Peyton Ham’s family wants the world to see the last photograph of him alive.
Keith Raley calls it the saddest picture he’s ever seen. It’s a photo of his grandson, Peyton Ham, taken moments before the 16-year-old was killed by a Maryland State Police officer in April. That’s why I’m meeting with Raley and several members of his family in an otherwise empty parking lot outside the home stadium of the Bowie Baysox, a minor league affiliate of the Baltimore Orioles, Peyton’s favorite baseball team throughout his short and shortened life.
Before we get to the horrible image that’s brought us together, Keith pulls out his phone and pulls up photos of Ham that under other circumstances would make him happy. Like those he took in the spring, of Ham drenched in sweat but smiling while chopping wood during what turned out to be their last weekend together. And the photo from 2016 of Ham in an O’s t-shirt and cap, posing with his aunt, Kellee Raley, at Camden Yards, which was formerly a frequent gathering place for the whole family; Keith, who came to meet me wearing an O’s cap, says his family hasn’t gone to a ballgame since the killing. And there’s also the short video taken a day before his death, of Ham admiring his own hair, and otherwise preening like a teen boy would, on a doorbell cam. The grandfather cries as he puts his phone back in his pocket, and I cry too.
Then the Raleys decide it’s time. Brenda Raley, Keith’s wife, goes into her husband’s truck to get a pink file folder containing a printout of the last photo taken of her grandson while he was alive. As the Raleys see it, it’s a snapshot of an execution about to happen. The family has been keeping this photo to themselves for several months. Keith says they thought staying quiet about it was the right thing to do. They don’t feel that way anymore.
“Our lives are already ruined,” the grieving grandfather tells me as I’m handed the folder. “People need to see this.”
The picture inside the folder shows Ham on his knees in a gravel driveway outside his family’s home in rural St. Mary’s County, Md. on the afternoon of April 13, 2021. A Maryland state trooper, Joseph Azzari, stands over and behind him. Ham’s lower right forearm can be seen dripping with blood. By the time the photo was taken, Azzari had already shot 11 rounds from his Glock 22 service pistol, based on audio of the incident picked up by a nearby security camera and transcribed in August by the St. Mary’s County Times.
State police officials would say later that Azzari mistook a plastic BB gun for an actual weapon when he began firing at Ham. The boy’s hands aren’t completely visible in the photo, but no fake firearm or any other sort of firearm can be seen in the photo. According to family members, a witness told them they saw police recover an object that could’ve been a toy gun after the shooting, within throwing distance of where Ham is seen kneeling. The witness said no such implement was in Ham’s hands or within Ham’s reach by the time this photo was taken. The small pocket knife the police contended that Ham threatened Azzari with after the first 11 shots isn’t in the picture either.
The photo does show a moving police car with its lights flashing on the scene, so Azzari at this point knew backup would soon be available if he wanted help subduing the wounded, kneeling teenager. But Azzari wasn’t finished shooting.
Maryland state troopers are not currently required to wear cameras, and Azzari was not wearing a bodycam as he shot Ham. But the audio transcript in the County Times indicates that Azzari waited 57 seconds after his 11th shot before resuming fire. The location of shell casings recovered on the scene, combined with the timestamp on the photo, indicate that 42 seconds after this picture was taken, Azzari stepped around and more than 10 feet away from the wounded and kneeling boy and fired four more shots, at least three of which hit his chest and neck, killing him.
Peyton’s stepfather, Mike Boyle, tells me that anybody who would shoot the kid in the picture has to be either “very sick” or “evil.”
“Those are the only options,” Keith Raley adds. “My boy was on his knees when he got shot. On his knees! In a pool of blood. I never knew that until I saw this picture.”
Kellee Raley says the family was given the photo within days of the killing. They got it from a witness who she declines to identify other than as “a neighbor.” Nobody in the family could bear to actually look at the picture “for several months.” When Kellee finally looked, the senselessness of her nephew’s death was overwhelming.
“[Azzari] could have pushed Peyton over, tased him, cuffed him, hit him, anything!” she says. “But he chose to kill him instead.”
