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 1 of this podcast series, Graham and Janis examine the initial discovery of Suiter’s body, the police-led manhunt that ensued, and the moment when the official explanation of Suiter’s death began to unravel.
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: A few years ago Stephen and I were interviewing an investigative reporter named Thomas Hargrove. His specialty was unsolved murders. As part of his work he assembled a database of all the open homicide cases in the US. Then he looked for patterns. What he found was alarming, a series of so-called unsolved pattern killing, murders that involved similar types of victims with similar methods. But during that interview, he disclosed something profound. In the US, there were over 200,000 unsolved murders. It’s a staggering number, but one that is rarely discussed. 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 victims 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 that 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.
Speaker 5: 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.
Speaker 6: Well, that Baltimore police detective was just doing his job on behalf of his city. And that’s what he’s been doing for 18 years.
Stephen Janis: For our first case, we’ll explore the unexplained death of detective Sean Suiter.
Taya Graham: Suiter was a 17-year veteran and a homicide detective and father of five, a popular cop who had worked his way up the ranks.
Stephen Janis: But if there was a city that was ill-prepared to deal with a mysterious and violent death of a police officer, it was Baltimore.
Taya Graham: Unfortunately, that is exactly what occurred on Nov. 15, 2017, when Suiter was found shot in the head in a West Baltimore alley.
Stephen Janis: It’s a case that embodies all the doubt and distrust of policing and law enforcement in the city.
Taya Graham: And the subject of our first season of The Land of the Unsolved. Episode one: “Lockdown.”
Speaker 7: We do not know where these shots came from. We have officers in bad locations. Let’s everybody take cover somewhere, okay. Get away from them windows where you’re standing right there by the mouth of that alley, because we don’t know where those shots came from. Everybody get covered until we figure this out, please.
Taya Graham: Nov. 15, 2017, a frantic call goes out over the city’s 911 system. Jayne Miller is an investigative reporter with WBAL TV in Baltimore.
Jayne Miller: I was in the newsroom. I was doing another story that day. And so this happened, and I remember how odd it was on the scanners. Generally, when a police officer is shot, it’s lit up and people are screaming and coming from all quarters. And this was odd. Our assignment desk, which is glued to the scanners all the time, they couldn’t quite figure out if indeed it was a police officer who had been shot.
Stephen Janis: Indeed, a police officer had been shot. In fact, as news trickled in, Sean Yoes, editor of the AFRO-American newspaper, was stunned.
Sean Yoes: And we were just coming out of us putting the paper to bed on Wednesday. And I think that’s when I heard it first about a detective being killed, a homicide detective being killed.
Speaker 8: A crime-ridden section of West Baltimore tonight, yet another murder. But this time it’s a cop.
Sean Yoes: I don’t think they were saying a lot. I don’t think people knew what to think initially because the news of a homicide detective being killed was such a rare occurrence in our city, I think in any major city. And I don’t think people knew what to think.
Taya Graham: Homicide Detective Sean Suiter, a department veteran, a popular cop, shot in an alley. But from the beginning, Miller notes Suiter’s death was marked by uncertainty and confusion.
Jayne Miller: For that first couple of hours it was very unclear what had happened and who had been shot. So then, of course, we were on the air constantly that evening, because at that moment it looked like we had a shooter on the loose, someone who had shot a detective, gravely wounded, and it looked like an active search for a cop shooter on loose.
Stephen Janis: The police commissioner, Kevin Davis, held an emotional news conference that evening.
Kevin Davis: Just before five o’clock this evening, a 18-year veteran homicide detective we are not identifying at this point in time was conducting a follow-up investigation pursuant to one of the homicides that he is assigned to investigate for the Baltimore Police Department. While he was conducting his follow-up investigation, he observed a man engaged in suspicious behaviors. Our 18-year homicide veteran approached this man to engage him in conversation. At some point in time thereafter, our 18-year veteran homicide detective was shot in the head.
Taya Graham: Which is where the first theory of what happened to Suiter emerges.
Jayne Miller: Well, the first narrative was that he encountered someone, had a confrontation with someone, and there was this vague description of an African-American man with a Black jacket and white sleeves. There was conflicting information. I got information from a source that said he had knocked on the door of a house. The police department said that’s absolutely not correct. And it was a very fluid flow of information.
Taya Graham: An encounter which occurred in the West Baltimore neighborhood of Harlem Park, an area that suffered from neglect and was prone to violence.
