BALTIMORE (AP) — The gunshot that killed a Baltimore detective one day before he was to testify in front of a grand jury investigating dirty cops was likely self-inflicted, leaders of an independent review board announced Wednesday.
The panel’s unanimous decision is the latest twist in a real-life whodunit that has captivated Baltimore for 10 months. When 43-year-old Detective Sean Suiter was found Nov. 15, dying from a bullet wound to the skull, police and the state medical examiner’s office called his on-duty death a homicide. Authorities launched a massive manhunt.
But from the start, there was widespread skepticism about the police narrative suggesting Suiter approached a suspicious man in a vacant West Baltimore lot between row houses, got into a violent struggle and was shot with his own gun. Nobody was ever charged in his death.
Now, in their 207-page final report , the seven-member independent review board says all the evidence they’ve reviewed “simply does not support anyone other than Detective Suiter himself firing the fatal shot.”
Among the evidence: The gun barrel was in contact with Suiter’s head when the fatal shot was fired. Nobody else’s DNA was found on his weapon. Blood spatter was found inside the right-handed detective’s right shirt cuff, indicating his hand and arm were in a high position when the shot was fired.
They also say the autopsy revealed no defensive wounds to support the police narrative that he had struggled with an assailant. Suiter’s left hand was still clutching his police radio.
“The community should not fear that a ‘cop killer’ is on the loose,” the report states.
During a Wednesday news conference, board chief James “Chips” Stewart of CNA, a nonprofit research firm based in Arlington, Virginia, said their report offers a “compelling” detailing of evidence, but the “next steps in this are going to be up to the medical examiner and the police department.”
Acting Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle said any reclassification of Suiter’s death is up to the medical examiner. A spokesman for the medical examiner has not responded to the board’s conclusions.
The panel’s report details confusion from the investigation’s start. They wrote that hospital personnel at the University of Maryland Shock Trauma initially reported incorrectly that the fatal bullet entered the left side of Suiter’s skull. Not until four days later did examiners see the entry wound was actually on the right side of his head, they write.
By then, the manhunt was ramped up and ex-Police Commissioner Kevin Davis was telling the public that Suiter was shot by an unidentified man in a high-crime neighborhood.
The broad findings suggesting Suiter took his own life were first announced earlier this week by a lawyer for the detective’s widow. Paul Siegrist, a Pennsylvania-based lawyer for Nicole Suiter, said Monday she was “shocked by their determination and very upset.”
Following the board’s press conference, Nicole Suiter blasted their conclusions as outlandish. “There’s no-one alive who can convince me that the theory that this panel has formulated is correct,” she said, reading from a statement.
Suiter’s funeral drew thousands of mourners, including politicians and numerous law enforcement officials. At his funeral, Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh said his unsolved killing “leaves a stain on our city,” while Gov. Larry Hogan said the detective “lived and died a hero.”
When asked Wednesday if she now felt she’d been misled last year, Pugh told reporters: “According to this report, we’ve all been misled.”
New allegations began surfacing months ago about Suiter’s past, raising doubts about his integrity. During a federal racketeering trial for two detectives who belonged to a wildly corrupt Baltimore police unit called the Gun Trace Task Force, one indicted officer, Momodu Gondo, alleged he started stealing money with Suiter and other sworn officers about a decade ago.
The disgraced ex-detective’s testimony earlier this year wasn’t the first suggestion that Suiter was once involved in shady dealings. Attorney Steven Silverman represented a man whose federal drug conviction was vacated in December after he spent years in prison based on corrupt police work. Silverman alleged that Suiter was among a group of officers dressed in black, wearing face masks and showing no visible badges during the lead-up to the April 2010 incident that led to his client’s prosecution.
Former Police Commissioner Darry De Sousa created the review panel earlier this year, saying a fresh perspective was needed to re-examine the case as the force grappled with the fallout of an explosive federal corruption probe into the rogue gun unit. Gondo and another disgraced detective, Maurice Ward, had worked cases with Suiter years before they joined the corrupt squad and ultimately pleaded guilty to corruption charges.
The board’s analysis of Suiter’s cellphone revealed “substantial deletions,” including 75 texts and 313 call log entries. They say Suiter “or someone with access to his phone” deleted Gondo and Ward from his phone’s contacts.
The report also says FBI agents attempted to interview Suiter a few weeks before he was found shot. They said he declined and was served with a subpoena to appear before the grand jury investigating police corruption. He had an offer of “limited immunity” from federal investigators, they said. The report suggests he likely faced a “difficult choice” concerning the grand jury investigation.
A search of his work computer revealed five September searches for the funeral home that eventually handled his body. They also say the father of five spent the last hour of his life ignoring his attorney’s attempts to reach him. They had a meeting at 5 p.m. to discuss his scheduled appearance the next day before the grand jury.
“Time was running out. Suiter’s futile searches may have signaled a quiet desperation before a final, tragic decision,” they wrote, suggesting he might have staged a homicide, motivated in part by how his survivor’s benefits package might be impacted following his death.
Follow McFadden on Twitter: https://twitter.com/dmcfadd