Baltimore police release file in Select Lounge shooting

Officer accidentally killed by colleagues in shootout

August 13, 2011|By Peter Hermann, The Baltimore Sun

Harry Pawley didn't know he had shot a fellow police officer until a colleague screamed. Then he saw the handcuffs dangling from the wounded man's belt. Latora Craig discovered the mistake only after she saw the badge attached to a chain around his neck.

Plainclothes Officer William H. Torbit Jr. had just fired off eight rounds into a crowd of people kicking and punching him as he lay on his back in a parking lot outside a Baltimore nightclub called Select Lounge.

Four other officers mistook him for a civilian and fired their .40-caliber Glocks as the crowd scattered into the cold January morning. One got off 14 rounds. Another squeezed out 11. The last two fired five and four times.

This account of the Police Department's first fatal "friendly-fire" shooting in 80 years comes from the investigatory file released to The Baltimore Sun days after the state's attorney closed the seven-month probe into the shooting and cleared the officers of criminal wrongdoing.

While police have maintained for months that the officers who fired did not recognize Torbit as one of their own, despite having seen him hours earlier at the station house, the report offers new, chilling details that compound the tragedy.

One officer who shot Torbit wrote in his report that he had seen the officer moments before the deadly altercation, trying to calm an irate bar patron, but didn't recognize him when he opened fire on the man lying on the ground minutes later.

Officer Deborah MacMillan had seen Torbit walking around the lot and recognized him as an officer. When she saw him attacked moments later, she said she called for help over her radio "and advised that a plainclothes officer was involved."

She said she screamed at the others, "That's an officer, he is one of us, stop shooting." MacMillan then said she heard a deputy major yell, "Put your guns away."

Their urgent warnings went unheard. Six seconds and 42 bullets later, 33-year-old Torbit and one of the men who police say attacked him, Sean Gamble, lay mortally wounded. They were pronounced dead a minute apart at Maryland Shock Trauma Center — Gamble at 2:10 a.m., Torbit at 2:11 a.m.

The report's 1,153 pages include police interviews with 67 civilian witnesses, people involved in the fight and, for the first time, makes public the words of the officers who shot and killed one of their own in one of the department's saddest and most painful moments.

Through diagrams, tape-recorded statements, ballistic tests and crime-scene photographs, the voluminous account offers the first complete look at a deadly confrontation that spanned just one minute and 25 seconds but left a lasting mark on the Police Department and the city.

The report, for the most part, is devoid of emotion and reaches no conclusions.

Once the gunfire ceased, the officers suddenly realized what they had done. Officer Toyia Williams, who had fired four times and was the first of the group to realize who Torbit was, cradled the dying officer in her arms. Another officer recalled seeing her "crying over the top of him."

Torbit was struck 20 times — eight bullets grazed or were stopped by his body armor, and 12 pierced his flesh, including two in the chest, two in the abdomen, two in the back, two in the buttocks and two in the thigh. Gamble died from a single bullet wound to his left side — most likely, police say, fired by Torbit.

Three bystanders were hit by stray bullets and one officer shot himself in the foot. One bullet went into a second-floor apartment on the other side of the parking lot; another went through a third-floor window of a vacant room at the Baltimore Benevolent Society.

The written statements provided by officers Pawley, Craig, Williams and Harry Dodge provide a consistent account of the chaos that unfolded just after 1 a.m. on Jan. 9 outside the North Paca Street lounge.

"I observed the individual who was the victim of the assault, still on his back on the ground, discharging a handgun," wrote Pawley, an 18-year veteran. "In fear of my life and the lives of other people in the area, I began to discharge my service weapon at the individual.

"I continued to discharge my service weapon until the individual stopped discharging … and dropped the handgun."

It was only after he had pulled the trigger 11 times that Pawley said he heard Williams scream "that the individual that was shot was a police officer." He then saw the cuffs. "I did not recognize the individual as Officer Torbit at any time during this incident."

Officer Craig wrote that she saw Pawley spray the crowd with Mace but that her back was turned when the first shots were fired. She said she turned to see the man on the ground firing up and into the crowd, even as another man was choking him from behind.

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