Sean Yoes: I mean, I can describe West Baltimore and Harlem Park is, I think, symbolic of a lot of communities in West Baltimore. We’ve been struggling for a long time.
Stephen Janis: The story was that Suiter had confronted someone in an alley and was shot in the head. A tale that didn’t quite add up for Miller, particularly when she got her first look at the crime scene and sources started telling her the official tale being touted by the commissioner was fishy.
Jayne Miller: Imagine a box with three sides and the fourth side’s not there. So that’s what it’s like. It was, at one time, home to a row house and the row house was torn down. So this is now the little vacant lot where the row house was. And it isn’t at the end of the block, so it has standing houses on either side of it, as it faces north. If you can imagine this, it has another vacant house spot that forms like an L to enter it. So you could get to the spot Rashaan Suiter was found. You could get to that spot two ways, either from the west or from the north. But the idealness of that spot in terms of not being detected, even at 4:30 in the afternoon, is that there’s no camera that looks in there. There’s no window, really, for anybody, there’s no windows. There is a house that has some vantage point on the spot, but I believe it was vacant and somebody would have to be in a house across the street at that very second looking out into that spot to see what happens. So if you’re not going to do something inside a house, this was the next best thing, clearly.
Stephen Janis: Despite the odd location, little evidence of a suspect and a general community wariness of police, Davis continued to push the theory that Suiter was killed by a lone Black man from the community.
Sean Yoes: He said a Black male wearing some sort of hooded jacket with a white stripe. That’s what I’m wearing right now. I don’t have a hood, but I have an Adidas jacket with white stripes. And he characterized them as demonic or like crazy, evil, adjectives.
Kevin Davis: I know that our community is just as upset about this as we are. And when people talk about the size of the reward and they talk about the attention that the media’s giving this case, and certainly the Baltimore Police Department is giving this case, that’s because one of the pillars of our democracy, American law enforcement, has been attacked. So that’s why America, not just the police department, one of the pillars of our democracy. When a cop is killed, that that goes way beyond that murder. It’s an attack on American policing and American policing exists to support our very unique democracy in this world, so that’s why the murder of a cop always has been and always will be something that’s absolutely unacceptable in this free society. We suspect, based on some evidence that we’ve collected, that he’s still probably in Baltimore. I don’t think he jumped on a plane and went to France. He’s still probably in the community. And there’s a very real possibility that he’s being looked after and treated by people who are presently unknown to us.
Stephen Janis: A theory of the case, then police commissioner Kevin Davis used to make a fateful decision.
Sean Yoes: Then afterwards they justified locking down the entire community, which was clearly, it seemed clear that it was clearly a violation of everybody’s Constitutional rights in that community. I mean, it was almost like the pass system in South Africa.
Jayne Miller: Well, you couldn’t get near the place at first. That night I was at shock trauma. So now the 16th I go to the scene. The actual site of the shooting was, I mean, I don’t know, six, eight blocks were just completely sealed off. And what you saw the next day in particular, that night and the next day and into the next night, was tactical officers entering properties. They had a vague blood trail. They were trying to figure out if that was related, but mostly what they were doing was turning up the whole neighborhood. That’s what they were doing, they were turning up the whole community.
Taya Graham: For roughly six days Davis locked down the Harlem Park community, a controversial move from a police department already under federal consent decree for racist and unconstitutional policing.
Sean Yoes: If you didn’t live in the community, you really couldn’t come in the community at all. It felt like it was a curfew. I mean, it was bullshit. She knew it, everybody knew it.
Jayne Miller: And people were scared. I knocked on the door of a guy whose house had been raided. And he was truly frightened and begged me to get – I didn’t have a camera – Begged me to get away from his door.
Stephen Janis: What did he say?
Jayne Miller: I said to him, look, I was actually talking to him through the door knob, where the door knob was but had been removed when they went in the house. So I’m looking through this little hole and I can see him and I can see another woman in the house. And I said, look, I just want to talk to you about why you got targeted, et cetera. He’s like, please, we didn’t do anything. Please, please, get away from the house. This is not a good time. We’re really scared.
Stephen Janis: And could you see the fear in his face?
Jayne Miller: Yeah. I couldn’t see his face, but I could hear it in his voice. I could hear it in his voice, the fear. And that was true throughout that community. People were getting raided and all kinds of things were happening to the community with the constant presence of police and the checkpoints getting in and out of the community, that kind of thing. So the way the case was framed from the beginning, the inability to develop any kind of suspect, there’s a very strong suspicion in the community that this was a very targeted hit.
