Three Years Later: Myths and Conflicts in the Death of Sean Suiter (Part 1 of 3)
Journalism vs. Evidence
It’s been three years since Baltimore Police Department (BPD) Detective Sean Suiter was killed, on November 15, 2017, and the case is still an open homicide investigation. So the public cannot access the ballistics report, autopsy report, body-worn camera videos, interviews, or case files.
It’s been two years since we learned that the State’s Attorney’s Office (SAO) was supposedly looking into DNA and other evidence that supported a homicide finding, after an Independent Review Board (IRB) declared Suiter’s death a suicide.
It’s been one year since Commissioner Michael Harrison said the department would complete a “small list of tasks” related to SAO’s evidence before closing the case. There have been no updates since. Suicide was a useful narrative when BPD leaders sought to close the case; homicide is a useful narrative to keep it open.
A thought has been weighing on me as I contemplated this anniversary piece, which includes some fresh insights for people familiar with my 2018 series. My thought is that news outlets do not want to deal with criminal evidence. They don’t want to dispute what they get told about ballistics, autopsies, crime scenes, and the like; and they don’t want to critically analyze the evidence that is available.
So this is how a lot of crime journalism has historically played out: Journalists repeat police descriptions of evidence; anyone who questions it gets called an “activist.” Then, years or decades later, someone with a blog or podcast or some editorial independence digs into the case and turns the “evidence” upside-down: Adnan Syed might not have been with Hae Min Lee on the afternoon of her death after all. There may be nothing to tie Keith Davis Jr. to the gun that shot Kevin Jones. Freddie Gray may not have been on his way to Central Booking for a knife arrest.
By the time what gets called “the evidence in the case” is reconsidered, it may be too late to change the course of history. Its delayed examination becomes popular entertainment and the distant hope for justice.
In the Suiter case, mainstream journalists and editors have neglected to take seriously a critical examination of the video, audio, and forensic evidence. The video, some say, shows indecipherable blobs. But the blobs told a story to officials and the IRB. And BPD is analyzing dots from a surveillance plane thousands of feet in the air. They’re analyzing dots and blobs; we need to also.
Mainstream reporters are trained to attribute knowledge more than analyze it. The Baltimore Sun did take a stab at looking at issues with the Freddie Gray CCTV evidence in 2015 but ultimately accepted the police’s narrative of “glitches.” A timestamp running while a screen freezes is not a glitch; it’s a disruption of the space-time continuum.
In the Suiter case, the public has been told a set of presumed facts and promised that the evidence supports them: We were told Suiter was shot in the head with his own weapon. We were told that he ran into a vacant lot on Bennett Place before he was shot, out of view of cameras and people, including his partner that day, Detective David Bomenka.
The media has largely accepted these prevailing myths, in part because there was a battle inside BPD over what happened to Suiter, what the Sun called the “two conflicting theories.” Commissioner Kevin Davis insisted a stranger grabbed Suiter’s gun and shot him; other police officials (and the IRB) believed his death was suicide. If there’s a battle, but both sides accept certain “facts,” then the facts are probably true, right?
The same thing happened two years before. Police and prosecutors furiously battled over who was to blame for Freddie Gray’s death, yet both sides publicly agreed to the same premise—that his fatal injury happened while he was riding in the van, out of view of people and cameras. Recently released files from the Gray case show that both sides buried substantial evidence of deadly police force before the van took off on its ride.
It was the exact same play in 2015 and 2017: The warring factions publicly agreed that the deaths happened out of view, so remained mysterious. In the Suiter case, it wasn't until months after his death that police said he ran into a lot and was shot out-of-view. The story emerged late in the game, and we have reason to question it.
For this three-year anniversary of Suiter’s death, I take another stab at deconstructing the big myths in the Suiter case, with several new observations. I also look at the big picture of who sourced this maddening story. In Parts 2 and 3, I will look at some unsettling cases surrounding the Suiter investigation that have not made front page or evening news, one which might offer a clue about what happened.
Conflicts of Interest
It was always a conflict of interest that BPD was investigating Suiter’s death. The U.S. Attorney’s Office described its Gun Trace Task Force (GTTF) investigation as part of a broader “investigation of corruption in the Baltimore Police Department.” Two Deputy Commissioners, Dean Palmere and Darryl DeSousa, were identified as helping cover-up GTTF-related misconduct. The whole department was under investigation, and one of the witnesses for that investigation was killed: Suiter was scheduled to testify in a GTTF case the day after he was shot.
