OWINGS MILLS, Md. – An unarmed black man killed by Baltimore County police told his girlfriend's mother that he was going to commit suicide as officers were on their way to his home after reports of domestic violence, the mother said Thursday.
Officers shot Spencer L. McCain, 41, about 1 a.m. at a condominium in Owings Mills. Also in the home at the time were two of his young daughters and their mother, Shannon Sulton, who told police McCain beat and threatened her, Baltimore County Police Chief Jim Johnson said at a news conference.
Three officers were on the scene, and all fired as McCain was in a "defensive position," holding his arms and body in a manner that suggested he was armed, Johnson said. He said the officers thought he had a weapon, but none was found. Two of the officers are white, and one is black, police said. All are on administrative leave.
The oldest child present, a 10-year-old girl, called her grandmother, Rochelle Byrd, who is Sulton's mother, early Thursday because she heard fighting in a bedroom and was scared, Byrd said. Byrd called 911.
"I called (the child) back to tell her to open the door for the police, and he took the phone. He said, 'I'm going to have to commit suicide,'" Byrd said. "I called back the police and told them he was going to commit suicide."
Byrd said she thought at that point that McCain could kill his family and then himself.
Johnson said an officer who responded to Byrd's calls heard screams coming from inside the second-floor condo and called for backup, Johnson said. The officers forced their way into the home, where McCain was shot. Johnson said 19 casings were found at the scene, but it wasn't clear how many times McCain was hit.
Sulton had bruises, cuts and a head injury, Johnson said. The girls and the officers weren't hurt.
Race has not been raised as a factor in McCain's death, but it comes amid a national debate about the deaths of black men at the hands of police.
According to 2013 census figures, 27.5 percent of Baltimore County's population is black and 64.1 percent is white. The police chief and county executive are white. As of February, black people made up less than 13 percent of the county's 1,868-member police force.
Byrd said McCain received treatment last year after another incident involving law enforcement.
"He was ranting and raving about the president," Byrd said. "They took him to Northwest Hospital and they put him on medication." Byrd said McCain was "like a different person" on the medication, but he recently decided to stop taking it, and Sulton told her last week that "things were starting to get bad."
Byrd said she and her family are distraught over McCain's death; that the man "was having issues" but "throughout it all, he was a very good father."
The couple had a history of problems, according to police and a neighbor. Since January 2012, police responded to 17 domestic violence calls at the home in a quiet suburban community outside Baltimore, said Cpl. John Wachter, a police spokesman. Johnson said there was a protective order barring McCain from contact with Sulton, and ordering him to stay away from the home and the children's schools.
Keith Lewis, who has lived next door for five years, said he would often hear the couple fight through the walls. But Thursday was particularly raucous, Lewis said — loud enough to wake him.
"They woke me up at about 12:45. Something hit the wall. I woke up. I heard yelling," Lewis said. "The babies were crying. It sounded like begging and pleading, 'Don't do this. Why are you doing this? Stop.'"
Johnson said Sulton told detectives McCain threatened to give her "the beating you deserve" and attacked her.
Lewis said he spotted a pair of police cruisers from his window shortly after 1 a.m., and things seemed to calm down briefly.
"I drifted back to sleep," Lewis said. "Then I heard her yelling again. I heard the door get booted, and then all hell broke loose."