PORTSMOUTH, Va. — They were two sailors with different ratings, off of two different aircraft carriers, who didn’t even seem to know each other when an argument broke out inside a two-story home along Atlanta Avenue here.
It was shortly before 9:00 p.m. on May 5, and by the time the evening ended one would be dead and the other the target of a manhunt that eventually involved two police departments and the Navy.
It was four days before Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Dalen O’Shay Spence turned 22, but now he faces charges of first-degree murder and using a firearm during the commission of a felony following the shooting death of Machinist’s Mate (Nuclear) 3rd Class Donald Alton Thorington, 23.
Spence has yet to enter a plea, but he told authorities he was defending himself from a larger sailor who attacked him. A bodybuilder, Thorington was 6 foot 1 inch tall and tipped the scales at 270 pounds — twice the weight of Spence and 9 inches taller, according to court filings.
Detectives, however, suspect Spence could’ve evaded the unarmed Thorington and instead gunned him down and left him to bleed out near the street.
The ongoing criminal probe has escaped the media spotlight, perhaps because it capped off a bloody weekend for the sea service here.
The night before and less than a mile from Thorington’s home, a corpsman shot himself to death after killing two female sailors in front of a 7-Eleven convenience store, authorities say.
That case also remains under investigation.
Originally from upstate New York, Thorington enlisted in the Navy in early 2015 and at the time of his death was assigned to the aircraft carrier George Washington, according to his service records.
It’s undergoing a midlife refueling and overhaul at Huntington Ingalls Newport News Shipyard near here.
He lived at 1312 Atlanta Ave. with three roommates and they were having a party on May 5, court filings obtained by Navy Times indicate.
A case summary drafted by Portsmouth Police Department Detective W.J. Baker begins with a verbal argument that erupted inside the residence and soon turned physical.
The alleged instigators were asked to leave but the spat followed them outside, where “the argument intensified and there was a lot of yelling and punches were being thrown by both sides,” Baker wrote.
Standing on the sidewalk, Thorington was jawing with Harrison White, a 20-year-old Norfolk resident who attended the party. Thorington told White “to come to him,” Baker wrote, but before he could comply Spence stepped in front of him and “pulled his gun out of the holster” and pointed it at the bodybuilder.
Originally from North Carolina, Spence had enlisted in early 2017 and was assigned to the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush, which is undergoing maintenance at Norfolk Naval Shipyard here.
In Baker’s version of events, Thorington asked Spence, “What are you going to do with the gun?” before he moved toward Spence and “grabbed his neck."
Spence then fired twice, striking Thorington in the chest and the “stomach area,” according to Baker’s report.
Spence, White and others who’d been urged to leave the party “quickly got in their vehicles" and left a scene that had descended into chaos, with Baker noting that “it was still undetermined” by those in the house “who in the group shot” Thorington.
Police officers arrived to find Thorington dying in his front yard, his friends frantically doing cardio-pulmonary resuscitation to save him.
Paramedics rushed him to Sentara Norfolk General Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
The coroner later ruled Thorington’s death a homicide caused by “multiple gunshot wounds."
Police officers soon realized that none of those who remained at the house actually witnessed the shooting but they were able to gather some of the names of those who drove away, Baker wrote.
They also found a key piece of physical evidence — a spent .40 caliber casing.
Authorities eventually tracked down eyewitnesses, but it was White who told police that “Duce” — his name for Spence — pulled the trigger.
In a statement tucked into the court records, White also said that nothing blocked his or Spence’s “path to retreat.”
Multiple messages left with White by Navy Times were not returned and he has yet to testify under oath in a courtroom.
On May 7, two days after the shooting, Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents boarded the aircraft carrier George H.W. Bush to take Spence into custody.
NCIS spokesman Ed Buice told Navy Times that the probe became a joint investigation with the Portsmouth Police Department and once Spence was identified his agency issued a BOLO — be on the lookout — alert for base security and his carrier.
NCIS agents then handed him over to the Portsmouth Police and he was interviewed by Detective Stanley Alexander, according to a search warrant affidavit issued in Norfolk Circuit Court later that day.
Spence allegedly told Alexander that he shot Thorington with a .40 caliber Smith & Wesson handgun “to protect himself the night of the shooting,” according to the filing.
