Sean Bell Shooting Trial Days 5 & 6: "I Can't Believe the Police Shot My Friend."

Above is the quote of the day, as it appears. It is from Emergency Medical Technician William Rudnick, paraphrasing Joseph Guzman, one of the men shot in Sean Bell’s car, when Rudnick was helping transport Guzman into the ambulance. (See relevant posts on the trial here). Murmurs abounded in the courtroom when the words were spoken. Part of the prosecution’s theory was that the three men in the car didn’t know the men pointing guns at them were undercover police before the car pulled away, driving into Det. Isnora and hitting the unmarked police van. Instead they saw a random black man holding a gun, sensed danger and tried to flee. If that’s the case, then perhaps Rudnick’s testimony that Guzman said to him, “I can’t believe the police shot my friend,” right after the shooting, undermines that theory. Perhaps so, perhaps not. Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself.

Since I didn’t write yesterday about the day’s testimony, I’ll try to be as brief as possible. We first heard from paramedic Lieutenant Elise Hanlon. After receiving a call that a police officer needed assistance, she and her unit, which included emergency medical technician Mark Massa (who testified after her) responded to the scene around 4:20 a.m. There, there were numerous police officers — both uniformed and plainclothes, many civilians and Port Authority officers. Two vehicles — a minivan and an Altima — had collided and emergency workers were removing Guzman from the passenger side of the Altima and placing him onto a stretcher. On the driver’s side of that car, Rudnick was performing CPR on Sean Bell, who was in cardiac arrest. (Throughout the testimony, Sean’s mother held her head in her hands.)

Hamlon, certified in advanced emergency care, took over for Rudnick. After an ambulance took Bell to Jamaica Hospital, Hamlon walked down the street, where Trent Bennefield, the third passenger in the Bell car who was shot as well, was being treated. Lying face down on the ground and rear handcuffed (there were sighs of disbelief in the courtroom on hearing this), Bennefield said he was cold, shot and couldn’t feel his legs. Hamlon directed officers to uncuff him, and other ER workers cut off his jacket and pants in order to treat his wounds, before placing him into the ambulance and taking him to Mary Immaculate Hospital. Since he was yelling and alert, Hanlon didn’t consider Trent’s injuries life threatening. Before the ambulance drove off, a large crowd of people had gathered at the ambulance requesting that he be allowed to speak with his mother on a cell phone. Hanlon directed the workers to allow him to take the call, which they did. Trent’s clothes were left at the scene.

EMT Mark Massa arrived on the scene contemporaneous with Hanlon. He assisted with Bennefield, who had multiple gunshot wounds, including an entry bullet wound to his right calf, exit would to his left calf, and an entry wound to his right upper leg. He removed Bennefield’s clothing in order to better care for the wounds. Despite the wounds, Bennefield wasn’t badly injured and would be able to walk and run on his legs; he was also conversational and could easily answer questions about his address, date of birth, etc. Bennefield was in pain though, saying his legs hurt. He helped transport Bennefield to the hospital. He didn’t know whether Bennefield was sober, but Bennefield did nothing to make him think he wasn’t. At the hospital Bennefield freaked out a bit over the whereabouts of his jacket because there was money “or something” in it.

Next to testify was Anthony South an independent photo-journalist who videotapes newsworthy scenes to sell to TV stations. After receiving the radio call of “shots fired” through his police scanner, he went to the scene, arriving around 4:30 a.m. He saw 3 ambulances and several police vehicles, marked and unmarked. He shot 7 minutes of raw footage altogether. We viewed most of that footage, which was played on two large monitors in the courtroom. The most disturbing parts were of Bennefield lying face down on the ground and being placed on a stretcher, screaming, “stop you’re hurting me, you’re hurting me… owwww, I can’t feel my legs.” He had a large bloody cut on his forehead, which must have been a scrape from the ground.

We also saw on the tape defendant Detective Oliver walking down the street in plainclothes, a badge visibly dangling from his neck, which Mr. South verified.

