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A Shot in the Dark

Was Dexter Hill’s Death at the Hands of a Baltimore City Police Sergeant Justifiable, or Just Plain Homicide?

Frank Klein
Frank Klein
Wheeler with three of their four children, (from left) Mariah, Destiny, and Justin
Courtesy Shelby Wheeler
Hill And His Fiancée Shelby Wheeler
Frank Klein
(From Left) Robert, Ethel, and Ruffin Hill, Dexter Hill's younger brother, mother, and father, respectively
Frank Klein
Wheeler holding a picture taken with her late fiancée

By Terrie Snyder | Posted 7/7/2004

It was a bit after 11 p.m., St. Patrick’s Day, when Dexter Hill stopped in a small neighborhood grocery and liquor store at the corner of Bond and Lanvale streets in East Baltimore. On a night known for drunken carousing at many of the city’s watering holes, Hill bought a single beer and apparently headed home.

Within minutes, Hill was dead, shot in the back just three blocks away by Baltimore City Police Sgt. Mark Walrath of the department’s Organized Crime Division (OCD), a new division created with personnel from other units by Police Commissioner Kevin Clark, modeled after a similar unit in the New York City Police Department. According to police spokesman Matt Jablow, the division now includes 324 officers—around one-tenth of the 3200 officers in the department.

From the very beginning, numerous police sources say, the evidence at the scene of Hill’s death didn’t match up with Walrath’s account of what happened, nor with the accounts of two other OCD officers who didn’t see the shooting but arrived at the scene just seconds after Hill died.

Now, the shooting of Dexter Hill has been turned over to the Baltimore City State’s Attorney’s Office for further investigation. According to one source directly involved in the case, the State’s Attorney’s Office is scheduled to take the case to a city grand jury sometime during the first few weeks of July for a decision: Was the death of Dexter Hill a justifiable police shooting or a homicide?

City Paper talked with three witnesses to the incident that resulted in Hill’s death—one of whom saw police stop Hill and two whom saw the actual shooting—as well as numerous police sources. They paint a troubling picture that raises questions about what legal reasons the three police officers had for stopping Hill in the first place and what reasons Walrath had for shooting Hill in the back—a shooting, according to the two witnesses who saw it, that occurred from around 40 feet away as Hill, who was unarmed, ran from the officer. And, the two witnesses who saw the shooting agree on one extremely troubling point: The place where they saw Hill lying dead is not the place where other police officers who responded to the scene found him. One of the witnesses says he actually saw the three OCD officers move Hill’s body before any other officers arrived.

The fact that police sources say Walrath was never placed on administrative duty by his superiors—as would be normal in this kind of shooting—but was immediately given a new gun and placed back on full duty raises more questions, even as the State’s Attorney’s Office is headed to the grand jury with, sources say, a view toward prosecuting him for killing Hill.

Dexter Hill grew up in the neighborhood in which he died at age 37. Ruffin and Ethel Hill and their eight children (Dexter was the seventh) lived on the second and third floors of a large house on Broadway between Lafayette and Lanvale streets. There aren’t too many smiles at his parents’ home in Essex these days as they talk about Dexter, but his father smiles slightly at the memories. Ruffin Hill says he and his wife had a bedroom on the second floor and the children slept in four bedrooms on the third floor. Growing up, Dexter shared a bedroom with his younger brother, 35-year-old Robert. As the two youngest in the family, they remained particularly close.

How old is her oldest child, a visitor asks Ethel Hill as she, her husband, and Robert pose for pictures outside of their townhouse, the Back River running behind them and the sound of ducks squawking in the air. A large smile creases her face as she shakes her head and starts chuckling, trying to remember exactly. “Don’t ask me that,” she says with a smile. Robert jumps in to say Roy is 49. After a slight debate, Robert makes a quick phone call to Roy, who reports he’ll be 49 in September.

