Dead teen was unarmed, men say

Survivors' accounts differ from officer's

February 21, 1999|By Marcia Myers | Marcia Myers,SUN STAFF

They are men now. But on a misty spring night six years ago, they were just boys and bored when they broke into a Chrysler New Yorker in West Baltimore and took it for a joy ride.

Andre. Terrill. Quentin. Duane. With them, sandwiched in the middle of the back seat, a 14-year-old named Simmont "Sam" Thomas nervously tagged along.

What happened that night grew into one of Baltimore's more racially divisive cases of alleged excessive police force. Stopped by Baltimore Police Officer Edward T. Gorwell II, who is white, the five black teens jumped from the car and scattered into Gwynns Falls Park. Gorwell fired one shot, hitting Sam squarely in the back and killing him instantly.

Until 10 days ago, the evidence cast serious doubt on the officer's contention that he was returning fire that night. Four of six witnesses near the park heard only one gunshot, and no gun was found.

Then, on Feb. 10, newly discovered traces of gunpowder residue on Sam's left hand -- he was left-handed -- suggested that he might have fired a gun after all. Prosecutors abruptly dropped their involuntary manslaughter case against Gorwell.

But the four young men with Sam that night recall April 17, 1993, in detail and remain resolute: No one fired at the officer. No one had a gun. Justice has been derailed.

Gunpowder particles notwithstanding, there is much to support their story, including witnesses' testimony, confidential polygraph tests and, they argue, common sense.

"There's no way Sam fired a gun -- I just keep putting the pieces together," Andre Handy said last week, when asked whether he could explain the surprise discovery of the gunpowder.

No more than three yards from Sam when the boy was killed, he is likely the person best equipped to know the truth. "Back then, we was young. We did not have a gun," he said. "It doesn't make sense."

The presence of the gunpowder particles suggests three possibilities: Sam fired a gun at the officer -- or was standing near someone who did.

He fired or was around a gun in the hours leading up to the incident.

Gunpowder particles somehow were transferred to his hand from someone or something else, if inadvertently.

Interviews with those there that night, as well as experts familiar with gunshot residue, suggest that the third theory may be the most likely.

Whatever the source of the residue, in the Rosemont neighborhood where the four young men still live, suspicion is the sentiment of the moment. Words like "conspiracy" and "cover-up" are mentioned in sidewalk conversations. Distrust of police and prosecutors is rife.

"It makes anybody wonder: Was anything tampered with?" said Joyce Taylor, whose son, Duane Thomas, was among the boys with Sam that night. "It's a possibility."

`We were kids'

All four last week said they feel a painful responsibility for what happened to their friend.

"We were kids doing what we weren't supposed to be doing," said Duane, now 21. "There's no way we don't feel guilty about it."

Added Andre: "I'm always asking, why did I go out there that night?"

The five boys emerged from the car and split up in the park as Gorwell gave chase on foot shortly after midnight that evening. Within seconds, Gorwell has testified, a gunshot came from his left and he returned fire. Only two of the boys -- Andre and Sam -- had gone in that direction. Andre was running a few yards ahead of Sam, accord- ing to his court testimony. The officer was about 20 yards away.

Because no gun was found with Sam's body after the shooting, Gorwell's lawyers contend that one of the other boys -- presumably Andre, because he was the only one nearby -- must have stopped, picked up the gun and run off with it.

Polygraph test

Apparently to address that speculation, prosecutors a year ago asked Andre to take a polygraph test in preparation for Gorwell's trial, The Sun learned last week.

Did he have a gun that night, Andre was asked, among a dozen other questions. Did Sam have a gun? Were any of the boys carrying firearms? How many shots did he hear?

No one had a gun, Andre insisted. He heard only one shot.

Andre took the test four times. In each case, the results indicated that he was being truthful, said a police source familiar with the testing.

Sam's friends say there are other good reasons to question the defense scenario. It is not plausible that Andre or any of them would have turned and run back toward an officer firing a weapon to search in the unlighted, dark woods for a gun, they argue.

"How are you going to see something lying around in the pitch-black dark?" Duane said. "He wouldn't have stopped, he wouldn't have turned around."

Andre said he didn't stop until he was on the other side of the park -- he felt he was running for his life; all of them did. He and the others say they were not even aware Sam had been shot until the next day.

"I was so scared, I was shaken up," Andre said. He didn't look back.

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