PALMETTO -- Gunmen shot two people to death and wounded 22 others in one of the worst shooting cases in Manatee County history early Saturday morning.
At least two shooters opened fire at about 12:30 a.m. on a crowd standing in front of Club Elite, 704 10th St. W.
Trayon Goff, 25, of Palmetto, fell dead outside the club’s front door.
Gwenette Matthews, 38, of Bradenton, was found dead inside the club, according to the Palmetto Police Department.
Twenty-two other people were hit by gunfire during the attack. The six most seriously wounded were taken to Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg. Another 16 persons were treated at Manatee Memorial Hospital.
Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells said he believes the number of victims is the worst shooting incident in the city’s history.
That much was known early, but clues about who the suspects might be, motive, and whether an arrest was imminent remained elusive.
“We are hoping we can get this thing resolved soon,” Wells said.
Investigators from the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office are assisting with the investigation.
Investigators believe a rifle may have been one of the weapons used in the attack, said Lt. Scott Tyler of the Palmetto Police Department.
By late Saturday afternoon, only one of the victims taken to Bayfront was listed as being in critical condition in the intensive care unit.
Two others at Bayfront were listed in good condition. Three had been discharged, said Margaret Ballou, administrator on duty at Bayfront.
Fifteen of the 16 people who were taken to Manatee Memorial Hospital had been discharged as of Saturday afternoon.
One person was still being treated at Manatee Memorial.
A hospital spokesman declined to provide any other information about any of the patients.
Shock was the most frequent reaction to the shooting.
The family of Mickey Presha, CEO of Manatee County Rural Heath, owns the property at 704 10th St. W. He told the Herald Saturday afternoon that he had “not slept a wink” since the shootings,
“Obviously, our prayers go out to the families and the victims,” Presha said. “I am told by the guys on the street that it was a retaliation shooting.”
Goff’s grandmother, who was visibly shaken over his slaying, declined to comment Saturday afternoon outside their Palmetto home.
Goff has a prior felony conviction of sale of cocaine, according to court documents.
He was just released from jail Sept. 5 after being arrested on driving without a license charge, following a previous conviction.
Matthews’ family could not be reached for comment.
Matthews was a certified nursing assistant and had no criminal convictions, according to the Intellius website.
In 2007, after 9-year-old Stacy Williams III, an innocent bystander and neighbor, was shot to death in the 3200 block of Fifth Street East of Bradenton, Matthews vented her frustration in the Bradenton Herald.
“It’s a tragedy. I feel unprotected in my neighborhood,” Matthews told the Herald.
“It’s a shame when your kids can’t come outside and play. If they can’t ride in front of their house, where can they play? There are no parks around here,” she said.
The Club Elite crime scene
Bullet holes riddled the Club Elite building and several cars in the parking lot.
Outside the club, while investigators went about the work of collecting evidence, empty beer bottles and half empty mixed drinks could be seen. Orange circles had been spray-painted on the streets near Club Elite marking spots where evidence, including shell casings and blood, were found.
“We are pretty sure the shooting took place outside of the club,” Tyler said.
“We believe there were at least two shooters and we are aggressively working on some leads.”
Detectives received information early on about a person of interest, who was cleared of any connection to the shooting by late afternoon, Tyler said.
“We have the surveillance video from the club and we are working with area business” to see if they have video as well, Tyler said.
No description of the shooters had been released Saturday and it was unclear if the gunmen fired from a passing vehicle or walked up to the scene.
Throughout the afternoon witnesses to the shooting arrived on scene to pick up the cars they had left behind.
Palmetto Mayor Shirley Groover Bryant said she learned of the shooting about 1:30 a.m. from Police Chief Wells, who kept her informed of developments throughout the day.
“They are trying to get to the bottom of this. Our hearts go out to the families and victims,” she said. “We are disappointed to have something like that happen. It makes you sick to have something like that happen in the heart of your city.”
Mary Lancaster, commissioner for the ward in which Club Elite is located, said she was leaving the case in the hands of police.
“I have a lot of confidence in our chief of police that he will handle it in the best way,” Lancaster said.
A shop owner, who declined to be named, said she received a call from Palmetto Police Department about 2 a.m., saying her building had been damaged in the shooting. When she arrived on the scene, she discovered her glass door had been shattered by two bullets.
Another shop owner said his heart sank when he arrived at the parking lot to see it covered with crime tape.
Local resident Robbie Brown came to the crime scene to watch investigators at work in hopes of getting more information about the shooting.
Brown said he received a text message from a friend late Saturday morning about the shooting.
“He said he was shot in the arm, but was fine,” Brown said. “My buddy Freddy brought him to the hospital. I’ve been to the club before and I always feel safe.”
But Brown said that after this shooting he may not be back.
To help keep a sense of security in the area, Tyler said the department is “going to keep an eye on all our clubs and late-night businesses.”
During the course of their investigation, detectives found a suspicious package inside a dumpster, according to Tyler. The package did not contain explosives and it was unknown whether it was related to the shooting.
The Manatee County Sheriff’s Office bomb unit destroyed it, Wells said.
A motive has not been determined in the case.
“We do believe most of the people shot were innocent victims,” Wells said.
The public is urged to help solve and close the case.
“We need the public to call and let us know what they saw,” Tyler said.
On an average night, several hundred people gather in and around the area of Club Elite, he said.
“Some of the victims and witnesses have come forward and given information,” Tyler said.
Scrambling to handle victims
Manatee Memorial Hospital went into lock-down mode with the arrival of so many patients at one time. Emergency room workers may have handled the most gunshot victims at one time in the hospital’s history.
“We are proud of our staff,” spokesman Vernon DeSear said.
A history of gunfire
Club Elite was the scene of another deadly shooting in December, in which Palmetto police arrested a 28-year-old man.
Breon Mitchell, 23, of Bradenton, was found with a gunshot to his torso. He was lying in a car lot, according to authorities. He was taken to Bayfront Medical Center, where he died.
Tavarious China Smith sustained a gunshot wound to his arm and friends took him to Sarasota Memorial Hospital.
Smith was later arrested in connection with that shooting.
But murder charges were not filed against Smith because it was determined he acted in self-defense, according to the office of State Attorney Earl Moreland.
In June, a 21-year-old Palmetto woman was arrested on charges that she fired a pistol into the ceiling of Club Elite, Palmetto police reported.
Anyone with information about the crime can call the Palmetto Police Department at (941) 723-4587 or Manatee County Crime Stoppers at (866) 634-8477.
Callers may remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward.
--Sara Kennedy also contributed to this report.
Paradise Afshar, Herald reporter, can be contacted at 748-0411, ext. 7024.