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 2 of this podcast series, Graham and Janis take a closer look at the Baltimore Police Department’s own investigation into Suiter’s death and explain why the facts don’t add up.
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.
Speaker 1: This callous coward with a gun in his hand shot a cop in the head tonight.
Speaker 2: My heart grieves for Detective Sean Suiter.
Speaker 3: There’s no way that I would think, if you are a good partner, that you are going to lose sight of me.
Speaker 4: 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.
Steven 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.
Kevin Davis: There’s a radio transmission, a very brief radio transmission, made by Detective Suiter. It was about two or three seconds. It’s unintelligible right now. We don’t know exactly what he said, but he was clearly in distress.
Taya Graham: Welcome back to The Land of the Unsolved, the podcast that explores the legions of unsolved cases and mysterious deaths that haunt one of the most violent cities in America: Baltimore. In our first series, we are talking about the case of Detective Sean Suiter, a case that has come to embody all the ills that affect Baltimore. Police corruption, community mistrust, and a general sense that things are not what they appear to be.
Stephen Janis: Suiter was found on Nov. 15, shot in the head in a West Baltimore alley. The bullet that entered the back of his head came from his own gun.
Taya Graham: Police initially insisted Suiter was shot by an unknown assailant. But as we’ve learned, that theory was in doubt from the beginning.
Stephen Janis: Just a week after Suiter was shot there was still no evidence of an assailant, reporter Jayne Miller also reporting that Suiter was shot with his own gun.
Taya Graham: And the police commissioner admits there is no evidence of struggle or a lone gunman.
Stephen Janis: But after a massive funeral and a week with few, if any, leads, a bombshell announcement at police headquarters.
Kevin Davis: I am now aware of Detective Suiter’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: Police commissioner Kevin Davis revealed that Suiter was set to testify before a federal grand jury in the case of the now infamous Gun Trace Task Force. Investigative reporter Jayne Miller was there.
Jayne Miller: So on Nov. 22, exactly a week after the shooting, Kevin Davis held a news conference and said he was supposed to testify before the federal grand jury about the Gun Trace Task Force case on Nov. 16. We also reported with an interview with the US Attorney Steve Schenning that the Feds didn’t know what he was going to say. So that remains one of the great mysteries of this case, is what was he going to say? The Gun Trace Task Force is the, at the time, elite unit of officers, detectives, whose mission was to get guns off the street. In March of 2017, 7 members of the unit, a Sergeant and six detectives, were indicted on federal corruption charges, essentially robbing people, stealing from them, skimming money and drugs from them.
Stephen Janis: The implications that Suiter was somehow involved with ties to a case dating back to 2010.
Jayne Miller: So I was also hearing a narrative in the kind of rumbling around surrounding the case that he was very concerned that he was going to get outed in the case and that he had shown some concern about that.
Taya Graham: It was a case that involved a car chase, an accident, and the death of the father of a Baltimore police officer.
Jayne Miller: So there was a car stop in April of 2010 that involved Jenkins and Suiter and another officer. And they stopped these two guys because Jenkins thought – This is what Jenkins wrote in his charging document – That they were about to have transact drugs, that they had too much money, whatever. He saw a guy with cash. So they stopped them. Suiter was in one car and Jenkins and the other officer were in another car. So they kind of boxed him in. The guys, the two guys who were in the car, they indicate that they were, I don’t want to say… They didn’t say they were wearing full masks, but they indicated that they had on plain clothes and they weren’t quite sure, they thought they were going to get robbed. They weren’t quite sure what was going to go on. So the two guys in the car take off. They somehow get their car out of that little box and they take off and they drive a short distance. And Jenkins and Suiter are both in pursuit in some fashion.
And the car runs through an intersection and hits another car and causes a pretty bad crash. And as a result of that an 86-year-old man died, as a result of the accident. At the time, the two men – The names are Brent Matthews and Umar Burley – Were charged with drug possession. I mean, because allegedly there were drugs found in the car after the accident. So they were charged with drug charges. The case went to the federal government. They get convicted federally. That’s kind of the end of it. And Mr. Burley gets convicted of, he pleads guilty to manslaughter in the state court. And that’s kind of the end of that. Well, in fact, what happened was the drugs were planted and that comes to light because of the testimony of the other officer. And Suiter was the one who found the planted drugs.
I think it was Mr. Burley who described Suiter as kind of the good cop, bad cop. That he was like, look, you’ll be okay, whatever, at the initial stop. And then Suiter’s role allegedly, after the crash, was to discover the planted drugs. And there’s no allegation that Suiter put the drugs in the car. There’s no allegation that he knew the drugs were planted. The other officer who testified against Jenkins said that Suiter was clueless. But obviously the question remains whether Suiter knew that that was all dirty.
Stephen Janis: And now, for Sean Yoes, editor of the AFRO-American newspaper, all the simmering doubts that had been roiling the community about the case came to the surface.
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 like almost a watershed moment for most people. They had a good thing. They were making money. I mean, they were getting paid between the overtime and robbing of drug dealers. I mean, you bust a guy for $25,000, split it among your men, and you’re already getting 80 G’s in extra overtime money a year. And then you can get $5,000, $10,000 a month on top of that.
Taya Graham: And for retired homicide detective Stephen Tabeling it was another piece of a bizarre puzzle that was not coming together.
Steven Tabeling: The thing is, I’ve had cases where somebody would be near a window and shoot themself in the head. And just remember, the gun goes off and your hand goes and the gun might go outside. You might find a gun feet away. Would it be logical to find a gun underneath him? Yeah, it could happen. That could happen. But again, where were the shell casings? Where were the shell casings? You can tell what side. You can tell maybe if the guy was left-handed or right-handed or what side. But again, these are things that you have to see.
