Today’s sole witness was Lieutenant Gary Napoli, the team leader of the drug and prostitution operation on the night of the shooting. Napoli, 50, who in his 25 years on the police force had never been charged with carelessness or incompetence, seemed very nervous. He asked often for questions to be repeated, concentrating hard on his answers. He impressed as a man who was trying hard to be truthful yet couldn’t help but be mindful of his defendant colleagues. He spoke very softly and his words were often garbled; I had a hard time understanding him.
The team, which included all three defendant detectives (Oliver, Isnora and Cooper), had been assigned to the Jamaica, Queens initiative in October of 2006, a month before the shooting. Previously they had been assigned “buy and bust” operations in Chelsea, Manhattan. (I’m sorry but on hearing this, my first thought was: there’s actually crime in Chelsea these days? I’ll be very interested when the detectives testify to know whether this was their first experience out of Lower Manhattan…) Within the prior week the team had processed two arrests each for drug sale and prostitution at Kalua Cabaret. They needed one more arrest — for either — at Kalua in order to ask that it be closed down. According to office superiors, there were to be team changes put into effect the following week, making them believe they may be returned to Manhattan and this would be their last night in Queens. Although it wasn’t listed on their TAC plan (plan of operations) for that evening, the team had decided Kalua would be the main target.
The team consisted of three vehicular units: the undercover’s car, driven by defendant Detective Isnora and containing three other passenger undercover officers; the “prisoner van” which carried defendant Detective Oliver and another officer; and the “chase car” used by the backup team to get the suspects after the buy, in which Napoli and defendant Detective Cooper were passengers).
All cars parked in the vicinity of Kalua at around 12:45 on the morning of November 25th. Once all units radioed they were ready, Napoli authorized them to go, sending Detective Sanchez into the club around 1:30 a.m., and Cooper at 2. About fifteen minutes after Cooper entered, Napoli received a communication (he couldn’t remember from whom) that there was a male black in the club wearing a white White Sox hat and a white t-shirt who made a gesture to his waistband indicating he had a firearm, after a dancer approached him saying she had had a problem with a man in the club. Napoli relayed that information to the other units. At about 2:50, Napoli decided to have Cooper exit the club and place him and Isnora in front of the club to stop the “White Sox” person if and when he left. Cooper returned to his car to get his bullet-proof vest, and he and Isnora took position in front of Kalua.
Around 3:30 a.m., Isnora called Napoli telling him there were two groups in a heated argument in front of the club and he believed a weapon was involved. A few seconds later Isnora called again, his voice now much more frantic, saying they needed to take quick action; he believed there was going to be violence. His words were, “it’s getting hot, it’s getting hot, we need you here quick,” which Napoli viewed as a call for help, and told his units to “move in.” Isnora gave no description of the people involved in the fight but said nothing about a man with a White Sox cap.
Napoli’s car went past Kalua, but Napoli didn’t spot Isnora. (Napoli was in the passenger side; another officer drove). When they rounded the corner of Liverpool Street and began driving south, Napoli saw Sanchez rounding the corner as well; he was walking behind a black woman (who must have been Payne). He then saw Isnora about two buildings in from the corner, standing on the west side of the street. There were between 20 and 40 people on the street, the club having just closed. As he passed Isnora, Isnora gave him three nods of the head indicating a car, an Altima (Bell’s car), across the street, parked on the east side of the street, which some people were getting into.
Napoli’s intent was to drive up past the car, put his police light atop his car, then get out and stop the Altima. As they drove past, Napoli fumbled with the light, having some problem retrieving it, then plugging it in. As Napoli was bent down trying to put the light on, he heard a car screeching away, followed by a collision. Seconds later (he couldn’t estimate how many) he heard gunshots. They were multiple; no pauses. At this point, though he hadn’t seen what happened since he was bent down looking away from the cars, he believed that the people in the Altima knew Isnora was an officer, knew they were all police, and in the process of trying to get away got into a collision. Still trying to get away from the police, the people in the Altima were now firing at them. He thought he and his men “were under fire.”
As Napoli grabbed his gun and tried to look backwards out his passenger window, he saw another officer, who was directly in his line of fire. He radioed the officer to get out of the way, which he did. Napoli exited the car, crouching, his weapon drawn, the gunfire still going on. After he got to the end of his car, the gunfire stopped, an “eerie silence” ensuing. Napoli never fired.
When the gunfire ceased, Napoli called out asking if everyone on the team was okay. Voices indicated they were. He saw Oliver standing on the driver’s side of the Altima and Isnora near the corner of the street. Napoli then turned his concentration to the Altima, seeing some movement inside. A man called out that he was hit. Napoli directed him to put his hands out of the car and wiggle his fingers to let him know he didn’t have a gun. The man did so.
Afterward the team members were “all in shock; in a surreal state.” Napoli had supervised over 100 operations and none of his subjects had ever been seriously injured.
Napoli also had never before ordered a primary undercover to effectuate an arrest; arrests were performed by the designated arresting officer. But he had also never been in this kind of situation. He said he was trained, at the outset of a threat, first to take cover, then assess the situation, and then identify the target, all before using any deadly force. He would not let shots go off without identifying a target. But there are some situations, he added, where you can’t find the target.