Ethel’s mood on this late June afternoon contrasts sharply with her response just a few days earlier on the phone. When asked then how many children she had, she responded, “Eight—four boys and four girls.” She paused for a moment and then said quietly, “Well, I guess I only have three boys now.”

While the Hill children grew up in East Baltimore, Ruffin worked at the University of Maryland, in charge of moving, storage, and setting up for special events, both at the Baltimore campus and in College Park. He recently retired from that job. Ethel continues to work as assistant to the general manager at gospel radio station WBGR (860 AM). She also has her own gospel show that airs once a week. Her children were brought up with a large dose of religion. She says that even as her family eventually moved from “inner city” East Baltimore to Cedonia in Northeast Baltimore, that her children were “kept in church mostly.”

As a child, Dexter went to Madison Square Elementary School, then to Herring Run Middle School. Although he was smart and capable, Robert says, Dexter wasn’t a great student. And, Robert says, he was thrown out of the school after an incident that Dexter took the blame for. In 1983, another student—a friend of Dexter’s—tried to rob a girl with a gun, then put the gun in Dexter’s locker.

“You have to understand,” Robert says. “Back then, Herring Run was still mostly white.” He implies that the girl wasn’t sure who had tried to rob her, but is very succinct about what happened after the robbery. He says the friend—who he names, but not for publication—put the gun in Dexter’s locker and Dexter then decided to take the rap for him. Why? Robert says that’s just the way Dexter was—he would take the blame for a friend. That friend, Robert says with a little anger his voice, disappeared from the Hills’ circle years ago.

Dexter grew up to be a big man—6-foot-1, around 200 pounds. After he was expelled from Herring Run, Robert says, Dexter went to work for a construction company, learning how to pour and spread concrete. Eventually, he would leave the company, teaching himself to be a carpenter and drywall finisher who also could do plumbing and electrical work. But, it was during the time that he worked for the construction company that he met Shelby Wheeler, the girl who would become the mother of his four children and who would still be with him at the time he died.

Wheeler lived around the corner from the Hills, in the 1600 block of East Lanvale Street. She met Dexter when he was 17 and she was 12. They started seeing each other. “Nobody was too happy about that,” Robert says of Wheeler’s age at that time. But, he says, despite her youth, the family accepted her. Wheeler and Hill would remain together for the rest of his life—20 years.

While the Hills are trying to take a stoic attitude toward Dexter’s death, Wheeler can’t keep her feelings buried. She cries constantly, she says, even as she tries to pull herself together. As she talks about Dexter, tears seep from the corners of her eyes and her lips tremble as she tries to keep going. But she finds it almost impossible, the wound of his death as raw as it was when police officers showed up at her home on the evening of March 18 to tell her Dexter was dead.

Although the two never married, at the time of his death, Hill and Wheeler had four children: Maurice Dexter, 17 (known as “Dexter Junior”); Justin Ruffin, 13; Mariah Christina, 9; and Destiny Lacha, 5, who looks like a carbon copy of her late father.

The couple was famous throughout the East Baltimore neighborhood where they both grew up for arguing. There were times, says Wheeler, who works as a nurse’s aide for private patients, when Dexter would briefly move out of their Cherry Hill home and go stay with his brother Roy. Sometimes the separations would last a few days, sometimes as long as a month. But no matter how long they were apart, she says, Dexter went to the house every day to see his children. “He was a loving father,” Wheeler says. “He took care of his kids.”

In fact, both Wheeler and Robert Hill say Dexter made food on the table for the children and clothes on their backs his primary responsibility. He would do whatever kind of work it took to make sure his children didn’t go without. He would put up drywall, paint, do carpentry, electrical work, plumbing—anything at which he could earn an honest dollar to make sure his family was well taken care of.

Over the years, Dexter had been arrested around a dozen times, almost always for minor misdemeanors. The only conviction he ever had was from July 3, 2003, when he was charged with consuming alcohol in a public place and resisting arrest. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to time served for the drinking, with a $50 fine tacked on for the resisting arrest charge. He was charged in the case that got him thrown out of Herring Run Middle School, but there is no record of any conviction in that case.

