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

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.

Hutcherson left the window to check on her young daughter, but her roommate continued watching. The university employee said the man in the dark jacket was lying on his back, his arms splayed out. She could not see a weapon, though police said there's no indication that his gun was taken from him at any point during the fight.

"The [plainclothes officer] was … on his back, and two uniformed officers, they took a couple steps back and just fired at him while he was lying on the ground," the university employee said.

Hutcherson, who heard multiple gunshots, recounted how her roommate relayed to her what was happening: "She said, 'Oh my God, they're killing him. He's not even moving, he's laying on the ground with his hands up.' "

"Another cop, a heavy-set guy with 'Police' on his back, was screaming [expletives]," she said. "A cop in a brown hoodie fell to his knees, and that's when we knew [the victim] was a cop."

A third witness, 39-year-old Jacques Steptoe, said Monday that he had been watching the crowd from his fourth-floor window at a nearby nursing home on North Paca Street. He has been recovering from surgery and couldn't sleep that night, he said.

From his vantage point, catty-corner to the roommates' apartment, he said he believed someone sprayed Mace and that Torbit whipped his right arm around, gripping his service weapon, and fired a shot into the crowd.

When the uniformed officers saw that, they began opening fire, causing him to fall back.

"He fell down with the gun in his hand just like that," Steptoe said, bringing his arms over his head. He said he saw "five or six" officers then approach Torbit, some of them still shooting.

At Monday's news conference, police identified the officers who fired their weapons as Harry Dodge, 37, an 11-year veteran; Harry Pawley, 40, a 17-year veteran; Toyia Williams, 36, a 13-year veteran; and Latora Craig, 30, a nine-year veteran. Dodge was shot in the foot, police said.

Only Craig has ever discharged her weapon before, said police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi. Her gun fired into a wall during a struggle for the weapon with a suspect in July 2010. She was cleared and returned to duty.

Dodge, Pawley, Williams and Craig have been placed on routine administrative suspension with pay pending an investigation and have not given statements about the shooting.

Michael Davey, an attorney for the Fraternal Order of Police, said the officers do not have to speak with investigators because the case — like all police-involved shootings — is considered a criminal investigation. But he said all of the officers intend to speak with detectives in coming days.

As Torbit lay on the ground, a law enforcement source said, an off-duty medic who was among the clubgoers began tending to him. The roommates said they saw officers pick up Torbit by his arms and legs and carry him to the back seat of a car. The car was surrounded by hordes of people, but the officers eventually were able to drive off, taking him to Maryland Shock Trauma Center, where he was pronounced dead.

Meanwhile, a group of people was advancing on the uniformed officers who had fired their weapons, apparently angry at what they had observed, and officers began deploying Tasers and slamming people onto the hoods of cars.

"It was out of control," Hutcherson said.

A few feet away, they noticed another victim: Sean Gamble. The waste management worker, who has no criminal record, was lying under a car that appeared to be trying to pull away. They said Gamble — whose brother says he was shot in the chest — remained there for what seemed like 30 minutes before an ambulance came. They saw medics pumping his chest.

"We're right near Maryland General, University Hospital, and no one came for a long time," Hutcherson said.

Fire Department officials did not respond to a request for records that would show how long it took for medics to respond.

The roommates continued to watch the incident unfold. They said crime scene technicians did not arrive until 4 a.m., with people leaving the club "trampling" on the crime scene.

Neither woman has called police to report what they saw; both said they are fearful of officers after observing the incident and the police response. But they said they wanted the public to know what they saw.

"I didn't know it was a cop, but no one deserves to be shot at like that," the university employee said. "I felt like it was ridiculously excessive and unnecessary. There was no need for that shooting to happen."

justin.fenton@baltsun.com

twitter.com/justin_fenton

Sun reporters Yeganeh June Torbati and Timothy B. Wheeler contributed to this article.

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