Stephen Janis: For Miller, who spent a great deal of time in Harlem Park, the belief was also building among community members that Suitor was a victim of foul play.
Jayne Miller: Well, there was already strong belief in the West Baltimore community that this was a hit on Suiter. And then it really exacerbated that.
Taya Graham: And she notes the testimony was high stakes for Suiter.
Jayne Miller: He likely would have been immunized before the grand jury. I don’t know that that was his concern as much as he was going to be exposed. And in fact, he was exposed. If you remember, there was testimony from one of the detectives who testified in trial that Suiter was among those who took money.
Steven Tabeling: 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 in his head. It’s tough to believe.
Stephen Janis: Both Taya and I attended the trial of two other members of the Gun Trace Task Force, Daniel Hersl and Marcus Taylor. They were the only cops of the now nine officers who had pleaded not guilty.
Taya Graham: Both were convicted at trial. I think it’s important to understand just how brazen and destructive this group was and how that culture has played into the suspicions about the Suiter case. During the trial, prosecutors called a long list of witnesses: drug dealers who they robbed, a bail bondsman who helped them deal pills stolen from pharmacies during the uprising after the death of Freddie Gray.
Stephen Janis: But one story stood out for its brazenness. Not satisfied with dealing drugs and cash from narcotics work, the officers began to branch out and look for more opportunities to steal.
Taya Graham: So one of the GTTF members obtained an auto tracking device from the police department and placed it on the car of a person they had been told kept large amounts of cash in his home. They tracked his location. And when he was gone, they attempted to rob his house.
Stephen Janis: But when they arrived and broke into the house, the victim’s girlfriend was lying on the bed. And I remember in the courtroom, the defense lawyer asking, what did you do? And the officer said something like, I may have threatened her life.
Taya Graham: The point of the story is that the GTTF was so out of control, so literally unsupervised that they operated with the impunity of a criminal organization deep within the Baltimore Police Department.
Stephen Janis: And that is why, as the investigation into the death of Detective Sean Suiter unfolded, the community’s suspicions that what the top brass was telling them was hiding something deeper and more sinister beneath the surface only became more intense.
Taya Graham: And as details of the case were revealed that Suiter was set to testify about, a different picture emerged that didn’t jibe with the image of a hero cop.
Stephen Janis: Instead, the story of the 2010 accident included details of planting drugs, and more importantly, a longer relationship between Suiter and the mastermind of the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, Sergeant Wayne Jenkins.
Taya Graham: Jenkins was the supervisor of the task force, but he was also the ringleader of the criminal activity, guiding the squad of seven officers through an array of horrific crimes: robbing residents, shaking down drug dealers, and dealing large quantities himself.
Jayne Miller: I can tell you how he’s been described by other members of the squad when they’ve testified and the bail bondsman who knows him very well, that was the guy who was selling his drugs, selling drugs for him, is that he felt very empowered by his position in the Gun Trace Task Force and that he felt like he could go wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, and do whatever he wanted. And I mean, Gondo, I think it was Gondo that described him as crazy. He definitely bent the rules. Even before committing crimes, he was bending rules all over the place.
Stephen Janis: And as reporters like Miller started digging, they learned that Jenkins and Suiter had ties that went back years.
Jayne Miller: Well, I mean, from the moment that Suiter was shot and that happened, you looked at his cases and it was like, whoa, he’s working with these guys in 2009, ’10, ’11, ’12. And so immediately it raised that question of whether his death may have some nexus to that case because of his connection to them. I also had heard that he had been concerned about what he had witnessed when he was working with Jenkins, et cetera, and had wanted to be moved out of the unit. And so all of that was in the background of his death.
Sean Yoes: The narrative that just kept coming forward was the police did it.
Taya Graham: Which is when a new theory of the case starts to emerge.
Stephen Janis: And the Baltimore Police Department makes a startling request, an announcement that changes the course of the investigation, raises doubts about what really happened to Suiter, and only reinforces the notion that when it comes to the Baltimore Police Department, nothing is what it seems.
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. And I sent it to him today. Dear Director Wray, I appreciate and commend the leadership of Special Agent in Charge Gordon Johnson, of your Baltimore field office as it pertains specifically to the Nov. 15 murder of detective Sean Suiter. Special Agent in Charge Gordon has been responsive, collaborative, and has dedicated FBI resources to our investigation. In fact, the FBI, ATF, and DEA have all been embedded into the investigation from the very beginning.
Taya Graham: A twist in the case that will push an already fraught city to the edge.
Sean Yoes: You could not, if you had a thousand tongues, you couldn’t say bullshit enough.
Stephen Janis: All that coming up on the next episode of The Land of the Unsolved as we continue to explore the mysterious death of Detective Sean Suiter. Thank you for joining us for the second episode of The Land of the Unsolved, the mysterious death of Detective Sean Suiter.
Taya Graham: We want to thank our guests, award-winning investigative reporter for WBAL TV, Jayne Miller.
Stephen Janis: Sean Yoes, Baltimore editor of the AFRO newspaper, the nation’s oldest Black newspaper, and former homicide detective, Steven 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.
Stephen Janis: Be sure to join us for the next episode of The Land of the Unsolved where we will delve deeper into the mysterious death of Baltimore homicide detective Sean Suiter.
Taya Graham: And you can visit us on our website landoftheunsolved.com to download new episodes or leave suggestions for a case you want us to investigate. My name is Taya Graham.
Stephen Janis: And I’m Stephen Janis.
Taya Graham: And thank you for joining us for The Land of the Unsolved.