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As Baltimore awaits FBI response to take over Det. Sean Suiter investigation, analysts say it’s a tough call

A week after Baltimore Police Commissioner Kevin Davis asked the FBI to take over the investigation into the shooting death of Det. Sean Suiter, he still had no answer.

Police confirmed Friday that Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray had yet to respond to Davis’ letter requesting the takeover, which was dated Dec. 1.

T.J. Smith, a police spokesman, said police “know the FBI is extraordinarily busy,” and Baltimore detectives “are continuing to investigate” Suiter’s death on their own as they await a response.

Smith did not respond to additional questions about the Suiter probe. Police have offered no updates on the investigation since Davis made his request.

The FBI, which is already providing support in the investigation, has confirmed receipt of Davis’ letter but declined further comment, saying any response would be sent to the police department.

Tyrone Powers, a former Maryland state trooper and FBI agent who is now a law enforcement consultant living in Baltimore, said he’s not surprised the FBI is taking its time.

“It’s a difficult situation for the FBI,” he said.

The FBI is heavily involved in a police corruption case that Suiter was scheduled to testify in the day after he was shot. Powers noted that the U.S. Justice Department also is technically overseeing the Baltimore Police as part of an ongoing consent decree mandating police reforms.

“They have to sort through all of that to see if there would be any conflict with the investigations that they have ongoing, ” Powers said. “You don’t have a clean situation. It’s not a clean and easy request.”

Suiter, a homicide detective, was shot at close range with his own handgun Nov. 15 while on duty investigating a 2016 triple-homicide in Harlem Park in West Baltimore. He died the next day.

On Nov. 22, Davis revealed that the day after he was shot, Suiter was scheduled to testify before a federal grand jury in a police corruption case linked to the indictments of eight Baltimore police officers. The officers, members of the Gun Trace Task Force, were accused of robbing residents, filing false court paperwork and making fraudulent overtime claims. Five have pleaded guilty, while three are scheduled to face trial. All are in jail.

Federal prosecutors have said one of the indicted officers, Sgt. Wayne Jenkins, duped Suiter into recovering drugs from the car of a criminal defendant that Jenkins had actually planted himself. Suiter has not been accused of wrongdoing.

On Dec. 1, Davis read his letter to Wray before a bank of cameras.

“The circumstances surrounding Det. Suiter’s killing are significantly complicated by the fact that he was to appear before a federal grand jury the following day,” Davis said. “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.”

Davis also said that the FBI taking over the investigation would reassure local residents.

Baltimore investigators are divided as to how Suiter died. Some believe he was killed by an unknown assailant during a violent struggle, as Davis has said, while others think he could have committed suicide.

Police have said that they do not believe there is a connection between Suiter’s killing and his scheduled testimony in the police corruption probe, though Davis said his investigators are following the evidence wherever it leads.

Davis said investigators are not discounting suicide.

“If the evidence leads us in that direction, we’ll go there,” he said. “If the evidence leads us in the direction of a conspiracy, we’ll go there. If the evidence leads us in the direction of an unknown perpetrator who we have yet to identify — and that’s very frustrating to all of us — we’ll go there.”

Analysts said the FBI has the authority to take over the Suiter investigation, but may not want to or feel it necessary.

Jeremiah Donovan, a former federal prosecutor in Connecticut who now works as a defense attorney, said he is currently representing a man accused in a case that local investigators had allowed to go cold before the FBI stepped in. Federal charges were filed in connection with a killing.

Donovan said the FBI brings a host of resources to such investigations. He said federal prosecutors are restricted to filing charges under federal statutes, which do not include standard state homicide charges. He added, however, “It’s hard to think of a state case that an imaginative federal prosecutor could not turn into a federal case.”

In the Connecticut case he is currently involved in, Donovan said his client is charged with federal firearm-related murder charges and with kidnapping that resulted in a death.

Ty Kelly Cronin, a former federal prosecutor who prosecuted Baltimore police officers involved in a towing kickback scheme, said what she finds “most interesting” about the Suiter case is that the FBI has said “nothing one way or the other” for a week since Davis’ request.

“You would have expected that if they thought there was no jurisdiction for them, they would have said, ‘We respectfully decline,’ or if there was, they would have picked it up and run with it,” Cronin said.

Federal prosecutors have to meet a certain threshold showing how a case falls under their jurisdiction before taking it, Cronin said, and the FBI may be having similar conversations. But the agency doesn’t have to prove a federal crime has occurred before it acts, she said.

“They could come in, investigate, find out that there are no federal crimes and send it back down to the state,” she said.

Donovan agreed with Powers that the FBI would have a lot to consider before agreeing to take over the Suiter investigation. But, he said, the FBI would likely accept the case quickly if it believed Suiter’s death was in any way related to his intended federal testimony.

“If this guy was killed because he was going to testify in front of a federal grand jury, there could hardly be anything that is of greater federal interest than that,” Donovan said. “The murder of a potential witness strikes right to the heart of the federal investigative process, and federal investigators and prosecutors can’t let that remain unpunished.”

A range of officials in Baltimore and in Maryland have supported Davis’ request that the FBI take over the investigation, including Mayor Catherine Pugh, Gov. Larry Hogan, members of the city council and the city’s delegation to Congress, and Lt. Gene Ryan, president of the local police union.

Davis has said Suiter’s widow, Nicole, and his family understand the reason for the request, and believe the more eyes that are put on the investigation the better. Davis said his detectives, who were close to Suiter, want to solve the case but realize the circumstances are unusual.

No timeline has been provided for when the FBI might respond to Davis’ letter. As Smith noted, the FBI director has been busy.

Wray testified before Congress this week, defending his agency against criticisms by President Donald Trump. Trump wrote on Twitter last week that the agency’s reputation was the “worst in history.” On Thursday, Wray told members of Congress that there “is no finer institution than the FBI.”

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

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