Years ago, when saddled with the task of scripting a specific historical moment, I was confronted by the reality that film narrative is not the medium for open debate, that the camera must in the end be in one place at one time, that the actors must say their lines, and that a singular version of every moment will be delivered.
The task at hand was a miniseries on the assassination of Abraham Lincoln – it didn’t get greenlit, alas – and the moment involved the last words of John Wilkes Booth, dying outside a burning Virginia barn, shot by a Union cavalryman, paralyzed, asking to have his hands raised and shown to him. There, upon viewing the mitts that had killed the greatest American president, the assassin declared, just before expiring, “Useless. Useless.”
Or so the gathered Union soldiers all heard. At the point of dying, Booth could not have serviced history more perfectly than to reflect on his own vile act and pronounce it failure, encompassing everything we ourselves wish to declare. In a single word, “useless” offers clarity, insight and a transcendent verdict.
Except, Booth probably did not say it. It is far more likely that he asked his hands to be shown to him because one finger was adorned with an engagement ring for the love in his life, a young woman with whom he had been preparing to elope prior to his decision to kill the president. Booth was secretly engaged to the daughter of a Lincoln ally, Senator John Hale of New Hampshire, and indeed, a photograph of Lucy Hale, a Washington society belle with more than her share of suitors, was in Booth’s pocket when he was felled by the cavalryman’s bullet. Pages of Booth’s diary would later be torn out – likely by Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, and likely an effort to spare Senator Hale the embarrassment of having his daughter’s affair with the reviled assassin made public.
No, Booth was not ready upon his death to renounce his imagined role as Brutus in the killing of an American despot. He still believed in that cause. It was his audience – the cavalrymen in the moment, and the American people for all time – who wanted him to declare his own murderous hands to be useless.
But far more likely, gurgling on his own blood, breathing his last, Booth said, simply, “Lucy. Lucy.” The cavalrymen had no way to reference this. They talked amongst each other and concluded they had heard, “Useless. Useless.” And on reflection, they – and we – wanted to hear exactly that. So lives the legend.
Sean Suiter, a Baltimore police detective, was slated to give federal grand jury testimony that could have helped implicate corrupt Baltimore officers. On the day before his court appearance, he was shot once in the head at extremely close range in a westside alley. The news of his pending grand jury testimony was an astonishing and exciting revelation amid one of the worst corruption scandals in the city department’s history, and many quickly came to embrace the most provocative narrative: Corrupt police had murdered one of their own – an honest officer – in order to prevent his testimony.
We, too, have printed the legend. At least some of us have. Some of us are furiously printing it still. Some of us always will be.
But again, as with Booth and his last words, the best narrative isn’t always the true one. Sean Suiter, implicated in the scandal himself and confronting the myriad and growing risks of his upcoming grand jury testimony, took his own life. Physical evidence from the crime scene for this is impressive and consistent. Suiter’s journey to that westside alley in the days and hours prior to his death are corroborative as well. And most of all, the construct of a planned assassination by Baltimore officers or their allies that tries to incorporate the facts of the shooting itself becomes, in the whole and on its face, a raw absurdity.
Working on the scripts for a six-part miniseries on Baltimore’s Gun Trace Task Force scandal, the writers inevitably arrived at the moment when Detective Suiter’s life would end. Certainly, the best narrative for our purposes – as dramatists chronicling a world of corrupt policing – would have been one in which officers involved in those corruptions decide to murder one of their own. No other version of events could deliver as dark, disturbing and provocative a verdict as to imply that in the end, those at the core of the scandal were capable of betraying a comrade to save themselves. If we serviced our miniseries as an entertainment only, we could film the legend and relish the best possible ending to our tale.
Instead, we did what dramatists are not required to do, but that which should be demanded of writers undertaking to depict a true story. We looked at everything dispassionately, carefully, and independently. We consulted all that was known and credible, talking further with critical principals in the investigation to elucidate points. Eventually, we came not to the best and most exciting conclusion for our story, but to the most pragmatic and comprehensive truth, which is there in plain sight for anyone who still wants the truth. Sean Suiter killed himself, attempting – and indeed partially succeeding – at making his sudden end look like a line-of-duty death.
This is a detailed assessment of our process. More an internal report prepared for our television production than a journalistic essay, what follows will be long and exhaustively ornate at points – too long if this case is not of considerable interest to a reader already. But all the details and context are a necessity in such matters. In any event, those who viewed the HBO miniseries and who have concerns or questions about what underlies our narrative decisions are entitled to all of it, and those who wish to believe we simply shot from the hip are, in effect, demanding it.
Begin with the weight that was hanging on Detective Suiter on the day of his death: Slated to be questioned by federal investigators and then testify before a grand jury the day following, Suiter had been informed by those investigators that he was not necessarily a criminal suspect in their ongoing probe of the Gun Trace Task Force. This is true to a point. However, it is far from the whole reality.
Suiter was told by investigators that they were specifically interested in obtaining his memories of a singular event in which drugs had been planted in the car of a narcotics suspect after a high-speed chase had culminated in the collision of that vehicle and another sedan, in which an elderly man was fatally injured. The April 2010 incident involving the drug suspect, Umar Burley, was being probed on the belief that one of the key defendants in the federal corruption case, Wayne Jenkins, had rushed to have drugs brought to the crash scene in an attempt to justify the high-speed pursuit and manufacture legal grounds to arrest the suspects. Yet it was Suiter who had reported finding those drugs in the car and it was Suiter’s name on paperwork submitting the contraband to the evidence control unit. Jenkins was not fully cooperating with prosecutors – unlike four other co-defendants – but had explicitly denied he was involved in planting the drugs and was indirectly casting blame on Suiter, as well as another officer. Investigators didn’t believe him, but they would nonetheless require Suiter to testify fully as to what happened at that crash scene.
So Suiter was to be summoned, with a proffer session scheduled prior to the grand jury appearance. And if he wasn’t involved in planting the drugs he pulled from that crashed car, then yes, the detective wasn’t confronting anything that should cause him to consider suicide.
However, as federal sources explained to us privately, there was more to Suiter’s circumstance. For one thing, it was clear to anyone with an interest in the case that Momodu Gondo, a city police officer and defendant who had served with Suiter years earlier in plainclothes units, was cooperating fully with federal authorities. Court documents indicative of Gondo’s cooperation had been publicly filed in August. Now, three months later, Suiter was being called as a grand jury witness in the burgeoning federal case against Gondo and six others.
And indeed, Gondo had in fact named Suiter as having stolen money during their earlier years together in plainclothes. And once Suiter was facing federal investigators in a proffer session, or answering questions before a federal grand jury, he could not be certain that he would not be asked about matters beyond the Burley incident. Indeed, Suiter’s attorney, Jeremy Eldridge, has acknowledged that he had been warning his client of this very thing: that he might be asked about other matters known to federal authorities and that if he knew of other illegalities, he needed to be prepared for the possibility.
Of course, Suiter could not know for certain what Gondo had told prosecutors, or, if Gondo was alleging his involvement, what corroboration the defendant could offer. But as a veteran detective, Suiter certainly understood that a plea agreement with federal prosecutors is predicated on a defendant answering all questions and being accurate in his testimony. Leaving out incidents of illegality or failing to name other co-conspirators will jeopardize any agreement and cause prosecutors to withdraw any recommendation for leniency to the sentencing judge. If Gondo was cooperating – and court filings showed he was – then he had every incentive not to withhold information on any illegality known to him.
Still, investigators were telling Eldridge and his client the truth when they said he was not, at this point, a suspect in their probe. For one thing, they genuinely suspected Jenkins, not Suiter, of planting the drugs in that car. For another, the information offered by Gondo as to Suiter’s alleged thefts occurred earlier than the Burley incident and were in fact outside the statute of limitation for such crimes. Nor could they have included Suiter in the conspiracy case involving the other seven defendants in the scandal. That conspiracy case was against the Gun Trace Task Force and involved a specific window of years; Suiter had left plainclothes drug work before the scope of that conspiracy. Unless other, later corruptions were discovered, he could not and would not be targeted criminally by the federal probe.
But Suiter had more to worry about than a criminal charge – and he vocalized this in his initial meeting with federal investigators, those sources said. Told that he would have to testify as to the Burley events and that based on his veracity and cooperation, he could either be treated as a witness or a suspect going forward, Suiter asked those investigators one question directly:
“Am I going to lose my job over this?”
