'Bodies on bodies:' Baltimore police increasingly accusing the dead of murder

Late last month, a Baltimore Police detective investigating the shooting death of a popular 19-year-old high school student wrote to top homicide commanders that she’d cracked the case.

Det. Jill Beauregard-Navarro laid the blame for the March 2017 death of Victorious Swift on a 44-year-old man named Charles Frazier. Frazier had told several people that he had gone to rob Swift, the detective reported, and that Swift, a boxer, had started to fight back. She said Frazier, “in a panic,” shot the teen and fled.

The catch: Frazier himself was also dead, his body found less than two months after Swift’s killing. Beauregard-Navarro was asking commanders to add Swift’s killing to the growing list of cases the department considers “closed by exception” — those in which police believe they have enough evidence to arrest, charge and prosecute a suspect, but can’t for reasons beyond their control, such as the suspect’s death.

The process, recognized by the FBI and used by police departments nationwide, typically unfolds out of public view. In Baltimore, where violence is driven by retaliation-fueled gun battles, it’s unfolding more frequently: The number of cases closed by exception has more than tripled from 11 in 2014 to 34 in 2017.

Police say the fact that a suspect in one case might be the victim in another is hardly surprising in Baltimore, where street justice can catch up to a trigger-puller faster than a police investigation.

Maj. Chris Jones, the commander of the department’s homicide unit, said the growing number of homicides in the city — there have been more than 300 in each of the last three years — means there are simply more cases in which suspects are dead.

With so many killings to investigate, he said, the department could decide to spend all its time investigating those cases in which it believes the suspects are still at large, but he refuses to let that happen under his command.

“I just truly feel that the family in a case where the suspect has been killed deserves answers as much as the family of a victim in a case where the suspect is still running around,” he said.

Swift’s mother said she appreciated police pursuing justice in her son’s case through to the end. But she found little solace — and some sadness — in learning the suspect was dead.

“None of it brought Victorious back,” Victory Swift said.

Others, including the families of men such as Frazier, who have been posthumously accused of murder, take issue with the practice. Some say they were never told of the accusations by police, and would have disputed them if they had been.

Frazier’s mother, informed of the allegations against him by a Baltimore Sun reporter, said she was shocked.

Altheria Frazier is still waiting to learn who killed her son.

“Why didn’t they call me?” she asked, lifting her glasses to brush back tears. “It’s unfair.”

The number of cases closed by exception in Baltimore has increased in each of the last four years, data obtained by The Sun through a Maryland Public Information Act request show, from 11 in 2014 to 18 in 2015 to 26 in 2016 to 34 last year. The practice has helped police improve their homicide clearance rate over that time, from 30.7 percent in 2015 to 51.4 percent last year.

Police last year closed the 2016 killing of popular local rapper Lor Scoota by exception, after detectives determined that the shooting was part of a string of retaliatory violence in which his shooter eventually was killed.

Since then, they have closed dozens more cases in the same way. One was the killing of Shahidah Barnes, a pregnant 28-year-old woman whose husband — the suspect — shot himself to death a short time later, according to police.

In November, detectives closed their investigation into the 2017 death of 21-year-old Brandon Anderson after determining he was shot by two teens who by then were themselves dead: Curtis Deal, 18, who was shot to death by a police officer a week after Anderson’s killing, and Malik Perry, 19, who was killed months later in an unsolved double shooting.

In some cases, exceptional clearances are accepted by family members on both sides — particularly when the police findings match rumors or facts already circulating in the community.

In one killing last year, for example, detectives who spoke with the mothers of the victim and the suspect wrote in internal documents that both women agreed with the decision to close the case. The suspect’s mother said he told her before his death that he had shot the victim “in order to protect his family,” the detectives wrote.

In other cases, families are divided — or never informed.

For Victory Swift, the exceptional closure of her son’s case was the only logical step in a killing she will never understand.

Victorious was a promising architecture student at the Baltimore Design School, where he was beloved by teachers and peers, and a well-known figure in local activist circles. He tutored other students in math through the Algebra Project.

Once detectives realized how great a kid he was, his mother said, they threw everything they had into solving his case — and then they did. Information from witnesses matched information only the detectives knew, leading them to determine Frazier was responsible, she and the police said.

There was no joy in learning what had occurred, Victory Swift said, and no satisfaction. But she was convinced it was the truth.

“I’m saddened that Mr. Frazier was responsible. I’m saddened that Victorious is no longer here. There is nothing, nothing, that can ever change that. So I don’t think the word satisfaction has a place in this scenario at all, because it never ends. It never ends.

“But to say that [the detectives] have done an excellent job? Absolutely. Absolutely. Absolutely. Unequivocally, they’ve done an excellent job.”

Frazier’s relatives felt differently.

They wondered if exceptional clearances are being abused by police in order to improve the department’s homicide clearance rate, and asked why police don’t inform the families of the accused, to give them a chance to rebut the allegations.

When Swift was killed in late March 2017, Altheria Frazier said, she was going through radiation treatment for cancer, and her son was sleeping each night on a first-floor love seat next to the couch where she slept to keep an eye on her. She said his being out in the 2300 block of Tioga Parkway in the early-morning hours when Swift was killed there didn’t make sense to her.

“He was here,” she said. “He was here.”

Frazier once served more than 10 years in prison for attempted murder. His family said the police allegation that he had been struggling with drug use was accurate, but they said he was trying to stay out of trouble and get clean.

