February 25, 2008
NEW YORK (AP) -- The Police Department undercover operation that culminated with the 50-shot barrage that killed an unarmed bridegroom was "haphazard at best," a prosecutor said Monday as three officers went on trial.
The hail of gunshots outside a strip club killed Sean Bell, who had been at a bachelor party on the night before his wedding, and wounded two of his friends.
The shooting has sparked protests and debate over excessive force and police conduct in New York City.
Assistant District Attorney Charles Testagrossa said in his opening statement that one of the three undercover officers failed to display his badge and wait for backup before confronting the three men, and gave contradictory orders to Bell and his friends.
Testagrossa was referring to Detective Gescard Isnora, who fired 11 of the shots during the November 25, 2006, incident.
The detectives waived their right to a jury trial after an appeals court turned down a defense bid to move the case out of New York City. State Supreme Court Judge Arthur Cooperman is hearing the case by himself.
Defense attorney James Culleton said in his opening: "While clearly this was a tragedy, no crime was committed."
Isnora and Detective Michael Oliver have pleaded not guilty to manslaughter; Detective Mark Cooper has pleaded not guilty to reckless endangerment. Oliver fired 31 shots, including the one that killed Bell, and Cooper fired four times.
Bell's fiance, Nicole Paultre-Bell, joined shooting victim Joseph Guzman and activist minister Al Sharpton in stopping to pray outside the courthouse.
Paultre-Bell was expected to be the first witness at the trial, and she has said she plans to be in court every day.
"I feel like I need to know. I need to know why this happened," said Paultre-Bell, who had her maiden name legally changed after her fiance's death. "I wake up one day and my world is turned upside down. I have to know why this happened; my family deserves to know."
Bell, 23, was killed November 25, 2006, hours before he was to marry the mother of his two children. He and his friends were confronted by undercover officers investigating reports of drugs and prostitution.
Police union officials and defense lawyers have said the detectives believed Bell and his friends were going to get a gun, though no weapon was found. The officers opened fire after the car the three men were in lurched forward, bumped Isnora and slammed into an unmarked police minivan, authorities said.
Oliver and Isnora face up to 25 years in prison if convicted; Cooper faces up to a year on the lesser endangerment count.
The trial isn't expected to cause the kind of widespread outrage that occurred after the 1999 killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African immigrant hit by 19 of the 41 shots fired by police. Many New Yorkers, especially blacks, felt then-Mayor Rudy Giulani wasn't compassionate enough about the Diallo case, and said the shooting spotlighted racist police practices. Thousands marched in protest after the white officers were acquitted.
In contrast, current Mayor Michael Bloomberg said in the days after Bell's death that he felt the shooting was "excessive." He was praised by residents but criticized by law enforcement for speaking out before the facts were in.
"The thing that's missing in this case is that level of vitriol for City Hall," said Eugene O'Donnell, a professor of police studies at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice. "The mayor and the police commissioner have credibility in the city, specifically in the black community."
Plus, while Bell and his friends were black, the officers involved are Hispanic, black and white.
"The police department is way more diverse now," O'Donnell said. "The old story of a bunch of white cops in an all-white department completely insensitive to the city is not true today."
By MICHAEL WILSON
New York Times
February 22, 2008
It has become widely known as the “50-shot” case, but as the trial of the detectives accused in the killing of Sean Bell approaches on Monday, the defense is expected to concentrate in particular on 2 of those 50 bullets: the first one fired by each of the two detectives who are charged with manslaughter.
If the two detectives can prove that they were not acting recklessly or with criminal intent in firing their first shots at Mr. Bell and his friends in Queens on Nov. 25, 2006, then the shots that followed — 40 more rounds between them — could be determined to be justified as well, said lawyers who have represented police officers in the past and people who have been briefed on the case. A third detective faces two misdemeanor charges.
Two details of the case are likely to be brought to bear on the question of justification. Mr. Bell, who was driving the car that drew the fire of the officers, had been drinking that night (an autopsy found that his blood alcohol level was well above the legal limit for driving, according to people briefed on the results). The car struck one of the detectives and then crashed into an unmarked van carrying other officers, the police said.
In addition, one of the men wounded along with Mr. Bell that night has testified before a grand jury that there was talk of someone having a gun outside the nightclub where they had gone to Mr. Bell’s bachelor party, according to the people briefed on the case. The testimony — the first known account by someone other than a police official to establish that there was talk of a gun that night — could possibly bolster the claim by the officers that they had reason to fear for their lives.
Lawyers representing the men with Mr. Bell that night have played down the significance of Mr. Bell’s drinking, and said the only mention of a gun had to do with someone who was not in Mr. Bell’s party.
Mr. Bell, 23, was killed on what was to have been his wedding day, after he and his friends celebrated at Club Kalua in Jamaica, Queens.
The club was the target of an undercover police investigation for drugs and prostitution. The police said that after Mr. Bell and his friends argued with a man near a parked S.U.V. outside the club, officers followed Mr. Bell to his car, believing he and two of his friends, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, were retrieving a gun.
No gun was found in Mr. Bell’s car. Mr. Guzman and Mr. Benefield have said the officers did not identify themselves as police before the shooting began.
Detective Michael Oliver and Detective Gescard F. Isnora, who together fired a total of 42 rounds, face charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter, which could bring a sentence of 25 years in prison if they are convicted. Detective Marc Cooper, who fired four shots, faces two misdemeanor charges of reckless endangerment, which could bring a sentence of a year in prison. Another detective and a police officer, who were not charged, fired another four shots between them.
In his testimony before the grand jury last March, Mr. Guzman, one of the men who were wounded, said another friend of Mr. Bell’s, James Kollore, had threatened the man at the S.U.V. and said he would take his gun or make him eat his gun, people briefed on the case said. The people describing the statements spoke on the condition of anonymity because the trial has not begun.
