Safety roles unclear at nightclub

CRIME BEAT

November 23, 2008|By PETER HERMANN

James E. Troxel is barely discernible on Iguana Cantina's crowded dance floor, lost amid a mass of drunken patrons gyrating to thundering music under pulsating lights. One moment, he's there, the next moment he vanishes, swallowed by the crowd without missing a beat.

Thirty seconds later, one of 14 club surveillance cameras shows two yellow-jacketed security guards pushing through the throng to reach the young man who by now is on the floor and can't be seen on the video. All you can see are the guards bending over, the man's stunned friends watching while others dance around them as if nothing had happened.

Police said Troxel - who was 20 and in the club for an 18-and-over night - suffered a severe head injury and remains at Maryland Shock Trauma Center, unable to remember what happened to him and struggling to recite the alphabet.

How he was injured remains in dispute, his predicament thrust into public view when Baltimore's police commissioner used the case as one reason for banning off-duty officers from working overtime at bars. At least a dozen cops were outside the nightclub on Market Place Sept. 26 when Troxel was injured inside.

Frederick H. Bealefeld III told a City Council luncheon that it's unacceptable "when people wind up in a coma in a club that I have cops working secondary at and no one knows anything."

Iguana Cantina's attorney and husband of a license holder, a former city police officer, are complaining that the commissioner made it seem like police watched a nearly deadly brawl but did nothing to stop it or make arrests.

"I'm not sure how he got injured," said David Adams, whose wife, Cheryl, is part-owner. "I don't see an altercation like the one that's being described."

The club's lawyer, James J. Temple Jr., said he's heard several stories - that members of two rival Towson fraternities were arguing, that the victim grabbed a woman and was pushed by her friend, or that the man slipped and hit his head on the concrete dance floor.

"It's all rumor," he said.

The videotape given to The Baltimore Sun begins around 12:30 on a Friday morning as the bar is packed with 700 people. Most are dancing, wildly waving their hands in the air or shouting to be heard above the music.

At 12:33 a.m., in the bottom left corner of the screen, a man in a white shirt suddenly drops from view. It's hard to see, but it doesn't appear there was any commotion. People don't stop dancing. Drinks don't go flying. The crowd doesn't part. And even after security guards arrive, a male bartender picks up a female bartender and playfully cradles her in his arms.

Cut to another camera outside the club's exit. At 12:35 a.m., three city police officers, in uniform but working security for Iguana, arrive at the door and go inside. They quickly emerge, and one holds the door open for a security guard seen carrying Troxel outside, holding him by both shoulders, his feet dragging on the ground.

The guard sits Troxel on the sidewalk and puts his arm on his shoulder. Police officers talk with him as his friends gather. One girl sits across from him and holds his hands as he buries his face in his arms.

The video cuts off before the ambulance arrives. Authorities said the man was taken to a local hospital and later transferred to Maryland Shock Trauma Center. Relatives at Troxel's addresses in Hampstead and Glen Burnie did not respond to my inquiries.

Police said at one point he was in a coma, but they said that is no longer the case. A police spokesman said Troxel was intoxicated at the club and was so badly injured he has been unable to speak to detectives. "He has no recollection of what occurred," Agent Donny Moses said.

Moses said the off-duty officers coded the case as an "injured person" and called for an ambulance. Six hours after the attack, an officer wrote a report from Shock Trauma noting the injuries but adding little else. "I was only able to obtain that he was picked up by a medic outside Iguana Cantina," the report says. "It is unknown at this time how Mr. Troxel was injured." Temple said his two security guards who were with the victim and the officer did not mention "that a crime had occurred."

Moses said detectives were later told by Troxel's friends that he had been hit in the face on the dance floor, and then hit several more times in the face after he fell. But the spokesman said two girls who were with Troxel told detectives they "noticed him on the floor" but don't know how he got there.

A police spokesman, who left the office earlier this month, had described Troxel - whose name was first made public this week - as a Towson University student. A school spokeswoman said he is not enrolled there, but that police had asked for help finding students who may have seen Troxel get hurt. She said one student stepped forward.

Police are still reviewing the videotape and trying to determine what happened. The case has been upgraded from an "injured person" to an aggravated assault.

Temple, the club's lawyer, said he wants to put rumors to rest and understand how this case justifies banning off-duty police officers from working security. The officers he hired were outside, as they are supposed to be, and it doesn't appear there was an out-of-control fight inside the bar that the cops missed, ignored or could've prevented.

For Bealefeld, the issue is liability. A young man was critically injured inside a bar that hires off-duty cops to help keep control and that looks bad. He wants the bar owners to take more responsibility.

"These locations have become enormously violent and a threat to public safety, some of them," Bealefeld told the City Council before the ban went into effect Nov. 16. "What the refrain I hear from some of the club owners is, well, Bealefeld, your cops are working security. So if the patrons aren't safe, who's responsible?"

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