Sean Bell, an unarmed groom, was killed by New York police after 50 shots were fired into his vehicle.
Originally uploaded by Pan-African News Wire Photo File.
Vigil Planned for Man Gunned Down Hours Before He Was to Wed
By ADAM GOLDMAN, AP
NEW YORK (Nov. 26) - Sean Bell and his fiancee had already shared a high school romance, then two children. In the early hours of what was to be their wedding day, their reception hall lay waiting, covered in satin and adorned with balloons.
But the ceremony never arrived Saturday, after police shot 50 rounds at the groom's car as he drove away from his bachelor party, killing the 23-year-old just hours before he was set to walk down the aisle.
The hail of gunfire at a car full of unarmed men drew a furious outcry from family members and community leaders, including the Rev. Al Sharpton. Two passengers, who had been celebrating with the groom at a strip club, were also injured; one was struck by at least 11 bullets.
The officers' shots struck the men's car 21 times after the vehicle rammed into an undercover officer and hit an unmarked NYPD minivan. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said Saturday night it was too early to say whether the shooting was justified.
The wild gunfire hit nearby homes and shattered windows at a train station, though no residents were injured.
Police thought one of the men in the car might have had a gun. But investigators found no weapons. It was unclear what prompted police to open fire, Kelly said.
On Sunday morning, a few hours before a planned noon vigil for the victims, Sharpton told ABC's "Good Morning America" that the volume of shots fired alone raised questions about the police's actions.
"How does one justify 50 shots at unarmed men?" Sharpton asked.
Also Sunday, the group 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care said it is issuing a vote of no confidence in Kelly over the shooting. It is also calling for the removal of the chief of the Organized Crime Control Bureau, Anthony Izzo, who it says created the undercover unit involved in the incident.
Additionally, the group wants a re-examination of what it says is a policy that allows officers from the organized crime control unit to consume alcohol on the job. "Who knows whether or not that was a factor in this particular shooting?" said Marq Claxton, a retired police detective and one of the founders of the group.
A police spokeswoman did not immediately offer comment on the group's demands Sunday.
Kelly said the incident stemmed from an undercover operation inside the strip club in the Jamaica section of Queens. Seven officers in plain clothes were investigating the Kalua Cabaret; five of them were involved in the shooting.
According to Kelly, the groom was involved in a verbal dispute outside the club after 4 a.m. One of his friends made a reference to a gun.
An undercover officer walked closely behind Bell and his friends as they headed for their car. As he walked toward the front of the vehicle, they drove forward - striking him and a nearby undercover police vehicle.
The officer who had followed the group on foot was apparently the first to open fire, Kelly said. That officer had served on the force for five years. One 12-year veteran fired his weapon 31 times, emptying two full magazines, Kelly said.
It was the first time any of the officers, who all carried 9 mm handguns, had been involved in a shooting, Kelly said.
At some point, Bell backed his car up onto the sidewalk, hitting a building gate. He then drove forward, striking the police vehicle a second time, Kelly said.
It was unclear whether the shooters had identified themselves as police, Kelly said.
Kelly's account of the events was based on statements made by witnesses and the two officers who did not shoot their weapons. Police could not question the other officers because the district attorney must first complete an investigation, Kelly said.
The groom was driving. Joseph Guzman, 31, was in the front passenger's seat and was shot at least 11 times. Trent Benefield, 23, who was in the back seat, was hit three times. Both men were taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital, where Guzman was listed in critical condition and Benefield was in stable condition.
Kelly said there may have been a fourth person in the car who fled the scene.
Three officers, including the officer hit by the car, were treated and released. Another detective remained hospitalized for hypertension, Kelly said.
Abraham Kamara, 38, who lives a few blocks from where the shooting occurred, said he was getting ready for work at about 4 a.m. when he heard bursts of gunfire.
"First it was like four shots," he said. "And then it was like pop-pop-pop like 12 times."
Kelly said undercover officers were inside the club to document illicit activity. With one more violation the club would be shut down, Kelly said.
He said the establishment, next to an auto-body repair shop on a gritty block across from a Long Island Rail Road station, had a "chronic history of narcotics, prostitution and weapons complaints" and had been closed by authorities for three months last year.
Sharpton said Bell and his fiancee had two children, a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old.
Robert Porter, who identified himself as Bell's first cousin, said he was supposed to be a DJ at the wedding. He said about 250 people were invited to the ceremony and were flying in from all over the country. He said his cousin wasn't the type to confront police and that he was "on the straight-and-narrow."
"I can't really express myself. It's a numb feeling," Porter said. "I still don't want to believe it, a beautiful day like this, and he was going to have a beautiful wedding, he was going to live forever with his wife and children. And this happened."
This isn't the first time the NYPD has come under scrutiny over police-involved shootings.
In 1999, police killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was shot 19 times in the Bronx. The four officers in that case were acquitted of criminal charges.
And in 2003, Ousmane Zongo was shot to death during a police raid. The 43-year-old, a native of the western African country of Burkina Faso, repaired art and musical instruments in Manhattan. He was hit four times, twice in the back.
Associated Press Writers Jennifer Peltz, Tom Hays and Cristian Salazar contributed to this report.
11/26/06 11:17 EST