Mr. Kollore, reached by telephone this week, declined to comment. A lawyer for Mr. Guzman, Sanford Rubenstein, said the statement had no bearing on whether the shooting was justified. “No one in the Bell party had a gun,” he said. “These comments totally relate to a third party who was pretending to have a gun.”
As to Mr. Bell’s behavior, trial testimony is expected to show that his autopsy found his blood alcohol level to be between 0.16 percent and 0.23 percent, according to people briefed on the case. The legal limit for driving is 0.08 percent.
The trial is scheduled to begin Monday in Queens Criminal Court and is expected to last several weeks. Hours and hours of testimony in the courtroom will examine a time span of less than a minute on a gritty side street in Jamaica.
Prosecutors have declined to discuss the case before trial. Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney, said Wednesday, “The case should be tried in the courtroom and not on the courthouse steps.”
But Michael Hardy, a lawyer representing Mr. Bell’s fiancée, Nicole Paultre Bell, described the prosecution’s challenges at trial. “They’ve got a yeoman’s task,” he said. “Proof beyond a reasonable doubt truly is the most difficult burden to meet, and their task will be no less than that. But that evidence is there.”
The trial approaches with one key factor already in place: the decision last month by defense lawyers to present their case solely to a judge, Justice Arthur J. Cooperman.
Both sides will probably give up something in the change from a jury trial to a bench trial. For example, there will likely be less emotional testimony from members of Mr. Bell’s family, including Ms. Bell, who took her fiancé’s name after his death. Such charged moments may have made a powerful impact on jurors, but may have less evidentiary value to the judge.
On the other hand, there will probably be less attention paid to the arrest records of Mr. Bell and his two friends in the car that night. “You’d hear about it more for credibility purposes in front of a jury,” one of the people briefed on the case said. “A judge will hear about it, but not dwell on it. He’s familiar with the criminal justice system. He sees rap sheets every day.”
But an examination of Mr. Bell’s drinking that night, which might have been restrained before a jury, with defense lawyers loath to appear to be attacking the victim, could be more vigorous before the judge.
All three officers testified before a grand jury last year. The effect of that testimony at trial remains to be seen. If one of the detectives contradicts his prior statements on the witness stand at trial, prosecutors can use his grand jury testimony to discredit him. While one or more are expected to testify at trial, it is unclear whether all three will, people briefed on the case said.
The basic outline of the night has changed little since Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly’s statement hours after the shooting.
Officers from an undercover team had made two recent arrests at Club Kalua, a topless bar at 143-08 94th Avenue, and arrived that night in hopes of making a third, which would speed up the process of shutting the club down. Detective Isnora and two other detectives in plainclothes were inside the club when Detective Isnora heard a dancer complain to a man in a White Sox cap that someone had harassed her. The man took her hand, patted a bulge in his clothing that the detective believed to be a gun, and told her that he would take care of the problem, the police said.
The detective alerted the rest of the police team waiting in vehicles, and he left the club. But outside, a new situation arose that changed the course of the police operation. Mr. Bell’s group was arguing with the man next to the black S.U.V. about a dancer who had indicated she would have sex with the men in the bachelor party. The man kept his right hand in his jacket pocket, as if he had a gun, the police said.
Detective Isnora has said he then heard Mr. Guzman say, “Yo, get my gun, get my gun,” and heard Mr. Bell say that they should beat up the man, the police said. Mr. Guzman has denied making any such statement.
Mr. Bell and his friends, some eight men in all, split into two groups, with Mr. Bell, Mr. Guzman and Mr. Benefield walking around the corner onto Liverpool Street toward Mr. Bell’s car. It was then that Detective Isnora alerted the commanding officer that night, Lt. Gary Napoli, “It’s getting hot on Liverpool, for real. I think there’s a gun,” the police said.
As Detective Isnora approached Mr. Bell’s car, Lieutenant Napoli’s vehicle drove past, stopping down the street, while a van carrying Detective Oliver and an officer, Michael Carey, stopped short behind Detective Isnora.
Detective Isnora had clipped his badge to his collar and pulled his pistol, ordering Mr. Bell to stop, the police said, but Mr. Bell’s car lurched forward, striking him in the leg and hitting Detective Oliver’s van. The car then drove backward, hitting a roll-up gate, then forward again, slamming into the van before coming to a halt, the police said.
Sometime after Mr. Bell drove the car forward, Detective Isnora fired the first shot and emptied his gun, shooting 11 times. Detective Oliver fired 16 shots, reloaded with a magazine holding 15 rounds, and emptied the gun again.
The detectives’ defense is expected to examine police training and its emphasis on eliminating the threat before an officer, and not on counting bullets.
Marvyn M. Kornberg, a defense lawyer who has represented police officers over the years, said the defense will probably argue the officers felt endangered.
“If you’re trying to run me down, that’s an attempt to take my life with a weapon. A 3,000-pound weapon,” Mr. Kornberg said. “The cop that fired 31 shots, he faces having to show that his actions under the circumstances were reasonable. The number of bullets does not denote whether it was reasonable or not.”
By COLIN MOYNIHAN and MARIA NEWMAN
New York Times
March 19, 2007
Two New York City police detectives pleaded not guilty today to charges of manslaughter in the death of Sean Bell, the unarmed 23-year-old black man who died in a burst of 50 police bullets.
A third detective pleaded not guilty to lesser charges in the shooting case.
The eight-count indictment of the three men was handed up by a grand jury on Friday and unsealed this morning. Det. Michael Oliver, 35, who fired his pistol 31 times, and Det. Gescard F. Isnora, 28, an undercover officer who fired 11 shots, are charged with both first-degree and second-degree manslaughter in Mr. Bell’s death, the Queens district attorney, Richard Brown, said at a news conference today.
