Thursday the Court heard the Grand Jury testimonies of both Detective Gescard Isnora, the Undercover who was the first one to shoot, and Detective Marc Cooper, charged with reckless endangerment for firing the bullet that went into the Air Train station. We also heard from another eyewitness, James Kollore, a friend of Bell’s and Guzman’s, whose account differed from the earlier testimony of Marseillas Payne, the other eyewitness to testify thus far.
First Isnora, since his testimony most goes to the heart of this case. Overall, Isnora seemed to be a very frightened, nervous, fragile man who, in my opinion, should never have received this kind of undercover assignment. He stressed repeatedly how dangerous it was to be an undercover, how if your cover is blown you could really be in trouble. Just looking at him in court, it’s hard for me to believe he’s ever gone into a strip club and soliticited prostitutes, he looks so meek.
Isnora’s Grand Jury testimony was read by the supervisor of Queens County court stenographers, Michael Cascone. Isnora, 28, unmarried, and nicknamed Jess or Jessie, joined the NYPD in July of 2001. His first assignment was as a uniformed patrol officer in Brooklyn, where he served for three years until moving into the Brooklyn narcotics division to work as an undercover. A year later, in October 2006, a month before the shooting, he was transferred to the Queens narcotics unit to work in the same capacity. But when he arrived for his assignment there, he was told he would instead be temporarily entering the Vice Unit’s Social Club Task Force, geared toward investigating clubs in which there have been community complaints of weapons possession, violence, prostitution and drugs. It seems to me, he ended up with a pretty different job than he was expecting…
Three days before the shooting, Isnora successfully solicited a prostitute and bought cocaine at Kalua Cabaret, which resulted in two arrests. His assignment on November 24th was, along with Detective Sanchez, to try to do the same. He and Sanchez parked their unmarked car a few streets away from the club, arriving around 1:00 a.m. Sanchez went into the club first to see if the two women who’d been arrested on the 21st were there; if they were, they’d very well recognize Isnora and tell everyone he was a cop. As soon as Sanchez called telling Isnora the women weren’t there, Isnora went inside and sat with him near the front of the bar. On his way in he was frisked “lightly” by the bouncer.
Throughout his testimony, Isnora kept apologyzing to the District Attorney, saying he was nervous.
Soon a woman approached Isnora and asked him to buy her a glass of champagne, which he did. He engaged in small talk with her and asked her what she was doing after work. Another woman walked up and asked for a drink, and he did the same, asking her what she was doing after she left. Both women hinted they “don’t do that kind of thing.” While Sanchez went into the back to explore the club, leaving Isnora alone up front, a woman dancing at the pole asked him why he was alone, making Isnora nervous. If you’re a new face admidst regular, people assume you’re a cop, he said. So, he called the team leader, Lt. Napoli, to have him send Cooper in. He felt safer with two team members around. Cooper arrived and sat next to Isnora.
Soon Isnora saw one of the dancers grab the arm of a man wearing a White Sox cap and a white shirt, telling him another man, “that mother fucker over there,” was harassing her, and pointed at him. “Him over there?” Isnora heard White Sox guy reply. If he keeps it up, White Sox said, let him know and he’d “take care of it.” When he said this, he took the woman’s hand and placed it on his right hip waistband area. Isnora saw a bulge right where the woman placed her hand. He told Cooper he thought the man had a gun. The White Sox guy then went into the back. Cooper went outside and called Napoli, telling him what Isnora had just said. As soon as Sanchez returned, Isnora told him about the White Sox man and Sanchez went into the back of the club to look for him.
It was soon closing time, so Isnora excited the club and walked to the corner of the street. He thought Sanchez was behind him, but when he turned around, couldn’t see him. At the corner, he called his field team. Napoli told him to go back to the club and ghost (ie: watch over) Sanchez, as he waited for White Sox man. Isnora asked a fellow officer to meet him at Liverpool and 94th Avenue so he could retrieve his police shield and gun before returning to the club. “It was just me and the ghost now on the street; the field team’s several blocks away. You never know if people think you’re someone they’ve had a problem with before,” Isnora explained.
Isnora returned to the front of the club and looked for Sanchez. About two minutes later, Coicou drove up in his SUV, exited it and stood in front of its passenger-side door, as if he was waiting for someone. Sanchez emerged from the club and phoned Napoli. Napoli told him and Isnora to wait for White Sox man to leave. A group of 7-8 men, including Guzman and Sean Bell, exited the club and hovered in front of its entrance.
Isnora suddenly heard a “loud commotion.” He saw that a woman in that group was arguing with two of the men, saying she wasn’t “going back with” them. “I’m not doing you guys,” she yelled.
