Panel report: Baltimore Police Det. Suiter had 'every incentive' to make suicide appear to be murder

Evidence from the killing of Baltimore Police homicide detective Sean Suiter “simply does not support” a conclusion other than that the officer took his own life, according to an independent review panel that also sharply criticized investigators and the former commissioner for their handling of the case.

The report from the seven-member board, which was released Tuesday afternoon, details evidence in the highly controversial case, including surveillance camera footage, as well as missteps that they say eroded public confidence in the police department. It casts Suiter as an officer under duress about potentially being tied to corruption through the Gun Trace Task Force case, and having “every incentive” to make his suicide appear to be a murder.

“The community should not fear that a ‘cop killer’ is on the loose,” the report concludes. “The homicide detectives who worked so diligently should not be considered unsuccessful in failing to find a non-existent killer.”

Contrasting opinions about how Suiter was killed had been swirling within the Baltimore Police Department since early in the investigation, even as the state medical examiner’s office ruled his death a homicide. Some believed the evidence lacked any indication of a suspect and pointed to his death being a suicide staged to look like a killing, while others said that theory strained credibility and was a convenient out for an agency struggling to solve the death of one of its own.

The board’s findings are informal recommendations, but could lead to police and the state medical examiner reclassifying the case. Chief Medical Examiner David Fowler received a copy of the report Tuesday afternoon and said his office could revisit its ruling.

An attorney for Suiter’s wife, Nicole, said she was informed of the finding last week and was “shocked” by the conclusion, and would offer more comments after reading the full report.

Read more: The major takeaways from panel report on Baltimore Police Det. Suiter's death »

The police department and members of the Independent Review Board are scheduled to address questions about the report at a news conference at 11 a.m. Wednesday.

Suiter, a 43-year-old father of five, was shot Nov. 15 in the 900 block of Bennett Place while conducting a follow-up investigation on a triple homicide case. In the frantic search for his killer, police locked down the surrounding neighborhood of Harlem Park. A reward for tips grew to more than $200,000, but police to this day had no leads on a possible suspect.

Suiter was given a hero’s funeral and praised for his work as an officer. But the board’s report describes him as under pressure as the Gun Trace Task Force corruption case grew, with claims being made about his involvement in possible misconduct. The report says Suiter asked an FBI agent whether he was going to lose his job, and says he was in communication with a lawyer about his looming testimony before a grand jury investigating city police corruption.

The report also blasts former Police Commissioner Kevin Davis for releasing too much information to the public and making misleading comments.

The board also determined investigators failed to record where the fatal bullet was found and couldn’t produce photos of a key piece of evidence: blood on the inside of Suiter’s shirt sleeve, which they believe bolsters the idea that he shot himself at close range.

The report offers a detailed timeline of the events leading up to the shooting and the aftermath, drawn from interviews with his partner that day and bolstered with videos, maps, body camera stills and other evidence:

The day before his death, Suiter had requested that Det. David Bomenka, a very junior homicide detective with only a few months in the unit, accompany him as he conducted follow-up on a triple homicide. It was the first time Suiter had been in the Harlem Park neighborhood to investigate the triple murder in two months, and he said he was looking for a prostitute named "Mary" not otherwise documented in his file, the board said.

At 4:01 p.m. Nov. 15, records show, Suiter received a call from his attorney, Jeremy Eldridge. Bomenka recalled Suiter telling the person on the other line that he could not talk, but that Suiter said the caller was someone other than his attorney.

A minute later, Bomenka said, he and Suiter were driving along Schroeder Street when they thought they spotted a suspicious person in the alley — whom Bomenka described as an African-American male, wearing a black jacket, with a white stripe or partial white section. This would later form the basis of an early suspect description given out by Davis at a news conference.

Twenty minutes later, Suiter said he saw the suspicious person again. Bomenka was unsure whether they’d actually seen someone earlier or had mistaken a glance at a pile of trash.

“Maybe we’re just seeing things,” Bomenka said he told Suiter.

As they continued to mill around the area, Suiter hung up twice on calls that records show were from his attorney, whom he was supposed to meet at 5 p.m., though he told Bomenka it was a friend he would call back later.