Det. Marc Cooper, who fired four shots in the November 2006 incident, was charged with two counts of reckless endangerment.
First-degree manslaughter is classified as a violent felony with mandatory prison time if Mr. Oliver and Mr. Isnora are convicted. The maximum punishment is 25 years, the district attorney said. With second-degree manslaughter, by contrast, judges have discretion to sentence a defendant to probation rather than prison.
Mr. Oliver and Mr. Isnora also face one count each of reckless endangerment, for which they also pleaded not guilty. The three indicted men appeared early this morning at a courthouse in Queens, along with their lawyers, to formally surrender and be fingerprinted and processed..
Two other police officers involved in the incident were not indicted. They fired a total of four shots between them.
At his news conference this morning, Mr. Brown said: “This grand jury acted in the most responsible and conscientious fashion. This was a case that was, I’m sure, not easy for them to resolve.”
But the indictments set off accusations from both sides — supporters of the police, as well as those who were seeking justice for Mr. Bell and the others who were shot along with him — that the charges were either too harsh or not harsh enough.
“This case, at its best, is a return to grief for all of those involved,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said at a news conference, surrounded by family members and friends of Mr. Bell, right after the indictments were announced. As she stood beside Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Bell’s fiancée, Nicole Paultre Bell, dabbed at her tears.
"It falls short of what we want," Mr. Sharpton said. "Clearly, all five officers should be charged; all officers acted in concert."
Later in the day, Michael J. Palladino, the president of the Detectives Endowment Association, had a different perspective.
“I think the charges are excessive,” he said, surrounded by a phalanx of other officers. The charges, he said, imply that “our detectives went there with the intention to kill Sean Bell, and that’s simply not true.”
He asserted that detectives everywhere would conclude from these charges that if they are placed in a life-and-death situation while on duty, “and if they can’t get it done in three shots or less, they’re in trouble.”
“This sends a very chilling message,” he said, adding that the union would mount a “vigorous defense of the officers.”
Justice Randall Eng of New York State Supreme Court set bail for Mr. Oliver and Mr. Isnora at $250,000 bond, or $100,000 cash. Mr. Cooper was released without bail.
Mr. Brown, the district attorney, said he would oppose any attempts to move the trial out of Queens: “This is where public opinion is equally divided, in my opinion. The jury should be representative of the diversity of this county.”
Mr. Brown called the investigation into the case “as thorough and complete as I’ve ever participated in.”
His office interviewed more than 100 witnesses and reviewed over 500 exhibits, he said. Testimony before the grand jury took place over 22 days.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg also reacted to the indictment. “Although some people will be disappointed in the grand jury’s decision, we have to respect the result of our justice system,” he said.
“Nothing anyone can do will bring back Sean Bell,” he said. “But we can resolve to learn what lessons we can from this tragedy."
The shooting, which took place in Jamaica early on the morning of Nov. 25, 2006, strained relations between the department and minority communities. Mr. Isnora and Mr. Cooper are black. Mr. Oliver is white.
They were among five police officers who fired into a car carrying Mr. Bell, who was about to be married, and two of his friends during a chaotic confrontation on Liverpool Street.
Neither Mr. Bell nor his friends, both of whom were wounded, were armed, although the police officers apparently believed that they were. There have also been conflicting suggestions that a fourth civilian may have been present and possibly armed.
All five officers testified voluntarily before the grand jury without immunity from prosecution.
Mr. Brown said that the first-degree manslaughter charges were lodged against Mr. Oliver and Mr. Isnora because the two acted “in concert, each aiding the other, with intent to cause serious physical injury to Joseph Guzman,” one of Mr. Bell’s companions, and thereby “caused the death of Sean Bell by shooting him with a loaded pistol.”
The second-degree manslaughter charges were lodged because the two “recklessly caused the death of Sean Bell by shooting him with a loaded pistol,” he said.
The four counts of reckless endangerment in the indictment stemmed from the danger that the officers’ gunfire posed to others besides Mr. Bell and Mr. Guzman — in the car and the street, in an occupied residence that was struck by one bullet, and in the nearby AirTrain station, which was hit by another.
The grand jury reached its decision after three days of deliberations and nearly two months of hearing evidence, in an emotionally charged case whose stark outlines prompted anger and widespread comparisons to the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed African street peddler who was felled by 19 of the 41 bullets fired at him by four police officers in 1999.
This morning, several hundred people waited outside the Queens courthouse in the sunshine. James Sanders Jr., a councilman representing southeast Queens, had mixed feelings.
“I think this is an example where if the people did not stand up, I don’t think we would have seen any charges,” he said.
He said he would have preferred the charges to include murder, and speculated that Mr. Brown was trying to avoid the mistake made by his counterpart in the Diallo case, who “hit them with too heavy a charge.” (The four officers in that case were indicted but later acquitted.)
“You’re looking at a compromise across the board,” Mr. Sanders said.
Mr. Brown, clearly aware of the controversy the case has stirred, emphasized that an indictment isn’t the same as a conviction, and as such, he refused to elaborate much on the charges.
“This case is going to be tried in the courtroom,” he said. “Folks are just going to have to make up their own minds after they hear all of the evidence, on both sides of this issues. Hopefully, the result will be one that will make most fair minded individuals happy.”
By WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM and AL BAKER
December 11, 2006
New York Times
When the shooting stopped, the police lieutenant edged toward the gray Nissan Altima with his gun drawn. He ordered the men inside to show their hands. The lieutenant had not fired his weapon, and as he neared the car, according to police records, one of the bloodied men inside complied and stuck his hands out the window. The other did not move.
