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Riots complicate police probe into Freddie Gray's death

Exclusive: Amid the riots, investigators pushed to find answers in the Freddie Gray case.

On Sunday, signs of the previous night’s outburst were apparent. Along Howard Street, shards of glass glinted in sun and duct tape covered the web of cracks on the windows of a 7-Eleven. At a nearby McDonald’s, the door and windows were boarded up and a sign said the restaurant was “temporarily closed. Sorry. Mgmt.”

Previous chapter: Pressure builds | Series Index

In West Baltimore, three task force members were at work by 7 a.m., pushing a $236,000 Leica ScanStation C10 laser imaging system along the uneven streets surrounding Gilmor Homes, where Gray was arrested.

Timothy Hamilton, a detective with the accident investigation unit, was working his 16th straight day and said he was almost hit by a rock Saturday night.

“I think someone threw a chicken box at me,” Detective Michael Boyd said.

They were using the device to capture 3D images of the streets, sidewalks and terrain where officers chased Gray, as well as the entire van route. Thomas Wisner, a crime lab technician, was tasked with stitching the scores of images together to create a map for the investigation.

All three were out of uniform — Boyd wore a “Sons of Baltimore” sweatshirt and Wisner wore an Orioles T-shirt — so they wouldn’t attract attention. To anyone raising questions, they said they were either a Google mapping team or a city road crew, which elicited thank-yous.

The 3D images were part of the trove of evidence police gathered. Detectives scoured West Baltimore for video from cameras at corner stores and gathered accounts from residents who witnessed the arrest. (In at least one case, they were too late; a convenience store camera pointed at a key intersection had already taped over footage from April 12.) They scrutinized the training that officers involved in Gray’s arrest had received, including the type of holds that were taught. And they analyzed other calls the officers had handled.

They also painstakingly reviewed legal issues and weighed the perception of their actions. They were concerned that the public might be suspicious because a surveillance camera was not working outside the Western District police station on the day Gray was taken there. Or because a detainee in the van with Gray was released without being charged — which might be interpreted as a sign that he had shaped recollections to suit police.

“This is not going to be a normal case,” Homicide Detective Dawnyell Taylor said at one point. “Everything we do, or don’t do, is going to be questioned.”

As Brandford gathered task force members for a 1:30 p.m. briefing at headquarters and began to review the list of daily tasks, Davis’ cellphone vibrated with an incoming message.

“I just got a text,” Davis said. “The high schoolers are being urged to skip school and protest.”

The event, planned for Monday, was being called “The Purge,” modeled after a movie in which crimes are legal for a 12-hour period. Davis said the students were being told to march from Mondawmin Mall to the Inner Harbor.

Brandford handed out more assignments for Monday, even though it was the day of Gray’s funeral. There wasn’t time to waste. Howard would look for more videos; Wells would take police recruits to Gilmor Homes and canvass for witnesses early in the morning, before the funeral.

Davis asked if the recruits would be wearing uniforms. With so many television news cameras in Baltimore, commanders wanted to ensure the department was projecting professionalism.

“Yes sir,” Wells responded. “They’ll have khaki pants on and uniforms.”

“And detectives,” Brandford said, “you’ll be dressed like detectives.”

There was one more logistical issue.

“Hey Lieutenant Wells,” Brandford asked. “Got enough people?”

“We have 45, sir. It’s just a matter of transportation,” Wells responded. “We have transportation for 20. A few of our vans were destroyed yesterday.”

Amid the riots

Baltimore erupted Monday, in the first major riot since the late 1960s. What began as a confrontation between police and high school students at Mondawmin Mall escalated into fiery destruction in parts of East and West Baltimore.

Even as police scrambled to respond, Boyd and Wisner were determined to finish the 3D scan of West Baltimore. With just a few days before the task force’s report was due, Wisner had 20 gigabytes and more than 60 scans that had to be stitched together. All he needed was a cable to connect the scanning device to his laptop.

