When the gunfire began, Club Elite became 'instant chaos'

lwilliams@bradenton.comSeptember 16, 2011 

PALMETTO -- When bullets, bullet fragments and chunks of masonry and steel exploded through the doors and walls of Club Elite and swept through the 150 partygoers who had packed the small nightclub, it created “instant chaos,” according to the lead detective investigating the county’s worst mass shooting.

The drive-by shooting early Saturday, which killed two and injured 22 more, involved several volleys of gunfire.

Most of the injured were standing inside the front doors, right in the middle of a cone of gunfire and shrapnel created by at least two gunmen, armed with what police suspect were AK-47 and AR-15 military-style rifles.

“It was instant chaos. There was no build-up. It went from zero to 100,” said Palmetto Police Detective Chad Oyler.

“That many people in such a small space, there were people climbing over each other. How much panic these people must have had,” he told the Herald. “When they see people go down, they don’t know if it’s going to be them next.”

Trayon Goff, 25, of Palmetto, was shot and killed outside the club’s front door.

Gwenette Matthews, 38, of Bradenton, was shot to death inside the club.

“If there ever had been an innocent bystander or an innocent victim, she’s the epitome,” Oyler said. “People have speculated on why people were targeted, if they were targeted. She was just at the wrong place at the wrong time.”

Matthews was standing talking to friends near the middle of the club, away from the entry way behind the main doors that saw most of the carnage.

Most likely, she never knew what happened. She was struck once in the head and died instantly, officials said.

“The wound I saw was an angle-wound on her head,” said Palmetto Police Lt. Scott Tyler.

No arrests have been made in the case.

As Tyler and Oyler spoke about the shooting Thursday, they addressed the rumors that are running rampant in the small community.

There was a second exchange of gunfire that followed the initial assault on the building, Oyler said.

“We don’t know what the targets were of the second round of shots. We’re talking like a barrage after a barrage. After a minute-and-a-half goes by, it’s followed by another series of shots” he said.

Investigators don’t know whether this was defensive fire directed toward the gunmen by someone outside the club, or whether the suspects continued shooting after reloading their weapons.

Johnny Yarn, 47, was injured in the shooting.

Yarn was sitting at a table, talking on his cell phone when a rifle round passed completely through his left leg and lodged in his right thigh.

“I was putting my phone in my pocket when the chaos started,” Yarn said. “I told police I really didn’t even know I’d been hit. It was chaos.”

Yarn was walking slowly Thursday, with a pronounced limp.

“It’s still pretty sore,” he said.

Oyler said Goff was killed on the sidewalk outside the club, where he had been standing with a small crowd of people.

“We’ve got a lot of info that suggests he was the target, but we’ve also had info come in that suggests otherwise,” he said. “Obviously, we have to run all those down.”

In a hand-drawn diagram of the scene, Oyler showed how most of the spent casings were recovered from the street.

“It supports the theory that a vehicle was in motion when it happened,” he said. “The casings decrease in volume, but it went almost the whole block.”

The evidence suggests the suspects never got out of their car.

“I haven’t talked to anyone that said anything about the suspects dismounting,” Oyler said. “There were not very many people standing around outside the club, and as soon as the shooting started, everyone scattered.”

Overall, he said, the tips from the public are tapering off. Several leads detectives received after the shooting haven’t led anywhere.

“The vehicle descriptions given out the first day have not panned out,” he said. “There were several cars getting out of there quickly. I’m frustrated we don’t have a witness.”

Tyler said the department is aware that the killing could be retaliatory, which could lead to more shootings.

“Our agency, the sheriff’s office, we are all taking that very seriously,” he said. “There is a lot of fear and concern in the community. We have to look at all the angles, but if you listen to the rumors, it is part of an ongoing cycle of violence. If this is true, it may go on.”

Tyler and Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells are appealing to businesses and individuals in the area for donations to help increase the reward -- already at more than $21,000 -- for information that will break the case open.

Oyler wants concrete information: the location of the suspects’ vehicle, eyewitness testimony, the location of the firearms used in the assault.

Said Oyler: “Nobody likes to lose. I don’t like to lose. If we don’t close this case out with an arrest, that’s a loss.”

Anyone with information about the shooting 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.

Lee Williams, Herald investigative reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7041.

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