Documents: Man killed by police was informant who called in tip

Family hasn't heard from detectives since day of shooting; police, prosecutors say investigation remains open

March 07, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Every month since her brother was shot and killed by police last year, Priscilla Johnson has gone back to the Northwest Baltimore neighborhood where he died to hand out fliers, begging for anyone who saw something to come forward.

What the family knows, gleaned largely from news reports, is that Dennis Gregory was a bystander who was shot by detectives who were aiming for his friend, Glenn Brooks. And they know from the autopsy that Gregory was hit four times in the back.

What they didn't know is that Gregory was acting as a confidential informant that night and that it was his call to police to report that Brooks had a handgun that summoned officers to the scene in the first place. The revelation is contained for the first time in court documents filed in federal court late last month and obtained by The Baltimore Sun.

It's the biggest breakthrough yet in the family's quest to understand the events of that night. Calls to detectives and visits to police headquarters have gone unacknowledged, and they've received little cooperation from residents of the neighborhood.

"A detective came to our house the next day and said, 'We came to say your brother is dead, and he didn't suffer,' and that they were investigating. That's all we got," says Johnson, a state employee.

Police declined to comment on the case, saying that the shooting investigation is still open. A spokesman for Baltimore State's Attorney Gregg L. Bernstein confirmed that "a final determination about how to proceed has not been made in this matter," though the officers returned to duty about a month later.

The silence in light of the new information only compounds their frustrations, family members say, with Gregory seemingly reduced to nothing more than collateral damage in the war on the drugs — a disposable ex-con who lost his life while helping in the commissioner's fight against "bad guys with guns."

In an interview at the Northwest Baltimore duplex where Gregory lived with his parents, his sister and his 18-year-old son, Johnson acknowledged her brother's long history of troubles with the law but said he had turned a corner years ago. Court records show he was last arrested in 2008. Family members said they were unaware that Gregory was working with police.

Gregory's mother, Lorraine Johnson, said her son had decided after his most recent conviction that enough was enough. He joined Narcotics Anonymous and volunteered at a recovery center in Park Heights, where he mentored others.

To make money, he ran a vehicle-detailing company out of his car. He drove around with a window logo that advertised "D-Nice Auto Detailing" and his phone number. After his death, people contacted the family to talk about volunteer work he had performed and senior citizens he had helped, they say.

"My brother did have a past — a lot of men have a past here in the city," Priscilla Johnson said. "But my brother had changed his life around. He had cleaned up himself. He was not involved in anything."

The shooting unfolded on Feb. 4, 2010, in the 3700 block of Oakmont Ave. Police and federal prosecutors have said that a confidential informant tipped off detectives in the area that Brooks had a gun, and that they responded. When Brooks pulled out a gun and started firing at police, they fired back.

Detective Chris Funk and Brooks were injured, and Gregory was killed. Another detective, Matthew Ryckman, was unharmed.

There have been no allegations that Gregory made threatening movements toward the officers, or reached into his waistband, or displayed an object that officers mistook for a weapon — all common reasons cited by police for shootings of civilians. The fact that he was shot in the back raises even more questions for relatives.

A. Dwight Pettit, the prominent attorney who has represented the families of many people shot by city police, said his office investigated the family's case without knowing that Gregory was an informant. Though he calls the new information "interesting as well as controversial," he isn't sure that it constitutes wrongdoing by police, at least in the eyes of a jury.

"If the police have any reason to draw their weapons, Baltimore juries are going to give them the benefit of the doubt," Pettit said, disputing the notion that city jurors are tough on officers. "The jury has to be saying to itself, 'Did the officer act as a reasonable police officer would have acted in terms of seeing the gun?'"

Pettit also hypothesized that the informant's tip might have been relayed to the detectives by others and that they did not know there was an informant at the scene.

Brooks will be going to federal prison for 19 years. He pleaded guilty and was found to be an "armed career criminal." Federal prosecutors pointed to his sentencing as another example of a gun offender being "exiled" for a handgun offense, but his plea agreement makes no mention that someone died that day.

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