Yet at the time, the Raleys agreed to keep the photo to themselves, and only share their thoughts about the story it told with each other or close family friends. They knew the witness had provided the same picture at the same time to the state police and to the office of Richard Fritz, the state’s attorney for St. Mary’s County, Md. And the Raleys decided they didn’t want to do anything that might disrupt official investigations into Azzari’s actions. They felt they wouldn’t need to speak up, because they trusted the system to work as it was supposed to.
The killing of Peyton Ham was reported in April in the Washington Post and Baltimore Sun, newspapers serving big towns at least an hour and half away from his rural Southern Maryland home. It even got some national pickup: CNN did a first-day story on the killing of a 16-year-old who, by the police’s version of events, had pulled a fake gun and small knife on a cop. But in the months after the shooting, the Raleys didn’t return requests for interviews from local and out-of-town news organizations (including Defector). The Raleys haven’t contacted the Department of Justice to accuse the police of violating Ham’s civil rights or request a federal investigation. They say they also ignored overtures from national civil rights groups inquiring if they should get involved. They didn’t file lawsuits against Azzari or the civil servants that armed him and put him in position to kill Ham. (The Raleys declined to discuss the possibility that future federal complaints or civil suits could be filed.)
The Raleys now say they regret their silence. As the family stayed quiet and the state attorney’s office did nothing, the story essentially went away. The August report in the St. Mary’s County Times with the transcript of the audio of the shooting had the makings of a bombshell, but the story got almost no pickup outside the county. The County Times also reported in August that the Leonardtown barrack of the Maryland State Police, where Azzari was based, recorded more use-of-force incidents than any other in the state in both 2019 and 2020. Coincidentally or not, as the story went away, the investigation went nowhere. “This is our fault,” says Mike Boyle, Ham’s stepfather. “Us keeping this quiet, it ended up hurting Peyton, and I hate that for him.”
Family members admit that they thought their connections in St. Mary’s County would serve them well as authorities considered a legal response to Ham’s killing. Keith Raley, now 66, was born at St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown, the same hospital where Ham was pronounced dead. He has served with the Ridge (Md.) Volunteer Fire Department for 49 years. One of his brothers has been serving alongside him on the same department for 40 years. Keith says his family has gotten friendly with generations of cops on that job while responding to accident calls through the decades.
Another of Keith Raley’s brothers was a St. Mary’s County Commissioner for 12 years. Kristee Boyle, Ham’s mother and the daughter of Keith and Brenda Raley, worked with local police in recent years while employed by the St. Mary’s County Public Schools as a security specialist. Peyton Ham had his own connections to the local police. Kellee Raley showed me a 2018 photo of Ham with his mom taken while they volunteered for a local Christmas charity called “Shop with a Cop,” in which civilians and police officers work together to fund toy shopping sprees for kids in the county who can’t afford them. She says a family friend who is a retired police detective from Connecticut and is currently an auxiliary officer with the Maryland state police served as a pallbearer at Ham’s funeral.
Brenda Raley says the family now realizes whatever connections they thought they had were no match for “the blue wall” that shields law enforcement like Azzari from being brought to justice. “We relied on the people who said they are working for us,” she says. “We really believed in them.”
The Raleys say they’d tried politely on several occasions to get explanations from prosecutors for the inertia, and even had three meetings with Daniel White, the deputy state’s attorney for St. Mary’s County, the prosecutor assigned the Ham case. But the family now feels those meetings were a waste of time. Brenda says White repeatedly cited the “ongoing investigation” while refusing to answer their questions. White wouldn’t even tell them if Azzari, who the state police announced immediately after the shooting had been put on “administrative leave” as per the agency’s normal policy, was still on the state payroll or allowed to carry the government-issued weapon he’d used to kill the teenager.
White told them during a meeting in September that he had the received the results of an autopsy from the state medical examiner, but refused to let them see the report. The state would later disclose that of the 15 shots Azzari took at Ham—every bullet in his Glock’s magazine—seven had hit Ham. (The Baltimore Sun reported in April that several of the shots from Azzari hit two different buildings across the street.)