Mr. South provided the day’s “moment of lightness” when a defense attorney asked him if he believed a large black man shown on the tape, dressed in plainclothes with a pair of handcuffs dangling out the back of his jeans, was an undercover officer. South said yes and counsel asked why. He said slowly, “well, his handcuffs and gun …” The whole courtroom cracked up. South seemed pleased he could provide entertainment.

Finally, a portion of the tape showing shattered glass on the top of the elevated Air Train platform was played but without sound. Actually, before any part of the tape was played there was a big huge sidebar (that’s where the attorneys and judge talk outside of earshot of either jurors or spectators). All side-bars in this trial are by definition “big” and “huge” though because there are about 10,000 attorneys (seriously, there are four prosecutors and a total of five attorneys between the three defendants, for a total of nine), and, when they all approach the judge, first there’s the eardrum-numbing screech of basically 36 chair legs scraping the non-carpeted floor, then with the black-robed judge standing atop his little throne looking down at this flock of besuited men, it’s just a sight…. Anyway, point is, Paul Martin, counsel for defendant Detective Cooper (charged with reckless endangerment for a stray bullet allegedly shot from his gun that ended up on the peopled platform) obviously got the sound excluded from this little portion of the tape, which annoyed the curious layperson in me who wanted to hear what may have been said about that shattered glass, but which the attorney in me well understands would be unreliable hearsay…

Next on was Detective Hispolito Sanchez, who gave very important testimony. Sanchez, 36 years old, is a pretty large, built, tough-looking black man and one of the undercovers that night, assigned to “ghost” defendant Detective Gescard Isnora, who was acting as primary undercover. The ghost’s role is to look after the primary UC, making sure he’s okay as he does his drug or prostitution buy or whatever. Echoing Lieut. Napoli‘s earlier testimony, Sanchez said the team, part of the club initiative, had just been transferred from Chelsea to South Queens one month before the shooting, and there had been discussion at the TAC meeting that night that their initiative may be disbanded or sent back to Manhattan. On the Tuesday before the night of the shooting, November 22, 2006, the team had made two arrests for prostitution and drug sale at Kalua Cabaret. The sales were made by two dancers at the club. The 25th, the night of the shooting, may well have been their last night there. With one more arrest, they knew they may be able to close Kalua down.

Sanchez chose not to bring his police shield, bullet-proof vest, or gun with him into the field — meaning he didn’t have any of those items even in the car. Isnora did bring his gun, vest and badge, but of course left them in the car when he went into the club. After Napoli gave Sanchez the green light, about 1:00 a.m., he left his car, which he’d parked about three blocks from the club, and went in. He preceded Isnora because Isnora had been the undercover on November 22nd and he wanted to make sure neither of the dancers arrested that night were in the club lest Isnora’s cover may be blown. There’s always the risk of an undercover’s “being made,” which could be dangerous.

Once inside, Sanchez noticed that the club was rougher than it had been in the past. There was a rowdy group in the back, touching and grabbing the women. Also, a tough-looking guy gave Sanchez some angry stares as he went up to the back area to look around. Sanchez felt a little uneasy this time around. Sanchez radioed Napoli telling him both that he didn’t see the women from the arrest on the 22nd and about his feelings of uneasiness, being specific about the man giving him angry looks, the rowdiness, and saying that the place was entirely different from last time. He told him that Kalua nevertheless looked “promising” for prostitution busts. I found this testimony interesting because, according to Napoli, the officer who called him (he couldn’t remember which officer that was) said that it didn’t look like there there was much going on in Kalua that night and they may not be able to make any buy and busts. Napoli never said anything about someone feeling uneasy or indicating that the club was more raucous than usual.

Isnora sat down next to Sanchez at the bar. Sanchez warned him of the rowdiness and the mean-looking guy in the back. A couple of dancers approached Isnora and persistently asked him to buy them drinks. He didn’t.
Cooper was sent in about five minutes later. The three UCs sat at the front of the bar.