At the time Hill died, Wheeler says, they were in one of their brief separations but seriously talking about getting married. “We were talking about a house. We were working it out,” she says, trying to figure out how to give each other “a little space.” But they were still seeing each other every day.

Robert agrees, saying, that his brother had proposed to Wheeler three times. “The sad part is they were getting back together,” Robert says. “All he wanted was to be with his wife and children.”

Asked how he would describe his brother, a smile crosses Robert’s face. Dexter was “Mr. Fix-It,” he says. “Big and funny and loudmouthed, and he was gonna do it his way. He fixed everybody’s house.”

Dexter had spent a lot of time fixing up the home where his oldest brother, Roy, lived—not just taking care of the basics, Robert says, but doing beautiful carpentry and other work throughout the house where he had been staying during his latest argument with Wheeler. Before he left the house on the night of March 17, Robert says, Dexter oddly told Roy, “‘If anything happens, I want you to take care of my house.’” Dexter then left. It was the last time anyone in his family saw him alive.

 

Later on that night, according to what Robert was able to find out, Dexter Hill knocked on the door of a friend’s house on Lansing Street near its intersection with Bethel Street, a few blocks south of the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. When no one immediately answered the door, Hill left. But, one of the people inside the house, who got to the door after Hill was already part-way up the block saw his back retreating into the night.

After he left there, he made a quick right onto Bethel and then a left onto Lanvale Street, walking one block to the corner of Bond and Lanvale and entering the Bond Street Grocery Store. The store is typical of the small stores found in many of the city’s poorer neighborhoods. All of the items are behind bullet-resistant glass, and the customer has to ask the proprietor for each item he or she wants. Dexter asked for a single beer, had it placed in a bag, and walked back out into the night. He started to retrace his steps, turning onto Lanvale, then starting to make a right turn onto Bethel, heading back to Roy’s house. It was then that an unmarked car carrying three members of the police department’s Organized Crime Division came down Lanvale, turned onto Bethel, and told him to stop.

William Gee, 40, who lives on Lanvale Street, walked out of his house and headed to the corner of Bethel Street sometime between 11 and 11:25 that St. Patrick’s night. He says he saw an unmarked police car pulled up next to the sidewalk on the east side of Bethel Street. Hill was on his knees on the sidewalk, slightly out of Gee’s view, but he says he could see that Hill’s hands were raised. Gee says he saw three plainclothes police officers with whom Hill was talking. He says no one else was nearby.

Gee says he heard Hill say something like, “I’ve only got a dollar in my pocket.” Then, Gee says, Hill “came out of his jacket” and ran around the corner onto Lanvale headed east, where he ducked into a maze of alleys halfway down the block. One of the officers chased Hill into the alleys. Another, Gee says, ran straight down Bethel. The third got into the car backing it up onto Lanvale. Gee, used to the reality of living in East Baltimore, kept slowly walking down Bethel.

“By the time I got to Lansing, I heard a ‘pow’,” he says. “And I said, ‘Oh, God.’” Gee did not see the actual shooting, but he says the OCD officer who was running down Bethel ran straight past him down to where the shot had been fired.

About a month later, Gee says, homicide detectives came to his home “looking for me specifically,” as a witness. Gee says he gave the officers an audiotaped statement about what he saw and then signed the tape, he says.

Homicide detectives were actively looking for witnesses because, according to numerous police sources, the descriptions of what happened that night from the OCD officers didn’t match the physical evidence.

The initial police incident report—a document that becomes public record from the minute it is created and signed off by a supervisor—is the only document that must be released by police when a case is still open. Police officers are taught to make these reports relatively brief and to put all the details into supplemental reports, which under Maryland law become open to the public only when a case goes to trial or is closed. The incident report in this case is strikingly brief.