Here, investigators could not and would not obscure the threat inherent in Suiter’s testimony: If he lied to the grand jury about Burley –- or about anything else, for that matter – his status might change to that of a suspect and he could end up charged with perjury. Indeed, other police defendants caught up in the G.T.T.F. scandal would attempt to deny crimes that were beyond the statute of limitations and end up convicted of perjury. But more than this, even if Sean Suiter told the truth about his prior involvement in police corruption, or even his tacit presence and failure to report that corruption, that information would have to be forwarded to the Baltimore police department. In the political climate following the arrest of the Gun Trace Task Force defendants that spring and with department officials in a crouch, the chances of an officer keeping his job, pension and benefits after admitting openly in court to thefts or even to tolerating thefts by fellow officers was exactly nil. Suiter was told as much. The detective’s demeanor in that initial meaning, following this exchange, was one of a man under considerable stress. He was greatly upset and unnerved at the answer he received, federal sources said.
Those federal authorities say they were not planning to immediately press Suiter about Gondo’s allegations about their earlier years in the plainclothes units – at least not in this first proffer and grand jury session. Strategically, they put a priority on locking in the Burley scenario and strengthening that part of their case against Jenkins.
But his attorney, Eldridge, had by his own admission been repeatedly warning Suiter that he might well be asked about what he had seen happen in those units, prior to transferring out, and why he sought to transfer out, and that he needed to be prepared for the possibility of being questioned about such matters. And in the longer term, Eldridge was correct: In order to put Suiter on the stand in open court as a witness against other corrupt officers, prosecutors would inevitably need to have a complete understanding of any corruption – either passive or overt – to which Suiter was himself a party. They would need to anticipate and mitigate efforts by defense attorneys to tar Suiter and impeach his testimony. Once Sean Suiter walked into that proffer session and began to answer questions, it would all, eventually, come out. Not just the facts of the Burley incident, but everything.
As to the credibility of Momodu Gondo’s testimony, all that he would tell authorities to secure his plea agreement and that could be checked and corroborated would ultimately prove true. Federal sources say that of those cooperating with investigators in the G.T.T.F. scandal, Gondo was their most precise and exacting witness. Moreover, a second cooperating defendant, Maurice Ward, had affirmed that Gondo had told him contemporaneously that Suiter was among those taking money. In full, federal investigators came to believe that Gondo and Ward had no incentive to lie and jeopardize their plea agreements, and that Suiter had been involved in earlier thefts. To Suiter’s credit, they also came to believe that the detective had undertaken to move away from that kind of policing, eventually maneuvering toward a posting in the homicide unit. His present was seemingly honorable, but sadly, the burgeoning scandal had dragged him back into his past.
Outwardly, his advocates note, Suiter did not display any of the distress he showed in his meeting with federal investigators. He made no mention to family, friends or colleagues of the impending grand jury testimony or its implications. And in the wake of his death, no one seemed to know that he had even been called to testify in the scandal. Such a demeanor could be said to be indicative of a man unworried about a moment critical to his career, livelihood and reputation. It could also be indicative of a man who understood that any overt display of distress in the days prior to his death could be the undoing of a plan to stage not a suicide, but a line-of-duty death.
Once, however, just days after the August court filing changed the status of Momodu Gondo’s case and made clear that he had reached a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, Suiter did something that is perhaps notable. Although homicide detectives certainly have reasons to research such things at times, Suiter used his office computer to conduct several Google searches on a particular funeral home. A couple months later, his funeral would be held at that same establishment.
The last afternoon of Sean Suiter’s life would be consumed on a strange and unlikely task – locating a woman whose last name was unknown then or now, a street sex worker known only as “Mary” who supposedly worked the area around Bennett Place just west of Fremont Avenue and north of Franklin Street in West Baltimore. Mary supposedly knew something about a year-old triple murder that remained unsolved and to which Suiter and his regular partner in homicide, Detective Jonathan Jones, were assigned.
This was the narrative that Baltimore police delivered to reporters in the aftermath of Suiter’s death. It was based on the direct and immediate statement of David Bomenka, a fellow homicide detective who had accompanied Suiter to Bennett Place at the time of his death. There was no equivocation in Bomenka’s statements to investigators in the hours or days after Suiter’s death, and no equivocation to this moment: They had traversed Bennett Place looking for Mary, a sex worker for whom Suiter said he had a general description.
Later, when this narrative began to seem thin and insubstantial – contributing to a scenario under which Suiter had manufactured the task in order to stage a line-of-duty death – there would be some in Baltimore who would reach for a counterclaim: That the two detectives were instead in that alley searching for a woman in one of Bomenka’s cases, a witness fully identified and known to state prosecutors. In short, the claim is that this task was not undertaken by Suiter; he was out there on Bennett Place in service of Bomenka’s task. Championed by some of those closest to Suiter in the homicide unit and by conspiracists elsewhere, this revision accomplished two things: First, it made Suiter’s suicide less likely and helped keep open the possibility that his death was perhaps genuinely in the line of duty. This mattered to many inside the police department, and more on this later as we traverse the aftermath of the detective’s death. But second – as collateral damage – it transformed Bomenka in the public mind from an ordinary Baltimore detective with no connection to the G.T.T.F. scandal into a liar and, if that, a suspected participant in a plot to set up and murder Sean Suiter.
Because make no mistake: If in the immediate aftermath of Suiter’s death, David Bomenka sat in a room with homicide investigators and in a videotaped statement fabricated a claim that they were searching for a witness that Suiter said had knowledge of his case – and denying that they were instead there to find Bomenka’s own witness – then he was de facto part of a murder conspiracy. There isn’t another motive for such a whole-cloth deception. And, of course, for this scenario to stand, Bomenka could not be the only liar.
Jonathan Jones, Suiter’s regular partner in homicide has also been consistent and unequivocal in his statements, relating that he too had been told by Suiter that there was a lead on one of their cases and that Suiter was going out on it. Jones has consistently offered the same narrative – that he had grand jury duty that morning but had offered to go out on the lead in the afternoon only to be waved off by Suiter who said waiting for Jones would slow him down and that he would pair up with Bomenka instead.
In his comments, Jones reconciles the fact that Bomenka also had his own task to retrieve a witness from the same neighborhood with Suiter’s mission. It makes sense that the detectives could accompany each other and serve their respective tasks on respective cases; that Bomenka may have had other business in West Baltimore that day doesn’t obviate the fact that Suiter told Jones that he had something new on one of their cases – and it doesn’t contradict Bomenka who says that they were driving the streets around Bennett Place in search for the mysterious Mary in Suiter’s case.
Keep in mind, it’s not enough to claim that Jones misunderstood why his partner was going out with Bomenka. That doesn’t track with the fact that Jones actually went to Suiter with an offer to go accompany him on their case after his grand jury duties. Why would he do such and why would he even need to be waved off by Suiter if the lead was for Bomenka’s case? It’s one level of suspicion to claim that Suiter was actually assigned to Bomenka’s task exclusively and then imagine that Bomenka’s videotaped statements after the shooting about the search for Mary are calculated lies. It’s a level beyond that to then imagine that Jones, Suiter’s partner and friend, also fabricated the task, or further, volunteered to accompany his partner if Suiter was not actually working one of their cases and merely accompanying Bomenka on something unrelated. That entire conversation doesn’t even happen.
But most problematic for the conspiracist claim that Suiter and Bomenka were haunting the streets and alleys around Bennett Place in a search not for the mysterious Mary, but for Bomenka’s court witness, is the fact that the two tasks are decidedly different.
Searching for an unidentified potential witness in a murder, say, a sex worker said to frequent a certain locale, might possibly lead detectives to run the streets and alleys, looking for someone matching a general description, or perhaps others engaged in prostitution who might know the identity of that potential witness.
But the witness in Bomenka’s case was already known to police – she was already a part of the case file and a city prosecutor wanted to talk to her about that pending case. To locate a known person, an investigator doesn’t wander alleyways looking for furtive pedestrians; he goes to last known addresses, and if that fails, he runs the name through social service, utility or hospital databases, working for a fresh address. Or he talks to former landlords, neighbors, area residents and family members, asking where so-and-so might now be hanging their head.
But wait. This effort to write Suiter’s supposed search for Mary out of the narrative gets even more ridiculous because detectives from the homicide unit’s operations squad had, in fact, located Bomenka’s witness earlier on the day of Suiter’s death. If Bomenka needed to contact her on behalf of his case’s prosecutor, why would he be cruising the streets? Why not go to where that witness was now definitively known to be?
