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  • Justine Barron

Three Years Later: Consequences and Casualties in the Sean Suiter Cover-Up (Part 3)

Two different Baltimore residents got tangled up in the city's desperate efforts to clean up the mess around Suiter's death, with different outcomes.


This is the third article in a three-part series taking a new look at the Suiter case. Part 1 critically revisits the assumptions guiding the leading theories of Suiter's death, including that he was shot with his own weapon. Part 2 examines new evidence as to why Suiter was on Bennett Place that afternoon and the role of the homicide department in the cover-up.



BPD locks down Harlem Park, November 2017.

Casualties


Allen Johnson, 36, was walking on a dark street in Cherry Hill, South Baltimore on the evening of November 29, 2017 when he was stopped by two Baltimore Police Department (BPD) officers from the Southern District. It was almost two weeks after Homicide Detective Sean Suiter was shot to death about four miles north in Harlem Park, an incident Johnson had nothing to do with, until that night.


Donte Pauling, 30, was driving on West Lexington Street on the evening of December 8, 2017 when he was stopped by two BPD officers from the Western District. It was more than three weeks after Suiter was shot about a mile northeast, an incident Pauling most likely had nothing to do with, until that night.


After their arrests, both Johnson and Pauling found themselves entangled in the Suiter case. Both were used to support Commissioner Kevin Davis' theory about what happened to Suiter—that he was killed by a stranger who grabbed his gun from him, shot him, and fled the scene, though leaving behind the gun—as the public was losing faith in that theory and in Davis' leadership.


Johnson and Pauling are just two of the casualties of the hunt for Suiter's killer (or for someone to pin his death on), added to the many residents impacted by the Harlem Park lockdown. The two cases also offer insight into how federal agents and prosecutors supported BPD, during a time when the media was mostly describing the two law enforcement bodies as antagonistic.


Pauling's role in the Suiter case also raises more questions about the involvement of BPD's homicide department, as discussed in the last article in this series.



A Cop Was Shot



An officer pins Johnson to the ground, captured on police body camera.

The story of Allen Johnson's November 29th arrest in South Baltimore appeared in the Baltimore Sun and on TV news that evening and the next day. The stories came complete with body-worn camera (BWC) footage and quotes from Commissioner Davis himself, who gave a late night press conference a few hours after the incident. According to the news, Johnson struggled with an officer over a gun and shot him in the hand with it. Johnson was charged with a wide range of crimes up to attempted murder. The stories also made direct connections to Suiter, whose funeral had been that day.


The next day, Sun reporter Kevin Rector shared the BWC footage in his story on the incident. If you follow Baltimore news, you know that it's unusual for BPD to release BWC that fast. Rector's story leaned heavily on Davis' quotes from the press conference:


“They’re literally wrestling over the gun, and then the gun is discharged by our bad guy and it strikes our 30-year-old police officer in the hand,” Police Commissioner Kevin Davis said Thursday. “These things happen very, very quickly. It’s a matter of seconds. It’s a violent struggle. And thank God we’re not talking about planning another police funeral.”


Davis used the exact same language—"very, very quickly," "matter of seconds"—that he had been using to describe Suiter's shooting. The Johnson story was helping him make the case that people grab guns from cops and shoot them.


Yet, in a classic case of "police say" journalism, reporters got the story wrong: Johnson didn't shoot the cop in the hand; the cop shot himself in his own hand. This became clear in a 2019 court hearing, but it was known to police early on. The State's Attorney's Office (SAO) dropped the attempted murder charge months after the incident.


Even the BWC footage that Davis shared on the day after the incident did not, by itself, confirm that Johnson shot the cop, but reporters still relied on the commissioner's story. The videos show one officer point his gun around Johnson's waist and then tackle him. A gun shot goes off, but it's unclear who fired. Two other officers on the scene both tase Johnson for several seconds, while the first officer says, "My hand's broke." Johnson appears confused and traumatized during the entire event.