“Time was running out,” the board said. “Suiter’s futile searches may have signaled a quiet desperation before a final, tragic decision.”

Suiter said he wanted to wait to see whether the suspicious person reappeared, and directed Bomenka to the street corner and out of view of the lot, Bomenka said.

Surveillance camera footage, which never shows anyone else going into the lot, shows Suiter pacing at the rear of a van parked on the street. Bomenka said he saw Suiter make a gesture like a wave, then begin to unholster his weapon and run into the lot.

Bomenka said he heard Suiter yell “Stop! Stop! Stop! Police!” then several gunshots. He told investigators he saw Suiter falling, or alternatively just after he had fallen, with gun smoke hovering.

But Bomenka saw no suspect.

“All of the actions that led to Suiter’s death could have only taken a couple of seconds at most,” the report says. “This leaves very little time for an assailant to overpower Suiter, shoot Suiter with his own weapon, remove any evidence of the assailant’s presence, and disappear from view.”

First-responding officers rolled Suiter’s body over, revealing his gun underneath his body. He was rushed to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where medical personnel initially said they believed Suiter was shot from the left front of his head. But the autopsy later determined he was shot from the back of the head behind his right ear. Hospital personnel also cleaned Suiter’s hands before police could perform a gunshot residue test.

Police found the fatal bullet embedded in the vacant lot, but despite an extensive search have never been able to find the other two shots fired from his service weapon.

Suiter was shot one day before he was set to appear before a federal grand jury investigating the Gun Trace Task Force corruption case. He was being asked to offer testimony about a 2011 incident in which drugs were planted on a man who fled police and got into a fatal crash. The report said Suiter was extended limited immunity to discuss the 2011 case.

Later, it would emerge at the Gun Trace Task Force trial that convicted Detective Momodu Gondo told the government that he had robbed citizens along with Suiter.

The board said that an analysis of Suiter’s cellphone showed he had deleted Gondo and another convicted officer, Maurice Ward, from his phone contacts, and that “75 text messages and 313 call log entries were also deleted.”

“If Gondo and others were providing truthful information to federal law enforcement, Detective Suiter faced a difficult choice: He could testify truthfully and be protected by federal immunity,” the report says. “In acknowledging personal illegal conduct while with the agency, however, he would likely end his career. His admissions would be a firing offense, and the specter of state criminal prosecution might also exist.

“Alternatively, Suiter could have denied wrongful conduct before the grand jury. That might subject him to federal charges, however, if the grand jury and prosecutors concluded that Suiter was not truthful.

Davis had said federal authorities told him Suiter was not a target of the Gun Trace Task Force investigation. But the review board’s report claims that then-Acting U.S. Attorney Stephen Schenning had advised Davis that cooperating officers had implicated Suiter in wrongdoing, and that “federal law enforcement did not have enough information to determine whether Suiter had been involved in criminal activity.”

Davis did not relay that information to homicide detectives, the report says. “As a result, communication protocols were established so that the FBI could share information directly with the homicide detectives working the case,” the report said.

Notably, police investigators did not attempt to search Suiter’s home computer for any clues that he might have been researching taking his own life or was involved with misconduct, the board said.

Davis, who was at the helm of the department when Suiter was shot, but was fired in January, came out against the board’s finding of suicide Monday, saying the board was being misled by forces within the Baltimore Police Department that wanted the unsolved case cleared.

“It’s OK at the end of the day to say we still don’t know,” Davis told The Baltimore Sun. “We talk about probabilities and possibilities. When I left in January 2018, the probability was homicide. Suicide was always a possibility, but the strength of the evidence didn’t support it.”

The Independent Review Board was co-chaired by James “Chips” Stewart, a law enforcement consultant who sat on two prior such review boards that looked at controversial Baltimore Police cases in 2011 and 2013. In its conclusion, the board laments that the BPD didn’t follow recommendations from past reviews.

“Had those recommendations been implemented, many, if not all, of the deficiencies recognized here may have been avoided,” the report said.

jfenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

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