At the point at which we are pretending that Suiter is trying to roust mysterious suspects from the alley in order to locate Bomenka’s known witness – and that both Bomenka and Suiter’s friend and partner, Jonathan Jones, have a motive to lie about what they were both told by Suiter – Occam’s razor is too dull to cut anything at all.
After Suiter’s death, when investigators looked through the case file on his triple murder, they found nothing to indicate the origin of any tip about Mary. In fact, there had been little active investigation on the case in months. More notable still in the casefile: A ballistics report had been forwarded to homicide indicating that the murder weapon had been recovered in a separate incident months earlier – but there was no indication in the file that Suiter had followed up on that much more substantial and provocative lead: If Suiter was actively or aggressively working the case – if it was truly his priority – he had a much better avenue for progress than a rumored Mary, no last name, who might know something about the case. He had the murder weapon, matched in a ballistic report, and the chance to work back on the circumstances under which that weapon was recovered by police.
Yet hunting for Mary was the mission on the day before Suiter was to be questioned by federal prosecutors. Think of it: His attorney is warning Suiter that a proffer session and grand jury appearance could wander far afield and that he needs to prepare. But on the day before he might well begin a process that could end his police career in the event he was implicated either in misconduct or in tolerating misconduct by others, this was the task he chose to undertake.
And Sean Suiter stayed on that task throughout the afternoon, refusing his attorneys entreaties to come to his office to discuss and strategize for the following day’s appearance in federal court. Out on the street with Bomenka, when called by his attorney, Suiter abruptly told Eldridge that he couldn’t talk, just as he ignored the lawyer’s repeated and increasingly frustrated texts. Presumably, he was too busy running down a tip on an unidentified possible witness in a year-old slaying in which no substantive police work had been documented for months, and for which the earlier recovery of the murder weapon had not provoked Suiter to do follow-up investigation. On this day, even by late afternoon and the end of his shift, Suiter had no time to heed his attorney and attend to a critical moment on which his entire police career might hinge, or to even consult briefly with that attorney about what they were facing when he had to walk into the U.S. Attorney’s Office the following morning.
Bomenka’s narrative is this: While out looking for Mary, he and Suiter were traversing the block bounded by Bennett Place, Schroeder and Franklin streets and Fremont Avenue, just north of the I-170 expressway. As they drove past a thin center alley running east from Schroeder, Suiter claimed to spot a figure – a male wearing black leather with a white stripe – acting furtively.
Bomenka told investigators he did not see anyone, but the detectives made a U-turn and pulled to the curb just south of the alley. They then walked the whole of the long alley down to Fremont, then back up again. Suiter led the way up a thin side alley, toward the small open lot on Bennett where he would eventually be shot. They encountered no one. Bomenka eyed a stack of black Hefty bags with other trash mixed in. Perhaps, he told Suiter, that was the figure he thought he saw. Suiter, though, was convinced he had spotted someone in the alley.
Coming out to the car, Suiter told Bomenka they would drive around for a bit and then come back to the alley to check it again. At that point, they drove out of the area, arriving, eventually, several blocks north and west on a commercial stretch of Edmondson Avenue. Suiter pointed this out as to Bomenka his first patrol post, briefly waxing nostalgic. Then they drove back to Bennett Place where again, as their car crossed the mouth of the alley, Suiter again claimed to see a figure moving. Bomenka again saw nothing.
Once again, they got out of the car and walked most of the alley, this time coming out by walking the side alley to the small vacant lot on Bennett where the shooting would occur. Bomenka told investigators he mentioned to Suiter that it was quitting time and, with the day shift ended, he noted that he had evening plans. But Suiter told Bomenka he was convinced that someone had gone to ground in that alley. He instructed Bomenka to go up to Schroeder Street in the event that the suspect tried to egress that way; he would set up here on Bennett, with a view of the side alley. Bomenka said he did as told, walking up to the corner of Schroeder and Bennett where he could view the possible exits onto Schroeder; there were two, the center alley and a gap where a rowhouse had been taken down just south of the small, vacant lot on Bennett. Standing on that corner, Bomenka told investigators, he would see anyone who tried to come onto Schroeder while also keeping eyes on his partner maybe thirty feet down Bennett where the side alley ended at the small lot. The two of them waited there for several minutes – all of this seen through security camera footage later recovered from down the block on Bennett Place, closer to Fremont.
As corroborated by that video, this set-up gives everyone who would later walk the ground great pause. Bomenka’s narrative is explicit that Suiter wanted them to split up and wait to see if the mysterious man in the alley would emerge. Yet if that was the plan, Suiter waits, incredibly, at the rear doors of a parked white van, making himself not only visible from most of the side alley, but from a large portion of the center alley as well. There, the security camera watches him pace back and forth, often not looking at the alley at all, but around the corner of the van, up toward Bomenka, or around the opposite corner of the van at the occasional passing car on Bennett Place. All the while he is in full view of the alley and would be seen by anyone hiding there. His positioning, if he wanted to catch a suspect exiting the side alley, should have been on the street side of the van, using the vehicle for cover. Instead, he has shielded himself not from the alley at all, but from Bomenka.
If the intent was to flush a suspect from the alley, Suiter had placed himself in such a way as to alert such a suspect that they were waiting for him on the street. Nor was he covering Bomenka in any way that would not have been easily achievable by him being on the street side of the van, from where he would be shielded from the alley and have the other detective directly in sight.
The footage from that camera covers both the long minutes of waiting by both detectives, followed by Suiter suddenly racing into the alley and reaching for his holster. At that critical moment, Suiter disappears from view; the video camera’s point-of-view is blocked by the height of a truck parked further east on the south side of Bennett. Seconds after Suiter runs off-screen into that small vacant lot, Bomenka can be seen running east down the sidewalk from the corner toward the lot. Then he, too, disappears as the video’s point-of-view is blocked by the same truck. Several seconds more and Bomenka can be seen emerging onto Bennett Place and running at an angle toward the northeast corner of Bennett and Schroeder.
The elapsed time between when Suiter enters the alley and when Bomenka runs from his position toward the vacant lot and then appears again to run across Bennett Place is between eight and nine seconds. Not by Bomenka’s testimony alone, but rather by the corroborative physical evidence of the videotape, this is the window of time in which an assailant must encounter Sean Suiter, shoot him, and then flee unseen.
In his taped statement to detectives immediately after the incident, Bomenka not only affirms that the task that brought them to that alley was the search for Mary, but that Suiter had sent him up to Schroeder Street to watch the alley exit there. That was the instruction. Investigators later involved in an independent review of the case would rightly wonder if Suiter did not mean for Bomenka to go further down Schroeder to where the center alley ran to the street, taking him a short half-block further from Suiter and creating more distance. Bomenka told investigators that just before darting into the vacant lot, Suiter seemed to gesture to him with his hand. Bomenka thought Suiter might have gesturing to him to follow, but the gesture was ambiguous, a hand up and a look between the detectives. Suiter might have been saying follow me, or conversely, with the detective closer to him than hoped, the gesture could have meant for Bomenka to hold his position.
In any event, Bomenka says he started down the sidewalk as he saw Suiter gesture and immediately dart from behind the van, his left hand holding a hand-held radio, his right reaching for his gun holster. Suiter was shouting, “Police. Stop. Police” as he disappeared from Bomenka’s view onto the vacant lot. Bomenka then heard what sounded to him like four gunshots.
Running down the sidewalk, Bomenka is shown on the video clearing the length of the corner rowhouse about three seconds after Suiter has disappeared into the vacant lot. At that point, he said, he achieves a vantage from which he could see Suiter near the ground and falling to fully prone on the small lot. Bomenka told investigators that he could see Suiter’s leg twitching after he was on the ground and that there was gun smoke hovering over the body.
So within two or three seconds – confirmed by the video – Bomenka had a full view of the vacant lot and of the closest egress onto Schroeder from the crime scene – the gap to the south of the corner rowhouse. He saw no one. Within a second or two more, he had run just past the point on the lot where Suiter lay. Bomenka said he continued several more feet east, finally bracing himself, he said, against the northwest corner of the Bennett Place rowhouse adjacent to the east side alley. From that spot he could see all the way down to the center alley, which was the only other way an assailant could flee after shooting Suiter. Again, Bomenka said, he saw no one.