Even more, Suiter’s death investigation was overseen by members of his and Bomenka’s own homicide squad, which was under the supervision of Palmere. The lead homicide investigator in the Suiter case, James Lloyd, was indicted earlier this year for kidnapping, with three other homicide detectives.
There were many signs of cover-up early on. BPD removed related dispatch calls from the Open Baltimore database, so the public couldn’t figure out what happened when. The calls were restored later and since deleted again. Video BPD obtained from a corner store on Bennett Place was never released. The store was hit with a code violation when it complained about police damaging its cameras.
BPD never shared any information about a 911 call Bomenka made from his cell phone after Suiter’s shooting. The dispatcher who took the call relayed that Bomenka wouldn’t provide his name and said he was “off-duty.” And, of course, Commissioner Davis initially withheld from the public the pertinent information about Suiter's scheduled grand jury testimony.
The original narrators of the Suiter case were unreliable. Davis initially told the public that Suiter stepped out of his car, approached a stranger, and was shot; WBAL’s Jayne Miller initially told the public that, according to her sources, Suiter knocked on a door and was shot. Those stories disappeared quickly.
Reporters relied extensively on anonymous police sources, who fed them a lot of information that later turned out to be false. Sources told the Baltimore Sun, for instance, that Suiter could be seen on surveillance video running into the lot with a gun and radio in his hands. The actual footage, released months later, is from a camera too far from the scene to pick up anything in Suiter's hands.
After Davis was fired in January 2018, DeSousa took over the department. He touted the IRB as a chance for some “independent” clarity. Yet, the team leading the IRB had worked for BPD in the past, consistently producing reports that absolved officers of serious fault. It did so for a 2011 nightclub shooting that killed a cop and a civilian, injuring others; and it did the same for the police killings of Anthony Anderson (2012) and Tyrone West (2013).
The Suiter IRB was largely sourced by BPD commanders, homicide detectives, and other officials; some were present at IRB meetings with BPD lawyers. The IRB report thanks Detective Lloyd, the indicted kidnapper, for being “available for numerous interviews, for questions by phone, and to help us locate evidence and other persons with knowledge.”
The IRB report has too many mistakes, omissions, assumptions, and other issues to list. Still, the report was influential and carries the sheen of authority. So it feels important to name a few issues. For one, it relied on Bomenka as a sole source for most of its narrative. Bomenka claimed Suiter dragged him to Bennett Place two days in a row, searching for a made-up witness while nervously plotting his own suicide to look like a homicide-on-duty. BPD never provided video or other evidence that the detectives were on Bennett Place the day before.
A lot of the IRB report has no attribution at all. It makes the repeated claim that GTTF Officer Momodu Gondo implicated Suiter as a guilty party in the 2010 drug planting case in which he was scheduled to testify the day after he was shot. The IRB used this information as a strong motive for suicide. But Gondo never said anything in court about Suiter’s role in the 2010 case. He only testified that Suiter was one of five officers who had shared stolen money ten years ago. Gondo wasn’t even part of that 2010 case. According to federal documents, two officers that were part of that case described Suiter as an innocent stooge.
The IRB report also offers zero attribution for a claim it makes about the trajectory of the bullet that killed Suiter. It states Shock Trauma incorrectly told police the trajectory was from left to right, which was backwards. Hence, police initially assumed Suiter’s death was a homicide; Suiter is right-handed.
But the IRB never referenced speaking to anyone from Shock Trauma nor referenced any hospital reports. Did this information come from second-hand from BPD officials? What is more, several trauma specialists I consulted doubted this narrative. Mike Abernathy, Professor of Emergency Room Medicine at the University of Wisconsin says, “a trauma surgeon really wouldn’t be too concerned about trajectories, only the damage done.” The backwards-trajectory story helped the IRB explain why it took awhile for the suicide theory to emerge, but it had no source.
Finally, the IRB report leaves out information that doesn't serve its narrative. It omits, for instance, two minutes from its otherwise detailed description of the surveillance video. The video shows Bomenka, after calling 911, stopping a car from passing the crime scene. Then he walks over to the vacant lot before the responding officers arrive. The IRB report indicates he waited for the officers to arrive to approach the crime scene. Bomenka's actual actions muddy the story that the IRB and officials tried to tell, both about him—that he was paralyzed by shock after the shooting —and about the crime scene—that nobody visited it before the arriving officers filmed it on their body-worn cameras (BWCs).
Note: The third article in this series includes an extensive analysis of this critical moment, including embedded video.
