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Baltimore police release file in Select Lounge shooting

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.

"I discharged my service weapon several times at the [man] on the ground who was discharging a handgun," Craig wrote. "Once the [man] stopped discharging his handgun, I stopped. I quickly approached the [man] on the ground and observed a Baltimore Police Department badge hanging around his neck.

"After a few seconds," the officer said in her report, "I realized that the [man] who was discharging his handgun from the ground was Officer Torbit."

The final report from the homicide unit concludes that some bystanders recognized Torbit as a police officer, but it was because they saw him "in a standing position." Some witnesses said they saw his badge as he walked through the parking lot.

But the uniformed officers who fired, the report says, "saw Officer Torbit only as he lay on the ground." A copy of the police dispatch tape does not show a transmission from Officer MacMillan saying a plainclothes officer was in the fight.

The decision by prosecutors not to file charges is only the first of several steps left in the investigation. The officers still face a department investigation of their conduct, to determine whether they followed proper procedures.

And an independent commission appointed by the mayor is reviewing the case and could recommend changes in how the department operates.

Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III said through a spokesman that he would not comment until after the commission finished its work. The officers have declined interview requests through their attorneys.

Torbit's family has expressed anger that no criminal charges were filed. A lawyer for Gamble's family said that a video of the incident released last week shows Torbit pushing his client. He said it appears to him that Gamble was fleeing the altercation when he was shot; the police reports say he fled after he was struck by a bullet.

Among the considerations of the independent commission will be how to keep plainclothes officers safe and recognizable.

Some departments don't allow plainclothes officers to respond to large disturbances, where they can be swallowed up by the crowd and easily mistaken for civilians. Seven of the 33 officers who responded to Select Lounge that night were in plainclothes.

Torbit was wearing a dark-colored sweat shirt with a large design on the front and a bullet-resistant vest over a brown thermal long-sleeve shirt. He had on blue jeans and black boots. His badge was on a chain around his neck, his gun was visible in a holster on his right hip and handcuffs were attached to his belt.

He had gone to Select Lounge with his partner, Lt. Charles Clayton, to help shut down the club and clear away unruly patrons. Fights had broken out all evening, and Torbit arrived to see 80 people spilling out of the club and into the parking lot.

Officers were calling for help. There were fisticuffs inside and outside. Then quiet. Then more fights. And more calls for help. Officers from all over the city swarmed into the lot at Paca and Franklin streets; Torbit arrived in an unmarked car, driven by Clayton.

Pawley wrote in his statement that when he first showed up, he recognized Torbit, who was dealing with a loud man who refused to leave the club. Torbit moved the man to the front of the valet line to calm him down. Another officer, Dodge, had a person in handcuffs.

It was then that a woman driving an Acura Legend out of the parking lot brushed Jazzmin Graves, causing her to stumble backward. The report says Graves — who had been at the club celebrating her 24th birthday — demanded the driver stop and hit the car with her high-heeled shoe.

"I don't know if she wasn't paying attention," Graves said in her taped statement to police. "She ain't see me or whatever, but she bump me with her car while she was pulling out. So we start arguing 'cause she didn't even apologize to me."

Graves said Torbit came over and that she recognized him as a police officer because of the badge around his neck. He ordered the driver of the Acura to leave, trying to ease tensions. Graves said she and her friends started to walk away when a group of men intervened.

Darrell Baker told detectives that he and Gamble had emerged from the club and saw Torbit arguing with a woman. "Oh man, that's a female he doing that to," Baker quoted Gamble saying, according to the transcript.

Gamble, an acquaintance of Graves, was upset by the way Torbit handled the situation, and the two argued as the crowd grew, according to the report. Baker said Torbit "didn't say, 'You know I'm a cop.' or anything. He didn't say, you know, he didn't pull out any badges." Two witnesses told police that Torbit told Gamble, "Go mind your [expletive] business. This has nothing to do with you."

Baker said he went to help Gamble and punched Torbit in the face. "You know, I'm thinking it's a regular guy so I'm hitting him." The police reports say Torbit recovered and moved toward Baker but was quickly surrounded by the crowd "and thrown to the ground."

"At least one-half-dozen people … kick and stomp the downed officer," the report says, naming Gamble, his brother, James, and Baker as the instigators. "A couple seconds later, Officer Torbit, still on the ground being beaten, draws his service weapon and fires eight times at his attackers."

Police concluded that Torbit started shooting just as Pawley sprayed Mace or pepper spray to disperse the crowd. Gamble's attorney has said that after looking at the video, it appears to him that his client was shot as he was trying to run away.

In his report, Pawley said he sprayed and then "the crowd began to disperse and I stepped back and began to reholster my pepper spray. While doing so, I heard several gunshots." Pawley said he then opened fire, followed by Craig, Dodge and Williams.

Gamble, hit by a bullet, stumbled away and collapsed in the parking lot, and was run over by a car whose driver was backing up. Police concluded that Dodge, in addition to shooting himself in the foot, also most likely shot the three bystanders, including Graves, who was grazed in the head, a wound that required 25 stitches to close.

Baker said it happened quickly.

"So you know we fighting then in the midst of that, um, like it happen so fast like I don't know like if the Mace came out first or the shot," he told detectives. "But it seem like it happen simultaneously — boom - boom - boom - boom — and then I'm blinded you know so I couldn't see anything."

Dozens of officers ran toward the gunfire at the north end of the parking lot.

"Shots fired, shots fired," an officer yelled over the radio.

Police officers from the Eastern, Northern and Northeastern districts raced to Select Lounge, just west of downtown. By now, they knew one of their own had been gravely wounded.

One officer pleaded over the air for word on Torbit: "OK, get his information for me please. I'm sure some family members up there, um, what's his condition?"

Another officer answered: "Well, they were working on his chest when they were bringing him in. I, I don't know."

One minute and 25 seconds elapsed between the time the car struck Graves and an officer fired the final shot. Gamble was shot just 49 seconds after he confronted Torbit. There were 12 seconds between Darrell Baker's punch that struck Torbit and the firing of the first gunshot.

"About six seconds later," a homicide detective wrote in his report, "all the shooting is over."

peter.hermann@baltsun.com

Excerpts from police communication

Caller to 911: "They got a fight in front of Select Club that's on Paca Street."

Police dispatcher: "Can you send units to Paca Street."

Officer: "I'm almost there."

Another officer: "I'm responding."

Officer: "They got one in custody and security trying to locate the group."

Dispatcher: "Everyone OK at Paca and Franklin? Can anyone advise if everything OK on Paca?"

Officer: "Everything fine with that police officer. Just keep a couple units coming up."

(Later:)

Officer: "Got another fight. Big fight."

Officer: "Signal 13, 13." (Code for a distress call.)

Officer: "Ah, shots fired, shots fired."

Dispatcher: "Signal 13, shots fired Paca and Franklin. Unit says …"

Officer: "We need a medic. It's an off-duty police officer. Paca and Franklin. Paca and Franklin. Officer down."

Source: Baltimore Police Department

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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