Monday, December 11, 2006

Many Unanswered Questions Still Surround the Police Murder of Sean Bell

December 11, 2006

50 Bullets, One Dead, and Many Questions

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 cellphones, 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 AirTrain terminal, they chose several strategic vantage points and parked their cars.

Getting Into Position

Lieutenant Napoli said he selected a spot in the AirTrain 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 cellphone, 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 cellphone 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 cellphone 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 cellphone, 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.

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