Violence erupts among crowd of thousands in Towson

The Towson melee that left one person wounded in a shooting and led to seven people being charged came after a charity clothing drive brought a capacity crowd to the Recher Theater.

Baltimore County police said today that several fights broke out early Sunday among people who were unable to get into the event. Four were arrested for disorderly conduct or failing to follow a lawful order; three were arrested for assaulting officers.

Theater owner Brian Recher said the event, sponsored by fraternity Theta Mu Mu, featured a DJ and a clothing drive to benefit Goodwill. It was the third event the theater had done with Theta Mu Mu, he said, calling fraternity members “excellent people.”

“They’re very professional, great guys, and they just don’t know how it blew up,” Recher said.

Police had said the theater overbooked the show, but Recher disputed that.

People paid at the door, he said, and the venue closed its doors after reaching its capacity of 630 people. “We’ve done everything above-board,” Recher said.

The commercial stretch of York Road was out of control for almost two hours, witnesses and local business owners said, and police used dogs and pepper spray on the crowds.

With Towson University celebrating its homecoming and reports of other local universities holding events in town, an influx of young people had rapidly filled the downtown bars and, as space became limited, spilled onto the street.

Police began responding to calls for disorderly conduct in the area about 11:15 p.m., as fights began breaking out among an estimated 2,500 people in line along Shealy Avenue outside the Recher Theatre, where a fraternity event had reached capacity, said Lt. Rob McCullough, a police spokesman.

"These kids were running wild and were out of control along York Road," McCullough said.

The man who was shot multiple times approached a county police sergeant about 1 a.m. and received first-aid on the scene before being transported to a local hospital, McCullough said.

By the time the crowd was brought under control sometime after 3:30 a.m., police had arrested at least six people in incidents unrelated to the shooting, shut down York Road and relied on canine units and pepper spray to quell the confrontational violence, McCullough said.

"It was Armageddon," said Jamal Means, a local bartender who said he witnessed students running down the street for fear of the police dogs. "It was brewing for disaster."

Recher said Sunday, "We didn't have any problems inside, but obviously, the stuff that was in the street was different."

Means said he saw taxi cabs dropping off young students one after another for hours.

He said he knew nothing good would come of the night when he noticed all the downtown bars were packed hours before Towson's homecoming football game against St. Francis of Pennsylvania was scheduled to end, sending another flood of students toward the bars.

"There was no police presence when it was building up," Means said. "They came when the catastrophe had already happened."

The sudden show of force by police after tensions were already high served only to escalate the situation, with confrontations occurring up and down the street, from the Towson Circle to the Towson Library, Means said.

"The cops were literally running at [students] with dogs," Means, 40, said. "You can't do that with kids."

McCullough said calls for police assistance were continual from 11:15 p.m. Saturday until 3:30 a.m. Sunday, and officers on the ground requested backup multiple times.

"It took all the resources we had assigned to Towson and neighboring precincts to control the crowd," McCullough said, noting county officers from as far away as White Marsh and state troopers from as far away as Perryville were called in.

Officers used police dogs in accordance with protocols to help control the crowd, and pepper spray was used to help break up fights, McCullough said.

Of the six people reportedly arrested, two were charged with disorderly conduct, three with second-degree assault and one with drug possession, he said.

Donny Stepp, who owns Double D Bail Bonds near the intersection of E. Chesapeake Avenue and York Road, said his phone "blew up" starting about 3 a.m. with calls from students and parents trying to get friends or loved ones out of jail.

"My phones have been nonstop for bails today," Stepp said Sunday afternoon, adding that he had processed six bail requests that morning.

By late Sunday morning, a county fire truck was hosing down blood stains on one area of the circle, according to local business owners.

John Zungailia, manager of the Greene Turtle bar on York Road, said his bar didn't have any problems — aside from one small "scuffle" among two patrons — in part because the manager had shut the bar's doors about 1 a.m. and refused to let anyone else in.

Shortly after, the bar's video surveillance showed "swarms of people coming down the street," Zungailia said. The police did a good job to contain the crowd and limit its effect on businesses, he said.

"It could have gotten out of hand down here if they weren't out so quickly," he said.

Kathy Harden, owner of nearby Souris' Saloon, agreed.

As Saturday night became Sunday morning, Harden said, she kept an eye on the crowds outside but was largely lucky in that the patrons in her bar weren't connected to the violence.

"The police did the best they could," said Harden, who is also a member of the Towson Chamber of Commerce and said police have already upped patrols in the area at night. "I just think the crowd was overwhelming."

Harden said the Towson alumni and students at her bar for homecoming all behaved themselves. She said she doesn't want to "point fingers," but doesn't think the violence was related to Towson University.

Harden said there were plenty of people at the event at the Recher who were not part of the violence.

"I talked to a few of them. They were very polite, and they said, 'We don't know what happened. We're leaving.'" Harden said.

County Councilman David Marks, a Republican who represents Towson, called what happened an "isolated incident," but said county officials and local leaders need to continue having conversations about Towson's growing population and draw as an entertainment hub as more development is completed.

"There's going to be more people in Towson, there's going to be more patrons, and we just have to make sure there are more resources," Marks said — including "beefed up security."

Baltimore Sun reporters Alison Knezevich, Jessica Anderson and Andrea F. Siegel contributed to this article.

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