Braced against corner of that rowhouse, gun drawn and aiming down the side alley, Bomenka said he shouted “Sean,” “Sean,” repeatedly. Seeing no movement from Suiter, and no suspect in the alley, he told investigators he quick-scanned all the facing windows with a single thought: Sniper. Fearing as much, he then bolted back onto Bennett Street toward the Schroeder Street corner, the closest point at which he was not exposed to any window facing the shooting scene. He used his cellphone to call 911, announcing that his partner had been shot.
Minutes later, when a patrol officer arrived, the two of them crossed into the alley. Their approach to Suiter’s body is captured on the patrolman’s bodycam. As Suiter is rolled onto his back, his gun is revealed on the ground beneath his right shoulder. The radio is still gripped in his left hand. Bomenka began to perform CPR as other officers rushed to the scene.
In addition to the radio and Suiter’s Glock, three spent casings were recovered from the lot, two to the right of the body and one more directly south toward amid undergrowth. They were all consistent with police-issue ammunition and specifically with the 11 unfired rounds in Suiter’s service weapon.
The spent projectiles were harder to find.
At University Hospital, an initial assessment by emergency room doctors – who are in no way trained pathologists – assessed the head wound on the left and lower side of the face as the entrance, and the trauma toward the right rear part of the head as the bullet’s exit. This brought some immediate suspicion that Suiter, who was righthanded, had indeed been shot by someone else. The search for the bullet, based on the presumed upward trajectory, had investigators looking high for projectiles. The fire department was brought to the scene to scour the high sides of the rowhouses on either side of the lot, with every imperfection checked for evidence of either a ricochet or bullet fragment. Nothing was seen or recovered.
With the location of the entrance wound mistakenly thought to be on Suiter’s left, homicide investigators were initially dismissive of suicide as a motive and focused hard on Bomenka’s claims that he had arrived quick enough to see Suiter finishing his fall to the ground, to have eyes on the nearest exit to Schroeder Street in two or three seconds, and then on the full run of the side alley a few seconds after that. Amid considerable murmuring among commanders and investigators, there was criticism that Bomenka had not gone directly to the fallen officer but had instead retreated and called for back-up on the belief that a sniper was targeting the alley.
That criticism came to a blunt and ugly point when Baltimore’s Police Commissioner, Kevin Davis, criticized Bomenka openly to subordinates – and later privately to journalists – accusing the detective of cowardice. Once the videotape from Bennett Place was viewed, the eight-to-nine-second time window from when Suiter disappears into the alley and Bomenka is seen running east on the sidewalk, then retreating across Bennett toward Schroeder – this became, quite correctly, the given window for the shooting to occur. The videotape was specific evidence that whatever Bomenka did or did not do, it had happened in that tight window of time. Some homicide commanders – and Commissioner Davis – asserted that there was no reason to believe Bomenka had advanced all the way to the mouth of the side alley and braced himself at the corner of the Bennett Place rowhouse to the east of it. And if he didn’t do that, then he couldn’t have had a clear view of the side alley down to where it emptied into the block’s center alley.
This was a critical premise. Because if Bomenka was telling the truth, then there was simply no time for someone to win the battle for Suiter’s gun, shoot him, and then escape without being seen. The vacant lot and close egress on Schroeder was visible to Bomenka within three seconds and the video tape confirmed that the detective had raced that far down the sidewalk. But what happened after the video’s point-of-view of Bomenka was obscured by the parked truck was still open to debate. Maybe the detective had advanced that far and been able to look down the length of the side alley, but maybe not.
Bomenka held to his story consistently. But the idea of Suiter having died a hero’s death took hold early in the investigation, particularly because Suiter did not expire immediately and so a full autopsy by the state medical examiner was delayed. However, once the autopsy was complete and the exit and entrance wounds were reversed, forensic realities began to pile up. For one thing, blowback inside the barrel of Suiter’s Glock was matched by DNA to the victim, and the nature of the close-contact wound indicated that the barrel had been in partial contact with Suiter’s head when fired. Most tellingly, there was misting of blood on the lower inside of Suiter’s shirt cuff from the blowback from the head wound. This was significant for a couple reasons. For one, it cemented the fact that Suiter’s hand was on the gun when the fatal shot was fired, but more than that, the misting – as clearly evidenced in photos taken by the OCME – was at the bottom of the cuff, indicating that the gun barrel was held as high as the wound track and the cuff was hanging from Suiter’s wrist.
All of the forensic evidence – a close-contact wound, DNA matter inside the gun barrel, his own blood misting inside his right cuff, three shots fired and three casings of the correct caliber and manufacture – locked investigators into the reality that Suiter had been killed with his own service weapon and that his hand was on or near the trigger. For that to be the case, and for the death not to be a suicide, he needed to be fighting with a suspect for control of his own Glock and to have lost that fight in under four seconds, and for the assailant to have escaped the scene within nine seconds, as predicated by the videotape.
Yet the physical evidence showed no real signs of a struggle. Suiter’s shirt was still tucked, his clothes untorn, his shirt buttons all intact, his hands and face offering none of the kind of trauma suggestive of fresh defense wounds. And then, this: That right shirt cuff, hanging loose on his wrist at the moment that the gun went off and the fatal shot was fired.
Think for a moment about an assailant grappling with Suiter to gain control of the firearm with sufficient authority to force it against the detective’s head. To best control another man’s arm and force the gun to that position, the greatest and most secure leverage would be to grab not the detective’s upper forearm or elbow or fingers, but to gain control over his wrist. It was hard to imagine Suiter, an ex-military man with combat training, losing complete control over his weapon without an assailant controlling his right wrist. And with that, of course, the shirt cuff would not be hanging free; it would be clasped tightly around the wrist. There could be no misting on the lower inside of that cuff.
Once pathologists correctly identified the entrance wound as being from the right side, the search for spent projectiles was transformed as well. Now the wound track was from above and behind the right rear and at a downward trajectory to the left. Now the search of the high walls around the crime scene became a search in the dirt of the vacant lot. Days after the shooting, and a couple feet left of where Suiter’s head came to rest, police found one spent projectile, too mutilated by a journey twice through the skull and into the ground to be compared ballistically. However, in terms of the metallurgical composition of the projectile it, too, matched the 11 bullets remaining in Suiter’s gun. And though the mutilation of the round prevented any match of striations to Suiter’s specific weapon, rifling grooves nonetheless were consistent with that model of Glock. Moreover, as with the barrel of the gun, DNA was found on that bullet that matched Sean Suiter – and that bullet had been recovered clear and to the left of the spot where Suiter had bled out from the head wound.
THE COMMISSIONER WEIGHS IN
The call from the U.S. Attorney’s office to Commissioner Davis acknowledging that Suiter was a witness in the ongoing G.T.T.F. scandal was startling. That news excited the imagination of many in the city, because, if this man was about the testify against fellow officers in a massive corruption case, then was it not reasonable to consider that he might have been murdered to prevent that testimony?
For his part, Davis was angry that he had been kept in the dark about Suiter’s connection to the federal investigation, but in fact, protocols for such a corruption probe of the commissioner’s agency required U.S. prosecutors to exercise discretion. But now, those prosecutors briefed him fully on the context of Suiter’s situation. No, he was not a target of the probe. But yes, he was under some pressure and had expressed fears that his testimony would result in him losing his job. And yes, he might well have had real concerns that other cooperating defendants were implicating him in past wrongs. In fact, they were. So Suiter was not a target, but not in the clear either – at least with regard to his continued career as a police officer.
Detailing the weight that was already upon Suiter might have given some pause, but for Davis – who, amid the G.T.T.F. scandal and a bloated city crime rate, was fighting to keep his job– it seemed to have little effect. Internally, Davis continued to challenge Bomenka’s claim that he had ever reached the mouth of the side alley, much less looked down it far enough to eliminate the possibility of a fleeing suspect. And publicly, Davis continued to insist that there was physical evidence that Suiter was engaged in a struggle for his gun. At one point, the police commissioner pointed to a bright distinct mud-stain on one knee of Suiter’s trousers, indicative of being forced to the ground in a fight.
More dramatically and controversially, Davis had also committed to a six-day lockdown of the neighborhood surrounding Bennett Place, with the police department jettisoning Fourth Amendment concerns of the residents on the belief that the shooter might have gone to ground close to the shooting scene and might still be close at hand. The free movement of residents to and from their homes was restricted on dubious legal grounds; complaints and objections grew by the day. To walk back the early premise of a detective killed fighting for his own gun would have political costs. First, a public concession by Davis or the department as a whole that suicide was now a viable investigative theory would mark the lockdown of neighborhood residents as unfair and unjustified, and second, such an outcome would further highlight the extent and reach of the damage to the department from the G.T.T.F. scandal.
