A recent HBO documentary entitled The Slow Hustle has brought renewed attention to the mysterious death of Baltimore homicide detective Sean Suiter in 2017. Police initially claimed Suiter was the victim of a lone assailant after his body was found in a West Baltimore alley with a gunshot wound to the head. But as details began to emerge regarding Suiter’s involvement with some of Baltimore’s most corrupt cops, the case took a turn that raised serious questions about what actually happened and if his death was part of a broader cover-up.
Shortly after Suiter died, Police Accountability Report hosts Taya Graham and Stephen Janis produced a podcast series that looked behind the scenes and examined how Suiter’s death told a more complex story about police corruption in Baltimore. In Part III of this podcast series, Graham and Janis explore the bombshell revelation that Suiter’s mysterious death occurred one day before he was supposed to testify in a major corruption investigation regarding the Baltimore Police Department’s infamous Gun Trace Task Force.
Stephen Janis: Anyone who watches crime dramas could reasonably conclude that when someone is murdered, barring bizarre and extenuating circumstances, the case is solved. That is, through high tech forensics, moral resolve, or simply the near-mythic competence of American law enforcement, killers are ultimately sent to jail. But as an investigative reporter who has worked in one of the most violent cities in the country for nearly 15 years, I can tell you this is not true.
Taya Graham: And that is the point of this podcast, because unsolved killings represent more than just statistics. It’s a psychic toll of stories untold that infects an entire community, the final violent moments of a victim’s life that remain shrouded in mystery.
Stephen Janis: I’m Stephen Janis.
Taya Graham: I’m Taya Graham.
Stephen Janis: And we are investigative reporters who live in Baltimore City.
Taya Graham: Welcome to The Land of the Unsolved.
Kevin Davis: This callous coward with a gun in his hand shot a cop in the head tonight.
Speaker 1: My heart grieves for Detective Sean Suiter.
Speaker 2: There’s no way that I would think if you are a good partner that you’re going to lose sight of me. Now, if they thought at the smallest level that it involved police officers tied to their case, there’s no way they would’ve given that case back.
Stephen Tabeling: Listen, after a case gets 72 hours old, it gets cold. If you don’t do something in 72 hours, you really have a problem.
Taya Graham: Thank you for joining us for The Land of the Unsolved, the mysterious death of Detective Sean Suiter.
Stephen Janis: In our last episode, we told the story of Detective Sean Suiter’s sudden and violent end.
Taya Graham: How Suiter was shot in the head with his own gun in a West Baltimore alley.
Stephen Janis: And how at first, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis insisted Suiter had been shot by a lone Black gunman.
Kevin Davis: Suiter was with a partner from the homicide division. They were in the Bennett Street area investigating a 2016 murder. And while they were in the vicinity they observed a man engaged in suspicious behaviors. The man is, again, vaguely described as an adult African American male. We don’t have much more than that right now.
Taya Graham: But as details began to emerge about Suiter’s pending testimony before a federal grand jury in a case involving members of the now notorious Gun Trace Task Force, the official narrative of Suiter’s death began to fall apart. And the community started raising questions, queries tied to the uncomfortable truths of the deep misgivings in the community regarding police corruption.
Stephen Tabeling: You could not, if you had a thousand tongues, you couldn’t say bullshit enough. You couldn’t call bullshit enough on how on earth do you expect anybody to believe that a man who the very next day is going to testify against the nefarious Gun Trace Task Force winds up dead? To quote a friend of mine who’s been in sales for a long time, how do you sell around that?
Stephen Janis: A 2010 case tied Suiter to the now notorious Gun Trace Task Force. Ties went deeper when Police Commissioner Kevin Davis announced Suiter was set to testify in front of a grand jury the day before he died.
Kevin Davis: I am now aware of Detective Suitor’s pending federal grand jury testimony surrounding an incident that occurred several years ago with BPD police officers who were federally indicted in March of this year. The acting United States attorney and the special agent in charge of the FBI’s Baltimore field office have told me in no uncertain terms that Detective Suiter was not the target of any ongoing criminal investigation.
Taya Graham: As we mentioned at the beginning of the podcast, Stephen and I are reporters and we travel around the city talking to people about a variety of topics. And shortly after Davis made the announcement, I was interviewing the mayor about Suiter’s death. And I noticed she said something.
Mayor: I have been in contact with Mrs. Suiter almost every day since this happened. And one of the things that I promised her is that we would get the truth as it relates to this particular case.
Taya Graham: She wouldn’t mention his name.
Stephen Janis: Meanwhile, the community was in an uproar.