A police sergeant who arrived seconds later described the scene this way: The Nissan had crashed into a van in the middle of the street. Smoke was coming from its radiator. The man in the driver’s seat was slumped back. His passenger was lying across his lap with his arms hanging outside the driver’s window.
The sergeant, Michael Wheeler, later told investigators that both men appeared seriously injured and likely to die, according to the records. A plainclothes officer stood close by, his pistol still trained on the two men in the car. A third man lay on the street nearby.
Minutes later, the shooting scene on Liverpool Street in Jamaica, Queens, was choked with patrol cars and the scrum of officials that follows a police shooting. A captain ordered another uniformed sergeant, Donald Kipp, to locate and inspect the weapons of the men involved in the shooting. In all, five plainclothes officers had fired a total of 50 bullets.
But one after another, in conversations with Sergeant Kipp or Sergeant Wheeler, the men said they could not say how many shots they had fired. Two said they were unsure whether they had even fired at all, including a detective who investigators later learned had fired 31 shots, emptying his 9-millimeter Sig Sauer pistol, reloading and emptying it again during the frenzied barrage.
The accounts of the lieutenant and the two sergeants are included in the Police Department’s preliminary report of the shooting early on Nov. 25 that left the car’s driver, Sean Bell, 23, dead on his wedding day and two of his friends wounded, one seriously. The men were part of a larger group that had just attended Mr. Bell’s bachelor party in a strip club down the block.
The 23-page document prepared in the days after the shooting, and obtained by The New York Times, does not include the accounts of the four detectives and one police officer who fired their weapons. They are the subjects of an investigation by the office of the Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, and it is not clear if they will submit to interviews with prosecutors or testify before a grand jury.
But the report provides the most detailed account, and the best chronology made public to date, of the shooting itself, the events that led up to it and what people saw and heard.
It summarizes the first interviews with the lieutenant, Gary Napoli, who was supervising the five members of the Club Enforcement Team who fired their weapons, the two sergeants who responded after the gunfire broke out, and 10 other officers — including three team members who were close by, but not present at the scene. It also includes synopses of the preliminary interviews of three civilian witnesses, including one of the victims, Trent Benefield.
Mr. Brown, who has said his investigation is in its earliest stages, has noted that the report raises as many questions as it answers and will serve simply as a starting point for his inquiry, in which he will present evidence to a grand jury, which will determine whether a crime was committed.
Yet the report undeniably provides insights into what happened that night. Among the notable aspects:
¶It includes no meaningful discussion of a fourth man, a mysterious figure who some in the Police Department have suggested may have been present along with the three men who were shot. None of the witnesses whose accounts are in the report speaks of someone who may have fled — perhaps possessing a gun — and there are no indications that the police at the time were seeking anyone who may have left the scene.
¶The undercover detective who fired the first shot — and fired a total of 11 rounds — emptied his gun, a Glock Model 26, which holds 10 rounds in the magazine and 1 in the chamber. He was not wearing his bulletproof vest or carrying his gun during the undercover operation; going without the vest and the gun is routine procedure. He retrieved his gun but did not put on his vest — as another detective did — and remained vulnerable as the group of officers scrambled to deal with what they feared was an imminent eruption of violence.
¶Mr. Bell, mortally wounded and not speaking, and Joseph Guzman, despite wounds from his head to his feet, were put in handcuffs after the gunfire ceased.
¶None of the witnesses — police or civilians — whose accounts are detailed in the report recall hearing anything close to 50 rounds. One detective says she heard eight shots fired with no pause. Another detective heard shots in three rapid successions, but the report includes no number. A third detective heard “numerous” shots. The report also refers to 31 “ear-witnesses” whose statements have been taken, but does not describe what they said. Mr. Benefield recalls eight or nine shots being fired.
¶Mr. Benefield said a man he had not seen before stood in front of Mr. Bell’s car and simply opened fire, striking Mr. Guzman once, and that Mr. Bell then repeatedly drove forward and in reverse and collided with other vehicles in an attempt to drive away. His account differs from the accounts of some police officers that the detective opened fire after Mr. Bell’s car had struck him, crashed into a police van, and then nearly hit him a second time.
¶The interviews make it clear that the officers were concerned about men with guns in the minutes leading up to the shooting. One man, they thought, had a gun inside the club. They came to suspect that another man standing outside the club might have had a gun. Yet another, identified as Mr. Guzman, shouted for someone to get his gun outside the club. The officers talked about their concerns over their cell phones, over their radios and, in at least one instance, among themselves as the undercover detective grabbed his weapon from an unmarked police car.
¶Lieutenant Napoli’s account makes clear that he believed the men in Mr. Bell’s car knew he was a police officer because he had made eye contact with one of them. The report says Lieutenant Napoli could not articulate why he believed that. Lawyers representing Mr. Guzman and Mr. Benefield have declared that they had no idea the men they encountered that night on Liverpool Street were the police.
¶The report lists the arrest records of the three men shot that night. Each had been arrested in crimes involving firearms, though no specifics of those crimes are given. Nor is the final disposition of those cases included in the report.
An Uneventful Start
The nine members of the team all started work that night about 9:30 p.m. They were well into a relatively uneventful eight-and-a-half-hour shift when they gathered in an office in a squat modern brick police building on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.
The building, the Seventh Precinct station house, is also home to the department’s Club Enforcement Initiative. There, about 11 p.m., Lieutenant Napoli, a 22-year veteran, led a meeting to map out their night’s work.
According to his own account, the lieutenant told the team of six men and two women, a racially mixed group drawn from narcotics and vice units, that their goal was to hit Club Kalua, a topless bar at 143-08 94th Avenue in Jamaica. The team had been working together since August, when the initiative began in response to the murder of a woman who was kidnapped and killed in July after leaving a club in Chelsea.