A few months after the incident, Johnson's case was picked up by the federal government. The feds dropped all of the violent charges, probably because Johnson had nothing to do with the cop shooting himself in his own hand. They charged him with gun and drug possession only.


But here's the rub: In announcing the indictment in April 2018, the U.S. Attorney's Office (USAO) focused on the officer getting shot. The headline on the press release was, "Baltimore City man indicted for possessing a firearm that discharged and injured a Baltimore City Police Officer." That the officer actually shot himself in his own hand did not appear in USAO's statements or in any media stories reporting on it.


Although there was no evidence that Johnson did anything to cause this officer to shoot himself in the hand, the sentencing judge still put the violence on him: "Somebody did get hurt," she told Johnson. "I don't for a minute think you intended to hurt anybody... This is what happened when we have guns under that circumstance."


The Baltimore Courtwatch twitter account has been pointing out how local prosecutors and judges frame gun possession alone as a type of violence. Johnson's lawyer noted that Johnson had been shot twice as a child and lived in a violent neighborhood and argued unsuccessfully that his gun was used for self-protection.


The probable cause around Johnson's stop-and-frisk was also shaky. The two officers gave contradictory testimony during a hearing about an unidentified informant alerting them to Johnson by text and phone. They didn't produce evidence of the text until the day before the hearing. Also, local and federal police kept insisting, in documents and statements, that Johnson had turned away from the cops or tried to flee and reached for a gun in his waistband. The BWC doesn't show any of this.


Johnson's lawyer failed to get the stop-and-frisk dismissed, so Johnson pled guilty to two counts of gun and drug possession. He is currently serving 11 years in federal prison. His mother sent a letter to the sentencing judge asking her to evaluate him independently from the narrative of a cop getting shot, considering that her son didn't shoot the cop, didn't have a violent record, and hadn't been convicted of anything in many years.


To date, neither the Baltimore Sun nor any TV news outlet has corrected the record on what actually happened on November 29, 2017. Google results for Johnson still describe him as a repeat violence offender.


Excerpt: Letter from Johnson's mother to the sentencing judge

Third-Hand Witness


Donte Pauling was about three months out of prison when he was stopped by police at 1600 West Lexington Street on December 8, 2017 at about 7pm by for driving in the center of the road. Computer-Aided Dispatch records show that the officers immediately called in a handgun violation, and he was brought to the Western District Police Station with a passenger in his car. Pauling was charged with gun and traffic crimes by Western District Detectives Anthony Zeno, Brian Salmon, and Leon Riley (who was indicted in 2020 for assaulting civilians).


At the time of the traffic stop and arrest, Pauling had just been freed from prison. SAO overturned his last conviction which came from a 2015 arrest by members of the notorious Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF). Still, Pauling was considered a felon from a conviction years before, so he was facing serious prison time for possession of a handgun when he was pulled over in 2017.


The day after his arrest, on December 9, 2017, Pauling gave a long interview to police investigators during which he provided information on multiple individuals and cases. This included Montana Barronette, the alleged leader of a West Baltimore gang, and Detective Sean Suiter. Pauling's statements about Suiter's shooting showed up in November 2018 news story on WMAR. He shared a story that he heard from someone else, who apparently heard it from the shooter or witnessed it, as follows:


Basically he said the kid was in the stash and the detective dude startled him, walked over- walked over top of him and basically he looked up and he seen a n*** with a gun or whatever so he went for it or whatever and that was the outcome. But he ain't never say no names... And when he told the story, we didn't even know it was an officer yet.


It seemed to be a third-hand account, and it did not exactly align with the official BPD/Independent Review Board (IRB) story of Suiter running quickly into the lot and being shot within seconds.


Still, Pauling's story became a sticking point for certain parties trying to combat the influence of the IRB's suicide conclusion. These parties have included Commissioner Davis; Suiter family attorney Jeremy Eldridge, who is quoted in the WMAR article; and former Assistant State's Attorney Patrick Seidel, who prosecuted Keith Davis, Jr.'s last trial. According to Baltimore Sun reporter Justin Fenton, in his new book, Seidel helped track down the person in Pauling's story to get DNA, though there's no evidence that it has been tested against DNA on the gun in the last two years.


