Palmetto Club Elite shootings need community input to arrest suspects

ejohnson@bradenton.comSeptember 9, 2012 

PALMETTO -- Every week for the past year, Palmetto Police Detective Chad Oyler has read over a file containing information on the shootings at Club Elite that left two dead and 22 injured.

The shooting, considered the worst in Manatee County history, took place at 12:30 a.m. Sept. 10 at 704 10th St. W., Palmetto.

"I at least commit a couple of days a week to doing something involving that case -- you have to," said Oyler, lead detective on the shootings.

No arrests have been made in the slaying of Trayon Goff, 25, of Palmetto, and Gwenette Matthews, 38, of Bradenton.

"Other agencies haven't forgotten. It's not like they've cast it aside just because it's not theirs," said Oyler, who regularly discusses the case with the Manatee County Sheriff's Office and Bradenton Police Department.

The detective keeps an eye on other shootings in Manatee and surrounding counties, looking for incidents in which similar caliber weapons are used. Evidence can be sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement for comparison. If there is a match, it could significantly help lead to a suspect in the case.

Detectives found 35 to 40 shell casings from two separate guns fired by occupants of a passing vehicle at the scene.

Those shell casings and video surveillance from the club make up the foundation of evidence in the case. Footage from inside the club was helpful, Oyler

said, "but it's not enough to build a case around." There was no camera at the front of the building to capture footage as the suspect vehicle passed, hindering the investigation.

"We do have people who were leaving or entering the parking lot that were in vehicles," said Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells. "We know they had a good angle of the roadway to the vehicle."

And yet no one has come forward with the color, make or model of the vehicle, Oyler said.

Police seek witnesses

Solving cases of this magnitude is complex, says Oyler.

"A lot of people don't understand it's not like TV, it's not like CSI," he said. "Cases like this are really reliant on witnesses and physical evidence -- and if you don't have a lot of one, you've got to rely on another. And we need witnesses."

Someone in the community has information crucial to arrests being made, but until those people come forward, Oyler is stuck in a waiting game.

"We know that there are people prior to the shooting and after the shooting that can assist us in this case that are not giving us information that could really break this wide open," Wells said.

Wells and Oyler call the situation "extremely frustrating."

"We don't understand how you can hold that information," Wells said. "We don't understand how you can not come forward when you know two people died and 22 other people were injured. More of them could have died if not by the grace of God."

Victims and others at the club have been cooperative, Oyler said, but most were inside and saw nothing.

"As far as input from concerned citizens who want to come in and say, 'Look I know I might be putting myself out there right now. I know there may be some risk involved, but it's the right thing to do. This is what I saw. This is what I know and this is what I'm willing to do to make sure this person won't do it again' -- we haven't had that," Oyler said.

Rumors and threats on the streets may be the reason no one has come forward.

"But is the threat at the scale that some people make it seem like it is? I don't think so," Oyler added.

Police are hoping that with a combined reward of $21,000 from Crime Stoppers, Gold Star Club and the Palmetto Community Redevelopment Agency, someone will at least call in an anonymous tip at 1-866-634-8477 (TIPS).

"This is not a cold case," Wells said, adding the file is kept readily available for new information. "We continue to work any angle that we can when we have information that we believe is going to assist us. We just need someone that may have information to just pick up the phone and call."

Evidence: Motive 'personal'

Police believe three or four suspects occupied the drive-by vehicle -- based on evidence that two firearms were used in addition to someone driving -- and possibly others. From the beginning, Wells said, detectives determined a possible motive, which hasn't been disclosed.

"There was a target intended in that shooting," Oyler said. "Now whether or not they got the exact person they wanted to get? There might have been a group of people that they were aiming for."

It is possible the shooting was related to an incident on the preceding Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the detective said. Louis Goff Jr., brother of one of those killed at Club Elite, was charged with attempted murder after allegedly shooting two people at a holiday gathering in the 100 block of 17th Street West, Palmetto. Charges were later dropped, court records show.

Despite involvement of similar people in both incidents, Wells said the investigation is open to other leads.

It is undetermined if the shooting involved drugs but, if so, Oyler said he believes the connection to be "indirect."

"The people who did it might be in the drug trade, but as far as the motivation of the shooting, it looked pretty personal to me," Oyler said. "They did a thorough job."

In fact, Oyler believes the car rounded the block and the shooters again opened fire less than two minutes later.

"Based off of evidence in the video, we're pretty confident there was a second series of shots fired after the initial gunfire," Oyler said. "Whether it was directed toward the same people, I don't know."

Wells said police have a foundation of evidence and suspects, but the case will remain unsolved without more.

"We just need someone who may be able to put that one piece of the puzzle in there that's going to help us take it to the state attorney for prosecution," he said.

In addition to the criminal investigation, at least one lawsuit is pending in the case.

Matthews' family and several surviving victims filed a complaint April 30 against Illusions Restaurant and Lounge, which incorporated Club Elite, and owner Walter Presha. The defendants responded June 7 with motions to dismiss the complaint, which alleges inadequate security at the club.

No additional documents have been filed by either side. Matthews' family declined to comment on the matter. Calls to the Presha family and attorneys in the case were not returned.

Anyone with information on the Club Elite shooting can call the Palmetto Police Department at 941-721-2000 or Crime Stoppers at 1-866-634-8477 (TIPS).

Elizabeth Johnson, Herald crime reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7041. Follow her on Twitter @EJohnsonBHcrime.

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