stop that was discovered in a review of video camera footage. All they could determine was that Goodson looked into the back of the van, but did not touch Gray. But they wondered: Were there other stops?
To find out more about the van route, officers took to the streets.
Last Sunday, at the spot Gray had been arrested, a makeshift memorial included a sign that said "[Expletive] the Police. I would kill all 6 of u bitches." A half block away, crime lab technician Tom Wisner and detectives Michael Boyd and Timothy Hamilton rolled the laser imaging device along a wheeled yellow tripod. They wore T-shirts and cargo pants to keep a low profile and avoid long conversations or, worse, a confrontation in a neighborhood where residents' anger was still raw from violent protests the previous night.
"Google-team rollout," Boyd said — a joking reference to Google's mapping process — after the trio finished a section of streets.
They had nearly 70 scans to do, each taking a circular image as far as 850 feet away, and a tight time frame to complete them.
On the clear sunny day, they went about their work without any interference. One man walked by with a rose in a pint bottle that his girlfriend had given him. A man in a car slowed to a near stop, but then moved on. No one really asked what they were doing.
The "Google team" scanned streets and avenues: Presbury, Cumberland, Calhoun, Gilmor, Dolphin and Druid Hill.
Wisner, who is not a sworn officer, was tasked with creating detailed multi-dimensional maps that would show the route and terrain. His job was to painstakingly stitch the maps together until the van's path was recreated — a process that was only partially completed by the time Mosby announced the charges.
Taken by surprise
Late last week, Brandford, the homicide commander, said he felt "confident" about where his investigation was pointing, but he never locked onto an explanation for Gray's spine injury. He left open the possibility that Gray was beaten or handled too roughly.
"We're still going strong as far as this task force is concerned. We have to fight fatigue," he told his team. "I feel confident we have a solid case here but we still have things to do."
On Friday, more remained. The task force was planning to go full-bore straight through the weekend, feeding supplemental reports to Mosby's office, and the investigation was to remain active indefinitely, according to Brandford.
"Important that the state's attorney continue to get things as we collect them," Brandford told his tired members Friday morning.
Then his cellphone rang. He stepped into the hall and didn't return.
Minutes later, task force members found out why: Mosby was holding a news conference on the steps of the nearby Baltimore War Memorial. From a flat-screen television in Green's office, they watched a live broadcast.
They stood motionless as Mosby began speaking. A lieutenant wearing a suit and bow tie rested his left hand on a leather chair; Green stood in uniform against the wall, hands behind his back. As Mosby read off the charges — including second-degree depraved-heart murder, the most serious, against Goodson — stunned looks crossed their faces.
They had not expected the state's attorney's office to act so soon.
Later on Friday, Mosby said the charges were the result of prosecutors working 12- and 14-hour days alongside police investigators. She also said prosecutors had been working on a "parallel investigation" that included using city sheriff's deputies.
"This was not something that was quick, fast and in a hurry," she said. "We reviewed hundreds of hours of camera footage and statements. This is something we worked really hard to get to the bottom of."
Still, plenty of items remained on the police task force's checklist. Members soon were back to their investigation.