Fenton's book mentions another individual that has held onto the belief that Suiter was suddenly killed in the lot. Homicide Detective Jonathan Jones, known as "J.J.," was identified as Suiter's usual partner. He appeared in early stories after Suiter's death and spoke at Suiter's funeral, flanked by several officers, including David Bomenka, the detective that was with Suiter on the day of the shooting.





According to Fenton, "Jones strongly defends Bomenka from the conspiracy theories of his involvement" and suggests that Bomenka had "tunnel vision" as a result of the shooting and missed what was happening around him. Like everyone else involved in this case, Jones doesn't assess the full evidence of Bomenka's actions around the time of the shooting or why the two detectives were on Bennett Place that afternoon.


But here's the rub on Detective Jones: It looks like he might be the plainclothes detective interviewing Pauling in that WMAR video, when Pauling gave testimony about Suiter's death. WMAR confirms that Pauling was "brought to BPD homicide" to be interviewed. The detective in the video has Jones' build at the time of Suiter's death; he is also Black, bald, and wears square glasses. Multiple sources have confirmed that it looks to them like Jones and that there aren't other homicide detectives they know fitting that physical profile.



A detective and a uniformed officer interview Pauling about Suiter.

If it is Jones, some questions follow: Was he working his partner's death investigation case and called in to hear this? Why was there a uniformed officer in the room for a homicide interview? Did Pauling's statement inform Jones' belief that Suiter was shot?


If it isn't Jones in that interview with Pauling, I look forward to anyone in BPD, SAO, or otherwise providing the identity of that detective. There was no hesitancy by WMAR or its sources to identify Pauling as the "confidential informant," while sharing his name, face, voice, and role in the Barronette and Suiter cases. I have gotten no responses to my inquiries to date.


Anyway, Pauling's statement on Suiter is interesting. But the importance key people have placed on his statement is even more interesting, especially when there seems to be stronger evidence of homicide. (The Donte Pauling interview rings some Donta Allen bells for me, for those of you familiar with the Freddie Gray case.)


In 2018, the federal government took over the Pauling traffic stop/gun possession case and offered to drop the charges in exchange for his testimony against Barronette. He fingered Barronette as a killer on the stand and received $17,000 in witness relocation fees.


Then in 2020, the city paid Pauling a $165,000 settlement as a result of his 2015 GTTF conviction. A team of attorneys, including Josh Insley, sued the GTTF officers that had arrested him as well as two former BPD supervisors, Deputy Dean Palmere and Internal Affairs Major Ian Dombrowski.


Pauling's fate landed him in a very different place than Johnson. He was a victim of officers under indictment, and he was able to trade access to criminal power to avoid prison time (though he currently awaits trial for a 2020 theft charge in Baltimore County.)


It's impossible to judge whether or not Johnson and Pauling would have landed in the same places if they weren't stopped by police in the aftermath of Suiter's death. Commissioner Davis' story about Johnson certainly influenced the media, and it may or may not have influenced the federal prosecution of him. Pauling's story about Suiter was certainly useful to several parties, whether it helped or hurt him. What is indisputable is that the pressure on BPD, the feds, and city leadership around Suiter's death had a ripple effect, affecting the lives of people outside of the department.


Consequences


Unfortunately, like so many Baltimore crime stories, the Johnson and Pauling stories both have a media complicity angle. Choices were made by local reporters to help the police frame these stories to their benefit.


In covering Johnson's story, local reporters relied entirely on press conferences by Commissioner Davis and USAO press releases to determine that he was a violent criminal who shot a cop, when the contrary evidence was easily available online on Case Search (state) and PACER (federal) databases. These reporters also had BWC footage that did not, by itself, confirm the police's story.


