A Bad Night at Club Kalua

Photo: Mary Altaffer/AP

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.

Sean Bell on his high school’s prom night. Photo: Courtesy of Nicole Paultre Bell

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.

From left, Officer Michael Carey and Detectives Paul Headley, Marc Cooper, Michael Oliver, and Gescard Isnora.Photo: NYPD/AP Photo

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.

Nicole Paultre BellPhoto: Matthew Speigelman

The five cops who fired that night finally told their stories to a grand jury last winter, and in March, the grand jury voted to indict three of them. Oliver and Isnora are charged with manslaughter, Cooper with reckless endangerment. The trial starts this week in Queens.

The accounts of what started the shooting that night split down the usual lines. First, there’s the version told by police on the scene and related by Ray Kelly the next day. They insist that Isnora was wearing his badge around his neck and that, before anything happened, he yelled “Police!” at Bell and his friends. Then Bell (who, they note, was legally drunk) panicked and stomped on the gas pedal. His car lurched forward, tore past Isnora, and smashed into the unmarked police van. Isnora looked through the windshield of Bell’s car and thought he saw Joseph Guzman reaching into the waistband of his pants. Then Isnora shouted “Gun!” and fired. It was all, in their version, a tragic but honest mistake.

Then there’s the version told by Guzman, Benefield, and others who were at the club or on Liverpool Street that night. They say they never saw Isnora’s shield and no one shouted “Police!” They say Bell thought he was being carjacked and did the only sensible thing under the circumstances—hit the gas before the guy with the gun pulled the trigger. Some say it was the police van that slammed into Bell’s car, not the other way around. There was never any gun, they say. The cops just started shooting and wouldn’t stop. It is, in their telling, just another excessive attack by overzealous police—the kind of thing that seems to happen only in communities of color.

In court, the detectives’ lawyers will likely rely heavily on the “fog of war” argument—the idea that police work is dangerous and split-second decisions have to be made, sometimes with tragic, but unintended, results. They also may suggest that Bell and his friends were thugs; Bell’s record of drug and weapons arrests has already made its way into the papers, as have the more substantial rap sheets of Guzman and Benefield. “They’re going to try to damage Bell’s reputation,” says Ken Thompson, a federal prosecutor in the Abner Louima trial. “They were at Club Kalua for a reason. So I think they’ll say, ‘What good upstanding citizen would be there to begin with?’ ” They also may resurrect a theory police had of a fourth man near Bell’s car—a man dressed in a beige jacket who police said might have been carrying a gun. So far, no such person has emerged. “He must be bionic,” Guzman’s fiancée said of the alleged fourth man, “because how could you not get hit with 50 shots?”

The prosecutors will focus on the 50 bullets. If this was an accidental shooting, why keep firing? “The biggest thing with these cases is the visceral reaction that anyone has, no matter what side they fall on, to hearing about 50 shots discharged with no return fire,” says Joe Tacopina, who defended one of the cops in the Louima case. “It sounds excessive.” Even Ray Kelly, two days afterward, called the Bell shooting “unusual.” Why didn’t Isnora and Oliver stop to reassess their targets after firing three rounds, the way department regulations demand? Why didn’t Isnora ask his backup undercover to make the arrest, the way procedure would seem to dictate? And if the cops thought Bell and his friends were getting a gun from the car, why did they wait until the men were in the car to confront them?

Contagious shooting. That’s another theory. Defined in the NYPD patrol guide as “a chain reaction of shooting by other personnel,” the phenomenon had been used to explain the Diallo shooting and other incidents in which gunfire hit the double digits: 125 bullets during a bodega robbery in the Bronx in 1995; 43 shots at one armed man in Queens in 2005; 26 shots at one pit bull in the Bronx in 2006. “It’s sort of like a Pavlovian response,” a retired police captain told CNN after the Bell shooting. “It’s automatic.” Contagious shooting is often invoked by those willing to give the police the benefit of the doubt. “The fog of the moment happens,” a retired NYPD firearms instructor told a reporter a few days after Bell was killed. “Different things happen that people don’t understand.”

The problem with the idea is that it removes free will from the equation. Do the cops just get a pass? Where does instinct end and responsibility take over? How does race factor in? Or plain incompetence? If contagious shooting does exist, Sharpton has suggested, it’s a small comfort to the targets who always seem to be in black neighborhoods: “We become in the middle of a firing squad that we did nothing to cause,” he said. “If anything, that’s even more frightening.”

Nicole Paultre Bell, with her two children, Jordyn, left, and Jada.Photo: Matthew Speigelman for New York Magazine

Race has already played a part in the pretrial legal maneuvering. The three cops on trial first asked to have the proceeding moved out of Queens, the way the Amadou Diallo trial had been moved from the Bronx (which led to an acquittal of the Diallo cops). When the court denied their change-of-venue request, they gave up on a jury altogether, exercising their right to have a bench trial, in which a judge alone determines guilt or innocence. To some, this is an obvious sign that the cops don’t believe they can win the sympathy of even one juror in Queens, where scores of languages are spoken and immigrants and minorities are the majority. “These guys are so disingenuous,” one veteran of police cases says of the cops. “If they had a jury of their liking, they’d take it. It’s one of the oldest tricks in the book by cops: They don’t want to be tried by a jury of their peers.”

