Tragedy strikes social club

The Baltimore Sun

For more than half a century, the Arbutus Social Club in southwestern Baltimore County has hosted bull roasts, baby showers and weddings. The brickfront building on Stevens Avenue is often booked throughout weekends, with sometimes two events a night.

But the head of the club says there's never been an event like the birthday party that carried into yesterday morning. That gathering ended abruptly in gunfire, with two men dead and three people injured - and police imploring witnesses to break their silence.

"There were 100 people in that room, at least, who saw something," county police spokesman Bill Toohey said. "If only they would speak up."

Daniel Dudley, the social club's president, said: "We've been in business for 54 years, and this is the first time anything of this magnitude has ever hit us. This is something I'm having a hard time dealing with."

A group from Baltimore's Cherry Hill neighborhood rented the hall Sunday night for a birthday party, police said. Police said as many as 200 people packed the building, which has a capacity of about 250.

Gunfire erupted about 12:40 a.m., sending partygoers fleeing out the door and into nearby streets, police said.

The dead were identified as Edward Wayne Johnson, 25, of Cherry Hill and Michael Johnson, 31, of the Windsor Mill area of Baltimore County. The men were not related, Toohey said.

Three people injured in the shooting - two men in their late 20s or early 30s and a woman in her early 20s - were being treated at Maryland Shock Trauma Center for injuries not believed to be life-threatening, Toohey said. Police did not identify the injured.

Detectives did not provide a motive for the shootings. A reward of up to $2,000 for information is being offered by Metro Crime Stoppers, at 866-7LOCKUP.

Reached by phone, a woman who identified herself as the wife of Michael Johnson, of the 7200 block of Stony Barr Road, said the family was grieving but declined to comment further.

Attempts to reach Edward Johnson's family were unsuccessful.

Edward Johnson, of the 1000 block of Bethune Road, had twice been charged with attempted first-degree murder, in 2002 and 2006. In both instances, Baltimore prosecutors dismissed the charges, court records show.

In December, Baltimore prosecutors dismissed charges of illegally carrying a firearm, the records show. In 2004, Edward Johnson pleaded guilty to drug possession with the intent to distribute and was sentenced to eight years in prison, with all but three years suspended. He was ordered to be placed on two years of supervised probation. In 1999, he pleaded guilty to first-degree assault and was sentenced to 10 years in prison, with all but two years suspended, the records show.

A search of court records did not turn up a criminal record for Michael Johnson.

Leo Garvey, who has been a member of the social club for 50 years, said he could recall few violent incidents at the hall. A few years ago, a motorcycle gang caused some problems at an event when some people jumped on cars, he said. "You have fisticuffs sometimes, but not that bad," Garvey said.

The social club bought the building in the early 1950s, Garvey said. The club, which has 100 members, holds dinners for members on the first Friday of every month and rents out the space other nights.

Dudley said the club rents out the hall for $400 on Saturday nights and $350 on Sunday nights.

"We've had everything from baby showers and wedding showers to 50th anniversaries, 50th surprise parties," Dudley said.

He said he was not sure when the club would reopen.

He said he did not know who rented the hall Sunday night. The club officer who handles bookings could not be reached, he said.

The hall sits behind a carry-out and near a popular Italian restaurant, a block from East Drive, one of the main commercial thoroughfares in Arbutus.

Three "Happy Birthday" balloons tied to the awning over the entrance blew in the breeze yesterday morning as crime scene technicians carried bags and boxes of evidence from the building and put them into police vans.

David Handler, who owns a custom cabinet shop nearby, watched the police work with a look of dismay. He said the area is generally quiet.

"It's like little Mayberry here," said Handler, who has had his business in Arbutus since 1991. "You don't expect this sort of thing."

Whenever there is trouble in the area, he added, "It's never the local people who are involved."

Terry White, who has lived next to the hall on Stevens Avenue for about seven years, said she has complained about fights at the social hall in the past. When the shots were fired early yesterday, White said she grabbed her four sleeping grandchildren, ages 3 to 12, and kept their heads lowered as she rushed them to her bedroom, farther away from the facility.

"I was scared to death," White said. "You never know when a bullet will come through a window or something."

She said she could hear people shouting. And when she looked out the front door window as she checked to make sure it was locked, she could see dozens of people running out of the hall, she said.

Some people were yelling, "He's been shot," White said. "One woman was saying, 'That's my husband.'"

"It's sad," she said. "And it's scary."

The hall has a C-class liquor license, reserved for clubs such as Veterans of Foreign Wars halls, said Thomas Minkin, chairman of the county liquor board. He said the club has had a license since the 1960s, with no complaints.

"This would be the first situation brought to our attention," he said.

County liquor regulations state that if the club rents out the facility, the renters must obtain a one-day liquor license before serving alcohol, Minkin said. It appears no one applied for a one-day license for Sunday at the hall, Minkin said. He said the board has asked for a police report on the shooting.

Sun reporters Anica Butler and David Michael Ettlin contributed to this article.

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