The staid Ascot stood in the heart of downtown Washington for more than two decades. Depending on the hour, it was an Indian restaurant with a buffet lunch, a lounge for after-work socializing or a basement nightclub pounding out dance music.
In January, the owners tossed out the stuffy-sounding name as part of a multimillion-dollar makeover. They re-branded the place Balletto, and it quickly evolved into a popular late-night destination that attracted professional football players and other boldface names to 17th and L streets. Just a few blocks from the White House, the corner is crowded with button-down lobbyists and lawyers by day.
Early Thursday, just two months after Balletto’s grand opening, a man who police say they think had been a patron was shot and killed in a silver BMW parked within steps of the club’s front door. Police said they’re investigating whether the gunfire was the result of a dispute in the club that spilled out to the sidewalk after the 2 a.m. closing.
The shooting comes as police are reorienting their deployment to deal with the challenge that comes with the District’s burgeoning night scene. It also shows how violence associated with closing times is not limited to clubs along U Street, Adams Morgan and other areas that traditionally have more nightclubs. Downtown Washington has seen an increase in night life, as well.
Among those in attendance at Balletto was a Washington Redskins running back, who said on Twitter that he left before the shooting, and a New York Giants linebacker. Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Torrey Smith had been to the club in the past, the team confirmed. He canceled a scheduled appearance there Saturday because of the shooting.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier has not invoked her emergency powers to shut Balletto for up to four days. She used that power at other clubs 15 times in 2012 and twice this year to help slow club-associated violence.
Authorities said witnesses told them that the victim had been to Balletto before the shooting, but detectives were reviewing surveillance video to confirm those accounts.
Lt. Robert Alder, commander of the homicide squad, said police do not know of a motive for the shooting. But he said the manager of the club and its valet reported two groups of people arguing and pushing outside the door before a man with a gun walked up to the BMW and fired.
The driver, Paul Aime Tanoh Danzo, 24, of Laurel, was killed, police said. He was hit at least once in the head, they said.
The valet said that he heard six shots but that he didn’t see the shooting. He said the victim had been in the club.
Police said the shooter fled in a black BMW with chrome wheels, which they were searching for. No arrests have been made.
A man who answered the phone at Balletto and identified himself as the manager said nothing occurred in the club that led to the dispute outside. He said he didn’t know whether the victim had been in his club. He said two men argued and went their separate ways, then one returned and started shooting.
“Nothing happened inside,” the man said. “We had a beautiful night.”
The manager said Balletto holds 300 people, has 16 surveillance cameras and had nine security guards on duty Thursday. About 100 people were there the night of the shooting, he said. He declined to give his name, and the owners could not be reached. The promoter of Wednesday’s event — a birthday party for Donte Davis, a former star football player from Fairfax County who played college ball at Syracuse — did not return phone calls.
The promotional material on the Internet advertised that several professional sports players would be in attendance, including Adrian Tracy, a linebacker for the Giants who is from Loudoun County, and Evan Royster, a running back for the Redskins who is from Fairfax.
Davis could not be reached to comment. A spokesman for the Giants confirmed that Tracy was at the club but could not offer further details. A message on Royster’s Twitter page quotes him: “Showed up for an hour so a friend could get a free table . . . left before shooting.”
Smith, of the Super Bowl champion Ravens, attended a gala at Balletto in February. In a tweet, Smith wrote in all capitals, “I was not in DC at Balletto last night.”
The shooting occurred well after commuters had left the District on Wednesday night. But by Thursday morning, a stretch of L Street east of the Farragut North Metro station remained cordoned off, along with several side streets. Police reopened the street about 7:45 a.m., when they took the victim’s car away on a flatbed truck and conducted a final search for evidence. Commuters reaching the top of the subway escalators were met with yellow crime-scene tape, and police spent time shooing away workers and deliverymen who found their offices inaccessible.
“We’ve been here for 22 years and never had a crime scene, not like this,” said Jeanne Clarks, who commutes from Arlington County and works at a trade association above Balletto.
At the time of his death, Danzo was awaiting trial in Prince George’s County District Court on charges that he defrauded banks in Mitchellville and Hyattsville out of more than $7,700 by depositing counterfeit checks. He also was charged with defrauding a Takoma Park woman out of $13,500.
His attorney declined to comment on the cases.
Balletto has not had any problems with the D.C. Alcoholic Beverage Regulation Administration. When the club was Ascot, its most serious problem occurred in 2005, when a Bowie man was fatally stabbed in the stomach during a fight inside.
Then-Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey closed the club for 96 hours, and the liquor board suspended the license for 60 days because of the stabbing and a large fight that occurred there that year.
Mark Berman, Magda Jean-Louis, Mark Maske and Barry Svrluga contributed to this report.