They asked whether the people to whom Frazier allegedly confessed to killing Swift might have had reasons of their own to pin the killing on a dead man.

Danielle Marshall, Frazier’s niece, said the police claim he’d gone around telling people he was the shooter was ridiculous.

“Nobody is going to do that,” Marshall said. “Nobody. I don’t care how high they get.”

The family of Curtis Deal, the 18-year-old who was killed by a police officer last year and then blamed in the homicide of Brandon Anderson, took issue with police conclusions in that case.

In an internal document in the Anderson case, Det. Juan Diaz described two suspects fleeing Anderson’s shooting in a Infiniti G35, and ballistics indicating a .40 caliber handgun and a 9mm handgun had been used.

Deal and Malik Perry were arrested 19 hours later with a .40 caliber handgun that was a ballistic match to the shooting of Anderson, Diaz wrote. When Deal was shot by the officer, Diaz wrote, he had a 9mm handgun that also matched.

He wrote that the 9mm also matched a shooting during an aggravated assault, the day after Anderson’s death; a double nonfatal shooting in March 2016; a nonfatal shooting in January 2017; and another shooting in January 2017.

Police found Perry driving the Infiniti, Diaz wrote, searched it and recovered masks and other items consistent with the incidents, burn marks consistent with gun discharging, and 9mm casings that matched those from the gun recovered from Deal.

Neither Perry’s nor Anderson’s families could be reached for comment.

Deal’s family and his attorney said police never showed them the internal report. They sharply disputed the allegations.

One family member, who asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation, both from criminals on the street and from police, said police, including some officers who have since been convicted of racketeering for robbing residents and falsifying court records, had long harassed Deal.

She noted that a judge had released Deal pending trial after noting that the gun and the drugs recovered in the case in which he was arrested with Perry were not found on him.

And she questioned the rest of the narrative connecting Deal to Anderson’s killing and other crimes prior to his death. She called it “defamation of his character” by a department with an incentive to paint him as a serial criminal.

She said accusing Deal after his death, without telling the family, was wrong.

“You are innocent until you are proven guilty,” she said. “It’s heartless and it’s disrespectful to the family.”

J. Wyndal Gordon, an attorney for Deal’s family, took issue with police “putting bodies on bodies” without informing the families of the accused or providing an opportunity for the charges to be disputed — either directly by the families or by their attorneys.

“I’m very troubled by a police department’s lowbrow resort to placing dead bodies on the souls of grieving families’ deceased loved ones, just to convince the public they’re doing a better job of closing out homicide cases when it seems very unlikely that’s true,” Gordon said.

He said allegations by the Baltimore Police are “often fraught with half truths, layers of inconsistencies, and in some instances, outright lies.” He said it’s problematic that the allegations against Deal “will never be tested in a court of law, officers will never be challenged on the content of their written reports, and none of the evidence will ever be scrutinized by the rigors of a zealous defense attorney’s cross-examination.”

“As an all-too-common result,” Gordon said, “potential murderers will remain free to roam our streets and wreak havoc on our communities because our police force has trended toward making acceptable a practice of creating narratives to defame the dead to assuage the frustrations of the public and temper the impatience of elected officials,” he said.

“No good can come from this disquieting police practice,” Gordon said. He accused police of playing a “shell game” with the dead “and roulette with the living.”

A police spokesman said it is not the department’s policy to inform the families of dead suspects that they have been accused posthumously of killing others, but that it might reconsider that position.

Spokesman T.J. Smith also said the fact that some victims were once killers is indisputable — an idea often discussed by police brass.

After 342 people were killed in Baltimore last year, a record, per capita, Smith said “today’s victim is yesterday’s suspect, and today’s suspect can be tomorrow’s victim.”

Jones, the homicide commander, said exceptional closures are a necessary tool for police, but one that is used carefully and in coordination with prosecutors in the office of Baltimore State’s Attorney Marilyn J. Mosby. Before detectives bring a request to close a case by exception to him, he said, they must have run it past the line prosecutor on the case or Lisa Goldberg, the attorney who heads the state’s attorney’s homicide unit.

“Obviously if there is any issue with it, than it would be brought to my attention by Lisa Goldberg,” he said.

Melba Saunders, a spokeswoman for Mosby’s office, declined to answer questions about the office’s precise role in the process, or whether police are capable of assessing evidence and making determinations as to whether it would stand up in court on their own.

“Our office does not authorize Baltimore Police Department's crime reporting,” she said. “We work with BPD during the criminal investigation of all homicide cases. When BPD determines that a homicide case should be closed as an exceptional homicide, they notify the attorney assigned and close out the case.”

Through the long investigation into the death of Victorious Swift, his mother said, she came to appreciate all that homicide detectives in the city are dealing with.

Victory Swift said she still speaks weekly with Beauregard-Navarro, the detective, about “the gratitude, the bond that we’ve created, how relentless her position is and how unceasing it is.”

She misses her son, including at family gatherings, where he used to work the entire room, from the circle of elderly relatives to the young kids playing video games in the corner. And she said she knows Frazier’s mother must miss her son, too.

When police told her they believed that her son’s killer was dead, she said, “I was sad all over again, because not only is this another homicide that the city has to endure, it’s someone else’s child. I don't know what that person's life was like or what his family was like, but I'm sure the loss — the taking of his life — is an excruciating experience.”

Altheria Frazier said she would like police to explain to her how they concluded her son was guilty of a murder — and an update on the status of their investigation into his own killing.

krector@baltsun.com

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