No expense was spared for Gwendolyn Burgess' 32nd birthday party in March at Maceo's Lounge in West Baltimore. A band played downstairs, while a DJ spun records upstairs before a group of about 40 people, including at least five Baltimore City school police officers.
About 11:30 p.m., the party for Burgess, a school police dispatcher, erupted in gunfire. Panicked guests took cover or rushed for the narrow exits, knocking over snacks and tables.
Lamont Thomas Harrell, 23, had opened fire on Allen Coates, 36, shooting him nine times. Coates had just quietly reprimanded Harrell for groping his girlfriend on her way from the bathroom - an act of chivalry that prosecutors said caused his death.
City homicide detectives had a club full of potential witnesses. But only two came forward - and neither was a school police officer, according to court records. Coates' girlfriend, Machelle Mack, and another guest, whom prosecutors said yesterday was having nightmares about the gruesome incident, proved to be crucial witnesses for prosecutors.
"If we had more people like them come forward and stand up for what is right, maybe we could do something about the large number of unsolved homicides in this city," prosecutor Theresa M. Shaffer said.
Harrell initially denied being at the party, but a photographer hired for the event had captured him posing at a pool table.
Harrell, of the 2300 block of N. Pulaski St., pleaded guilty yesterday to the first-degree murders of Coates on March 10 and of Andre S. Jones, 30, on Feb. 20. The two homicides were unrelated. Jones was gunned down in a Clifton Avenue deli while playing an electronic poker machine. Yesterday, Harrell alleged that Jones had previously shot at him.
Baltimore Circuit Judge Timothy Doory said that in the Jones case, Harrell had "a reason," but in the Maceo's Lounge shooting, "there was so little to be gained and so much to be lost."
"The stupidity of it is astounding," Doory said.
Doory sentenced Harrell to life in prison for both murders, suspending all but 50 years. He also sentenced Harrell to 20 years in prison, five years without parole, for handgun violations in both cases. All of the sentences are to run concurrently.
According to court records, none of the five school police officers could identify the gunman, who escaped and was apprehended almost three weeks later.
The officers told investigators that they were "stomped" on or "trampled" by other guests. Another, when asked why he did not come forward, said he was "shook up," according to a transcript of his interview with police.
A city homicide detective questioning him responded that police officers are not supposed to get "shook up."