The Club Kalua was on the department’s “problem list.” The officers knew it because they had been there before: a week and a half earlier they had arrested two people inside on drug and prostitution charges. The lieutenant was looking for more arrests, according to the report, so the department could seek to close the club as a nuisance.
After the meeting, the team set out for Queens in three nondescript rental cars, a gray Toyota Camry, a green Mitsubishi Galant and a green Ford Freestar minivan.
When the team members arrived near Club Kalua, nestled on a street with several homes and another, far more prosperous-looking strip club just south of the Port Authority Air Train terminal, they chose several strategic vantage points and parked their cars.
Getting Into Position
Lieutenant Napoli said he selected a spot in the Air Train Terminal parking lot and maneuvered the Camry in so the car was directly across 94th Avenue from the club entrance, providing an observation post with an unobstructed view of the entrance for him and Detectives Paul Headley and Marc Cooper.
Detective Rasheda Edness, a female undercover detective, and two male undercover detectives were in the Mitsubishi and parked at 95th Avenue and Allendale Street. Detective Michael Oliver and Officer Michael Carey positioned the minivan — which they intended to use to transport anyone arrested in the operation — along 95th Avenue.
The operation, according to the lieutenant’s account, began in earnest about 1 a.m., when the two male undercover detectives left the Mitsubishi and walked into the club, several minutes apart. They were followed about an hour later by Detective Cooper.
One of the undercover detectives was seeking to talk with women about sex for money, while the second undercover man and Detective Cooper served as “ghosts,” shadowing the first undercover detective to provide backup and gather intelligence.
The undercover detectives and Detective Cooper stayed in touch with Lieutenant Napoli via cell phone, and the other members of the team were linked by radio, according to the report.
Over the next two and a half hours, the three officers mixed with about 40 patrons and drank beer to keep their cover, according to the report. The undercover detective serving as one of the ghosts had two Heinekens, according to his own account, but could not say what the other undercover officer or Detective Cooper drank, or how much. The crowd was rowdy, and several people were thrown out by club security, according to his account.
The officers made conversation with the topless dancers, trying to arrange sex for money — the kind of transactions that would lead to arrests. But their efforts failed and, in progress reports he made via cell phone to Lieutenant Napoli every half-hour, there were no reports of significant developments.
About 3:30 a.m., one undercover detective who had been serving as a ghost lost sight of the other undercover detective and Detective Cooper and presumed they had left the bar, according to his account.
He walked outside and found the other undercover man on the sidewalk. His colleague, a six-year veteran, told him that a man in the club wearing a white baseball cap with a White Sox insignia had gestured to his waistband in a way that led him to believe the man was armed, according to his account.
The other undercover detective said to his partner that he had told Lieutenant Napoli that the man might be armed. He then told his partner that he had retrieved his gun and shield from the Mitsubishi, where he had left them before going into the club. (Because bouncers were searching some patrons, the three men who went inside left their guns, shields and bulletproof vests in the cars, according to the report.)
According to the report, in the brief moment when he retrieved his gun and shield from the Mitsubishi’s glove compartment, the undercover detective told the detectives in the car that there was a dispute in the club and that guns might be involved.
At that time, Lieutenant Napoli relayed the information about the gun to the other members of his team. Detective Cooper got his gun and badge and sat in the lieutenant’s car. The first undercover detective went back inside the club to look for the armed man, but he had no success and emerged about 15 or 20 minutes later, according to his own account.
Anger Outside the Club
When he reached the sidewalk outside, the scene was becoming volatile.
A group of about eight men stood on the sidewalk. They were arguing with a man dressed all in black standing next to a black truck with shiny, spinning rims, possibly a Lincoln Navigator, according to the undercover detective’s account. The dispute was about a woman who had indicated she would not have sex with all the men. Tensions flared. The man dressed in black kept his right hand inside his jacket pocket, as if he were armed.
Mr. Guzman said, “Yo, get my gun, get my gun,” and Mr. Bell told his friends they should beat up the man dressed in black, according to the undercover detective’s account.
The eight men broke into two groups of four and started walking east along 94th Avenue, toward Liverpool Street, with Mr. Bell and Mr. Guzman in the trailing group. The second group then hesitated, walked back to the man dressed in black, argued some more and then turned and headed again toward Liverpool.
As he had several times that morning, the first undercover detective called Lieutenant Napoli, and handed the cell phone to the second undercover detective as he then followed Mr. Bell and his friends. The first undercover detective then struck up a conversation with a woman in a blue top who had left the club, apparently feeling the situation was under control enough for him to seek out a prostitution arrest. But his partner told the lieutenant it was, according to the report, “getting hot on Liverpool, for real; I think there’s a gun.”
The lieutenant got on the radio and told the team to move in and stop the group, shifting the team away from its earlier mission of making prostitution and drug arrests.
Mr. Bell got into the driver’s side of his 1999 Nissan, with Mr. Guzman next to him and Mr. Benefield in the rear passenger seat. The Nissan faced north on the east side of Liverpool Street, about 60 feet from 94th Avenue.
Still on his cell phone, Lieutenant Napoli made eye contact with one of the men in the Nissan as he passed, and then his undercover detective, who nodded in the direction of Mr. Bell’s car. This was the point in his interview when Lieutenant Napoli said he believed the men knew he was a police officer, though he did not give his rationale. Behind Lieutenant Napoli’s Camry was the minivan carrying Detective Oliver and Officer Carey.
What happened in the next few seconds, and precisely how it occurred, remains unclear but for the outcome: 50 police bullets were fired. Mr. Bell was killed. Mr. Guzman was struck in the face, the shoulder, the buttocks, the thigh and the ankle. Mr. Benefield, hit in the leg and buttocks, scrambled out of the car and moved south on Liverpool Street, collapsing about half a block away.
