Baltimore police officers might have shot and killed a fellow officer and an unarmed man after observing the officer draw his weapon while trying to quell a disturbance outside a club near downtown early Sunday, according to law enforcement sources and a relative of one of the victims.
Police released few details about the circumstances of the shooting, but they described a chaotic scene outside the Select Lounge in the 400 block of N. Paca St., with fights spilling out of the club and into the street around 1:15 a.m.
"There was an altercation that took place very near the club and some officers worked to intercede in that fight, at which time some gunshots were discharged," said Police Commissioner Frederick H. Bealefeld III. "Several officers fired multiple shots."
Sources said Officer William H. Torbit Jr., 33, an eight-year veteran, and 22-year-old Sean Gamble, a semi-professional football player who had no criminal record, were killed in the gunfire. Four others — a second officer and three women — were wounded, police said.
Three law enforcement sources briefed on the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the investigation was still under way, said witnesses told detectives that Torbit was in plainclothes and was being attacked by a group of people. Police said his badge apparently came off during the scuffle. It is believed that the officers who responded to the scene shot at him after he drew his weapon, said the law enforcement sources and the victim's relative, who was also a witness.
Gamble's brother, James Gamble, who was at the club, said he saw Torbit — who he believed was off-duty — acting aggressively toward a woman. His brother started arguing with the officer and the discussion escalated, said Gamble, 24. He said a group of uniformed officers began firing on the crowd when the plainclothes officer reached for his service weapon.
"It was a crazy scene," Gamble said. "They let off a good 20 shots, maybe six [officers]. They were just shooting."
Police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed Sunday evening that police were exploring whether officers had shot another officer in the midst of the chaotic situation. He said no civilian weapons had been recovered.
The violence comes on the heels of a number of high-profile incidents downtown, many of them connected to the city's nightlife. In March, two people were shot outside the Velvet Rope, a club that police have pushed to shut down. A month before that, a security guard was fatally shot on Light Street, and in June an off-duty police officer was charged with fatally shooting an unarmed man during an altercation outside a Mount Vernon club.
A Marine, celebrating before his redeployment to Afghanistan, was fatally shot at a downtown hookah bar in July, and a city police officer was shot and wounded in November after approaching an armed man near the city's adult entertainment district.
An off-duty Baltimore detective was killed in October when he was hit in the head during an argument over a parking space in Canton.
"This is an absolutely horrible incident," Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake said of Sunday's shootings. "I prayed we would never lose another officer, but here we are again."
Torbit's death comes four years to the day after Officer Troy Lamont Chesley was killed during an attempted carjacking. Chesley was the last officer to die in an attack while on duty.
If police determine that Torbit was killed by friendly fire, it would be the first such incident since an off-duty officer, Norman Stamp, was killed at a Southeast Baltimore bar in 2008. Police said at the time that officers responding to a call about a fight encountered Stamp — whom they didn't recognize as a fellow officer — wearing brass knuckles and shot him when he reached for his weapon. Stamp's widow last year lost a civil lawsuit filed against the officer who shot her husband.
Police would not confirm Torbit's identity Sunday, and police union officials said they were waiting for the department to formally identify the officer before commenting on his death.
News of Torbit's death stunned his next-door neighbor, Fafo Asres, who called the officer "a very nice person" who had helped maintain his neighborhood off Rolling Road in western Baltimore County. Torbit cleaned up trash and debris on the street and offered to haul waste items away in his truck for other residents, Asres said.
Torbit also had kidded around with Asres' children, the neighbor said. "My kids, they love him and call him 'Uncle Will,' " Asres said, adding that Torbit was "a very good example" for young people.
Though Torbit apparently lived alone, his neighbor described the officer as a "family man," with a number of relatives in the area. "He was there for his family," Asres said.
Asres said that he last saw Torbit on New Year's Eve and that the officer had told him he was working that night.
"I'm just sad," Asres said.
Gamble's relatives, meanwhile, said they believed police acted recklessly in firing on the crowd outside the nightclub. Corey Brown, 31, who said he is Sean Gamble's godbrother, said Sunday night that Gamble had a young child and was engaged to be married. Brown said Gamble worked for a waste management company and had no criminal record, a fact confirmed by a search of court records.
"He's not a violent kid — he's not in the streets," said Brown, who was not at the club early Sunday morning. "He's not even cut from that cloth. Apparently he got in a fight and the cops start shooting. Not in the air — in the crowd, and they shot him."
James Gamble said that the shots sent clubgoers running in every direction and that he located his brother underneath a vehicle. Sean Gamble had been shot in the chest, he said. James Gamble and dozens of others were detained for questioning by police.
Sean Gamble, who went to Woodlawn High School, was a member of the Baltimore Saints semi-pro football league, playing linebacker and wearing number 56.
Brown said Sean Gamble had a "huge heart and was really a person you wanted to be around."
"He was loyal, loyal to the death," Brown said.
At a news conference outside Maryland Shock Trauma Center before sunrise Sunday, police said they could not say what prompted the officers to fire or whether anyone other than the officers had fired a gun.
"We're a few hours into this whole ordeal, and we have scores of detectives working on the case, processing evidence, interviewing witnesses," Bealefeld said. "We have a ton of work to do to put together the facts of what happened."
Police had few additional details to offer later Sunday. Detectives were reviewing surveillance camera footage and other physical evidence.
Select Lounge opened two months ago a few blocks north of Lexington Market and has sought to attract an upscale crowd. Its Facebook page describes a strict dress code and boasts of a VIP lounge for the "ultimate in discreet experiences" for "sophisticated club connoisseurs, savvy socialites, A-list celebrities and the Baltimore's [sic] elite." Ravens player Dannell Ellerbe chose the club to celebrate his birthday in December.
At the scene Sunday morning, police tape blocked a parking lot adjacent to the Select Lounge that was still full of cars as detectives interviewed clubgoers at police headquarters. A "VIP Parking" sandwich board lay in the street.
By afternoon, all that remained in the parking lot were empty liquor bottles and scattered fliers for coming events at nightspots around the city. Calls made to a phone number for the club's owners were not immediately returned.
"What we need to figure out is what sparked the shooting," said Guglielmi. "Was there a weapon drawn by a civilian? Was the officer's weapon taken? We've got to put together a timeline and figure out what happened."
On Twitter, people lamented Baltimore's continuing nightlife violence.
"Can't even go out anymore," one person wrote. Another said: "This has to stop."
Baltimore Sun reporter Timothy Wheeler contributed to this article.