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Pressure builds as police investigate Freddie Gray's arrest

Exclusive look inside the Freddie Gray investigation: "Whatever happened, happened in the van."

The pressure of the investigation wore on task force members — especially Syreeta Teel, a 10-year veteran from the Force Investigation Team who was assigned as the primary detective on the case.

Previous chapter: Investigation begins | Series Index

“I’m drained,” she said during one afternoon break. She was enduring another day of headaches, and the strain of being the primary felt like a house on her shoulders.

Teel, 31, grew up in Southwest Baltimore and spent most of her career in the Western District, first in patrol, then in a special crime impact unit and finally as a detective. Two months before Gray’s death, she transferred to the team that investigates police shootings and other uses of force.

Brutality allegations have not been uncommon in Baltimore Police Department — a Sun investigation last fall revealed that the city had paid nearly $6 million since 2011 in court judgments and settlements in lawsuits alleging police misconduct. Shortly after Gray’s death, the U.S. Department of Justice began a civil rights investigation of the department.

Both Batts and Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake pledged to root out rogue cops, and the commissioner created the Force Investigation Team as a key element of that campaign.

Now Teel was handling the most-watched case of alleged brutality the police department had ever faced.

Homicide detectives Corey Alston and Mark Veney, two bow-tie-wearing veterans, backed her up.

Alston viewed the assignment with cool detachment. “My job as an investigator is just to collect evidence for someone else to decide on,” he said, referring to prosecutors who would determine whether charges should be pursued.

Veney, who considered investigating to be an art form, also said he felt no pressure in the Gray case. It wasn’t personal, just another case where he collected facts. Homicide detectives “ignore the noise,” he said.

Teel, though, could not help but feel the pressure from across Baltimore and inside police headquarters.

“You got citizens who hate you,” she said. “You got some officers who hate you.”

Teel was a black belt in Okinawa Shorin-Ryu, a form of karate known for its emphasis on circular movements to avoid attacks. That provided her with both discipline and focus. She was also enrolled at the University of Baltimore, studying forensic technology.

She was confident enough to jump out on a dance floor by herself, but she would freeze up if she knew someone was staring. She also worried about how she sounded, stuttering when nervous.

Veney and Alston tried to boost her confidence, repeatedly telling her she had the traits of a strong investigator.

But Teel could feel Batts’ eyes squarely on her, and she didn’t want to “cut my co-workers [or] the citizens short” in working the case.

“I have to do it,” she told herself.

Fighting breaks out

On Friday, the day after Batts huddled with his commanders, he held a news conference and said officers had violated department policies while Gray was in custody. Police were investigating whether Gray's injuries resulted from his arrest or a “rough ride” in the van, Batts said.

“We know he was not buckled in the transportation wagon as he should have been,” Batts said. “We know our police employees failed to get him medical attention in a timely manner multiple times.”

The next day, hundreds of protesters gathered at City Hall as speakers urged them to “shut down” Baltimore. Protesters flooded downtown, blocking major intersections.

A couple of blocks away, a line of officers guarded the closed streets surrounding police headquarters. A woman near the barriers wore a shirt that listed names such as “Emmett & Amadou & Trayvon,” black males whose deaths served as flashpoints for racial tensions around the country. In Gray, protesters saw another example of brutality, and a national debate over policing had shifted from New York City and Ferguson, Mo., to Baltimore.

Task force members continued to comb through records in the conference room. Sgt. Lamar Howard studied the map of the police van’s route, muttering street names: “Lafayette, Lafayette.” He sported a suit, and his tie hung well above his belt buckle — as he always wore it.

Things were getting tense outside, and officers inside could feel it. Lt. Lloyd Wells, a supervisor in the training division, showed him a cellphone photo of a hooded man with a bandanna covering his face. “Lamar, if these cats are out there, they’re here for trouble.”

A police radio crackled to life: “Be advised, they’re throwing rocks at Camden Yards.” Soon another call cut through the conversation: “Looks like there’s a fight.”

Howard kept his focus on the timeline of Gray’s arrest and transport. “Man, I’m trying to put this together,” he said.

Wells glanced at a photo of Gray being placed in the van, an image labeled “842 7809 requests wagon to Bruce Ct.” The photo, pulled from one of many videos the task force was studying, had received little notice. Wells asked Howard, “Is he standing up there?”

“He is.”

“No way he could stand up if his spine is broken.”

“Whatever happened,” Howard said, “happened in the van.”

The police radio barked with reports of fights at Camden Yards, where the Orioles were playing a night game, and detectives filtered into a nearby office to watch a television tuned to protest coverage.

Brandford, Howard and a half-dozen officers gathered around. “Oh, they’re fighting,” someone yelled.

They watched as a sea of blue uniforms converged upon a rioter. Police cars were vandalized, and bike racks were thrown at police.

Col. Garnell Green hustled down the hall, leaned into the office and said, “Major, whoever you can get, get them down here now!”

The detectives scrambled to change into uniforms and helmets. Brandford could not believe city residents were causing the violence. It had to be outside agitators, he told himself.

Either way, he knew time was running out for the task force. The outburst, he said, made him realize “the community is demanding answers.”

Next chapter: Seeing the damage | Series Index


Key Players: 

Anthony W. Batts, police commissioner when Freddie Gray died, was fired in July

Stanley Brandford, leader of police task force, now a colonel

Kevin Davis, deputy police commissioner when Gray died, now police commissioner

Caesar Goodson Jr., driver of police van that transported Gray

Freddie Gray, 25-year-old was injured after an April 12 arrest and died a week later

Marilyn J. Mosby, Baltimore State’s Attorney

Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Baltimore mayor

Task force members included: Lt. Col. David Reitz, Col. Garnell Green, Sgt. Lamar Howard, Lt. Lloyd Wells and Detectives Corey Alston, Michael Boyd, Dawnyell Taylor, Syreeta Teel and Mark Veney

Copyright © 2019, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad

About this series

In the days following Freddie Gray’s death, The Baltimore Sun had exclusive access to police investigators as they gathered evidence, debated legal issues and weathered public pressure. See the full series