Coicou then had some words with Guzman. Coicou kept “fidgeting” in his jacket pockets with his hands. Coicou looked nervous. Isnora couldn’t hear what they were saying, but suddenly Guzman called out to his group, “Get my gun, get my gun.” Guzman said the words loudly and emphatically. Sean Bell walked up to Coicou and said “let’s fuck him up.” The group then began walking down the street at a fast pace, “like they were going to come back.”
Sanchez phoned Napoli and told him what was happening. Sanchez gave Isnora his phone and told him to follow the men and tell Napoli where they were going and what they were doing. Isnora did as he was told, following the men but not closely. He didn’t want them to think he was associated with Coicou.
As he rounded the corner of Liverpool and 94th, Isnora took out his police shield and clipped it to the right area his collar. He held his hand over it until he passed a small group of men who stood at the corner looking back down at the club. As soon as he passed them, he removed his hand from his collar and pulled out his service weapon.
He saw Guzman and Bell getting into an Altima. He thought perhaps the men were getting into the car so that they could do a “drive-by” of Coicou. Isnora told Napoli the men were getting into a car on Liverpool Street. They were the only men around at that point, so they should be noticeable to Napoli, Isnora said. Napolic told Isnora he and the team were on their way, were “moving in.” Isnora couldn’t remember who exactly was the arresting officer for that evening, but thought it was Cooper, who was riding in Napoli’s car. (Normally, the arresting officer, as the name implies, does the “arresting,” not the undercover).
As soon as Isnora saw Napoli’s Camry begin to drive down the street, he looked at Napoli and motioned toward the Altima, nodding toward the car as if to say “that’s the one.” But the Camry continued driving down the street failing to stop, perhaps not seeing Isnora.
Isnora looked back at the Altima. He now saw Guzman, in the front passenger seat, looking right at him. He said, “Police, don’t move,” and pointed his gun at Guzman. Seeing only Guzman, Isnora again said, “Police, don’t move.” He was standing about one foot away from the car at that point. Suddenly, the car lurched forward, as if the driver had “floored” the ignition. The Altima hit Isnora in the leg. Isnora fell onto its hood, then walked backward and regained balance. The Altima went on and hit head-on the unmarked police “prisoner” minivan (driven by Detective Oliver, who, under Napoli’s orders, was following Napoli’s Camry.) The Altima then quickly backed up, right into Isnora’s path. Isnora jumped out of the way. The Altima ‘s rear crashed into a gated area afront a building. The Altima sped forward again, trying now to go around the minivan. But it didn’t make it, and the passenger side of the Altima smashed into the passenger side of the minivan, where it stalled.
Isnora could see only Guzman in the car. He had “tunnel vision”; couldn’t take his focus off Guzman because he was the one who’d told somone, “go get my gun.” Locking eyes again with Guzman, Isnora said again, “police, don’t move.” He said the same words several times, he claimed. He also thought he saw Guzman eye his collar, bearing the police shield.
Isnora thought he saw Guzman reaching into his waistband, to withdraw a gun. “It all happened so quick,” he said. “I yelled ‘gun’ when I saw his arm going to his waistband. I thought if I waited he would fire at me. It was the last thing I ever wanted to do. In my mind, I knew he had a gun, so I fired. It was the last thing I wanted to do.”
Isnora never knew when his fellow officers got out of their cars. He could only focus on Guzman. Everything besides Guzman was “blurry.” He was about 6-7 feet from the car. He knew he was the first to fire, and when he did so, he heard glass shatter. The passenger-side window blew out. He fired all 11 rounds within a couple of seconds. After his magazine fell out of his gun, he didn’t reload. He was trained to “shoot center mass” — the center of the torso — because that was where most vital organs were, in order to stop a threat. All of his shots were directed at that area on Guzman. He was so “scared” and “nervous,” he never paused to assess the threat.
After a grand juror asked him why he continued to fire if he didn’t know whether there were shots coming from the Altima, Isnora said “I can’t answer, I can’t explain, it was all continuous. Once I fired, I just didn’t stop.” Another juror asked why he didn’t take cover. Isnora answered that he was in the middle of the street, a wide-open space; there was no cover to take.
After firing had ceased, Isnora saw Benefield emerge from the back passenger seat of the Altima and run down the street. Detective Headley (who was driving the Camry, which was now stopped down the street, after hearing the shots), ran after him, not wanting Headley to be left on his own. After he saw Headley grab Benefield, “taking him down,” Isnora called 911 for an ambulance and backup units.