Stephen Janis: Before we get to the next part of the story, I think it’s important to provide some context to our listeners. The Baltimore City Police Department has a troubled relationship with the community, to say the least.
Taya Graham: There was the death of Freddie Gray in 2015 while in police custody which prompted the uprising. And then a damning 2016 Justice Department report which exposed a history of unconstitutional policing targeted at Black communities.
Speaker 8: Today, the Department of Justice announces the outcome of our investigation and issues a 163-page report detailing our findings. We conclude that there is reasonable cause to believe that BPD engages in a pattern or practice of conduct that violates the Constitution and federal anti-discrimination law. BPD engages in a pattern of practice of making unconstitutional stops, searches, and arrests; using enforcement strategies that produce severe and unjustified disparities in the rates of stops, searches, and arrests of African Americans; using excessive force and retaliating against people engaging in Constitutionally protected expression.
Stephen Janis: And then this part.
Speaker 9: The seven defendants were members of the Gun Trace Task Force of the Baltimore City Police Department, and during the course of their membership in that task force, they conspired to engage in a racketeering conspiracy. The crimes included robbery of victims, overtime fraud, filing of false police reports, and a variety of other illegal activities.
Stephen Janis: That was then Maryland US Attorney Rod Rosenstein announcing the indictments of the now notorious Gun Trace Task Force. At the time, seven officers were accused of drug dealing, racketeering, robbing residents, and stealing overtime.
Taya Graham: It was one of the worst scandals in the history of the Baltimore Police. For years, officers stole drugs, robbed innocent residents, and were paid overtime while on vacation, all under the noses of their supervisors. It put a city already accustomed to a strained relationship with police on edge, which only made the death of Suiter, and Davis’s assertion a lone gunman from the neighborhood had shot him, more frightening.
Sean Yoes: I keep going back to the fact that the Department of Justice was in the city while the Gun Trace Task Force was operating at full force. The audacity of the, not just the Gun Trace Task Force, but I think it was indicative of the culture that had permeated the Baltimore Police Department. So yeah, it is ironic, I guess, that the Baltimore Police Department, while under consent decree, implemented basically martial law in a community in West Baltimore.
Stephen Janis: Still, Davis continued to justify the lockdown and insists Suiter was a victim of a criminal from the neighborhood.
Kevin Davis: The reason why we are continuing to hold the crime scene – And we are probably going to hold that crime scene throughout the weekend. So I’m saying that right now – Is because we’re getting tips in, information in that is leading us to conduct searches in that immediate vicinity. And once we release a crime scene, we can’t get it back, can’t get it back. So I do understand the temporary inconvenience for residents. I’ve personally interacted with residents in Harlem Park myself, and to a person, each and every one of them understands why we’re out there and why we’re doing what we need to do.
Taya Graham: But as Miller began to uncover details about the case, Davis’s allegations didn’t add up.
Jayne Miller: I was starting to hear this rumbling from sources, police sources, that he was shot with his own gun. And I didn’t confirm it until the next day.
Stephen Janis: And Miller was not alone. Steven Tabeling, a former homicide detective, who in the 1970s was in charge of investigating police shootings, said he too had doubts.
Steven Tabeling: I’ve investigated a lot of cases in my career. And to see a case like this where you can’t find his partner, there’s a struggle, a gun goes against a person’s head. The whole thing is, if somebody’s trying to take my gun and they get my gun, I’m fighting for my life. It’s going to be very difficult for that guy to put that gun up against my head.
Taya Graham: The first aspect of the case that bothered Tabeling was Davis’s insistence on offering theories of the case while the investigation was ongoing.
Steven Tabeling: You never talk about a case until it’s over, until you have all the facts together. And when I was in homicide squads the newspaper people got mad at me because I wouldn’t give any information. So I had it all. I mean, you can make too many mistakes.
Stephen Janis: For Tabeling, the commissioner’s behavior was hard to explain.
Steven Tabeling: I work with 12 police commissioners and it’s only been recently that a couple police commissioners got involved like I see now, and it bothers me. And the other thing that bothers me is the homicide squad is micromanaged. You cannot go to a crime scene and do your case properly with majors and colonels looking over your shoulder.
Taya Graham: Meanwhile, Miller learned about a key piece of evidence police had been withholding, a clue that would challenge everything the police had been saying.