Lieutenant Napoli crouched for safety, approaching the Nissan after the final shots.
One civilian witness, according to the report, was awakened by the shots — she thought there were 10 to 12 — and looked out her window. She saw one man pointing a handgun at a second man on Liverpool Street, saying, “I will kill you,” according to the report. There were no more shots, and when the woman looked again, she saw one of the officers standing over Mr. Benefield.
A horde of police descended on the scene. They were met with adrenaline-filled confusion: Five officers had fired, but some were not even sure they had. There were conflicting reports about whether shields were displayed. And at least one of those who fired said he believed the men in the car, who turned out to be unarmed, were shooting at the police.
Four of the men who fired clustered down the block around Mr. Benefield. The fifth, Detective Cooper, was pointing his weapon at the men in the car, according to the report.
Sergeant Wheeler, a patrol supervisor at the 103rd Precinct, was one of the first uniformed officers to arrive, having heard radio reports of gunshots and officers in danger. He immediately ordered Detective Cooper to holster his weapon.
According to the sergeant’s account, he called for an ambulance over his police radio and then tried to open the driver’s side door of the Nissan, but could not. He directed another officer to put handcuffs on Mr. Guzman’s outstretched hands. Sergeant Wheeler’s driver that night, Officer Steven Muhlenbruck, said in his account that the sergeant also ordered Mr. Bell handcuffed.
When Sergeant Wheeler asked Detective Cooper if he was a police officer, the detective said he was, with a club enforcement team. Asked if he had fired his weapon, he said he had but could not say how many rounds. The sergeant asked about the rest of his team, and the detective pointed down the block, where the other men stood around Mr. Benefield. The sergeant helped one of the detectives handcuff Mr. Benefield, and then asked Detective Headley and the undercover detective if they had fired. Both said they had, but were unsure how many rounds.
The female undercover detective, who was not at the scene until after the gunfire had subsided, said in her account that once she arrived on the scene, she did not hear anyone make any statements about the shooting and that she did not “recall any members of her team displaying their shields.”
But Police Officer Robert Maloney, who also arrived at the scene shortly after the shooting, said he saw a plainclothes black officer with his shield hanging around his neck who said, “They were shooting at us.” His partner, Derek Braithwaite, also saw a black officer wearing a shield, but it was unclear who it was, and whether it was the same man cited by Officer Maloney.
The detective who had fired first, according to a person who has been briefed on his version, has said that he had his shield out, identified himself as a police officer and ordered the men in the car to show their hands before he fired.
Officer Maloney said he pulled Mr. Bell from the car and cuffed his bloody hands. He then escorted an ambulance that carried him to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center and stayed with Mr. Bell until he was relieved. Mr. Bell, who was pronounced dead at 4:56 a.m., never said a word, Officer Maloney said.
By MICHAEL WILSON and WILLIAM K. RASHBAUM
New York Times
November 29, 2006
The identities and career paths of the police officers involved in Saturday’s fatal shooting of an unarmed bridegroom in Queens began to slowly come into focus yesterday, revealing a handpicked team of officers responsible for several hundred arrests between them without ever having fired a round in the line of duty.
The first to open fire Saturday is a 28-year-old black man of Haitian descent who lives with his mother in Brooklyn. One officer is white, a 12-year veteran, who has made by one account more than 600 arrests. And a third, the youngest, recently transferred to the team after four years working in Midtown Manhattan where he was known for his wit, street smarts and dry sense of humor.
The Police Department, under orders from Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly, refused to identify or provide biographical information on any of the officers, citing concerns for their safety. But two of their names and biographical information on a third have emerged in interviews with acquaintances and people familiar with the case.
The shooting, with five officers firing a total of 50 rounds at the car that was carrying three men leaving the Club Kalua, a strip club in Jamaica, has prompted political and community outrage. The team of officers consisted of five detectives — one of them a woman — an officer and a lieutenant. They were part of a team investigating the bar for narcotics and prostitution. Neither the female detective, who was working undercover, nor the lieutenant opened fire.
A second detective working undercover, a man, suspected one of the three men leaving the club of carrying a gun and followed them to their car, according to officials familiar with the officers’ account of events.
The male undercover officer is 28, a six-year veteran. He fired the first shots after confronting the men and being hit by their car. An acquaintance of the officer said yesterday that Saturday’s shooting had left him “ a little shaky,” adding, “He was upset.”
The officer grew up in Brooklyn, is single and lives with his mother, the acquaintance said. He has only 50 or 60 arrests because he has been undercover for most of his career, the acquaintance said. The number is low because undercover officers are not usually credited with arrests and, in fact, are expected to leave the scene before other officers make arrests, to protect their cover. He has one citation for meritorious police duty.
“He feels very bad for the family of the deceased,” the acquaintance said. “He feels badly that this had to come to this. He sincerely, sincerely felt that he was in mortal danger. He’s never fired his gun before and he hopes he will never fire it again.”
He fired a total of 11 shots as the other officers also fired. The bridegroom, Sean Bell, who was to be married that day, was killed, and his two friends wounded.
One detective, Michael Oliver, 35, fired 31 rounds, according to an individual who knew the identities of the officers involved but was not authorized to release them.
Detective Oliver, who is white, joined the department 12 years ago, and has more than 600 arrests to his name, and multiple arrests involving guns, which the individual said underscored a history of restraint with his own firearm. His name was reported yesterday in The Daily News and The New York Post.
The lowest-ranking member of the team was Officer Michael Carey, 26, with four and a half years in the department, a fast-rising officer with a dry sense of humor, according to those who worked with him at the Midtown South Precinct in Manhattan. He began as a member of an impact team, a group of several officers assigned to an area experiencing a spike in crime.