Davis held firm. But within the homicide unit, sources said, there was growing suspicion among many investigators that the idea of a hero’s death – as appealing as that might be to Davis and others within the department – could not hold.
Apart from the forensic realities, and the small, nine-second window that the videotape prescribed, there was this: Investigators noted that when Suiter’s body was rolled by Bomenka and the patrolman – a moment caught fully on the uniformed officer’s body camera – that hand-held radio was still tight in Suiter’s hand. This made no sense: If he was fighting for his life with an assailant, trying to maintain control of his service weapon with his right hand, the radio was no good to him as a radio. His partner, as seen on the video tape, was only about the length of a rowhouse away at the corner of Bennett and Schroeder. Suiter knew this. He could be seen looking in that direction before rushing into the side alley. Given this basic reality, Suiter wasn’t going to be calling in to a police dispatcher for help, he was going to be screaming his head off, calling for Bomenka. No witness interviewed in any canvass heard anything of the sort prior to the gunshots. Instead, Suiter – a man with martial training in both the military and the department – should not have failed to do two things with his left hand. Either he was going to drop the radio and use his left hand to help win the fight for his gun, or he was going to smash that radio into his assailant. Any Baltimore officer who has done any street policing – and Suiter had done his share – can tell you that in a pinch, a heavy, hand-held radio has efficacy as a blunt weapon.
Yet the radio had not been dropped. Nor did it have any damage or DNA on it. If the scenario involved Sean Suiter fighting for his gun with an unknown assailant, he had inexplicably chosen to grip a radio and fight for his life one-handed.
The wound track being from right-to-left, the discovery of the fatal bullet, the misting on the cuff, the radio, the revelation of Suiter’s involvement in the G.T.T.F. probe and the emotional weight of his impending testimony – among some veterans in the homicide unit, the drumbeat of additional details had an effect. Suicide as a theory began to gain ground within the department – though not with Commissioner Davis or some of the supervisors and detectives in the homicide unit closest to Sean Suiter and most protective of his memory and legacy.
The one theory that did not receive a great deal of serious attention – not from Davis, not from investigators in the homicide unit, not from federal authorities involved in the G.T.T.F. prosecution, and ultimately, not from investigators conducting independent reviews – was the idea of Sean Suiter being assassinated to prevent his testimony. This scenario, which had immediately seized the imaginations of many Baltimoreans, and was already being bandied by conspiracists and self-credited journalists on the internet, found little favor with authorities looking closely at the case. Why? Was this possibility ignored as a cover-up involving multiple police agencies and independent reviews of the case? Who in power was being protected?
On the part of so many who suspected that Sean Suiter was the victim of those acting to protect themselves against the damning testimony of an officer willing to come forward and name names – everyone from, say, internet sleuths, to HBO documentary producers, to ordinary Baltimoreans – there is a singular, hard question that is rarely asked aloud, and never answered satisfactorily. To do so, using even the most rudimentary logic, ruins even a committed conspiracist’s long, lurid journey to the planned set-up and police assassination of Sean Suiter.
Why in hell would any police assassin, or anyone working to assassinate Suiter on behalf of the police, need to wrestle an armed police detective for his service weapon? Why and to what fucking purpose?
Sean Suiter was a Baltimore police officer, on duty in a violent quadrant of one of the most violent cities in America. He’s out on the street. And if some unknown conspiracy by some unknown number of corrupt Baltimore officers see the need to end Suiter’s life to prevent his grand jury testimony – and if we are willing to indulge this theory further by imagining that David Bomenka and even Jonathan Jones are part of that conspiracy – then why would any sane perpetrator appear furtively in that alley, show himself to Suiter and – wait for it – risk all on winning the fight for Suiter’s service weapon?
Walk up to the targeted detective. Shoot him with your own disposable, untraceable firearm. Flee. Toss that gun in a storm drain or from a harbor pier. Do this much and the detective is just as dead and just as incapable of testifying as if you took the chance of overwhelming him and capturing his weapon. And, too, his death can be as easily argued as a death in the line of duty as if he lost a wrestling match for his gun.
Suiter had hand-to-hand training in the military, and again as part of his departmental training. He was healthy and athletic. It is just as plausible that in any fight with an assailant, he wins the battle for his own service weapon rather than loses and that his assailant would be the one overcome or shot. Why risk all of the misadventure inherent in that scenario when a gunman can simply shoot him and flee?
Moreover, the videotape evidence from Bennett Place precludes any imagined scenario in which Suiter isn’t already on his guard when he encounters such an assassin. He’s running from behind the van onto the vacant lot, shouting, right hand already reaching for his holster.
The astonishing, in-your-face stupidity of attempting to marry the ballistic and forensic realities of Suiter’s death with a planned assassination might be insufficient to deter amateurs, but few in the Baltimore homicide unit or on the command staff gave serious consideration to the idea. Not because they had obvious and dishonorable reasons to ignore a murder conspiracy involving police, but because it is simply too ridiculous a premise to long endure. But neither did some in the Baltimore department – from the commissioner down – want to accept the growing probability of the suicide of yet another officer caught up in a burgeoning corruption scandal. That left only a hero’s death. That’s where Commissioner Davis – and some in the homicide unit – very much wanted this case to land. It is where they want it to remain still.
EVEN MORE WEIGHT
When federal authorities lose a witness to assassination, it is always treated as an extraordinary priority and Baltimore has experienced that moment on occasions, most famously in the Warren House murders in 1983, and then with the assassination of federal informant William Player several years later. The assassination of government witnesses is bad for business if you are federal law enforcement, and the FBI probes in such murders are broad, aggressive and unrelenting. Indeed, in late 2007, the U.S. Attorney in Baltimore undertook to aggressively pursue a federal case against those involved in the murder of Carl Lackl, a cooperating witness in a city murder case.
Yet at the U.S. courthouse and in the FBI field office in Woodlawn, as the forensics and basic construct of Suiter’s shooting was ascertained, there was no such mobilization to respond to the death of a cooperating witness. Instead, there was more and more doubt about the possibility that Suiter was the victim of any such assassination. To federal authorities, the evidence simply didn’t go there.
Nonetheless, as both criticism of the police lockdown on Bennett Place and rampant speculation about a police assassination began to swirl around the Baltimore department, Davis would eventually appeal to the FBI to conduct their own independent probe of the case. The bureau quickly declined.
“They saw no way to win that one,” one federal source said, recalling the reasoning of the Woodlawn office’s special-agent-in-charge.
To federal authorities, the mass of evidence argued for suicide, but in affirming as much, the FBI would satisfy no one – not those in the department hoping for a hero’s death, and not those in Baltimore and elsewhere certain of a planned police assassination. Nor would an FBI review and confirmation of a suicide end any conspiracy theories; the bureau would simply become, in the imagination of theorists, another part of a vast, intra-agency conspiracy.
If that seems from the outside to be assumptive – if the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s Office seems to have turned away from the chance to conduct a more deliberate and independent probe of the Sean Suiter’s death, well, there was yet more about the case known only to federal authorities:
In his initial meeting with federal investigators, Sean Suiter had already expressed dismay about being subpoenaed and then given no assurance he would not lose his job as a result. He was only being called as a witness in the Burley matter, but he did know that Gondo was cooperating fully and his own attorney had warned him that could be asked about matters beyond Burley. And yes, federal authorities did know that they were pressing a man who Gondo had named as corrupt to testify under oath. They knew there was considerable weight on Suiter already.
But on the morning after the shooting, according to several federal sources, Suiter’s attorney, Jeremy Eldridge, sought a meeting with federal prosecutors and arrived accompanied by another attorney. At that meeting, those federal sources all confirm, Eldridge revealed to prosecutors that he had been urging Suiter, in advance of the proffer and grand jury sessions, to gather material on other officers involved in corruption. According to those sources, Eldridge said that he was urging Suiter to gather such information in preparation, explaining that if Suiter was going to be targeted or charged by the government, such material could be valuable for “horsetrading.” The use of that word by Eldridge was recollected by all sources.
Now, a day after the shooting, Eldridge expressed concern about the possibility that his client might have been targeted by other officers, and he further expressed worry that the material he had asked Suiter to gather might have been on his person or in the vehicle Suiter was using. After all, Suiter was supposed to meet with Eldridge on the afternoon he was shot – and the attorney had called and texted him repeatedly, seeking that meeting. Reached on the phone, Suiter had refused to talk to Eldridge in detail and did not respond to subsequent texts.