Mrs. Suiter: I was not able to enjoy my vacation because all I could think about was what would happen if the police engaged my son inappropriately.
Stephen Janis: Taya and I attended a meeting with the city civilian review board in Harlem Park, the neighborhood Commissioner Davis locked down.
Taya Graham: People there were outraged and they let city officials know it. For hours they testified about the indignities of living under a veritable house arrest for days.
Speaker 3: If this incident would’ve happened in Roland Park, that neighborhood would not have been cordoned off six or seven blocks.
Speaker 4: Police officers on the front line just don’t decide to cordon off [inaudible] and be assigned to one. They don’t make those decisions. This came from the police commissioner and that’s where we have to start.
Stephen Janis: It was another chapter in the saga of Suiter’s case that seemed to be falling apart minute by minute.
Taya Graham: But meanwhile, investigative reporter Jayne Miller was working on a different theory of the case.
Jayne Miller: Well, the first thing that we reported, and we were able to confirm, is that it appeared he was shot with his own gun. We confirmed that when we learned of certain things that were found by the medical examiner. So early on, this was in the first couple of days, I was starting to think that, based on the information I knew and was able to report, that this had a lot of indications in the physical evidence that this could be self-inflicted. Not conclusively by any stretch.
But I can remember having a conversation with a long time investigator that said, it’s like, duh, what do we know? What do we know is that here we’ve got a guy who’s found with a gunshot wound to the head close range. Gun is right there within arm’s length and no sign of any other… This was even before I knew there was no DNA or fingerprint obvious of anybody else and no sign of any other weapon. So in an ordinary case, it would immediately take you down that path of self-inflicted.
Stephen Janis: As she was developing the story, Davis continued to insist Suiter was killed by an as yet unknown gunman. But then at one of those same press conferences, Miller confronted him and asked the question.
Jayne Miller: Davis also acknowledged for the first time investigators are considering the possibility John Suiter killed himself.
Kevin Davis: It’s not the lead theory, but we’re pursuing it. There is no DNA evidence or other forensic evidence – Blood, et cetera – That identifies the perpetrator.
Jayne Miller: But Davis says there’s no evidence Suiter was contemplating suicide. And other evidence suggests a struggle, Suiter’s clothing and a brief radio transmission that still has not been deciphered.
Taya Graham: After Miller asked the question, she was not alone in exploring the theory.
Speaker 5: If there was a struggle there could be punches thrown. There could be scratches. There could be clothes pulled off, a lot of things. Just think about that. If somebody takes my gun, I’m fighting for my life, I’m going to kick them, bite him. I’m going to do everything that I can and they’re going to be doing the same thing to me. I didn’t see the man, I didn’t see his body, only thing I know is what was said. But it’s very difficult for me to believe that somebody just walked up and put a gun to his head.
Stephen Janis: One investigator who believed the evidence pointed to suicide was former State Police Commander Neil Franklin.
Neill Franklin: Number one let’s look at it being, as many people thought, involving other police officers. You’re talking about one hell of a conspiracy of a police department that is already under a very powerful microscope. It would be extremely difficult for a number of police officers to come together and to make that happen. He was in that area following up on one of his cases with someone other than his regular partner. Now he was, in my opinion, directing where to go, what to look at, maybe who they’re going to talk to, which would make it very difficult for someone else to control his coming and going, right? So that’s another point, a very isolated place. He’s familiar with the area.
Another key point regarding it not being a police officer involved is that the feds took a look at this. The feds did great work. They took a look at this case for a few weeks and decided to give it back. Now if they thought at the smallest level that it involved police officers tied to their case there’s no way they would’ve given that case back. And so when someone is under a lot of stress, maybe contemplating suicide, maybe challenged in some area, we don’t know it. We don’t know it until the person has taken their own life. And believe me, I’m very familiar, unfortunately, I’m very familiar with dealing with high levels of stress and the desire to take your own life. Believe me, if you don’t want anyone to know, they don’t know. They do not know.
Taya Graham: But not everyone was convinced. In the community, there were still doubts, especially because the corruption of the Gun Trace Task Force, the group of now nine officers who had pled guilty or been convicted of stealing drugs, cash, and overtime for years was unfolding every day. Including AFRO editor Sean Yoes.
Sean Yoes: And then again, once we found out that he was due to testify against his own colleagues, then I think it just seemed almost a watershed moment for most people.
Speaker 6: What did we find out about that?
Sean Yoes: That he was going to testify against the Gun Trace Task Force. And then later we find out members of the Gun Trace Task Force during the trial implicated him, the dead man, implicated him in a robbery of a drug dealer back in 2010 I think it was.
