Baltimore police officer indicted in man's death

July 30, 1994|By Michael James and Howard Libit | Michael James and Howard Libit,Sun Staff Writers

A 24-year-old Baltimore police officer was indicted on a manslaughter charge yesterday in the May 6 fatal shooting of an unarmed man -- the second city officer indicted on a felony charge within a week.

Officer Shean D. Camper had been investigating a report of gunshots when he chased Jerrod Dwayne Wagstaff, 25, into a dark alley off Tivoly Avenue and fired a single shot. Mr. Wagstaff was hit in the chest area and died six hours later at Johns Hopkins Hospital.

Three eyewitnesses testified before a grand jury that Mr. Wagstaff was scrambling to climb a wooden fence and that Officer Camper fired while standing on a porch several feet away, investigators said. Mr. Wagstaff collapsed on the other side of the fence after he was shot.

The grand jury yesterday also indicted Officer Camper -- a three-year veteran who says he feared Mr. Wagstaff had a gun and might shoot him -- on charges of reckless endangerment and assault.

He was suspended with pay pending a hearing before police officials Monday morning.

The lawyer representing the city Fraternal Order of Police expressed outrage over the indictment of both Officer Camper and Officer George S. Cannida, a 23-year-old officer indicted Monday on charges that he raped a woman while he was in uniform.

"I vigorously dispute the allegations in [the Camper case] and the only crime committed was indicting my client," said Henry L. Belsky, who also is handling the defense for Officer Cannida.

"Both of these cases are noncases. What you have is a grand jury that is hearing a lot of material about police officers, and they're not weighing it on a case-by-case basis. They're biased because of all the things being said about police."

Officer Camper, who was released without bail after being booked on the charges, proclaimed his innocence at a news conference in Mr. Belsky's office. But the officer wouldn't discuss details of the case.

"I'm not guilty of anything," he said, his eyes watering. "My sense that night was just to come home at the end of my tour of duty like every other officer wants to do at the end of their tour of duty.

"I'm very sorry that someone's life had to be taken. My heart goes out to the family. I know they're dealing with a terrible situation. I'm heartbroken, very heartbroken. I just did my job. Last week, I was booking prisoners. This week, I was being booked myself."

Lt. Leander S. Nevin, president of the Fraternal Order of Police, assailed the charges against Officer Camper.

"Political scapegoats"

"As I've stated before, Rodney King was the worst thing that happened to law enforcement," Lieutenant Nevin said. "We are becoming political scapegoats."

City police officers have been criticized for several recent incidents, including the death of Jesse Chapman, who was found dead in a police wagon after his arrest July 2. Questions about police conduct also have been raised over a June 19 incident in which George T. Hite was knocked comatose while being arrested for disorderly intoxication. Both incidents are being investigated by the state's attorney's office, the city police homicide unit, and the FBI for possible civil rights violations.

Monday's second-degree rape indictment against Officer Cannida, a three-year veteran, occurred after a 26-year-old woman reported she was raped at her Northeast Baltimore home. The woman -- whom Officer Cannida had arrested a week earlier on an auto theft charge -- alleged that the officer went to her home looking for her boyfriend, who was also wanted on an auto theft charge.

Officer Cannida is free on $75,000 unsecured bond.

Baltimore Police Commissioner Thomas C. Frazier said he did not feel the department was getting a black mark from the recent publicity.

"You wish that it wouldn't happen," he said. "But the clear sense I get is that if those things are brought forward, we have to deal with them in a forthright way. We can and will investigate thoroughly, completely and fairly. Period."

Officer Camper had gone to the 2700 block of Tivoly Ave. in Northeast Baltimore for a report of gunshots. When he arrived, he found a crowd standing in the area, and when he approached, Mr. Wagstaff bolted, police said.

"Rightfully afraid"

Officer Camper chased him to a dark walkway between two rowhouses off Tivoly Avenue and fired a gunshot, police said.

Police spokesman Sam Ringgold initially reported that the officer fired the shot during "a scuffle." He also said police found a package of suspected cocaine on Mr. Wagstaff -- who had prior convictions for battery and drugs -- but added that the man was unarmed.

Yesterday, Mr. Belsky would not discuss whether Officer Camper contends he struggled with Mr. Wagstaff. He also said the officer has exercised his right to remain silent and has not provide a detailed statement to homicide detectives.

Mr. Belsky said Officer Camper was "rightfully afraid" while chasing Mr. Wagstaff in the dark walkway, which he described as "a frightening place."

"The original call was for gunshots in the neighborhood. He was fearful that this man was armed," Mr. Belsky said.

Issues raised

Mr. Belsky also raised issues about the investigators' statement that Mr. Wagstaff was unarmed. "I don't know if he was armed or unarmed. All I know is that he didn't have a gun on him [when investigators arrived]."

Several of Mr. Wagstaff's relatives refused to comment yesterday.

In a previous interview, Rebecca Wagstaff, his grandmother, disputed the police officer's claim of a struggle.

"There was no scuffle," Ms. Wagstaff said then. "[Police] always come up with that stuff."

She said that on the night of the shooting, her grandson was on his way to the grocery store with $4 to buy two bags of potato chips and soft drinks.

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