In response to Eldridge’s revelation, federal sources say, investigators were immediately told by prosecutors to have Baltimore police seal up the car used by Bomenka and Suiter, whereupon the vehicle was thoroughly searched by the FBI. Investigators who were told to look for a possible list of officers, or incidents, or incident report numbers indicative of the kind of material Eldridge had said he had sought. They found nothing.
Eldridge acknowledged in interviews with Justin Fenton for his book that he had concerns about his client being asked about more than the Burley case and had warned his client to be prepared. At present, he affirms this much, but insists he did not ask his client to gather material on other corruptions and other officers, but only be prepared to answer questions beyond the Burley incident. As for documents, Eldridge says, he only asked his client to obtain a statement of probable cause for the Burley incident alone. He attributes the assertion by federal sources that he was seeking incriminating material on other officers and other incidents to miscommunication. Eldridge says he was exhausted and sleep-deprived on the day following Suiter’s death; he says he may have had trouble accurately explaining himself to prosecutors, and that the meeting itself became quite heated.
For their part, federal sources insist that they were given to understand that much more than the probable cause in the Burley incident was in play. For one thing, the term “horsetrading,” remembered by all federal sources, makes little sense if the material is limited to the Burley incident: “We already knew about Burley. That was why we were having him go to the grand jury,” said one federal source. “What horse gets traded for that?”
Secondly, they argue, the meeting with Eldridge resulted in investigators being ordered to immediately seal and search Suiter’s unmarked car. Federal authorities contend they would not have done so merely to recover a charging document in the Burley case. They had that document already in their investigative file. It was readily available as a public record to anyone who requested it.
Whether he was misunderstood or no, Eldridge and federal sources all agree that the meeting devolved into shouting and some recriminations.
At this point, on the day after the shooting, with some of the forensics already known but much still to be learned, federal authorities say they addressed Eldridge’s overall concern that his client might have been targeted by other officers directly. If what you fear turns out to be correct, one prosecutor told him angrily, “maybe you should blame yourself for getting him killed.”
Eldridge affirms that angry accusation did occur.
But as other forsensic and video evidence mounted and a scenario of suicide became more and more likely, federal authorities came to conclude that Sean Suiter had not gathered information on other officers or other incidents, or added to his risk by doing so. Further, they concluded, he had no intention of delivering those to his attorney, or meeting his attorney to strategize about his appointment with federal investigators and prosecutors. They came to believe Suiter never intended to show up for his proffer or grand jury testimony. Instead, they concluded that Eldridge – who might not have been fully aware of the concerns that his client had already expressed to federal investigators or of Momodu Gondo’s having already named Suiter to those investigators – could have unintentionally added to the weight on Suiter by asking his client to gather such material. If Suiter was fearful that giving grand jury testimony could open the door to a full-blown discussion of earlier corruptions – and in the event he was to appear as a trial witness, it would have, by necessity – then any further suggestion that he needed to collect material to target other officers could have compounded that worry.
AN INDEPENDENT REVIEW
Eventually, with the FBI declining to step into a death investigation that they in no way saw as the assassination of a witness, and with city homicide detectives unable – despite the lockdown of the neighborhood, aggressive canvassing of the area and a series of wiretaps on select phones throughout the neighborhood – to develop hard evidence about any suspect, the Baltimore department, if only to clear itself of the appearance of complicity in a cover-up, acceded to an independent review of their investigative performance.
This is not to say that they were interested in an independent assessment of Sean Suiter’s death. Indeed, then-Commissioner Darryl DeSousa – who had replaced Davis after the mayor sought his resignation – agreed to the independent review on the premise that the review board was not charged with addressing the cause and manner of Suiter’s death – which the medical examiner had denoted as a homicide – but to instead confine itself to a review of departmental procedures and efforts in the wake of the incident.
The proposed limits on the Independent Review Board were spelled out in an initial presentation at which appointed members of the board – former assistant U.S. attorneys, death investigators and former investigators from other agencies – were briefed on the case by Baltimore department officials. At that presentation, board members were told explicitly that there was evidence for and against four possible theories – suicide, accident and homicide, either involving a random encounter with a suspect or involving a planned assassination – and further, department officials declared at the outset, there would never be sufficient evidence to reach a certain conclusion. There was no point, department officials assured the board members, in adjusting the medical examiner’s ruling in such a circumstance. The boundaries of the independent review seemed clear.
Problematically though, they hired Gary Childs.
As one of the most experienced death investigators in the state of Maryland over the last four decades, Childs is one of the last people anyone could expect to accept the necessity of a mystery. Moreover, his history is such that it is hard to imagine him skirting evidence to conceal police corruption. As early as the late 1970s, Childs worked as a Baltimore narcotics detective to bring to court a complex drug-related case against one of the highest-ranking city commanders ever charged with corruption. Similarly, it was even less plausible to imagine Childs not doing everything possible to prove Suiter’s murder or even identify Suiter’s killer if such a person could be found. In 1984, when Childs was still working city narcotics, his partner and best friend was shot to death in a hand-to-hand buy gone awry. If a police officer had been murdered and the file was in front of him, he was not going to shank that case, certainly not to protect corrupt officers.
Childs was told he could not talk to Eldridge or the Suiter family and that Suiter’s attorney had invoked attorney-client privilege, but the evidence and investigative reports were turned over for his review and he was free – albeit without the power of subpoena – to talk to other witnesses in the case.
He began his investigation hoping, if only for the sake of the family, that Suiter’s death could be laid to an accidental discharge. But eventually, working off forensic and ballistic realities, the videotape evidence and a rewatch of Bomenka’s taped statement, Childs eventually produced nothing less than a unified field theory of the detective’s last moments.
Beginning at the back of the white van – and Suiter’s inexplicable pacing from a position that exposes himself entirely to the alley – Childs was first able to correctly limit the operating window in which Suiter is shot and an assailant escapes to eight to nine seconds. Bomenka’s claim that he arrived in time to see Suiter settle to the ground and twitch his legs is consistent with his having run from the corner and reaching a point at which he could view the crime scene. A second or so more and Bomenka’s run is blocked by the truck. This leaves about four to five seconds before Bomenka is then seen running to opposite side of Bennett Place.
Two projectiles of the three fired from Suiter’s gun were never found. Childs surmises that the detective fired those straight up in the air; sending them into the rowhouse walls on either side risked a ricochet and firing into the side alley or back onto Bennett Street risked sending them into a window. Childs believes Suiter was conscientious about wanting to harm no one else.
For the one recovered projectile to be the relatively small distance at which it was found on the left side of Suiter’s head, the detective could not have been standing when the fatal shot was fired. The wound path through his head would have sent that bullet wider from his full, standing height. Instead, Childs surmised, Suiter went down on his left knee before firing the third short., steadying himself enough to put the gun above and just behind his right ear and look back under his raised arm at Bennett Place – a last look which would have been essential in any plan to stage a suicide as a line-of-duty death.
This brings us to the singular, distinct mud stain on the one trouser knee that Commissioner Davis had cited as evidence of a struggle. Childs noted that this is the only thing marring Suiter’s clothing and is therefore more indicative of a single deliberate action than a violent struggle in which the detective is forced to the ground. Sure enough, autopsy photos show a distinct, deep mud patch on the one trouser knee, but little else. There is no other injury to Suiter’s head or face – evidence of what is known to detectives and pathologists as a “terminal fall,” which occurs when someone with a profound and instantaneous brain injury collapses head-first from a standing position.
Two of the spent casings fired from Suiter’s gun were found west of the body on the vacant lot, consistent with the gun port of the Glock kicking right on two shots fired overhead. The third was discovered closer to the fence line at the south edge of the lot. This, again, would be consistent with Suiter, on his one knee, putting the barrel of the gun at the entry wound behind and above his right ear, and looking back at Bennett Place in his last moment to make sure that Bomenka had not yet arrived. Obviously, if the other detective arrived at a run to witness that moment, the suicide attempt would be apparent. To look back under his raised arm, with the gun raised to the position of the entrance wound, places the firearm in a position to eject the third casing more toward the south than the other two, as is the case. From a half kneeling position, his knee already down, the gun would fall after the shot under Suiter’s right shoulder where it, too, was found. Childs ran simulations with a living actor and timed the sequence. It worked well within the window of the video.