The initial incident report in this case, written by a uniformed officer from the Eastern District, says at 11:33 p.m., he responded to an urgent call for officers needing assistance and was told by Officer Sean Miller, a member of Sgt. Mark Walrath’s OCD squad, that there had been an officer-involved shooting. When the district officer got there, he wrote, he saw a “black male face down.” He then wrote that he called for a medic, the shift commander, Homicide, and the Eastern District’s investigative unit. He wrote that the responding paramedic pronounced the victim dead at 11:48 p.m.

Sgt. Walrath, a 12-year veteran of the force, is listed on the report in the “suspect” boxes as the man who pulled the trigger, and it is noted that he “shot victim with automatic handgun.” The third OCD officer at the scene has been identified by police spokesman Jablow as Officer Harvey Martini. After the incident, as the investigation continues, Martini was promoted to sergeant.

The police department refused comment on the investigation. When contacted by City Paper and asked if he would like to comment on the case, Walrath said, “Unfortunately, I’m not allowed to because of the department.” He continued, “I personally have no problem, but I can’t because of the department.”

Several police sources familiar with Walrath’s version of events say this is what he told investigators: He and his two officers were working on the west side of the city, as they were scheduled to be. In OCD, officers fill out papers each day saying where they will be working the next day. Walrath’s squad, which is assigned to an OCD unit that works in the Western and Central police districts, had filled out that paperwork on March 16.

So, how did they end up in East Baltimore? Walrath, according to sources, told investigators that he and his two fellow OCD officers had arrested someone on Fulton Avenue who said he would give them something on the east side of town if they let him go. (City Paper was unable to confirm whether they had made such an arrest.)

When they got to the east side, sources say, Walrath told detectives that the OCD officers saw Hill involved in a drug deal with two other people. The OCD officers grabbed Hill and told him to get down on his knees. They were talking to him when he rose up and took off running. Walrath started chasing Hill through some alleys. After going through the alleys, Hill came out on Oliver Street, turned right, and kept running diagonally across an open grassy area next to the first house on the west side of Bethel Street. Walrath then said, according to those same sources, that Hill went over the side of a low chain-link fence and jumped down into the concrete backyard of a vacant house, where he grabbed a board and tried to hit Walrath. Walrath told detectives that he then fired once in self-defense, hitting Hill in the back. Investigators believe Hill died immediately. The other two OCD officers told detectives they did not see the shooting, police sources say, but arrived at the scene just after they heard the shot.

Numerous police sources say detectives were immediately suspicious because Walrath’s story didn’t match the physical evidence. First, and most strikingly, they say was the board Walrath said Hill had tried to hit him with. The board, according to several people who saw it, wasn’t some 2x4 or 4x4. In fact, the “board” was around eight feet tall, five feet wide, and more than an inch thick. Given its awkward shape and size, and the extremely confined area of the backyard—which had a porch above it, beams holding up the porch, and a chain-link fence around the north and west sides—detectives didn’t see how it was possible for Hill to even grasp the board to use as some kind of weapon, let alone swing it around in that small space. Police sources say the board was so ungainly that it took two people to carry it out of the yard and to take it to the police evidence room.

Several sources say the blood spatter pattern didn’t match Walrath’s description of events either. If Hill had been standing up, in motion, trying to use the board as a weapon, and was hit in the back, the blood from his wound should have sprayed all over the place. In fact, the sources say, there was very little blood at the scene at all, and no blood was visible on the board.

And there were two eyewitnesses aside from William Gee. All three witnesses say there was no one on the street with Hill—there was no drug deal going on. Although all three knew Hill, in the dark night none recognized him because they never saw his face. But the two other witnesses saw something Gee didn’t see: They saw the shooting. One of the witnesses—a 35-year-old woman from the neighborhood who spoke with City Paper on the condition that she remain anonymous at this time—has talked with investigators, and many police sources say her description of what happened fits the physical evidence. A second witness found by City Paper—a 27-year-old man from the neighborhood who also asked for anonymity—had not contacted police at the time City Paper spoke with him, but did call police the next day. He tells a story that matches the woman’s, but adds one important element: He says he saw the three OCD officers move Hill’s body.

