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A Bad Night at Club Kalua

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From left, Officer Michael Carey and Detectives Paul Headley, Marc Cooper, Michael Oliver, and Gescard Isnora.  

Then he saw the tall man stick his right hand in his jacket pocket, as if he had a gun.

“Let’s fuck him up!” Isnora heard someone in Bell’s group cry.

Next he heard Bell’s friend Joseph Guzman shout, “Yo, get my gun! Get my gun!”

Bell and his friends headed toward Bell’s car, turning the corner onto Liverpool Street—a short, dark alleyway with a few clapboard houses.

Isnora tailed them. He thought of Guzman’s words: Yo, get my gun! Were they planning a drive-by?

Isnora grabbed a cell phone from one of his backups, who had already dialed Napoli. “Getting hot on Liverpool, for real! I think there’s a gun.”

The lieutenant gave the order to move in.

An unmarked Toyota Camry with three cops inside pulled onto Liverpool Street, blocking Bell’s gray Nissan Altima. An unmarked minivan with two more cops came around the corner and also boxed in Bell. On the curb was Isnora, walking toward Bell’s car, Glock in hand.

Why the shooting started—that’s the question. But here’s what’s clear. Isnora shot first, squeezing off eleven rounds. Four other cops fired next: Carey three times, Marc Cooper four times, Paul Headley once. Michael Oliver emptied his Sig Sauer P226 31 times. He even stopped to reload.

The detective called his lieutenant. “Getting hot on Liverpool, for real! I think there’s a gun.” But no one in Sean Bell’s car, it turns out, had a gun.

Joseph Guzman was shot at least eleven times, struck in the face, shoulder, buttocks, thigh, and ankle. Trent Benefield, another friend of Bell’s, caught three bullets in the leg and buttocks. They both survived.

Sean Bell was hit four times, bullets passing through his right shoulder, arm, lung, liver, and larynx. He was pronounced dead at Jamaica Hospital, just before dawn on Saturday, November 25, 2006. According to Guzman, Bell told him, “I love you, son,” before losing consciousness.

Aside from Isnora, whose knee was scraped by Bell’s car, none of the officers sustained injuries. Despite firing 50 times, they were never fired on. No one in Sean Bell’s car, it turns out, had a gun.

Nothing sends racial sparks flying in New York like a white cop’s shooting a black man. And where there are racial sparks, there is Al Sharpton. Sure enough, a relative of Bell’s fiancée had called the reverend from the hospital that morning, at 9:45 a.m. “We didn’t know what to do, I was so in shock,” Nicole Paultre remembers. “My mom said, ‘We need Reverend Sharpton.’ ”

This time, Sharpton didn’t need to do much to tap the city’s central racial nerve. Instantly, people were talking about Crown Heights and Abner Louima and Amadou Diallo—especially about Diallo, the 23-year-old unarmed Guinean immigrant shot 41 times in 1999 by Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s fabled Street Crime Unit. Nicole Paultre called the cops “murderers” who “executed” the man she loved. The Post plastered the photo of a white cop, Michael Oliver, on its front page (even though three of the other cops who fired shots that night, Isnora, Cooper, and Headley, are black). And then there was Sharpton. “There’s no way in anyone’s mind that we can see how 50 shots had to be fired,” he said. “For this kind of shooting to happen based on their story is absolutely unthinkable.” His mayoralty may have ended almost five years earlier, and 9/11 may have radically remade his image. But for a moment, it seemed like it was Giuliani time all over again.

There are similarities, of course, between Mike Bloomberg and his predecessor. Both men claim credit for rebuilding the New York economy and reducing crime to historically low levels. Both men have been blamed for being blindly pro-development and cleaning up the city to the point of soullessness. But from the moment Sean Bell was shot, Bloomberg played the anti-Rudy. If anything, he sounded more like Sharpton: “It sounds to me like excessive force was used,” the mayor said tersely two days after Bell died. “I can tell you that it is to me unacceptable or inexplicable how you can have 50-odd shots fired.”

It was no small political moment—the mayor criticizing the cops?—and not everyone took to it. The detectives union called out Bloomberg for weighing in before a judge and jury could. The Post’s editorial page said he had “ants in his pants.” Commissioner Ray Kelly seemed to almost step away from the mayor when he said it.

The mayor backed off slightly in the days that followed, saying, disingenuously, that he’d been speaking strictly as a civilian. Still, Bloomberg had invited Sharpton into City Hall’s Blue Room, keeping him there for his press conference and a photo op. The image of the mayor and the reverend together drove home the idea that history wouldn’t quite repeat itself. There were no riots—just a polite Sharpton-led march down Fifth Avenue. Bloomberg and Sharpton had political wins. The city had its peace. At least until the trial.


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