Later he would run ballistic tests to successfully confirm Bomenka’s claims to see smoke from the discharge hovering over the body as he raced toward the vacant lot from Schroeder. He hoped to run additional ballistics tests on the sound of the gunfire from the lot, braced on two sides by high walls. Many witnesses – including Bomenka – heard four shots fired rather than three, and a few heard five. Examining the terrain and structures encompassing the crime scene, ballistics experts told Childs that echoes of the earlier shots overlaying the later ones were highly probable. Department officials were not inclined to test this by firing rounds at the crime scene, however; the earlier lockdown of residents and the ill will engendered by such made the department hesitant.
Pathologists also initially questioned whether the blowback in the barrel found in Suiter’s gun could have come from some other source than the head wound. Specifically, could they rule out whether Suiter’s DNA could have been in the gun from his handling the weapon or especially from cleaning it? Childs ran tests on other detectives using the same firearm who cleaned their own Glocks; their DNA was not evident inside the barrels of their firearms. Lastly, Childs went down to the medical examiner to convey his theory of how Suiter shot himself, denoting the movement and positioning that would explain for the gun, the location of the recovered projectile, the casings, the mud-stained trouser knee, the blood inside the cuff and other salient details. At the conclusion, utilizing the same wound track from autopsy, pathologists extended a rod through the head of a mannequin so positioned at the critical moment, showing entrance and exit wound and bullet path. The rod pointed directly to where the spent projectile had been recovered.
Keeping open the prospect that an unknown assailant had killed Suiter, and that he died in the line of duty, had created months of ambiguity and allowed an entire cottage industry of speculation and amateur-sleuthing to embrace the near-absurdist scenario of a police assassination. But department officials – first under Commissioner Davis and later under his successor DeSousa – were not inclined to relinquish the possibility that in the remaining seconds when Bomenka ran down Bennett Place and disappeared from the view of the video camera, he had failed to reach the mouth of the side alley and therefore the possibility of a shooter escaping down the alley in those seconds could be maintained. Childs was convinced by the overwhelming mass of evidence that he was dealing with a suicide, but without corroboration that Bomenka ever arrived at the mouth of that alley, he could not fully eliminate the remote possibility of a random shooter. Privately, some in the department continued to challenge Bomenka’s reliability, arguing that if he was too concerned about a sniper to go to the fallen Suiter, he would not have proceeded to the mouth of the side alley at all. Childs and the IRB report might never have been able to close that four- or five-second window but for an accidental encounter on Bennett Place.
Filling in for an IRB attorney who had a time conflict, Childs had agreed to help with a task outside his own bailiwick: Knocking on doors in the neighborhood to ask residents their feelings about the department’s six-day lockdown of the area – another matter that the review board had been charged with addressing. Inquiring at the rowhouse just east of the side alley on Bennett Place, Childs met a second-floor resident, a former military man. And Childs being Childs, he asked the man not only about the police lockdown, but if the man remembered anything from day of the shooting. At which, the resident recounted hearing four gunshots and going to the northwest corner of his apartment and looking down from the second floor.
That resident sees:
A man he describes in a trenchcoat standing directly below him, braced at the northwest corner of his rowhouse, pointing his handgun down the alley. From directly overhead, the resident cannot see the man’s face, just the top of his head covered with thinning hair. But the resident describes the clothing that Bomenka was wearing that day – trenchcoat, sportscoat, tie – by color, correctly.
He hears the man shout “Stan,” “Stan.” And then he watches as that man races back across Bennett Place toward the northeast corner of Schroeder.
Childs was astonished.
“Did you talk to the police?”
The resident surely did. Brought down to the homicide unit after the initial canvass, hours after the shooting, he gave a full statement to detectives.
Childs called down to the homicide unit and asked a cooperative detective who he trusted if they did indeed have any record of interviewing this man. Looking it up, that detective affirmed that there was such an interview. Moreover, there was a tape.
Childs asked that detective if he would quietly bring the tape out to the Northern District, where Childs arranged to meet him. There, for the first time – well after all the investigative material was supposedly forwarded to him by the BPD – he watched as the resident, entirely cooperative, tried to remember what he had seen and relate it to the detectives questioning him.
The witness effectively closes the four- to five-second gap on the videotape by bringing Bomenka right to where Bomenka said he went – the mouth of the side alley, with a clear, unobstructed view all the way to the center alley at the interior of the block. If this witness is credited, then there is no longer any plausibility to the theory that Bomenka never reached a position where he could say for sure that a gunman didn’t have a chance to flee.
Childs checked the case file as it had been forwarded to him. And the office report of the videotaped interview is an ugly tell: In that report, the entirety of the most critical observations of this witness, which corroborate Bomenka’s statement and obliterate the early claims by Commissioner Davis about Bomenka’s veracity and reliability, are wholly omitted. The report notes only that the witness heard the gunshots and then later observed the efforts to render aid and transport Suiter. Everything about the man he witnessed with a gun below his window was excised from the office report. Had Childs not happened upon the witness while canvassing the neighborhood as part of the review of the lockdown – had he relied only on the investigative file that the department delivered to the IRB – the window would have stayed open for the department to forever claim the possibility of a homicide and a hero’s death.
The witness was in error about only two things.
For one, he said he thought he heard the man with the gun below his window shout the name “Stan,” when certainly what he heard was Bomenka shouting “Sean” to the fallen Suiter. Secondly, when the witness is questioned as to the race of the man who was standing below his window, viewers watching the video of the interview can see him take a moment to think on it and declare Bomenka, who is white, to be black. Bear in mind that the witness arrives to see only the top of the man’s head directly below and then watches as the same man races across Bennett with his back turned. Bear in mind, too, that this man – whatever his race – is standing at the mouth of alley seconds after the sound of the gunshots, exactly where Bomenka said he was standing seconds after the sound gunshots.
A conspiracist who wants to keep the conspiracy going at any cost will look at such errors of fact and conclude that the witness is unreliable and should be discounted. But such errors are common among eyewitnesses to brief encounters, and indeed, for anyone trying to claim that this witness might have been conjured or coached by police, it’s the errors that render his statement all the more credible. The police would get Suiter’s name and Bomenka’s race correct before putting words into anyone’s mouth. Nonetheless, the voluntary statement of this witness – a man who appears on that videotape trying his best to deliver what he remembers – was discreetly and completely purged from the investigative file.
Another purge was still ongoing as Childs worked the case. Supervisors and investigators closest to Suiter in the homicide unit were still involved in the prolonged effort to remove the task of finding Mary from the narrative. Some in the homicide unit were now wholly engaged in not merely claiming that Bomenka was also tasked with finding a witness in another case and that the detectives had paired up with that in mind, but that the task of finding Bomenka’s known and identified court witness – and not the search for the mysterious Mary – was what had brought Suiter to Bennett Place. Why? Because the story of the mysterious street sex worker was thin to the point of ridiculousness. She didn’t exist. And that very much spoke to a suicide by Suiter.
Childs, reviewing the file, noted the obvious problem to acting Police Commissioner Gary Tuggle, who had by then followed DeSousa’s short tenure: If it is untrue that they were out on Bennett Place following up on Suiter’s tip about the sex worker, then Bomenka is not only a liar, but he is offering up a lie complicit in what would have to be the set-up to an assassination. Why tell that lie otherwise? But more problematic, if the Mary task was conjured by Bomenka, it was also partially affirmed by Jonathan Jones, who consistently stated that he was told by Suiter that he had something new to check out on one of their cases. And why would Jones volunteer to try to come back from grand jury duty to tag along not on a case he shared with Suiter, but on a task for Bomenka on which Suiter was only riding backup?
Yet there was a supervisor in the homicide unit continuing to insist that Suiter was on Bennett Place working on Bomenka’s case exclusively and venturing into the Bennett Place alleys for that purpose. Childs asked the acting commissioner directly: For purposes of the IRB report, which is it? What is the true and official story of the Baltimore Police Department here? Are we refuting what Bomenka and Jones have consistently affirmed, because if so, Bomenka should certainly be confronted with giving a false statement in the aftermath of Suiter’s death, and Jones needs to also be questioned about his own memory. And are departmental officials now willing to state on the record that Suiter was assigned to help find Bomenka’s witness and that the narrative of searching for Mary in Suiter’s triple was now being completely and officially disavowed?