Around 8:30 p.m., they roamed around police headquarters looking for a cable that would fit. When that proved fruitless, they headed to the Wal-Mart at Port Covington.

At the store, they walked past displays of $9.97 Huggies diapers and $3.97 pillows, until they came to a television showing live coverage of flames rising from a building. A Wal-Mart clerk in a blue vest covered her mouth in shock. Reports of fire crew hoses being sabotaged began to surface.

“Oh that’s the CVS where they cut the hoses,” Boyd remarked. Firefighters “tried to put it out but they cut the hoses so they let it go.”

Wisner grabbed a cable he thought might work, and the pair headed back to headquarters. Boyd’s phone buzzed with text messages from worried relatives.

“My aunt called the governor and yelled at him,” Boyd said. “Told him I was a cop in the city.

“And she told me to quit.”

Back at headquarters, technicians from the Crime Lab Mobile Unit also were watching TV coverage of the riots. While their fellow officers were in riot gear fighting for control of the city, Boyd and Wisner had been told to keep working the case. They did not like being on the sidelines, but believed they could help find answers that would push the investigation forward and quell the rage on the streets.

Wisner pulled the cable from its packaging, turned to Boyd and shook his head.

“Not the right cable,” he said.

Boyd’s cellphone rang.

“Hey, Sarge … yeah,” he said.

He hung up, and looked at Wisner.

“See ya, guys,” he said. “I’m out of here. I’m active duty.”

He gathered up protective goggles and a shield, and walked out of the building, past a line of parked patrol cars and a police wagon with a broken windshield.

Seeking evidence

Monday’s rioting damaged 400 buildings in the city; 144 vehicles were set on fire. Police reported that more than 150 officers were injured, and property damage was later estimated at nearly $13 million. Gov. Larry Hogan ordered the National Guard into Baltimore that night, and the mayor established a citywide curfew.

The day after the rioting, a counter in the lobby of police headquarters held stacks of pizza and cases of Rockstar energy drinks. As about three dozen officers in riot helmets headed out to duty, a weary group of detectives, including Boyd and Joe Poremski, headed to the Western District police station.

Their assignment: to use a search warrant to open Goodson’s locker and retrieve his uniform.

The decision to search the locker was controversial among task force members. Commanders wanted to test the uniform for Gray’s blood, which might indicate a struggle. They worried about perception: If they failed to run tests on it, how could they explain that to the public or defense attorneys?

Detectives, meanwhile, noted that more than two weeks had passed since the arrest, allowing plenty of time for the uniform to be washed.

The debate illustrated a dichotomy of thought throughout the investigation. Detectives, particularly homicide detectives, gather evidence and slowly narrow their focus. But Batts had ordered the task force to investigate all possibilities and never close any doors.

At the Western District, Boyd and Poremski passed members of the National Guard who were reporting for shifts or napping on cots. Firefighters in grimy uniforms shuffled past a Humvee in the road. The detectives, joined by four others and a crime lab technician, walked upstairs to the men’s locker room.

Rows of 5-foot-tall green lockers lined the room, separated by long wooden benches. A pair of black work boots sat atop one locker; another had pieces of tape with the words “NY Yankees #1” and “Puerto Rico.”

Detectives found the locker they were searching for: “S2.” On a piece of tape was the word “Goodson.”

One detective carried a large red bolt cutter with black handles, but no one volunteered to cut the lock; their discomfort was palpable. Finally, one of the investigators stepped up and clipped the lock, which dropped to the ground.

The metal door opened, revealing a space crammed with police reports and other papers. A blue uniform shirt was placed neatly on a hanger.

With blue surgical gloves, Detective Chris Wade pulled the shirt out and held it up. “One uniform shirt,” he said, as another detective documented each item taken from the locker.

Wade removed folders, a green notebook and a blue plastic bag. He placed stacks of papers on a bench.

The crime lab technician snapped photos over and over.

“What time do we have?” Wade asked. “6:24 secure.”

Boyd, sitting nearby, slapped at his knees. Another task completed.

Next chapter: Tension and charges | 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

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