Sanchez witnessed two fights. In the back of the bar, a woman threw a drink at a man and the man threw his drink back at her. The two were escorted out. Sanchez also saw in the back area a man, who he later learned was Guzman, flailing his arms about and making gestures indicating he was arguing with someone.

Sanchez stepped outside to radio Napoli again, updating him on what was going on; it’s commonplace to keep the field team abreast of what’s happening inside. He didn’t tell Napoli about the fights though since he didn’t consider them significant.

When he returned to the club, Isnora told Sanchez there was a possibility of someone inside possessing a gun. Isnora had been sitting next to a woman who told a black man wearing a white White Sox cap and black jacket that she had had a problem with one of the guys. The White Sox man motioned to his waistband and said to her, “don’t worry; I’ll take care of it.” Isnora didn’t make clear whether he saw the White Sox man himself or whether the woman had told him about the man. Sanchez radioed such to Napoli. Napoli gave no orders. It was now around 2:30 to 3:00 a.m.

Sanchez returned to the club and pretended to play with a video machine in the front of the club, looking from time to time at the rowdy group in the rear of the club, looking out for a man in a White Sox hat. When he turned back toward the bar, he noticed Isnora and Cooper had left. It was around 3:30 and lights came on indicating the club was getting ready to close.

Sanchez walked outside where he saw Isnora and Cooper standing in front of the club. Isnora told Sanchez he’d returned to his vehicle and armed himself; he now had his gun. Sanchez radioed Napoli who told him to try to find White Sox man. Sanchez walked back into the club, but couldn’t find him. When he exited the club, there were about 15-20 people outside standing in different groups. There was a thin black man wearing all black standing in front of a black SUV directly in front of the club.

A woman surrounded by three men, one of whom was Guzman, exited the club. The woman said to the men, “I’m not fucking him.” One of the men said, “get another girl.” A man then tried to get back into the club. The man in front of the SUV raised his hand, looking at them. He said something to Guzman, and Guzman said something back. Sanchez couldn’t hear what they were saying.

A man who was standing in another group of 3-4 people, a bit farther down the sidewalk, approached the Guzman group and said, “let’s fuck him up.” That man was Sean Bell. Guzman then said, “yo, go get my gun.” Bell began to walk away. SUV guy had his right hand in his jacket pocket. By the way he held his hand, Sanchez thought SUV man had a weapon. Bell came back up to the Guzman group and said again, “let’s fuck him up.” Again, Guzman said, “go get my gun.” Sanchez was standing about five feet from Guzman; he was sure he heard his words correctly. The SUV man looked hard at the group, not seeming scared. Bell walked away, toward Liverpool Street, followed by Guzman and the rest of the group.

There was another group of about 4-5 people standing a bit further down the sidewalk. They began following the Guzman / Bell group down the street as well.

Sanchez radioed the events to Napoli and gave Isnora his cell phone so that Isnora could give a further description of the men as he followed them. Sanchez would stay near the club and keep lookout for White Sox man. Isnora took the cell phone and began following the Guzman group. (Sanchez had another, back-up phone.) Sanchez began a conversation with a woman dancer who’d just left the club (presumably Marseillas Payne, who testified earlier). He asked her how she was doing and what her name was and a few other questions. She looked him up and down and asked if he was a cop. He said no. She said, “I don’t do dates.” He said it was cool and told her to have a good night. She crossed the street and walked in the same direction as the Guzman / Bell group had.

Sanchez saw Payne stop and talk to a black man wearing a red baseball cap (Larenzo Kinred, who testified earlier) who had been with the Guzman group and was now standing down the street. SUV guy got in his vehicle and drove away, in the same direction as the Guzman group. He drove away at a rather fast speed, about 20-25 miles per hour. After he made a right at the end of the block, Sanchez lost sight of him. Sanchez remained outside of the club waiting for White Sox guy and watching Red cap guy converse with Payne.