Tuggle took in the contradiction and immediately told his Chief of Detectives that if there was credible information disavowing the search for Mary, and if homicide supervisors were now willing to say on the record that Suiter was only on Bennett Place to assist Bomenka, then that should be put in writing and forwarded to the IRB. But no such document was ever forwarded to the review board, nor did any homicide supervisor contact IRB investigators to explain or defend the contradiction openly. The claims that Suiter was not searching for a Mary and the implication that Bomenka in his immediate taped statements – and Bomenka and Jones in all statements thereafter – had spoken falsely were suitable only for off-the-record rumor and not-for-attribution press leaks. No one would commit them to writing, or at the least, forward such a claim to those reviewing the case officially.
Increasingly, it became clear to Childs that while much of the Baltimore department – and most of the homicide unit – had come to realize that Sean Suiter had killed himself, there were those within the homicide unit that were willing to muddy the waters enough so that the cause and manner of death would not be changed, so that the hero’s death could remain plausible, so that, too, death benefits might in the end be delivered to Suiter’s family, regardless of the damage done from the public perception that a cop killer, or more dramatically, some killer cops, remained at large in a high-profile slaying.
In the end, Childs and a lawyer from the IRB would write up everything they had learned and take it down to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. After requesting the additional ballistic tests recounted above, pathologists there were ready to change their ruling. Resistance from the police department and from the State’s Attorney’s Office, in particular – with the SAO arguing that more work needed to be done on the case before any ruling should be changed – convinced the OCME to delay that action. No one is presently working the case in any way, sources say. It is a dormant investigation.
Perhaps most notably, no one in the five years since the shooting has ever managed to locate Mary, the mysterious sex worker with no last name, no notation in the file as to the origin of the tip that names her, and only a vague physical description. This is another tell.
If Suiter was truly out on Bennett Place looking for a real, existing street sex worker for information on his case, then a fundamental piece of evidence to support the fact that he was murdered in the line of duty would be to simply find Mary, regardless of what she knows or doesn’t know about Suiter’s triple murder. To have Mary found and to therefore prove that Suiter told the truth about his task on Bennett Street would accomplish the same thing as claiming the Mary story was conjured from whole cloth by Bomenka – it would argue that Suiter had not manufactured a time, place and task to stage a suicide, that he had a real reason to be on Bennett Place. And Mary, as described, would be no master criminal – this is not someone who has great personal resources or opportunities, or the wherewithal to change cities, or to elude a 2000-soul police department for half a decade. If Mary could be identified and found, it would constitute a hard piece of evidence that Sean Suiter didn’t make her up and that maybe, maybe he died a hero’s death. Notably, it was more plausible for some in homicide to spread a rumor – making both Bomenka and Jones liars, while declining to put that rumor into writing for the IRB – that Suiter was never hunting a Mary at all, rather than to do fundamental police work by going out and finding the woman.
EVERYONE GETS TO PLAY
Everyone except David Bomenka.
For him, this tragedy has made a shambles of his life and police career, according to those who know him. Accused from within his police agency of unreliability and cowardice and suspected of complicity in an assassination conspiracy from without, Bomenka has paid a singular cost for every speculative misadventure in Sean Suiter’s death.
There are things for which Kevin Davis should be honorably credited in Baltimore. He tried to accomplish certain goals and he undertook to challenge the BPD’s status quo in places, but his desire to bend the early days of this investigation toward a hero’s death and the manner in which he left Bomenka to dangle, even to the point of a corroborative witness being slipped from the casefile, is honestly shameful.
And there can be understanding for those in the Baltimore homicide department who wanted and want to do all they can for Sean Suiter’s memory and for his family, who have endured a tragedy regardless. A hero’s death would be the preferable legacy here, but in order for that to happen a lot of evidence has to be tossed aside.
And certainly, too, what is necessarily the point of view of Suiter’s attorney and his family is easily understood. They are entitled to maintain that point of view. Empathy is always merited, but sometimes, inevitably, hard truths can be the worst ones to tell.
It is understandable, too, that the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, presented with the reluctance of prosecutors and police to reconsider a finding, might hesitate for a time. But ultimately that state agency is supposed to be independent. Its judgments cannot be subject to the political needs or desires of elected officials, or even institutional local law enforcement.
Less acceptable is the scattershot, randomized theorizing and nitpicking of so many internet sleuths, or for that matter, documentary filmmakers, who can spend untold hours speculating on why a spent projectile wasn’t found right away, or why that projectile didn’t stay pristine when traveling through a skull twice, or why other imagined video evidence was hidden or destroyed, or even why the vast conspiracy arranged to have the victim’s rush to the hospital delayed by an auto accident.
More inevitable, but equally ridiculous is the excitable manner in which every tip or claim is given equal weight with the forensic realities or the basic construct of the case. Pull any death investigation file involving a high-profile event and at first dozens, and soon hundreds of alternate theories will speckle the office reports, with so-and-so hearing from his cousin about how he was in the alley and saw a guy wrestling with the cop, or some suspect picked up in a separate case overhearing in a bar that the cop caught so-and-so with his ground stash in that alley. The unsolved Latonya Wallace file from 1988 has probably three hundred such embedded claims at this point, the unsolved murder of Clare Stone, now 100 years old, was closed out with probably twice that number. It’s all intriguing and possible until you consider the greater mass of evidence in plain view: That all of these possible killers still have to be in that alley, get to Suiter and gain control of his gun, but not grab Suiter’s right wrist to gain that control, then shoot him in the head with Suiter’s hand on the weapon, blood and brain matter misting the inside of Suiter’s cuff and reaching the inside of the gun barrel, then quickly let slip the gun as Suiter falls from not a standing position, but a kneeling one, and then race away unseen. And they need to do this in an eight to nine second interval as dictated by videotape, while another police detective who is there watching in seconds decides to lie about it. No matter how intriguing an alternate suspect seems to be, they are still obliged to fit within those givens. To seize on what someone said they heard happen, or on what someone claimed someone said at a bar without attending to the known realities – this is the reportorial equivalent of staring into the middle distance, squinting, and shouting “squirrel.” No more, no less.
For our part, in making “We Own This City,” we wrote a narrative for camera in which we were obliged to do our level best to evaluate the evidence – not merely what authorities told us the evidence was, but doing our best to assess evidence itself. We viewed the videotape from Bennett Street, and the videotape of Bomenka’s statement, and that of the key witness willfully obscured from the casefile. We spoke to sources within the federal investigation of the G.T.T.F. about the actual dynamics underlying Suiter’s testimony. We viewed the morgue photos and the ballistic evidence and test results. We walked the ground with the independent investigator, then we viewed the videotape again, then we rewalked that ground.
In the end, we made our decision on how to proceed in our narrative based on everything written here. Assured of a suicide, our ethical rigor in depicting events nonetheless convinced us to allow the camera to trespass at points no further than the known evidence. We did not depict the unseen moment of suicide, nor did we show Suiter taking money earlier in his career, but rather left him present when money was taken and made clear the temptation was certainly there for him and that, no, at the least, he did not report the ongoing thefts and robberies of others. Nor did we use all that we knew about the legal maneuvers and dynamics surrounding his grand jury testimony; we only do so now because our standards and methodology are being argued; it’s therefore appropriate and inevitable to delineate all that we knew and considered before filming.
It is the fashion of those who want what they want to declare that anyone unwilling to be convinced of a police assassination in the case of Sean Suiter operates from ill motives. Any investigator who comes to see Suiter’s death as a suicide is, de facto, a cop or former cop and therefore intent on protecting the corruptions of other cops. Any reporter who fails to consider any possible obscurant factoid is lazy and in the service of institutional law enforcement and not to be trusted. And filmmakers – even those devoting six hours of narrative entirely to the explicit corruptions of law enforcement – are malleable, credulous fools who do no research, who are dupes of biased sources who simply whisper in their ear, who are happy and willing to cover up some corruptions while laboriously highlighting others. Conspiracy theory is ever thus. If you are not with the preferred theory, then you are not merely on the other side of evidence, you are lazy; your motives, vile.
It bears repeating that as drama goes, the best possible culmination of this narrative, by far, would be the implication that the G.T.T.F. scandal is such a dark chapter in this Baltimore’s history that it culminated in the assassination of a police officer by his corrupt comrades. For dramatists, that story arc sings. But again, the camera can only be in one place for every moment. And the last words of some long-dead presidential assassin are not being bandied here; this is about the recent life and death of a man and his place in the current affairs of a living city. We filmed the version that we believe to be accurate and supported by the most evidence and corroboration, choosing not to undertake “We Own This City” as merely dramatists, but to follow facts regardless.
* * *