A sergeant at Midtown South who knew Officer Carey personally and had supervised him there said: “Some people come out with a drive, and some people are lazy kids. He was a good learner. He excelled more than some other cops.”
Officer Carey had made more than 50 arrests during his first year in Operation Impact, breaking up drug and prostitution scams in Hell’s Kitchen, the sergeant said. “You got to be street smart. You got to be aware. He proved himself.”
When it came time to move up, Officer Carey was promoted directly to the precinct’s Street Narcotics Enforcement Unit, which the sergeant said “was showing a lot of confidence in him.”
“Usually you get patrol. They sent him right to S.N.E.U., because he was so good,” the sergeant said. “They saw his drive.”
Two months ago, the sergeant said, Officer Carey was transferred to the vice squad in Queens.
The sergeant described Officer Carey as quiet, with a dry wit. “He’s not the type to run off his mouth,” the sergeant said.
The highest-ranking officer at the shooting was Lt. Gary Napoli, 48, with 22 years on the job. He took cover when the shooting began and did not fire, the police said. A man answering his telephone at his home in Westchester County said, “Goodbye, no comment,” and referred calls to the department’s public affairs office before hanging up.
Lawyers for all of the officers who fired their weapons have said their clients will waive immunity and appear before the grand jury investigating the shooting. Richard A. Brown, the Queens district attorney, whose office is leading the inquiry, has acknowledged that his office has been contacted by lawyers for the men.
Yesterday, a person involved in the inquiry said that investigators had requested reams of evidence, including photographs, 911 tapes and ballistics reports from the Police Department, as well as past complaints about the club and telephone records of the officers involved.
Prosecutors received the Police Department’s preliminary report yesterday, which the person said raised as many questions as it answered, adding, “We’ve just begun to scratch the surface.”
Commissioner Kelly said investigators located another witness yesterday. “We have identified another witness and he is being debriefed now,” the commissioner said at a news conference. Paul J. Browne, a police spokesman, later said the witness had been a customer of the club that night. “He’s in the immediate vicinity of the shooting when it happened,” he said. “We’re talking to him now. He’s an independent civilian witness.”
Another law enforcement official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said investigators were looking for several witnesses in the area.
“Based on certain witness statements, there are other people who were walking to their cars at the time,” the official said. “We can’t say they saw it, but they may have.”
Investigators also plan to review recordings from video cameras inside and outside the club, in an effort to identify the approximately 40 patrons inside.
Correction: Nov. 29, 2006
An article in some copies on Sunday about a police shooting in Queens in which a bridegroom driving away from a club was killed and two of his friends wounded gave an erroneous age, supplied by the police, for one victim. (The same error appeared in an article on Monday about “contagious shooting” — gunfire that spreads among officers who believe that they, or their colleagues, are facing a threat.) The victim, Joseph Guzman, who was critically wounded, is 31, not 21.
By ROBERT D. McFADDEN
New York Times
November 26, 2006
Hours before he was to be married, a man leaving his bachelor party at a strip club in Queens that was under police surveillance was shot and killed early yesterday in a hail of police bullets, witnesses and the police said. Two of his friends were wounded, one critically, they said.
Many details of the shooting were not immediately clear, but relatives of the dead man, Sean Bell, 23, and community leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton, demanded an investigation into what some called an overreaction by officers that killed a man on his wedding day.
Witnesses told of chaos, screams and a barrage of gunfire near Club Kalua at 143-08 94th Avenue in Jamaica about 4:15 a.m. after Mr. Bell and his friends walked out and got into their car. Mr. Bell drove the car half a block, turned a corner and struck a black unmarked police minivan bearing several plainclothes officers.
Mr. Bell’s car then backed up onto a sidewalk, hit a storefront’s rolled-down protective gate and nearly struck an undercover officer before shooting forward and slamming into the police van again, the police said.
In response, five police officers fired at least 50 rounds at the men’s car, a silver Nissan Altima; the bullets ripped into other cars and slammed through an apartment window near the shooting scene on Liverpool Street near 94th Avenue.
Mr. Bell — who was to have been wed at 5 p.m. yesterday to Nicole Paultre, 22, the mother of his two small daughters — was shot in the neck, shoulder and right arm and was taken to Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, where he was pronounced dead.
The two wounded men, Joseph Guzman, 31, and Trent Benefield, 23, were taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital, where Mr. Guzman was listed in critical condition and Mr. Benefield in stable condition.
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said at a news conference last night that the men’s car had been hit at least 21 times. He said he did not know what triggered the shooting and that it was too early to tell if it was justified. No guns were found at the scene, and no charges have been filed against the men, the police said.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in a statement last night that it was too early to draw conclusions about the case. “We know that the N.Y.P.D. officers on the scene had reason to believe an altercation involving a firearm was about to happen and were trying to stop it,” he said.
Angry relatives of Mr. Guzman and Mr. Benefield charged that both had been arrested and manacled to their hospital beds.
The police acknowledged that the men had been handcuffed, but said it had been a precaution at a time when it was unclear whether they were armed. Through the day, the police gave few details about what had happened, calling it a matter under investigation.
Mr. Kelly acknowledged last night that much about the episode was unclear, partly because police investigators are precluded for now from questioning the officers involved; a lieutenant and another officer who did not fire any shots were questioned, though.
In a statement, Commissioner Kelly said that about 4 a.m. a group of men confronted a man outside the strip club and that one man in the group yelled, “Yo, get my gun.”
The altercation broke up, and the men separated into two groups, with an undercover officer following one group. The men being followed by the undercover officer got into the Altima that then hit the minivan.