Soon Sanchez saw his field team drive by — first Napoli’s car passed him, then the team’s minivan, or prisoner van (so named because it was used to transport prisoners following arrests), both cars proceeding in the same direction as the SUV, and the Guzman / Bell group. As they turned the corner, Sanchez followed.

About 1 1/2 minutes later, Sanchez heard people’s voices. He was unsure of what they were saying, but they were yelling. On cross examination he was asked whether those words could have been commands and he said they did sound like someone was giving commands but he couldn’t be sure since he couldn’t hear the content. At any rate, there was definite yelling. Following the yelling, he heard a large collision — “a big boom.” He rounded the corner and saw the back of the prisoner van and 3-4 seconds later he heard gunfire. He remembers seeing the silhouette of a person by the driver’s side of the prisoner van but couldn’t see what he was doing. Sanchez ran for cover, ducking in a doorway down the street, and called a detective in his team to tell her to put out a radio run of “shots fired.” He then called 911.

We heard the 911 tape and it was a mess and a half. The sound quality was so bad I couldn’t make out a single thing other than noise in the background and a female voice, apparently the operator’s, repeatedly asking Sanchez for a location, which he seemed unable to give her, and the words “two perps shot.” As the tape progressed, the attorneys — both sides — noted that it was now repeating, so you couldn’t really even tell where the call ended and began. Following the tape’s being played Sanchez testified that he didn’t know the location of the club and had to ask a uniformed officer who’d responded to the scene, as well as defendant Det. Oliver, who ran by him. They hadn’t discussed the location of the club at the prior TAC meeting in case of an emergency.

Sanchez described the gunfire as going on for about two minutes, generally continuous but with a few short pauses. He’d told the Grand Jury, though, that it only lasted 4-6 seconds. He admitted at trial that he really didn’t know exactly how long the gunfire lasted.

Later, after the gunfire had stopped, Sanchez saw Isnora, who had his police shield displayed under his chin on the left side of his collar. Isnora lifted his pants legs to show a reddish mark on his shin.

Next on was Lieutenant Michael Wheeler, one of the uniformed officers who responded to the scene. He received a total of four radio calls — three of “shots fired,” the final, “police officer needs assistance.” He arrived at the scene around 4:15 a.m., about 1 1/2 minutes after receiving the calls. He saw the collision of an Altima and a minivan, saw smoke coming from the hoods of the cars, and saw Guzman’s chest and arms hanging out the driver’s side of the Altima. Two other officers were already there assisting. He called for an ambulance and directed one of the officers to handcuff Guzman for for safety purposes. He saw Det. Cooper, holding a gun and ordered him to lower his firearm and holster. His driver had told him that Cooper was a police officer, which is why he told him only to lower, and not drop his gun. He took no notice of any shield, but wasn’t looking for one. He also saw Trent Bennefield lying on the ground, and ordered him cuffed as well.

Wheeler asked Cooper if he was okay and whether he fired his gun; Cooper said yes to both. Wheeler asked how many times he’d fired and Cooper said he didn’t know. Cooper directed Wheeler down the street to the rest of the team. Isnora told Wheeler he fired his gun but didn’t know how many times. Another detective on the team, Det. Headley said he fired his gun but didn’t know how many times. Wheeler said that when he asked Det. Oliver (who’d fired 31 times) whether he fired his gun, Oliver said he didn’t know. Wheeler had told the Grand Jury, however, that Oliver told him he did fire his gun but didn’t know how many times. At trial he insisted he was certain that Oliver had told him he didn’t know whether he’d fired his weapon and claimed the Grand Jury testimony was a mistake.

Wheeler preserved the crime scene with police tape, then spoke with Bennefield. He ascertained Bennefield’s name and address but when asking him his date of birth, Bennefield responded, “go fuck yourself.” Bennefield appeared to be in a lot of pain.