As for the Pauling story, it was irresponsible for WMAR to share the video interview. The station helped put a target on Pauling's back and established a horrifying journalism precedent of exposing a "confidential informant."


In more WMAR complicity news, the station updated its article on Pauling several months later, without explaining why. The original version ended with a statement from then-police spokesperson Matt Jablow dismissing the credibility of Pauling's statement.


Then in February 2019, WMAR removed Jablow's comment:

Did BPD change its mind about discrediting a lead pointing to homicide? If BPD asked WMAR to remove the statement, the station should have disclosed the request in the name of transparency. It makes crime reporting so much harder when the media plays along with police obfuscation. I reached out for comment to the WMAR newsroom and never received a reply.


Then, there is Justin Fenton's book, specifically his chapters on the Suiter case. The reporter deliberately chooses to leave out a lot of information, like the entire Harlem Park lockdown, and is largely gullible towards police stories. He also leaves out known audio and video evidence. There are two examples that stand out the most, both concerning Bomenka's actions.


First, Fenton leaves out one of the most important moments on the surveillance video, which I have been reporting on for the last two years. Here is video of the person identified by officials as Bomenka in a long tan jacket almost two minutes after Suiter was reportedly shot:




Bomenka starts on the right side of the street directly across from the vacant lot, out of view. He reportedly ran there after the shooting and called 911. The video shows a minivan about to pass the crime scene. Bomenka walks in front of it and deliberately stops the car, sending it back down the street. (The yellow circle was actually added by BPD to indicate activity.) Bomenka checks a couple of times to make sure the car continues backwards. And then he walks into the lot, where Suiter reportedly lay after being shot.


As the video above shows, Bomenka disappears into the lot area almost a full minute before the first officer responds to the scene. (You can watch all of this in the less blurry long version here.)


Here is how Fenton describes what happened: Bomenka first ran across the street from the lot, "fumbled around for his cellphone—he hadn’t brought his police radio with him—and dialed 911 to call for help." Then, "Once backup had arrived, Bomenka ventured into the lot with the responding officers." The video very clearly shows Bomenka "venture into the lot" without accompaniment before the officers arrive. Two minutes are gone from Fenton's narrative—the same two minutes that were gone from the IRB report—and it's an important two minutes. It undermines a lot of the official narrative, as discussed.


This is not the only evidence that Fenton chooses leave out of his book. He reports on the details of the Signal 13 ("officer down") dispatch call after Bomenka called 911. But he leaves out the dispatcher saying that Bomenka described himself as "off-duty." BPD always said Bomenka was on-duty. Fenton even included the full Signal 13 call in an article once, though he chose not to mention "off-duty" then either. Given that officials have refused to share or even describe Bomenka's actual 911 call, the dispatcher's description of it offers a lead worth considering and investigating, at the very least.


It seems to be a theme: As with the Johnson story, reporters seem to trust what police tell them more than their own eyes and ears.


Dangling Threads


This article wraps up my own Suiter investigation, but I will continue keeping my eye on some of the dangling threads. There are so many! For instance, I have long thought about how, after Bomenka called 911, the dispatcher called out the incident for "Bennett and Fremont." Suiter was shot at Bennett and N. Schroeder, a long block over.





Yet, the officers arrived on the scene and pulled right up to the lot at Bennett and N. Schroeder. They even went the wrong way down Bennett to get there. It seems like they may have gotten another dispatch call, sending them to the right location, though Bomenka reportedly didn't have his radio on him. Or perhaps someone flagged them down.


As I move on from this case, for now, I'll be keeping my eye on the projects that are supposed to be coming out about GTTF and the Suiter case on HBO, including a documentary by Sonja Sohn ("Baltimore Rising") and a scripted series by David Simon ("The Wire"), based on Fenton's book. Simon has consistently expressed the view on social media that Suiter took his own life. We will see if the media elite continue to tell the Suiter story through the eyes and ears of officials, cops, and others who have a vested interest in its outcome.