 

At the time of the incident, the male witness was on Bethel Street, below Lanvale. He says he saw the officers pull up next to Hill and make him stop at the same place where Gee says the stop was made. He is also adamant that Hill wasn’t with anyone else; he says Hill was walking down the street by himself. He saw Hill run out of his jacket and saw one of the officers grab the jacket. While a second officer chased Hill around the corner on foot—presumably Walrath—the third officer jumped into the car, he says, quickly backing it up onto Lanvale, tires screeching, confirming Gee’s account. The officer with the jacket, the male witness says, kept on running back and forth on Bethel Street, seemingly unfamiliar with the area and not knowing where Hill might emerge from in the interlaced alleys. The male witness walked down Bethel Street to the corner of Federal Street, where the female witness was standing.

The female witness—who does not want to be publicly identified until the grand jury has decided whether Walrath will be indicted—says that she decided to talk to police about what she saw after Hill’s funeral. She had seen Shelby Wheeler, and saw how much pain she was in. She told Wheeler she had seen the shooting but didn’t realize that it was Hill who had been killed. The female witness says Wheeler told police about her. She also says she debated whether or not to talk to police, fearing that she might be endangering herself by telling what she knew about a police officer shooting someone, but decided she had to come forward because Wheeler was in so much emotional pain.

The woman says the male witness came down to the corner where she was standing. The male witness says they were “side by side” when they saw a black man run around the corner from Oliver Street.

The woman says she saw that man running diagonally across Bethel Street next to the first rowhouse on the street. A few seconds later, she says, a white man ran around the corner, stopped on the sidewalk near the rowhouse, shouted, raised his gun, and fired one shot. “I distinctly heard, ‘There he is!’ Pow!,” she says, imitating the sound of a gunshot. The male witness says he saw the same thing.

The female witness says she said, “Damn, he shot him.” Both witnesses then ran down the street to see what happened. They both give remarkably similar descriptions of the position in which Hill’s body came to rest up against the outside of the chain-link fence behind the rowhouse. Both say he was bent over at the waist, with his chest pressed up against his knees on the ground, with his back facing south toward Oliver Street, his head north toward Federal. In other words, his back was toward all of them. She says he appeared to be draped over the fence.

She didn’t realize Hill was dead. “When I first saw him I thought he was trying to hide,” she says. The male witness thought he was trying to get inside the vacant house.

As she describes the shooting, she stands on the sidewalk of Bethel Street, approximately where she remembers the police officer standing, puts her hands up like she was firing a gun, and pulls back an imaginary trigger with her left index finger.

Seconds after the shooting, Martini and Miller arrived at the scene—one of whom had been running back and forth on Bethel and the other of whom had been driving a car that the woman describes as a “blue Crown Vic”—a model commonly used by Baltimore police. Both of them say that instead of stopping them and holding them as witnesses as police are trained to do, the three officers told them to get out of the area. The male witness says the officers said, “Y’all gotta leave. Y’all can’t be here.”

The woman is more blunt. She says the officers told her, “Get the fuck away from here before you go to fucking jail.”

The two left the street, but unbeknownst to the three officers, they were still watching. They ran around the corner at Oliver Street, past nine rowhouses, then turned into an alley that intersects the alley behind Bethel Street and stood hidden from the light in a backyard behind one of the Oliver Street houses. Because he was a few seconds ahead of the woman, the man says he saw something that she didn’t see: He says he saw the three officers move Hill’s body from its position against the fence and put it inside the yard. Although neither witness realized at the time that there was a board standing inside the fence against where the window had been, from what the male witness says, the officers had moved Hill closer to the board. (Both witnesses believed that the board was, in fact, a boarded-up window. Both windows in the back of the house were boarded up with the same kind of wood that police sources say was in the board they took into evidence.)