The police said that one officer who leaped from the minivan, a 12-year police veteran, fired 31 times, and an undercover officer with nine years on the force fired 11 times. The other officers fired three, four and five times. Shell casings from the officers’ 16-shot, 9-millimeter semiautomatic weapons littered the street; at least 40 were later recovered. A fourth person may have been in the Altima, police said.
Legal experts said that investigators, at the behest of prosecutors, almost never interrogate officers involved in fatal shootings, even if criminal conduct is suspected, because doing so might grant a form of immunity and jeopardize prosecutions.
The Queens district attorney, Richard A. Brown, declined last night to comment on the substance of the case, but promised a “full, fair and complete investigation.”
The shootings reverberated with echoes of the 1999 police shooting of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed street vendor and Guinean immigrant who was killed in the vestibule of his Bronx apartment by four police officers who were later acquitted of criminal charges in his death. That killing raised questions of racial profiling and excessive force by the police.
One police official denied any racial motivation in yesterday’s shooting and said that two of the officers involved were white, one Hispanic and two black. The victims were either black or Hispanic. None of the officers had been involved in previous shootings, Mr. Kelly said. He said several officers were injured, but none seriously.
Mr. Sharpton, a civil rights leader who has often protested police actions in high-profile and racially charged cases, challenged the police to explain what had happened.
“This is a shocking case,” he said at an afternoon news conference outside Mary Immaculate Hospital, his second of the day in the case. He was flanked by relatives and friends of the victims, most of them somber and some sobbing.
Mr. Sharpton said Mr. Guzman might have been struck by anywhere from 8 to 17 bullets. “The doctor told us it was 17 wounds,” which could have included entry and exit points, he noted.
At an earlier news conference at Jamaica Hospital Medical Center, Mr. Sharpton, standing with Ms. Paultre and other relatives and friends of the shooting victims, said he had been called in by Mr. Bell’s family and had protested to the city “that this stinks.”
Ms. Paultre and Mr. Bell, who lived at 91 Beach 27th Street in Far Rockaway, Queens, had been sweethearts since high school. Relatives said Mr. Bell had been a baseball star at John Adams High School in Ozone Park, and noted that Ms. Paultre had attended a bridal shower on Long Island on Friday. The relatives identified their daughters as Jordyn, 3, and Jada, 5 months old.
A woman who said she was Mr. Benefield’s mother but did not give her name, said her son had been treated like a criminal.
“He’s got a shattered leg,” she said. “And he’s handcuffed. Right hand, left leg.”
An aunt of Mr. Guzman, who also did not give her name, said her nephew had been shot repeatedly. “He got shot 17 times by the police,” she said. “Unbelievable. My nephew is laying up there fighting for his life, shot 17 times. It’s not right.”
Marie Gillion, an aunt of Ms. Paultre, said in a telephone interview that the families had been overjoyed at the prospect of the wedding. “Sean is a good kid,” she said, choking back sobs. “ The family wanted them to be married. And for this to happen. This is so sad.”
Robert Porter, who said he was Mr. Bell’s cousin and was to have been a disc jockey at the wedding, said that 250 people had been invited to the ceremony and that many were flying in from around the country. “I can’t really express myself,” Mr. Porter said. “It’s a numb feeling. I still don’t want to believe it.”
The events that led to the shooting began with a bachelor party at Club Kalua, a cabaret in a largely residential neighborhood. A police official said that a female undercover officer had been posted inside, backed up by plainclothes officers in two vehicles outside, to investigate chronic reports of drugs and prostitution. Similar surveillance operations have been mounted at clubs in Chelsea in Manhattan.
It was unclear what time Mr. Bell and 20 friends arrived at the club. Eric C. Arrington, 43, said he had been there and noted that the party was not rowdy. The men had platters of rice and chicken.
Shortly after 3 a.m., Commissioner Kelly said, the undercover officer inside overheard a club dancer complain about a patron who appeared to be armed, and she went out to alert her supervisor and the backup team of possible trouble. About 4 a.m., as Mr. Bell and some of his friends left, a fight erupted outside. It was unclear who was involved, but it ended and those involved split into two groups.
Four men were then observed getting into Mr. Bell’s Nissan Altima, which drove a half block east on 94th Avenue and turned south into Liverpool Street. There it plowed into the unmarked police minivan on the driver’s side, apparently just missing a head-on collision. Witnesses said the car suddenly went into reverse, backing up onto a sidewalk where the undercover officer was positioned, then pulled forward and rammed the minivan a second time. That’s when the police opened fire, Mr. Kelly said.
One neighbor said his car was hit by three bullets and a fourth smashed through his front window, piercing a lamp in the living room. “There was bullets all over the place,” said Paul Gomes, 31, who awoke to the barrage of gunfire and pulled his wife and children onto the floor.
Robert and Vivian Hernandez, residents of Liverpool Street, were watching television when they heard the crashing of bullets and people yelling. When the gunfire finally died down, they went outside and saw a man leaning on a fence and moaning, “They shot me in the leg.”
Mr. Kelly said that two Port Authority Police Officers suffered minor facial injuries at a nearby AirTrain facility when one of the bullets shattered a window.
Within minutes, a swarm of police cars converged on the scene and a helicopter appeared overhead.
The block where the shooting occurred was sealed off by police tape yesterday afternoon. But the cars involved in the collision were still in the middle of the street, with the Altima pressed up against the driver’s side of the minivan. Investigators were tagging shell casings where they lay, numbering them. There was one large cluster near the victims’ car, and others were littered about.At La Bella Vita, the Ozone Park catering hall where the Bell-Paultre reception was to have taken place, there was still a sign up late in the day, announcing the celebration. About 200 people were to have attended, said the owner, Tony Modica. He said he had taken 50 phone calls from people seeking directions, and had found himself breaking the terrible news, over and over