Shot with His Own Weapon
It’s been central to every understanding of Suiter’s death that he was shot with his own weapon. I previously reported on some issues with the official ballistics story. In retrospect, I think the media has collectively bought into one of the most obvious cover-ups in recent BPD history, and we all should have pushed back harder.
BPD did lay out reason to believe that Suiter’s gun was fired. Commissioner Davis said three shell casings were recovered from the scene, all “ballistically matched” to Suiter’s firearm. The process of matching shell casings to guns is not scientifically conclusive. Nevertheless, the alleged match gave credibility to the claim that Suiter’s gun was fired. The IRB also said three bullets were missing from Suiter’s gun.
The evidence was far less conclusive that Suiter’s gun was used on himself. Bomenka and a few witnesses, who spoke to reporters early on, all described hearing from four to six shots. That is already evidence of another shooter.
Despite reportedly finding three shell casings BPD discovered only one bullet at the scene, which it claimed was "the fatal round." I previously wrote about its dramatic discovery, but it bears revisiting. The detectives that allegedly discovered the bullet seemed sure that it was the fatal round literally on sight. That is only one reason that this story is hard-to-believe.
BPD discovered the bullet live on camera. WBAL was the only media outlet on Bennett Place on the morning of November 20. Its footage captured a plainclothes SIRT detective, Kimberly Starr (formerly with homicide), digging a deep narrow hole in the ground. The video then shows her examining the evidence with then-Western District Captain John Webb and homicide detective Sean Jones. Webb then jabs at Jones in a “Eureka!”-type gesture. Jones calls for the crime lab.
A few hours later, Davis announced that BPD had “recovered significant additional evidence from the crime scene” that might “lead to a suspect.” He wouldn’t name the evidence, but WBAL’s Miller tweeted a crime scene photo showing an object that she suggested was part of a bullet.
That shiny bronze object definitely does not look like the picture of the recovered bullet fragments included in the IRB report:
Two days later, Davis announced the police had indeed discovered the “fatal round" and confirmed Suiter was shot with his own weapon.
It’s a forensically unbelievable story for many reasons: For one, Detective Starr supposedly found the bullet precisely where she dug, while cameras rolled, with no crime scene technicians present. Yet, everyone recognized immediately, on sight, that it was important evidence in Suiter’s death and not just another bullet in the dirt in Baltimore.
Second, unlike shell casings, bullets cannot be ballistically matched to Glocks, which BPD uses as departmental weapons. Even the IRB acknowledged this. So what processes did BPD use to determine that the bullet in the dirt killed Suiter? Davis spoke about how “a firearm and its associated evidence like shell casings or bullet fragments or bullets are recovered in relation to a crime victim,” a process known as shooting scene reconstruction. He said the autopsy, completed the day before, provided information on the bullet’s trajectory, leading to its exact location.
Shooting scene reconstruction is “an educated guess,” according to James Gannola, retired New York Police Department ballistics analyst and trainer. He describes the range of physical factors, inside the body and in the environment, that can deflect a bullet away from a direct path. Meanwhile, in order to try to reconstruct the shooting scene, BPD would have needed a view of the crime scene that was assuredly unmanipulated. The video evidence that Bomenka visited the crime scene before it was photographed already complicates that certainty.
A crime scene photo included in the IRB report further complicates our understanding of what happened where:
The photo shows the location of tagged items, including Suiter’s gun and phone and three shell casings, extremely close to the far edge of the lot, next to a fence and a wall.
But Suiter’s body reportedly didn’t fall that far back into the lot, and he still had his gun and radio on him. The IRB report states that Suiter’s body landed 26 feet from the van. It is about 56 feet from the van to the back edge of the lot.
The picture of the crime scene markers is confusing. If Suiter’s radio and gun were moved towards the back of the lot, how do we know the shell casings weren’t moved too?
The IRB never provided a story about how the shell casings were recovered. On the dispatch audio, about three minutes after Suiter's body was removed from the scene, a supervisor announced, "We do have the officer’s radio and weapon in sight. We still do not know where the shots came from and we do not have the, uh, shell casings yet."
As for the bullet discovery, the IRB stated that “BPD searched to the right of where Suiter’s body was found for the fatal bullet.” But Detective Starr seemed to be digging closer to the fence.
Even the IRB was not convinced by the magic bullet story, so it ran additional tests to determine Suiter was "highly likely" to have been killed by his own weapon. The IRB tests found DNA inside the barrel of his gun. “The most plausible explanation... is that blood from Suiter’s head was expelled into the barrel milliseconds after the fatal contact wound shot,” the IRB report argues.