Wheeler performed a routine weapon and ‘perp search,’ finding no missing perpetrators or guns. He checked all undercovers on the team for alcohol consumption and found them all “fine and fit for duty.” Napoli, however, seemed “slightly out of it” but was still able to answer questions.

Next to testify was emergency technician Rudnick (who I mentioned about five years ago at the start of this crazy long post). Rudnick impressed as young, serious, honest, and trustworthy. He too responded to the radio runs, arriving on the scene around 4:16 a.m. He parked behind the collided cars and approached the Altima, where he found Guzman’s upper body hanging outside of the driver’s side, his hands cuffed. Rudnick introduced himself to Guzman and asked him if he was okay. Guzman said he was okay but was worried about his friend underneath him. Rudnick then leaned down and saw that Guzman was not the driver of the car, but that there was another man, in the driver’s seat who was underneath Guzman, who’d fallen into the driver’s seat atop him. Sean Bell was the driver.

Bell was ashen gray and did not appear to be breathing. Rudnick was unable to find a pulse and realized he was in traumatic cardiac arrest. Rudnick’s partner, Walsh, worked to remove Guzman from the car, immobilizing him then sliding him across the front seat and out the passenger’s side, so Rudnick could work on Bell. Rudnick cut off Bell’s shirt so that he could see his wounds. He found a bullet entry wound to the right side of his neck and another to the right side of his chest. He put a cervical collar on Bell to immobilize him, reclined his seat, which was already partially reclined, as far back as it would go, and began performing CPR and artificial pulmonary recessitation on him. Hamlin then arrived and, having advanced CPR training, and Rudnick only basic, took over for Rudnick.

Rudnick then concentrated his efforts on Guzman. As he placed Guzman into the ambulance, Guzman said, “I can’t believe the police shot my friend.” Guzman was still in cuffs at that time. Rudnick got into the ambulance, cut off Guzman’s clothes and had the cuffs removed so he could properly treat him. Guzman had multiple wounds to his face, chest, abdomen, legs, and back, and was in critical condition, with a collapsed lung. Rudnick began sealing the wounds and monitoring Guzman’s vital signs as the ambulance proceeded to Mary Immaculate hospital.

Isnora’s attorney, Anthony Ricco, went nuts on cross, homing in on what Rudnick said he heard Guzman state. Ricco asked, “did you tell Mr. Guzman the police had shot Mr. Bell? Did you see anyone tell Mr. Guzman the police had shot Mr. Bell?” Both answers were “no.” “Then how did he know the police had shot Bell?” Ricco asked. But Justice Cooperman sustained the prosecutor’s objection (Rudnick couldn’t know such an answer since he doesn’t inhabit Guzman’s brain). Rudnick himself did not know at that point that Guzman had been shot by police. On re-direct examination, the prosecutor elicited from Rudnick that Guzman was handcuffed at the point that he made the statement about the police shooting his friend. But on re-cross, Ricco asked Rudnick whether Guzman had asked why he’d been cuffed or whether he’d stated that the police had shot his friend. Rudnick said the latter.

I’ll definitely be interested to hear Guzman’s testimony now. Did he piece together that cops shot them because of the cuffs and other things that happened afterward? Or was he too out of it after being shot so many times to come to that conclusion afterward? Does this mean he knew the people approaching them bearing guns were officers and they tried to drive away anyway? Rudnick is a completely disinterested witness, and, as I said, he seemed very truthful. His testimony is going to carry a lot of weight.

Anyway, one more witness and then I’m done! Officer Dereck Braithwaite responded to the scene as well. He never saw the aftermath of the collision but remained on 94th Avenue, down the block from the club. He was the officer Sanchez had flagged down to ask about location while making his 911 call. He also saw Oliver on the street, who he noticed was wearing a police badge around his neck. Oliver asked him to radio for an ambulance, a supervisor, and other units of officers. After helping to tape up the crime scene, he escorted Bell’s ambulance to Jamaica Hospital. He received Bell’s clothing after it had been removed. It contained no weapons.

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