PALMETTO -- The family of Trayon Goff, one of two people shot to death Saturday at Club Elite, and three other victims of the mass shooting say the nightclub was negligent by not providing adequate security.
They have retained attorneys to investigate filing a wrongful-death or negligence lawsuit against the Palmetto nightclub and its owner. More of the 22 wounded victims may be joining the case.
They plan to base their suit on the fact that the nightclub stopped using off-duty police officers to provide security there just months before the mass shooting. News that the four families had hired two law firms came Tuesday morning during a press conference at Goff’s home.
“The business owners canceled their contract with the police department. If they would have had the presence of police officers there, the shooters would not have come on the premises,” said Benjamin Crump, one of the attorneys representing the Goff family.
“If police had been there, there wouldn’t have been anybody spraying into the crowd,” Crump said. ”The presence of police deters crime. It deters violence. If the police would have been there, this tragedy would not have happened.”
Contacted on Tuesday, Walter L. “Mickey” Presha Sr., president of the club’s operator Illusions Inc., had little to say about a possible lawsuit.
“I don’t have a reaction. They do what they do,” the club’s owner told the Bradenton Herald. “My compassion and pain is with them.”
Presha is also president and chief executive officer of Manatee County Rural Health Services.
Palmetto Police Chief Rick Wells said Tuesday the investigation is “moving forward,” and that his investigators are continuing to follow up leads.
Last spring, Presha’s daughter, Trina Presha Rosier, stopped hiring off-duty Palmetto Police officers who had provided security outside the club. Documents show that Rosier is Illusion’s vice president, treasurer and secretary.
Presha announced Monday that he does not plan to reopen the club.
Goff, 25, of Palmetto, was shot and killed outside the club’s front door.
Gwenette Matthews, 38, of Bradenton, was found shot to death inside the club.
Twenty-two other people were wounded by the gunfire.
Crump said his firm has spoken to Matthews’ family and others about joining the suit.
Palmetto Police spokesman Lt. Scott Tyler has said Rosier told police in April or May that her club would no longer need off-duty officers patrolling the exterior of her club, the sidewalk and parking lots adjacent to the building. The club usually had hired two or three officers on weekends.
Rosier said she stopped hiring Palmetto officers because business was slow. Police agencies in Manatee County usually charge about $25 per hour for off-duty work.
“They made a business decision,” Crump said. “We think it was a negligent business decision.”
Goff’s sister Nikita has been to Club Elite before, and saw police officers outside, providing security in the parking lot.
She said she wants to know “why there was no security there that night as the other times.”
Lee Coppock, a law professor and Trial Advocacy Fellow for Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, said the families could have a valid legal argument.
“It sounds to me like there’s a strong case for liability,” Coppock said. “The very fact they had police there shows the owners had notice -- some reason they were necessary and needed.
“If business was so bad they can’t afford cops,” he added, “they should have closed the place down rather than be a magnet for problems.”
Coppock said his primary concern would be whether the club’s insurance could cover a massive award.
“If there are a lot of plaintiffs, assuming there’s a finite amount of coverage, it would have to be divided,” Coppock said. “Given the facts of the case, and if the victim’s future earnings could be quantifiable, the judgment could be huge.”
Alisia Adamson, another attorney representing the families, addressed the theories that have become the talk of the small community -- particularly whether the mass shooting is connected to another Palmetto shooting in January in which Goff’s brother was arrested, but never prosecuted after the state attorney’s office dropped the case.
“There’s always a lot of rumor or innuendo,” Adamson said. “The bottom line: If police would have been outside the club, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Louis Goff, Trayon’s father, acknowledged that his son had had several felony arrests, including several for the sale of cocaine.
“He was a great kid,” he said. “Of course he had a few run-ins with the law, but he didn’t bother anybody.”
Goff said his son would tell neighborhood kids the importance of a good education.
“He didn’t take that road, but he’d tell them to do it,” he said.
Goff said he’s in frequent contact with Palmetto Police and the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. Both agencies have detectives investigating the shooting.
Although the agencies have provided him with little substantive information about the incident, Goff said he is not displeased.
“I am 100 percent with the sheriff’s department and the Palmetto Police,” he said. “I have no problems with anything.”
Lee Williams, Herald investigative reporter, can be reached at (941) 745-7041.