Both witnesses say they watched for a while as the scene was processed, then left. The female witness has spoken with both Homicide detectives and the State’s Attorney’s Office. The male witness told City Paper he was going to talk to police and called them the day after his City Paper interview, but he did not show up for a scheduled meeting with police. At press time, he still had not talked to police.

In the past, when Homicide detectives were working on a police-involved shooting where they had serious questions about the officer’s account of what happened, that officer was placed on administrative duty and not taken off until the investigation was complete and the officer was cleared by the city State’s Attorney’s Office of any possible criminal culpability. But Walrath remains working the streets.

Police spokesman Matt Jablow refused City Paper’s request to speak to Organized Crime Division Chief Anthony Romano about Walrath remaining on the street, saying, “I just think right now that given [the investigation] it would be inappropriate to talk about [Walrath’s] situation at all.”

Margaret T. Burns, spokeswoman for the city State’s Attorney’s Office, confirms that her office is reviewing the case. As to when or even whether it will go to a grand jury, Burns says, “We will not confirm or deny any proceedings before the grand jury. By law, we can’t comment.”

But, numerous sources say that the State’s Attorney’s Office will be taking this case to the grand jury during July with a view toward prosecuting Sgt. Walrath for some degree of homicide. As explained by former Major Gary D’Addario, who retired from the department after 37 years (10 of them spent as a lieutenant in the Homicide Unit), ”Homicide, in its most simplest definition is killing of a human being by another human being.” In a case where homicide detectives themselves charge a suspect, that suspect is always charged with first-degree murder, and it is then left to the State’s Attorney’s Office to decide exactly which of the six types of homicides the suspect will be tried for—all the way from first-degree premeditated murder, which can result in the death penalty, down to involuntary manslaughter caused by an act in which the suspect was grossly negligent, but did not necessarily intend to kill anyone.

D’Addario says that in all officer-involved shootings—whether or not they result in a death—the State’s Attorney’s Office is involved with homicide detectives from the very beginning, as many people have said is the case in the death of Dexter Hill.

 

While the people who loved Dexter Hill wait to see whether a grand jury will charge anyone with some type of homicide in his death, their emotions alternate from stoic patience to crying jags to outright anger.

No one who knows him can seem to figure out why he got up off his knees and ran from police the night he was killed. He wasn’t wanted for any crime. They can’t figure out why police stopped him either. Everyone City Paper talked to who knew him—from his parents to the people who lived on Lanvale Street who knew Dexter well—says he would never have been involved in a drug deal. They all say his life was centered around Wheeler, their four children, the rest of his family, and work. “He just wanted to go to work and be happy,” Robert Hill says.

“He was a loving father. He took care of his kids,” Wheeler says, as her eyes start watering, the tears spilling out in huge drops that race down her cheeks. Her body begins to shake as she tries to wipe the tears away. “It’s so unfair. They took my children’s father away.” A bit later she quietly says, “He was the only man I ever loved. . . ,” her voice trailing away.

Robert clearly misses the brother he grew up sharing a bedroom with, the brother he spoke to nearly every day and often worked with. “I see him every night when I go to sleep,” he says. Robert notes that he always supported the police, pointing out that he has a pro-police bumper sticker on his car. “I used to want to be a cop myself,” he says with animation, then stops and stays quiet, letting the thought sink in.

Ethel Hill doesn’t sound surprised that her son ran away from the three OCD officers. “My son, he’s a runner. He won’t fight,” she says. She says that the night of his death, Dexter didn’t get into any physical altercation with the officers. He ran: “And, they shot him in the back.”

When she speaks directly about Sgt. Walrath and her son’s death, her voice takes on a fierce tone. “I want him to pay, I really do,” she says of Walrath. “Because he was cold. He was cold.

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