The city doesn’t get to choose the settings of its historic crucibles. A dark street in Bensonhurst, 1989. A bustling intersection in Crown Heights, 1991. A police-station bathroom in Flatbush, 1997. In Sean Bell’s case, the stage was set at a wood-paneled afterthought of a strip joint in Jamaica, Queens, in the early hours of Saturday, November 25, 2006.
Club Kalua had opened three years earlier, just another cut-rate market for vice, on a quiet side street around the corner from the Jamaica Long Island Rail Road station. Pimps and hookers cruise the front door, lit by the fluorescent glow from the JFK AirTrain terminal down the block. Inside, the girls don’t offer lap dances so much as just plop onto your lap and demand drinks. Hookers pay the bouncers for the right to waitress and meet johns there; some of the girls are said to be as young as 13. The tricks take place in cars, or in a cheap hotel a block away, or right there on 94th Avenue. Getting customers drunk seems to be club policy. White laser-printed notices are taped to the walls: MUST HAVE DRINK ALL THE TIME. Drunk johns mean more tips for the bartenders (whom the hookers are also paying off) and less of a chance that the johns turn out to be undercover cops.
The cops knew all about Club Kalua. The vice squad had racked up enough arrests to close it back in 2005, though it reopened just two months later. But this was 2006, the year of the girl killings: Imette St. Guillen, raped and murdered after partying at a bar in Soho, and Jennifer Moore, raped and murdered hours after partying in a nightclub in Chelsea. The police had formed a new Club Enforcement Initiative, transferring detectives from vice and narcotics to crack down on nightspots. New teams of cops had worked undercover in Chelsea for a few months. By the fall of 2006, they were branching out to the outer boroughs.
Club Kalua was an obvious target. In the year since reopening, it had been the subject of more than two dozen 911 calls, an average of one every two weeks, and four arrests, including a weapons charge. On November 25, 2006, the police needed just another collar or two—a drug buy, a hooker landing a john, someone flashing a gun—to shut the place down again.
Ever since he was 6 and belted his first home run, Sean Bell thought of himself as a baseball star—and for a while, at least, it seemed he might become one. The son of a hospital-worker mother and mechanic father, Bell took a city bus from his South Jamaica home two neighborhoods away so that he could play for the best high-school team in the area: John Adams, in Ozone Park. In his senior season, he went undefeated as a pitcher with 97 strikeouts and a 2.14 earned-run average. He’d started Nassau Community College, but at 19, a scout who saw him play deemed him average. Then, at the end of his freshman year, Bell’s high-school sweetheart, Nicole Paultre, got pregnant, and Bell walked away from the game.
Bell left college. “I need to be the man,” he told Paultre. “I need to make money.” He repaired phones at hospitals, collated papers for Newsday, sorted packages for UPS. He started hanging out with a new group of friends, guys he’d met through Paultre’s brother-in-law, at an apartment complex near 147th and Rockaway. He got picked up by police in 2003 and 2004 on drugs and weapons possession. In April 2006, he got busted selling coke. He did five days of community service in August, but a police informant allegedly bought coke from him again that same month. In early November, he was picked up again, this time for pot possession. In each case, he’d been released on his own recognizance. Either the charges wouldn’t stick or the police considered him too small-time to go after more aggressively.
That fall, Bell was working nights, delivering milk to convenience stores in Manhattan, and raising two girls—Jada, then 3 years old, and a newborn baby, Jordyn—with Paultre in her father’s basement, out in Far Rockaway. He talked about getting back into shape, trying out for a pro ball club, but never pursued it. He was 23 years old.
That fall, something seemed to change in Bell. It’s not clear if it was because of his drug busts, but he started talking about making a fresh start, maybe moving to Atlanta. And three years after proposing, he finally set a date for their wedding: November 25, 2006.
The hall was booked, the pastor notified, the dress fitted. The day before he was supposed to get married, Bell slept in with Paultre, then stepped out that afternoon to shop for wedding rings along Jamaica Avenue. He was facing his last night as a single man, and a friend who was with him wanted to know where the party was going to be. His usual spot, Eugene’s in Manhattan? “No,” Bell said. He wanted to stay local.