Witnesses: Slain officer overwhelmed by crowd, police fired as he lay on ground

Police say 41 shots fired in incident outside club Sunday

  • Officer William Torbit Jr.
Officer William Torbit Jr.
January 10, 2011|By Justin Fenton, The Baltimore Sun

From a Franklin Street apartment, a university employee and her roommate have a broad view of the nightclub parking lot where police say six people were shot Sunday — an incident that left a plainclothes police officer and a 22-year-old man dead.

As an unusually large crowd attracted a significant police presence, the two opened a window and watched the events that led up to the shooting outside the Select Lounge in the 400 block of N. Paca St.

The women, both 26, saw the plainclothes officer get overwhelmed by an unruly crowd, then watched as two uniformed officers opened fire while he lay on the ground. The women also saw the pained reaction of the slain officer's partners once they realized what had happened.

It's a scene they haven't been able to get out of their minds.

"I've never seen somebody killed," the university employee said Monday.

City police have not given a detailed account of the night's events, saying the investigation will take three weeks to complete. There are dozens of witnesses, and police are seeking to piece together those accounts along with physical evidence and surveillance camera footage.

But the account of the women is consistent with what law enforcement sources believe took place, and along with information provided by police, it offers a vivid account of the chaotic incident.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III confirmed at an afternoon news conference that no civilian weapons were fired, and said five officers — including slain officer William H. Torbit Jr. — fired a total of 41 rounds during the incident.

Bealefeld said police were "committed to conducting a comprehensive and thorough investigation."

"We must understand it, learn from it, and emerge better," he said. "We owe it to all the victims to be thorough and complete, and only release confirmed facts."

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said the shooting "raises a lot of questions" and that she and Bealefeld are open to an external review of the incident following the Police Department's internal review.

The university employee, who did not want her name or school made public, and her roommate, Lakeisha Hutcherson, said in separate interviews with The Baltimore Sun that the incident unfolded about 1:15 a.m.

According to the roommates, they first noticed a group of women walking to their cars outside the club when a vehicle began to pull out and almost hit one of them. One of the women became angry and began to hit the car with her shoe, trying to attack the driver, and a man in a pink shirt attempted to calm them down. The driver was able to pull off, but the woman remained agitated.

A man — who the roommates would later learn was Torbit, 33, — walked over, wearing a brown or black jacket. Neither woman said they saw a badge, though they said he might have been wearing one.

Police say Torbit, a narcotics officer, was on-duty and in plainclothes. Normally an officer on such an assignment would not be working crowd control, but he had been called to the scene after dispatchers put out a "Signal 13" — that code, for an officer in distress, typically draws scores of officers looking to help.

Officers at the scene were trying to deal with fights inside that spilled out of the recently opened club, and Torbit found himself in the middle of the fracas.

"I thought he was just a guy trying to break up the altercation," the university employee said. "He was telling them, 'Stop. Go home.'"

Hutcherson added: "He was trying to push people out of the way, trying to stop the fight. He was trying to make peace, and it seemed like some guys took it wrong."

In a flash, they said, a large crowd began fighting and "overtook" the plainclothes officer, who disappeared in a sea of people.

The 22-year-old who was slain has been identified by relatives as Sean Gamble. His brother told The Baltimore Sun Sunday night that Gamble had witnessed Torbit being aggressive toward a woman and that Gamble started arguing with him. That escalated to an altercation, the brother said.

The women say that is not what they saw.

"I didn't see [the plainclothes officer] being aggressive with her — she was aggressive," the university employee said. "It looked like he was trying to break it up, to stop it from escalating. I don't even know how the other guys got involved."

Then the women saw two uniformed officers approach, and heard a shot. They aren't sure who fired the shot — it was not the uniformed officers, the roommates said — and none of those fighting seemed to react.

It is believed that the shot came from Torbit's weapon, though police said they are checking ballistics to confirm that.

A few seconds later, a second shot went off, the roommates said, and people started running.

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