The report insists that Suiter's DNA from routine cleaning wouldn’t have survived the heat of a gun being fired, but a published forensic study suggests otherwise. The study discovered DNA lingers in barrels long after guns are fired.
We could use more concrete information on the DNA found inside the barrel. The report describes a vague conversation IRB members had with the serologist, not an authorized serology report. The report also doesn’t mention finding actual blood in the barrel, just DNA. Moreover, Suiter’s gun was driven away from the crime scene in the trunk of an officer’s car before it could be photographed or processed by the crime lab. There wasn’t much evidence in this case that was assuredly uncompromised.
Suiter may have been shot with his own weapon. It just doesn’t appear conclusive. If anything, the several days of manufactured drama around the bullet discovery makes the story more suspicious.
For Commissioner Davis, the bullet discovery served another purpose. He used it to justify the lockdown of the Harlem Park neighborhood. A 2019 ACLU lawsuit describes how residents were subject to unconstitutional stops for six days after Suiter's shooting. Davis said he could not “release the crime scene” (ten blocks in Harlem Park) until the autopsy was complete and could clarify information like bullet trajectory—as if a bullet could have somehow flown several blocks outside of the lot. Once the "fatal round" was "discovered," Davis freed Harlem Park and described the lockdown as a win, despite finding no viable suspects.
For all of BPD and the IRB’s emphasis on bullet trajectory, the public still has no clear understanding of the path it took. Suiter’s uncle told the Daily Mail he was shot in the back of the head. The next day, WBAL’s Miller reported that it was a side-to-side shooting, according to "sources." The Baltimore Sun later reported that it “entered behind his right ear and travelled forward.” Then, the IRB claimed it was a “slightly front-to-back” trajectory.
It is absurd when reporters say they rely on “evidence” in a case like this. Which part of the reported ballistics evidence makes any sense?
Out of View
I’ve written about how the surveillance video of Bennett Place, from a house way down the street, does not, by itself, confirm the official story of Suiter disappearing into a vacant lot before he was shot, which was the basis for the IRB's suicide conclusion.
This video is the bane of my existence. I have watched it obsessively for more hours than I have talked to other humans in 2020. I have recurring dreams in which I am inside of it. There is no way to write about it without appearing to create story out of blobs on the screen, but BPD and the IRB created story out of those blobs. There's no way around it.
Part of what makes the video so hard to decipher is that the camera is far from the scene. A close-up provided by BPD is more readable but blurry. (BPD added the yellow circle over the key action.)
This still image from the video shows where Suiter (an all-black figure) and Bomenka (a ghost-white figure) were standing before Suiter was shot. They held those positions for about four minutes, though Suiter left the van to visit Bomenka once. And Bomenka disappeared around the corner for awhile.
The IRB represented their positions on a map. Suiter is the blue dot behind the white van on Bennett Place. Bomenka is the red dot on the corner of North Schroeder Street.
We were told that Suiter and Bomenka stayed in those positions to “take cover” and stake out both entrances of the L-shaped lot. But Suiter’s position behind the van was in full view of anyone in the main part of the lot. So why would he “take cover” there? If anything, it seems more likely that he was staking out the corner, where Bomenka was active. Suiter spent most of his time by the left edge of the van, a position from which he could have observed Bomenka while keeping cover. Bomenka, meanwhile, was in full view of anyone passing and was pacing back and forth. I'm not convinced he was always alone, from watching closely.
The IRB report states that Bomenka heard Suiter yelling and came around the corner. He saw Suiter “unholster his weapon.” Then, “at 4:36:10 p.m., Suiter ran towards the vacant lot and out of view of the Bennett Place Video and Detective Bomenka.” Bomenka said he heard shots fired after Suiter disappeared.
On quick viewing, it does kind of look like Suiter suddenly runs from behind the van into the lot:
Suiter's path always looked disjointed to me. In 2018, I discussed how a close-up, slowed-down, high-contrast edit of the video actually shows Suiter’s head collapsing forward at 4:36:10pm, when officials said he ran:
On the same video, another dark figure comes into view just to Suiter's left before he collapses. It stays there for about five seconds then disappears. Bomenka also suddenly reappears on the corner, a ghost-white figure, just before Suiter collapses.
