Officer among six shot, two killed outside city club

Sources: Police investigating whether shooting was friendly fire

January 09, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

Baltimore police officers might have shot and killed a fellow officer and an unarmed man after observing the officer draw his weapon while trying to quell a disturbance outside a club near downtown early Sunday, according to law enforcement sources and a relative of one of the victims.

Police released few details about the circumstances of the shooting, but they described a chaotic scene outside the Select Lounge in the 400 block of N. Paca St., with fights spilling out of the club and into the street around 1:15 a.m.

"There was an altercation that took place very near the club and some officers worked to intercede in that fight, at which time some gunshots were discharged," said Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. "Several officers fired multiple shots."

Sources said Officer William H. Torbit Jr., 33, an eight-year veteran, and 22-year-old Sean Gamble, a semi-professional football player who had no criminal record, were killed in the gunfire. Four others — a second officer and three women — were wounded, police said.

Three law enforcement sources briefed on the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was still under way, said witnesses told detectives that Torbit was in plainclothes and was being attacked by a group of people. Police said his badge apparently came off during the scuffle. It is believed that the officers who responded to the scene shot at him after he drew his weapon, said the law enforcement sources and the victim's relative, who was also a witness.

Gamble's brother, James Gamble, who was at the club, said he saw Torbit — who he believed was off-duty — acting aggressively toward a woman. His brother started arguing with the officer and the discussion escalated, said Gamble, 24. He said a group of uniformed officers began firing on the crowd when the plainclothes officer reached for his service weapon.

"It was a crazy scene," Gamble said. "They let off a good 20 shots, maybe six [officers]. They were just shooting."

Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed Sunday evening that police were exploring whether officers had shot another officer in the midst of the chaotic situation. He said no civilian weapons had been recovered.

The violence comes on the heels of a number of high-profile incidents downtown, many of them connected to the city's nightlife. In March, two people were shot outside the Velvet Rope, a club that police have pushed to shut down. A month before that, a security guard was fatally shot on Light Street, and in June an off-duty police officer was charged with fatally shooting an unarmed man during an altercation outside a Mount Vernon club.

A Marine, celebrating before his redeployment to Afghanistan, was fatally shot at a downtown hookah bar in July, and a city police officer was shot and wounded in November after approaching an armed man near the city's adult entertainment district.

An off-duty Baltimore detective was killed in October when he was hit in the head during an argument over a parking space in Canton.

"This is an absolutely horrible incident," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said of Sunday's shootings. "I prayed we would never lose another officer, but here we are again."

Torbit's death comes four years to the day after Officer Troy Lamont Chesley was killed during an attempted carjacking. Chesley was the last officer to die in an attack while on duty.

If police determine that Torbit was killed by friendly fire, it would be the first such incident since an off-duty officer, Norman Stamp, was killed at a Southeast Baltimore bar in 2008. Police said at the time that officers responding to a call about a fight encountered Stamp — whom they didn't recognize as a fellow officer — wearing brass knuckles and shot him when he reached for his weapon. Stamp's widow last year lost a civil lawsuit filed against the officer who shot her husband.

Police would not confirm Torbit's identity Sunday, and police union officials said they were waiting for the department to formally identify the officer before commenting on his death.

News of Torbit's death stunned his next-door neighbor, Fafo Asres, who called the officer "a very nice person" who had helped maintain his neighborhood off Rolling Road in western Baltimore County. Torbit cleaned up trash and debris on the street and offered to haul waste items away in his truck for other residents, Asres said.

Torbit also had kidded around with Asres' children, the neighbor said. "My kids, they love him and call him 'Uncle Will,' " Asres said, adding that Torbit was "a very good example" for young people.

Though Torbit apparently lived alone, his neighbor described the officer as a "family man," with a number of relatives in the area. "He was there for his family," Asres said.

Asres said that he last saw Torbit on New Year's Eve and that the officer had told him he was working that night.

"I'm just sad," Asres said.

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