Jayne Miller: I had, within the first 24 hours, I had a very strong indication he was shot with his own gun and we reported it within 36 hours. And so when you have that scenario now you start to think, wow, who’s able to do that? And leave the gun there.
Taya Graham: When Miller confirmed that Suiter was in fact shot with his own gun, it changed everything.
Jayne Miller: Nothing about, I mean, they confirmed it, but that’s all they said. But they stuck with their narrative of this was someone that was able to get his gun from him and shoot him in the head.
Stephen Janis: A fact that only confirmed suspicions for Yoes that the case was not what it appeared to be, particularly since a $215,000 reward offered by police and the FBI had gone uncollected.
Sean Yoes: This random mysterious brother busts a cap in the head of a homicide detective. And he put a $215,000 bounty on his head. His mom was going to turn him in. There’s no way, there’s no way. And in any other, just about every murder case that I’ve been ever heard of or covered where the killer is found, usually it takes 48 hours, 72 hours. He’s hiding somewhere in the same community. He might be at his mama’s house. He might be at his girl’s house. That’s typically a narrative that I’ve seen play out a lot of different times. It just doesn’t make any sense that this Black male vanished into thin air. Especially when you think about the magnitude, the scope of the lockdown of the community. How do you escape? How do you get out of there?
Taya Graham: For Tabeling, the revelation of Suiter being shot with his own gun raised a series of questions that led to mounting skepticism on his part.
Steven Tabeling: First of all, if somebody takes a gun from a policeman – Which is very difficult now, I understand that they have a different kind of holster than we used to have. And it also seems difficult to me for a person to be wrestling with a policeman, take his gun away from him, shoot him in the head, and his gun remains on the scene and the person runs away. Now, if I’m wrestling with a policeman, he’s going to be fighting me. I’m sure, yeah, I’m going to have his gun, but I’m going to be running. Might I take a shot? Sure, I might take a shot as I’m running away. But if I’m struggling with a policeman it just doesn’t seem right to me that I can get that contact, if what I hear is right, if I can get that contact wound to his head. That just doesn’t seem right to me.
Stephen Janis: And then an autopsy and new evidence: a bullet.
Jayne Miller: My colleague, Dave Collins, was working and happened to be there photographing and rolling camera when they had this kind of big aha moment. If you remember that. Aha, we found the bullet. Even though they had gone through that area with a fine tooth comb for days. Now here we are five days later, six days later and it’s like, oh, look, there’s the bullet.
Taya Graham: Evidence the commissioner believed would lead to a suspect, but was in fact another dead end.
Jayne Miller: Then the police department sometime that week, I think probably around the time we were reporting about the autopsy, is that they confirmed that there was no evidence, physical evidence of another person. Meaning the only DNA, the only fingerprints on the gun were Suiter’s.
Stephen Janis: But even as doubts were beginning to surface about the case and reporters like Miller were uncovering evidence to point it elsewhere, city officials held a full hero’s funeral for Suiter.
Kevin Davis: Sean was the kind of son, husband, father, police officer, and friend that everyone here strives to be.
Speaker 10: Detective Sean Suiter lived and died a hero, and that he will never be forgotten.
Speaker 11: He was a good person. That smile radiated before he opened the door. That laughter came through right as soon as he began to talk. Sean was all right with us right off the jump.
Taya Graham: The hero’s sendoff transfixed the city, the department doubling down on the theory of a lone gunman even as doubts grow within the community.
Sean Yoes: Like I said, 48 to 72 hours, I think that it seemed clear something was really foul about his death and among other cops.
Steven Tabeling: If somebody takes my gun, I’m fighting for my life. I’m going to kick him, bite him. I’m going to do everything that I can and they’re going to be doing the same thing to me.
Taya Graham: But just when the case couldn’t get weirder, the police commissioner drops a bombshell that not only confirms suspicions within the community, but sets the case on a collision course with the city’s dark history of police corruption.
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.
Stephen Janis: All that coming up on the next episode of The Land of the Unsolved: the mysterious death of detective Sean Suiter.
Taya Graham: Thanks for joining us for the first episode of The Land of the Unsolved.
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: We want to thank our guests, award-winning investigative reporter for WBAL T V, 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 Steven Tabeling.
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: My name is Stephen Janis.
Taya Graham: I’m Taya Graham.
Stephen Janis: And we are investigative reporters who live in Baltimore city.
Taya Graham: And thank you for joining us for The Land of the Unsolved.