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A Bad Night at Club Kalua

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Sean Bell on his high school’s prom night.   

The final plan didn’t come together until later, after he dropped Nicole and the girls at her mother’s place. Some of his newer friends—the guys from 147th and Rockaway—suggested Club Kalua.

At 11 p.m., nine cops working in the NYPD’s Club Enforcement Initiative met at a precinct house on the Lower East Side to plan out the night ahead. Serving in the new nightclub units was considered an honor for some cops, purgatory for others. This team had a little of each.

Michael Oliver was a square-jawed, dimple-chinned 35-year-old detective who had clocked 600 arrests in his career without once firing his gun. In recent years, Oliver seemed to have gone native, spending many of his off-hours at A-list clubs like Pangaea; Cain, in Chelsea; and Bungalow 8. He’d become friends with promoter Jamie Mulholland and even dated Cain’s VIP hostess, Tara Lee Borsman. The regulars at these places would jokingly call him Undercover Mike. Michael Carey was another favored son, if less seasoned. Just 26, he’d policed Hell’s Kitchen clubs so successfully that he skipped being a patrolman and went straight to undercover work.

The team’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Gary Napoli, on the other hand, was said to have been given the assignment as a punishment for having missed a CompStat meeting at his old post. His lead undercover that night, Gescard Isnora, had asked to transfer out of dangerous plainclothes work in Brooklyn and back to uniformed patrol duty; Isnora seemed to have been rewarded for his candor with more plainclothes work on Napoli’s team.

Tonight’s operation was supposed to be simple: All nine cops would ride out to Queens in unmarked cars, but only three of them would go into the club. Isnora would run point, with two others shadowing him. Inside, Isnora would set up a prostitution bust, then get out. (Napoli and his team had been to Club Kalua a week earlier and arrested two hookers.) Everyone else would wait in their cars to respond to any trouble—and, when the time came, fill the van with perps.

By the time the cops got to Club Kalua, Sean Bell’s bachelor party was going strong. Huddled in a group of friends, the groom-to-be seemed happy—hugging, singing, and drinking. When “Promiscuous Girl” started blasting, Bell made his father, William, dance with him. Everyone laughed. When Sean called his father his best man, William yelled, “Damn! You gonna cause me to talk?”

A few feet away, Isnora wasn’t having much luck making arrests. Finding hookers was easy; the trick came in cutting a deal without blowing his cover. Everyone knew about the NYPD’s two-drink rule for undercovers, and after a time Isnora started to worry about his safety. The longer he stayed, the higher the odds he’d get made.

At about 3 a.m., Isnora saw a fat man in a Chicago White Sox cap sidle up to one of the dancers he thought might be a hooker and say he’d heard she’d been arguing with a group of guys. “Don’t worry, baby,” Isnora heard the guy say. Then he saw him tap his waistband. “I got you covered.”

Gun, Isnora thought. He went outside to call Napoli, and his backups eventually followed. One of the backups returned to the club later to look for the man in the cap, but he was gone. False alarm.

It was almost 4 a.m.—closing time. Isnora was still outside. He’d grabbed his Glock from his unmarked car, but he’d never had a reason to use it. It was time to pack up and go home. The night appeared to be a washout—not one arrest. Then Sean Bell and his friends walked out the front door.

Bell and his friends were drunk, but this wasn’t the end of the party. His father had left early, but those who remained had picked up someone new: a dancer named Trini Wright. She was 28, five years older than Bell. She was also the same dancer Isnora had seen earlier, talking to the man in the White Sox cap.

“I’m not doing you all,” Isnora heard Wright say to the guys. “I’ll do one or two, but not all.”

It might have been just a negotiation. But Isnora sensed a fight. It was possible that Bell’s friends were the same guys the man in the White Sox cap had mentioned—the ones who’d supposedly been hassling Wright inside.

Isnora never found out. As Bell and his friends were talking to Wright, a tall man standing next to a black SUV outside the club began shouting insults at Bell and his friends.

Isnora watched carefully. Maybe he’d make a collar and salvage the night after all.


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