The fate of the three Bell cops now rests in the hands of State Supreme Court Justice Arthur Cooperman, a 74-year-old judge on the brink of retirement, with no one to answer to but an appeals court. He has a reputation for fairness, but also independence, meaning both sides will have to work hard to sway him. The very fact that police fired so many bullets has led most people to expect a conviction. That expectation would only make an acquittal more incendiary. And yet, maybe we are entering a Barack Obama–post-racial age. Maybe Mike Bloomberg has meaningfully lowered the city’s racial temperature. Maybe the narrative of the racist white cop run amok has lost some of its power, whether through familiarity or, more sadly, resignation.

The problem with contagious shooting is that it removes free will from the equation. Where does race factor in? Or plain incompetence?

Last week, I asked Al Sharpton what could happen to New York if the Bell cops are acquitted. Perhaps he was choosing his words carefully before the trial, but he seemed to bend over backward not to inflame matters. “I’ve always reacted nonviolently and peacefully,” he said, “including when I felt we were treated dead wrong on Diallo.” If the cops who shot Bell were to be acquitted, Sharpton says, his first move would be to ask the Justice Department for a civil-rights inquiry. “There’s clearly grounds to ask whether these men had the civil right to leave a club and sit in a car and drive off.” He’d also keep campaigning for the NYPD to throw the accused detectives off the force. “This would be the beginning, but it wouldn’t be the end.”

But the reverend is also careful to point out one more thing. “I think what gets left out of all this is that with all of the marching and the protests, two of the officers are black. So this is not just race here, this is about policemen’s conduct.”

What role does race have in this shooting? “Oh, I think there was a racial component,” Sharpton says. “Even the black officers would have behaved different if there were three young white guys walking out of that bar.”

Detective Gescard Isnora has told colleagues he’s shattered by what happened. He and Marc Cooper have kept a low public profile. Michael Oliver, meanwhile, seemed to change his story several times: First, he said he was unsure if he’d fired his gun at all. Then, when it became clear he emptied his chamber twice, Oliver said he reloaded because he thought his gun had jammed. Finally, he settled into a defiant resignation. “This was a split-second decision I had to make, and I did,” he told one source, who said that Oliver “believes in what he did. He feels terrible for the family over what happened. He’s saddened for what everyone is going through. But this was, ‘I thought I was getting fired upon.’ ” In March 2007, the night after his indictment, the tabloids spotted Oliver at a friend’s party at Nello dining on pasta with truffles and $575 bottles of Brunello di Montalcino.

Joseph Guzman was in critical condition for nearly a week after the shooting and has lost the feeling in one foot. His “good leg,” he said in November, has a metal rod in it. Trent Benefield has fared better, although he too has a rod in one leg. Both men are expected to testify at the trial.

Al Sharpton fought hard over the winter to oppose the defense’s request for a change of venue. He’ll be by Paultre’s side at the trial and has asked his supporters to come, too. “When Nicole walks in that courtroom, I want hundreds of us there,” he announced on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “This sister has been such a symbol of justice.”

Sean Bell’s parents, William and Valerie, live in a small wooden house in St. Albans, Queens, a ten-minute drive from Club Kalua. A large color photo of Sean in a baseball uniform dominates their living room. They talk with Paultre every day and see their grandchildren every two weeks or so. They hold vigils on the 23rd of every month outside their local precinct house. They’ll also attend the trial.

Two weeks after Bell died, Nicole Paultre had her name legally changed to Nicole Paultre Bell. She wears the wedding ring on her left hand, and dresses in black in public. She still lives in Far Rockaway in her father’s house. She and her children live on Bell’s Social Security death benefits, along with contributions from Sharpton’s National Action Network. Her application to the state’s crime-victim-compensation fund has been rejected, but she has filed what figures to be a multimillion-dollar civil suit against the police that will start after the criminal trial is over. She and her children recently posed for a Rocawear fashion ad that includes a plea for justice signed by her. She speaks regularly at events with Sharpton.

Last month, on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, I met Paultre at the National Action Network headquarters in Harlem, where she shook hands with the mayor and governor and briefly addressed the crowd. Sean “was an everyday guy,” she told me afterward. “Just a guy going to work and coming home, not somebody in the spotlight. He was just Sean, you know. He worked, and he came home at night. He hung out with his friends. He played baseball. We were just normal people, me and Sean.”

Jada is now 5, and Jordyn is about to turn 2. Paultre says she takes them to Port Washington, Long Island, every week to visit their father’s grave.

A Bad Night at Club Kalua