Stephen Janis: For Yoes, the deeply entrenched corruption inside the department prompted him to still believe it was an inside job.
Sean Yoes: You know, I wrote in my column once that I lived in three of the most dangerous cities in the United States: Detroit, Los Angeles and Baltimore. And those cities have been dangerous, not just because of the people who are typically victims of a lot of society’s ills, but those places are dangerous, maybe more so, because of the police forces that occupy them. So when you ask me the question, who would want to, or why would someone want to kill Detective Suiter? I think the simple answer is because they could.
Taya Graham: Even as Miller obtained more and more evidence that the shooting was self-inflicted.
Jayne Miller: If you shoot yourself you’re going to have GSR on your hands. Unless you’re wearing a glove, you may not. But the way you explain that and to mitigate that information is to have fired other shots.
Speaker 6: And what’s at stake for his family?
Jayne Miller: Someone, I think some paper reporter, somebody did a story on that, of the benefits. It’s a lot, there’s a lot of benefit to line of duty death. It’s a lot. I’ve had conversations with people that know something about the case. And I’ve said, the most intense investigation is probably going on by an insurance company. Because the alternative narrative of that is, he’s a homicide detective. So what is a sure bet that you shot yourself, and there’s only one shot? That you have GSR on your hands, right? But if there’s two other shots that were heard, well, that explains the GSR. So if you’re trying to make this look like something then you have to explain that. That’s one thing you have to control is, how do I make sure that it’s not going to be suspicious that I have GSR on my hand and there’s only one shot?
Stephen Janis: But then another bombshell dropped during a press conference. And this time not even reporters are ready for what happened.
Kevin Davis: This morning I sent the following letter that I will read to you, and a copy will be provided to you at the end of this press conference to Christopher Wray, the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Taya Graham: We’ll talk about it when we return to The Land of the Unsolved.
Stephen Janis: Welcome back to The Land of the Unsolved and the mysterious death of Detective Sean Suiter. So with the case stalled and questions looming about if Suiter took his own life, Police Commissioner Kevin Davis calls a press conference.
Taya Graham: And he makes an announcement that stuns the press and the city.
Kevin Davis: The circumstances surrounding Detective Suiter’s killing are significantly complicated by the fact that he was to appear before a federal grand jury the following day. I am growing increasingly uncomfortable that my homicide detectives do not know all of the facts known to the FBI or the US Attorney’s Office that could, if revealed to us, assist in furthering this murder investigation. I respectfully request the FBI to investigate the murder of Detective Sean Suiter.
Stephen Janis: The reaction to the announcement is swift, part disbelief, part shock.
Jayne Miller: He introduced the letter that he wrote to, not the local agent in charge, but he wrote it to Chris Wray, the head of the FBI in Washington, which I think caught people like, why didn’t you just go to the local special agent in charge? The gist of the letter was that he felt that they weren’t sharing information with the city’s homicide detectives. Which was interesting because it was like, well, wait a minute, you’re kind of throwing them under the bus and yet you want them to take over the investigation. So you were offending them on one hand, but asking them to take over.
And he said the reason for it was that he felt that the community needed to feel confident, feel some measure of confidence in the investigation and to have some finding of integrity in the investigation. And he thought bringing in the FBI… I mean, he clearly indicated the FBI had information they weren’t sharing. I think it just added another layer of suspicion to the whole case. This case is so clouded by suspicion that I don’t know that you can ever clear that away. It’s just added to it.
Stephen Tabeling: I’ve never known the FBI to get involved in local cases. I have a lot of respect for the FBI. I’m a graduate of the FBI Academy and I learned a lot there and I like what they did. But in my career I have never seen them get involved in a local murder case.
Taya Graham: Former homicide detective Stephen Tabeling said it was an unprecedented move.
Stephen Tabeling: Now in my time I have never, or don’t have any knowledge of, any police commissioner asking them to get involved in a case. When I was working drugs I worked a lot with DEA, a lot of cooperation and eventually that went to the FBI. But I can’t tell you a time in my career that we ever asked the FBI to investigate a murder case.
Taya Graham: And now the people we talked to in the community had entirely lost faith in the department, including state delegate Bilal Ali who said the FBI couldn’t change the fact that the evidence didn’t add up.