A second after Suiter collapses, another dark figure seems to run in the direction of the lot, very quickly. The figure begins running about five seconds into this (slow motion) video, from near Bomenka:
Most people took this to be Suiter running into the lot. But the figure starts further back than the van, closer to the corner. We know this, because the top of the figure is almost parallel to the top of the van when it starts running. I’m talking about depth perception—three dimensions reduced to two dimensions—where objects higher up on the screen are further back in real life.
That dark figure becomes clearer as it runs, and then it disappears from view, presumably into the lot. It could be Suiter, if he took a different path from what we were told, though the figure appears only a second after Suiter seems to collapse.
The IRB should have recognized that the dark running figure came from further back than the van. Its report describes ghost-white Bomenka taking a similar path just after the shooting, which is barely visible on screen. So the IRB was practiced in the tricky art of interpreting depth perception on this video.
There is a reason that the key action is especially hard to decipher: the footage appears to be obscured just to the left of the white van, where almost everything important happens. Either the footage was purposefully obscured or the camera was blessed with a fortuitous splotch on its lens. I would guess the first, since some action on the video is particularly inscrutable. BPD waited nearly nine months to release this video, after all.
I would rather jump off a bridge over the Grand Canyon than try to convince certain (media) people of this again. But allow me a few new points in defense of this observation, kindly:
First, there is a tree with no trunk. Kindly, how is that possible, if the footage isn’t obscured?
That big tree was actually located at the back of the white van in real life, but it’s hard to tell, because it has no trunk.
Here is a picture of the tree from Google Streets. It has a trunk.
Here is a view of the tree from near where the camera was located. It has a trunk.
And here is a close-up of the tree on the surveillance video. It has no trunk.
If you look for the trunk, you might notice that splotch which obscures a lot of the key action.
If you are still not convinced that some of the footage is obscured, then study Bomenka's movements. He is a small white blob when standing on the corner. Even the IRB refers to that white blob as Bomenka. Then observe how much more human he looks when he runs and walks across Bennett Place:
It's not outrageous to suggest that BPD might blur video. The department has the technology. It does it officially when it protects the identity of children or witnesses from videos released to the public. Please listen to the “Undisclosed Podcast” episode on the videos in the Freddie Gray case. Amelia McDonell-Parry covers police video manipulation as a national issue that has come up in court in other states.
The Suiter video evidence is not an easy nut to crack—by design, I believe—but it certainly doesn’t confirm the official story of Suiter running from the van straight into the lot, either to kill himself or confront a stranger. We know Suiter ended up on his belly in the lot. We don't know how he got there. We don't know, for sure, that the full shooting event started when Suiter was already in the lot.
The audio evidence adds a further wrinkle to the official story and helps explain why all of this matters. The moment Suiter disappears, 4:36:10pm, is the exact second he reportedly made his last dispatch call, according to the IRB. The call sounds someone yelling followed by a loud sound, like a gunshot.
If the sound on the call is a gunshot, it would totally upend the BPD/IRB theory that shots weren’t fired until Suiter was in the lot, out of view. By the video, Suiter was still behind the van at 4:36:10pm.
As previously reported, the IRB grappled with the timing and significance of this call. It both affirmed and questioned the accuracy of the audio and video timestamps at different points in its report. The timing of both pieces of evidence is corroborated by other evidence, though, including timestamps on BWC of the arriving officers.
In 2018, I created a video that overlapped the audio and video of 4:36:10pm, in close up and slowed down. We cannot perfectly recreate what happened, without more audio and clearer video, but this provides a different perspective on Suiter’s shooting:
The movement of various figures on the screen around 4:36:10pm—Suiter collapsing forward, Bomenka emerging from around the corner, the dark figure running—lends support to the idea that there was some confrontation (like, say, gunshots) before Suiter disappeared into the lot.
Why does all of this matter? It points to a body of real evidence that unsettles the prevailing beliefs behind the suicide theory. The only evidence to solidly support the IRB’s narrative of Suiter's shooting is what Bomenka told investigators, and even the IRB admits he had some inconsistent and evolving stories, including of what he saw when he ran into the lot after the shooting:
Detective Bomenka provided varying accounts of Suiter’s position when first observed: falling, just finishing a collapse to the ground, or fallen to the ground… In one account, Detective Bomenka stated he heard shots after he saw Suiter down or falling. Detective Suiter’s gun was not visible. Detective Bomenka would later see that Detective Suiter had fallen on top of his gun.
To deconstruct the BPD/IRB narratives, it takes closely observing video and audio evidence that may seem barely decipherable. Again, that was most likely by design. We are dealing with people who seem to manufacture bullet discoveries and redact the trunks from trees.