Last week, the Raleys changed their mind about staying silent. Brenda Raley says that on Oct. 14, one day after the six-month anniversary of Peyton’s killing, she called White’s office hoping to find out if he’d made any decision on indicting Azzari. The state’s attorney’s office had finally put the case before a grand jury on Sept. 21. But when she called, the prosecutors still hadn’t announced whether any charges would be filed. She had a question for the prosecutor, relating to the last photograph: “Once you see this picture, why is there even a need for a grand jury?”
But she never got a chance to ask it.
“Dan White’s receptionist told me she’s not taking messages from me anymore,” she says. “They asked me to stop calling. So much for working for the people.”
As the call ended, Brenda says, it finally sunk in that her family’s faith in the system had been used against them, and against her grandson. Her husband called me later that day and asked to meet in Bowie. He said he had a photo he wanted to show me.
Keith Raley says his family understands that speaking out about the shooting will mean more pain for him and all of Ham’s loved ones.
“They’re going to try to make Peyton look like a criminal,” he says. “He wasn’t a criminal. Peyton is dead. The criminal is on the loose.”
In the hours after the shooting, police searched Ham’s home and the homes of his relatives. The Raleys were never told what they were looking for, but they assume it was drugs. None were found. Kellee Raley says they confiscated only his computer and his phone.
In the opening moments of a press conference on the day of Ham’s killing, Woodrow Jones, superintendent of Maryland State Police, said their officer had responded alone to a pair of 911 calls about a man who was “acting suspicious” and who the caller “thinks has a gun” at an address within a couple hundred yards of the Leonardtown state police barrack. According to Jones, Azzari was threatened by a male with what turned out to be a fake gun and a knife. The police released a stock photo of a plastic replica gun and a photo of the actual pocket knife they said they recovered from the scene, which had a three-inch blade.
Jones did not give out any information about who made the 911 calls. (Defector’s request made under the Maryland Public Information Act for recordings of all 911 calls related to Ham’s shooting was denied by the state police. Mark Urbanik, director of analysis of transparency for the Maryland Department of State Police, said via email that because “this matter remains under investigation,” the 911 recordings and all police records on the Ham shooting are “protected from release.”)
Brenda Raley says they subsequently heard from a state police detective that Ham’s phone number was found on the 911 log.
Keith Raley tells me he and the family were prepared to find out that Ham did in fact place the 911 calls; the Raleys believed that the state police and local prosecutors were stalling on announcing a decision on whether to indict Azzari while trying to build a so-called “suicide by cop” case. But Keith says that even if Ham wanted to be shot, at best that would give Azzari some cover for the first 11 shots. It hardly explains the cop emptying his magazine into Ham so long after this photo was taken.
“You don’t finish off suicides,” Keith Raley says.
Prosecutors would later say the autopsy results showed no evidence the shots were fired at “close-range,” so the three-inch blade was nowhere near Azzari when he fired the fatal shots.
On the morning of Wednesday, Oct. 20, the St. Mary’s County Prosecutor’s office released its report on the April 13 murder. Peyton’s family’s fears and awful expectations were met: The state blamed the death on the dead kid.
“We have concluded that [Ham] intentionally engaged in behavior that posed an apparent risk of imminent serious injury or death, with the intent to precipitate the use of deadly force by law-enforcement personnel towards himself,” read the report. “As a result of [Ham’s] actions, Trooper Azzari was in reasonable fear for his life considering the facts and circumstances confronting him and acted in lawful says self-defense and the defense of others when he fired his duty weapon at [Ham].”
The state’s investigation is over. Azzari will walk.
“The evidence, viewed as a whole supports the conclusion that trooper Azzari’s use of deadly force was reasonable under Maryland law,” read the statement’s closing. “Accordingly we will not file criminal charges and this matter will be closed without prosecution.”
The Raleys say they were told just before meeting with the prosecutors on Oct. 20 that Ham’s killer is still employed by the Maryland State Police. The family can’t understand, however, how anybody who saw that photo would even try to explain away the killing that followed as standard operating procedure.
“I used to look at police as heroes,” Brenda Raley tells me. “Now when I see them, I see murderers. That’s not my fault! That’s not my fault!”
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available for people in crisis or those looking to help someone else at 1-800-273-8255.