Bilal Ali: I would say this, I believe that the federal government did not have any faith in the Baltimore City Police Department. And although they knew he was coming to testify I don’t think that they probably disclosed the nature of this. So later on, I can’t say Commissioner Davis wasn’t being truthful. That’s what I meant by walking that back. But I’m going to tell you, all the pieces don’t fit together. Because anybody who lives in Baltimore City knows that Bennett Place is one of the most dangerous places in Baltimore City. So therefore if two officers go out together, I’m saying to my partner, hey man, you keep your eye on me and I keep my eye on you. There’s no way that I would think if you’re a good partner that you’re going to lose sight of me in the most dangerous area that it is. That didn’t make sense to me.
Stephen Janis: Do you think it was what the commissioner said, a lone guy in the neighborhood, an African American male with a white stripe on him?
Bilal Ali: Man, everybody fits that profile.
Stephen Janis: Including AFRO editor Sean Yoes who believed turning the case over to the FBI was, case in point, internal corruption was behind Suiter’s death.
Sean Yoes: As we went along, who knows why this man’s name was maligned later, or if it wasn’t maligned and it was all true and accurate that he was involved with these guys, I think it speaks to the level of corruption, the pervasiveness of the corruption within the Baltimore Police Department.
Taya Graham: Meanwhile behind the scenes, something was happening, nothing. The case wasn’t going anywhere. If there was a killer on the loose then the city’s homicide unit didn’t believe it.
Jayne Miller: And you had this situation of this continued police narrative of looking for the gunman with the black jacket and white stripes that was just not getting anywhere. There were no leads. There was no person of interest after the first couple of days of the investigation when there was, but that went away, didn’t pan out. And there just wasn’t anything. Nobody was biting on the $2 million reward for information.
Stephen Janis: Which is why Miller pressed Commissioner Davis on the theory that Suiter took his own life.
Jayne Miller: I mean, the reason that I really decided to go that way and to really press them on it was because there were a couple of things that we were able to report between the funeral and that day, which was Dec. 1, that I asked that question. And one was that I was able to confirm that there was no evidence of a second person. And I was hearing all kinds of stories about that big funeral, there was a lot of stuff going around about the funeral. And so when you started to put all of the evidence together it looked like there was a pretty strong theory here that it could be self-inflicted.
Stephen Janis: And then another bombshell. Police Commissioner Kevin Davis, who had led the charge to find a suspect, is fired.
This is Stephen Janis reporting for The Real News Network in Baltimore City, Maryland. Big changes in the police department, a new commissioner, old commissioner out. But what will it mean for Baltimore and its fight against crime?
Mayor: This morning I announced that we relieved Commissioner Davis of his position as commissioner for the Baltimore City Police Department, and I’ve named Deputy Commissioner De Souza as commissioner for the Baltimore City Police Department.
Jayne Miller: I mean, my understanding is that she did this on her own. She made it very quickly and cleanly, meaning she didn’t tell somebody three days before and let it kind of bang around and leak out. She did it and then installed Darryl De Souza, who’s a 30 year veteran of the Baltimore Police Department and had been in leadership positions, and installed him as the new commissioner. That was on Jan. 19.
Stephen Janis: The firing left this critical case in limbo and the city on edge.
Sean Yoes: No, I don’t think that we’ll ever know the truth about who murdered Detective Suiter. I doubt it.
Speaker 6: Why not?
Sean Yoes: Because it’s just too much at stake. Because you can lock up the members of the disbanded Gun Trace Task Force, that’s cool, but you’ll never be able to lock up all the people that were complicit in their actions. You’ll never be able to lock up the members of the command staff that turned a blind eye or even kind of gave them the open door to operate. And those commanders, those people are still in place and they’re powerful. They’re powerful because they’re connected to the FOP. They’re powerful because they’re connected to politicians in this city. So while they’re still around, I don’t think we’ll ever find out. I could be wrong, but I can’t see it.
Stephen Tabeling: Well, I’d rule out an accident. But my theory, based on what we just talked about with the struggle and everything and with money situation, would be a suicide. You think about a man with five children and he may be more involved than what we think. And he’s thinking about his family because if he gets convicted and he goes to jail, his family’s going to get nothing. How do we know that he hadn’t talked to someone or did some research about suicide? I mean, we don’t know that. And that’s all the things that have to be looked into.
Jayne Miller: They don’t have anything to work on the case because they don’t have any leads. Some five years from now we’re going to get some jail calls, somebody on a jail call that says, I know what happened to that detective. It’s very possible, that certainly wouldn’t be the first time. But I give the police department credit at this point, because I will tell you that the community was very concerned that someone was going to get arrested with very little evidence of involvement. And I think this is a real credit to the detectives of the Baltimore Police Department.
