A Baltimore police officer was cleared in an investigation into why he had taken items out of evidence control that were connected to the death of Detective Sean Suiter, newly obtained records show.

Authorities had investigated whether the officer had “improperly removed” the items, but it was later determined a federal prosecutor had asked him to retrieve them for a separate, related case and that they were promptly returned, undisturbed.

Despite the finding that it was an apparent simple misunderstanding, the internal investigation took almost two years to close.

The investigation had been cited in 2019 by the Baltimore State’s Attorney’s Office as a reason why the Suiter case remained open at that time, about two years after his fatal shooting. Suiter’s November 2017 death was ruled a homicide by the state medical examiner’s office, but an independent panel later concluded that he likely took his own life. While police moved to close the case, prosecutors said in a memo that they still had lingering questions, including the investigation into the evidence being removed.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The Baltimore Banner requested records related to the internal evidence probe last June under Anton’s Law, which for the first time made internal affairs records public documents. The Baltimore Police Department produced the four-page investigative summary this week.

The documents show that homicide Sgt. Kristel Vallair, who was assigned to the Suiter case, received information at an unspecified date about two people who “could possibly have information on their cell phones relative to the” Suiter investigation, and she was able to obtain the cell phones and submitted them into evidence.

Vallair went to the evidence control unit on Sept. 19, 2018 “to verify if anyone had taken the phone[s] out or if a search and seizure warrant had already been drafted for the phones,” internal affairs detective Nicole Roy wrote.

There, Vallair said she learned that Paul Geare, an officer since 1998 who was assigned to a Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives task force, had checked out the phones a week earlier, on Sept. 12, 2018. She noted that the seal on the envelope did not appear to have been broken.

“Detective Geare was a task force officer and had no legitimate reason to have the phone,” Roy wrote, though noting: “There was no indication that anyone had done anything nefarious with the phones when Sergeant Vallair downloaded the phones.”

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

But internal affairs investigators later learned that Geare had been in fact asked to collect the phones as part of an evidence review for defense attorneys in a pending federal gang trial. On Sept. 1, 2018, Assistant U.S. Attorney Christina Hoffman had forwarded a seven-page email to Geare asking him to retrieve a number of items and provided complaint numbers, including the Suiter case.

“Upon getting to the auditorium [for the evidence review], Detective Geare, U.S. Attorney Christina Hoffman, Lauren Perry and other ATF agents began going through the evidence,” the investigative document says. “As they were sorting through the evidence, they realized that some of the evidence was labeled under the Sean Suiter investigation. Items that were related to the Suiter investigation and not their investigation were removed and returned to the Evidence Control Unit on Sept. 12, 2018.”

Geare told the investigators that he was not involved in either case, and only had been asked to assist the federal prosecutors in their trial preparation.

It’s not clear when Vallair reported the incident, but the investigation was assigned a 2019 case number. Vallair’s then-supervisor, Maj. Chris Jones, spoke to investigators that year; Villair herself apparently didn’t give a recorded statement until September 2020, and Geare was also interviewed in September 2020.

Geare was being investigated of conduct unbecoming of an officer, and was cleared in October 2020. He’s returned to active duty and is assigned to the Criminal Investigations Division, police said Wednesday.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said the evidence federal prosecutors had intended to retrieve related to a man named Sydni Frazier, a defendant in the Murdaland Mafia Piru racketeering case, which went to trial in the spring of 2019.

After Suiter was shot in a vacant lot on Bennett Place in Harlem Park, a police SWAT team raided an adjacent home looking for evidence. It was a home Frazier had at one time been renovating, and inside police found a gun box and ammunition. Those items had nothing to do with the Suiter case, but they did, however, help federal investigators link Frazier to an unrelated abduction and killing that occurred nearly a year earlier.

Police entered the home without a warrant, saying it appeared abandoned and there were exigent circumstances. Frazier’s attorneys said police later sought a search warrant by falsely claiming that there had been a blood trail leading into the home.

A judge denied a motion to suppress the evidence, and sentenced Frazier to life in federal prison.

It’s not clear who the phones in question belonged to. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said that in seeking the Frazier evidence, Geare and the prosecutors inadvertently obtained a number of items in the Suiter case not related to Frazier and returned them.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

The 2019 prosecutors’ memo citing the removed phones as cause to continue the investigation into Suiter’s death was authored by then-Assistant State’s Attorney Patrick Seidel, who also said that city prosecutors were asking police to conduct additional DNA testing and that they had tracked down a person of interest living in the Midwest.

Seidel, who is now an attorney in private practice, declined to comment this week because the case remains open.

The Suiter shooting occurred the day before Suiter was scheduled to testify in front of a federal grand jury about an evidence-planting incident related to the Gun Trace Task Force scandal.

Like many officers who operated in the plainclothes units of the Baltimore Police Department at the time, Geare had a link to officers convicted in the Gun Trace Task Force scandal, including taking part in a drug bust where three officers have admitted they conspired to steal and sell cocaine. But Geare was not involved in that crime, and has not been accused of or charged with any other offenses. He also participated in a comprehensive outside review of the roots of the GTTF scandal.

New Baltimore State’s Attorney Ivan Bates said recently that he believes Suiter’s death is a homicide. In a November interview for the “2BMore” podcast hosted by former police spokesman T.J. Smith, Bates acknowledged that he knew Suiter and that Suiter’s attorney, Jeremy Eldridge, is one of his best friends and that he and Eldridge “had a lot of conversations and dialogue” about the case.

The Baltimore Banner thanks its sponsors. Become one.

”For me, I saw the M.E. [medical examiner] said it was a murder — I still believe it’s a murder,” Bates said. “I know what other people may say, but I know how I feel and I know how I look at it.”

justin.fenton@thebaltimorebanner.com

Justin Fenton is an investigative reporter for the Baltimore Banner. He previously spent 17 years at the Baltimore Sun, covering the criminal justice system. His book, "We Own This City: A True Story of Crime, Cops and Corruption," was released by Random House in 2021 and became an HBO miniseries.

More From The Banner