The affidavit indicates that Spence said he kept the firearm locked up alongside a semiautomatic firearm styled like a Military Armament Corporation Model 10 pistol inside his apartment at 529 W. 24th St. in Norfolk, where he resided with two roommates.
When police searched the apartment later that day, they found the two weapons Spence described, plus a Colt M1911 .45 caliber pistol and a Cobray 9mm semiautomatic pistol styled like a Military Armament Corporation Model 11, according to a court filing.
They also recovered a plastic holster, two gun boxes, loaded magazines and the lower portion of a Sig Sauer pistol, the warrant’s index revealed.
The documents reveal that authorities also confiscated $1,489 in cash, a digital scale, 132 grams of what they suspect is marijuana, another 25 grams of what they called an “unknown white powder” and two capsules believed to be the narcotic Xtampza ER — extended release oxycodone.
NCIS later confirmed that the agency assisted local authorities in the search.
Amanda Howie — the spokeswoman for the Office of the Norfolk Commonwealth’s Attorney — told Navy Times that she was “familiar with this overall matter” but declined to discuss details.
She later added that Spence “is not currently a defendant charged in a case pending prosecution by this office” and that she had “no additional information to provide at this time.”
It remains unclear if Spence had been issued a permit to carry a concealed weapon in Virginia. Navy Times found no record of a petition for the permit lodged in the courts of Norfolk or Portsmouth, although he might have a permit issued in North Carolina.
Spence was arraigned on May 7 in Portsmouth General District Court on the homicide and firearms charges.
He initially was denied bail due to the seriousness of the allegations, but all that changed after the sailor retained defense attorneys Michael Massie and Nathan Chapman of Portsmouth’s Chapman Law Firm.
On May 13 he was released on a $35,000 surety bond guaranteed by Walt’s Bail Bonds in nearby Chesapeake. But the next day the bondsman asked “to be removed from the bond, due to paperwork issues” and Spence was returned to custody, court documents indicate.
During a second bail hearing held on May 21, Circuit Judge Kenneth Melvin cited Spence’s family ties to nearby Elizabeth City, North Carolina, and duty with the Navy as reasons to release him, this time on a $100,000 bond, according to court documents.
The records reveal no reason why the sum changed, but the bail was put up by Christopher Bell of the Bunch Bail Bonding Co. in Chesapeake.
When reached by phone, Bell confirmed he backed the bond, based on an agreement struck with Daniel O’Shay Spence — Dalen’s father — a Baptist minister in Elizabeth City.
Citing confidentiality concerns, both Bell and the elder Spence declined to specify the collateral for the bond, but Spence has been out ever since.
By granting bail, Melvin overruled the request of Michele Burton, the Commonwealth’s Attorney in Portsmouth prosecuting the case.
But Melvin also ordered Spence to avoid contact with witnesses, subject himself to random drug and alcohol tests, remain at his Navy job and possess no firearms or other weapons while living with his parents in North Carolina.
Citing the ongoing probe, Burton’s spokesman — Deputy Commonwealth’s Attorney Brandon T. Wrobleski — said he could not discuss any details of the case.
The Portsmouth City Jail released Spence on May 22 and he went back to duty.
“He is reporting for duty (on board) USS George H.W. Bush and is not in pretrial restraint or pretrial restriction," said Naval Air Forces Atlantic spokesman Dave Hecht. “At this time, the command is not pursuing charges under the UCMJ as this is a Commonwealth of Virginia case.”
The Navy could only detain or restrict Spence to the ship if the Navy planned to charge him under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Hecht added.
Spence faces a Sept. 9 preliminary hearing and has yet to enter a plea, although he’s expected to say he’s not guilty.
Thorington’s mother and her sister — Michele Van Keuren of Colorado, and Lynn Van Keuren of Michigan — vow to be there.
A paralegal who has kept in touch with prosecutors in Virginia, Lynn Van Keuren told Navy Times that the entire family was shocked to learn that Spence was released from pretrial confinement.
“He’s charged with first degree murder, so I can’t understand why the court has even agreed to any bail at all,” she said. “From what I know, no one knew he even had a gun until he pulled it out and started shooting.”
She also doubts Thorington grabbed Spence’s neck.
“My understanding is that there was a distance between them when the shots were fired and that Donald was not touching him,” Van Keuren said. “We have been told by prosecutors that once the forensics are in, we’ll be able to prove that."
Spence’s father declined comment and his son’s attorneys never returned messages left by Navy Times.