Stephen Janis: But there is one question that remains unexplored. A question I put to the new commissioner Darryl De Souza just before he too was fired after the same prosecutors who [nailed] the Gun Trace Task Force indicted him for failure to file tax returns. Where did the story come from about the man in the jacket with the white stripe? Who saw him? It was a critical question, because if police couldn’t answer it, it meant they made it up. And that says more about the case to me than all the evidence in the world. Because if indeed the story was a ruse, you have to ask the question why? Why make it up? Why invoke the specter of a lone Black man? And what exactly are you trying to cover up? And so when I asked De Souza the question, he said he didn’t know.
I was going over the case and I was wondering, do you know the origin of the story of the lone assailant, the African American male with the white stripe, where that came from? Because supposedly his partner took cover. So there was no one in the alley with him. Do you know where that story came from?
Darryl De Souza: I really don’t know. And I can tell you that the day of the incident, unfortunate incident, I responded up there and I got there relatively quickly. And I heard the same thing that you heard. I don’t know where exactly it came from. I couldn’t tell you specifically who told me that particular day. But I did hear the same thing though.
Stephen Janis: Are you going to look into that before –
Darryl De Souza: Absolutely.
Stephen Janis: I think it’s sort of a defining thing for this case.
Darryl De Souza: Absolutely. Yes.
Stephen Janis: And De Souza’s firing has only made this problematic case murkier. In his charging documents, prosecutors stated that he was under investigation for other federal crimes. And just a day later, media reports revealed federal authorities had subpoenaed dozens of records on De Souza going back 10 years. His sudden and unexpected departure is now just another unexplained aspect of this already muddled case.
So as an integral part of every case we explore, at this point in the podcast we do what we call the rundown –
Taya Graham: A list of all the facts gleaned from our research and interviews presented in a concise format.
Stephen Janis: It’s a way to take inventory of the case and give you, the listener, a chance to weigh in on our website or Facebook page.
Taya Graham: So let’s start. At roughly 4:00 PM, Detective Sean Suiter is seen walking toward an abandoned alley in the 900 block of Bennett Place. His partner is spotted walking in the other direction.
Stephen Janis: Police Commissioner Kevin Davis first says that Suiter had spotted a man wearing a black jacket with a white stripe acting suspiciously, but no evidence of that suspect is found.
Taya Graham: Surveillance footage captures Suiter darting back and forth in the alley, looking down the street and then darting back into the alley.
Stephen Janis: And then a brief and unintelligible radio transmission is made by Suiter.
Taya Graham: Three shots are fired. Two shots of unknown trajectories that do not hit Suiter and one shot through the back of his head which exits his left temple. All three shots came from Sumter’s gun.
Stephen Janis: The bullet which kills Suiter is found along with casings from the other two bullets that were fired. Only Suiter’s DNA is found on the bullet that killed him.
Taya Graham: Suiter is found lying face down in the lot, the gun underneath his body. Gunshot residue is found on his hands along with DNA.
Stephen Janis: Despite what Police Commissioner Davis says are signs of a struggle, there is no DNA evidence or blood found from another person on Suiter’s body.
Taya Graham: That alley where Suiter is found is enclosed on three sides with only one side open facing just one row home that is occupied.
Stephen Janis: Sources have told Miller that prior to the shooting, Suiter was canvassing neighborhoods where he had previously investigated homicides. The area in Harlem Park where he was shot was the scene of several past murders that he had investigated.
Taya Graham: On the day Suiter died, he was not working with his regular partner. Commissioner Davis told the media his partner was not with Suiter when he was shot. He reported hearing the shots, then took cover.
Stephen Janis: To date, a $230,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest in the Suiter case has not generated any leads.
Taya Graham: Please feel free to share your thoughts about this case and check our Facebook page and website for new episodes. We want to thank our guests, award-winning investigative reporter for WBAL, Jayne Miller.
Stephen Janis: We also want to thank Sean Yoes, Baltimore editor of the AFRO newspaper, the nation’s oldest Black newspaper, and former homicide detective Stephen Tabeling. The Land of the Unsolved was written and produced by Stephen Janis and Taya Graham for Ace Spectrum Productions.
Taya Graham: If you want to read more about unsolved murder in Baltimore and beyond, Stephen and I have written three books about the subject, all available through amazon.com. Why Do We Kill? The Pathology of Murder in Baltimore, You Can’t Stop Murder: Truths About Policing in Baltimore and Beyond, and The Book of Cop: A Testament to Policing That Works. My name is Taya Graham.
Stephen Janis: And I’m Stephen Janis, and we are investigative reporters who live in Baltimore City.
Taya Graham: Thank you for joining us for The Land of the Unsolved.