After giving his narrative of the events, the prosecutor questioned him. During this kind of “cross examination,” Isnora said after the Altima lurched forward, crashed into the gate and sped back forward again into the minivan, Isnora yelled, “police, don’t move,” along with “police, show your hands.” He said both “don’t move” and “show your hands” several times. The prosecutor asked him if he felt those commands were contradictory. Isnora said he didn’t know; it all happened so quickly.
Isnora said he’d been robbed before working as an undercover. He’d been in fights. But he’d never before fired his weapon. He’d never before even thought about firing his weapon. Isnora said he prayed for everyone, “for the individuals that this happened to and for what happened that night. I wish the vehicle would have stopped. I felt I had no choice.”
During lunch I overheard several spectators saying if only Sean had driven the other way, had not tried to pass the minivan, but instead made a left; it was a two-way street.
Okay, on to Detective Cooper.
Cooper, 39 and married with three kids and with the NYPD since 1989, told the Grand Jury he went into Kalua, and joined Sanchez and Isnora at the front of the bar. He remembered a dancer with a tattoo “Crime” on her shoulder talking with a man wearing a White Sox hat and a white jacket. Isnora told Cooper he’d seen that man point to his waistband and say something like, “I got this,” in response to something the woman said.
Around 3:00 a.m., Cooper phoned the team and told them there was “nothing else going on,” and he was leaving. He left the club and the Camry picked him up a few streets away. When Cooper got in, Napoli was on the phone with Isnora, who was telling him about a fight outside between a man in front of an SUV and a group of men. Cooper put on his bullet-proof vest and picked up his weapon and police shield, but stayed in the car, which drove into a nearby Long Island Railroad parking lot and waited for word from Sanchez about White Sox guy. As soon as Isnora called again saying someone in the group had threatened the SUV guy by saying he was going to go get his gun, Napoli radioed the minivan, saying “let’s move in on this.”
Napoli told Headley, who was driving, and Cooper, that Isnora’d just told him the threatening group was getting into a car on Liverpool Street. Cooper didn’t remember there being any specifics as to how many men were in this group. When the Camry began driving down Liverpool Street, Cooper saw the men getting into the car, but Headley passed on by. “I guess he wasn’t sure if that was the car,” Cooper said. Cooper, who was sitting in the rear passenger side seat (farthest from the Altima), didn’t see Isnora at that time, and didn’t hear any shouting.
Suddenly, Cooper heard the revving up of a vehicle, followed by a crash. The Camry stopped, and Headley began to get out. Cooper opened the rear passenger-side door and began to get out too, but right when he did so a barrage of gunfire began. Realizing he had no cover, Cooper crouched behind the car door, one foot in the car, one foot out, peeked out from behind it, and with his right hand only, fired in the direction from which he thought the gunfire was coming — the blown-out rear window of the Altima. He admitted he did not use his left hand to steady his weapon, making his aim unbalanced and unstable.
Seeing Benefield run by, Cooper yelled out for him to stop and chased after him. Cooper thought the gunfire had stopped by then, but wasn’t sure. He didn’t see anything in Benefield’s hands, so didn’t shoot. Once he caught up with Benefield, he saw that Headley and a uniformed officer had placed him under arrest.
Cooper said he believed he’d fired 1-3 rounds in total. But when he’d spoken with the Queens DA, Cooper’d told them he was certain he’d fired only one round. He now knew he was incorrect about that, and fired about three rounds. When told there were four rounds missing from his supposedly (according to NYPD dictates) loaded firearm, Cooper said he could have fired four. He fired all shots at the rear windshield of the Altima.
Finally, James Kollore also testified. 32 years old and nicknamed “Quick,” Kollore showed up in court dressed professionally in a suit. Overall he impressed as polite and honest (he admitted he was “probably” selling crack while on the lam for another crime), while somewhat lacking in observational capacity during the shooting (he needed glasses but wasn’t wearing any, and he was standing on the opposite side of the street from the Altima).
Anyway, Kollore had two prior felonies from long ago — 1991 and 1993, the first for possession of crack cocaine, the second for possession of a firearm. He was sentenced to a short prison term, which he didn’t serve until 1995 because he’d gone “on the lam” by which he meant he simply didn’t show up to court and no one came looking for him. He was only found when arrested for loitering and gambling, and the police found he had an open warrant. He also had a few misdemeanor convictions from 2002, 2003, and 2004 for trespass, possession of burglar’s tools, and possession of a loaded firearm.
Kollore had only met Sean Bell in 2002, but had known his friends, Benefield and Guzman, for about 15 years. They all lived in the same neighborhood.
Kollore arrived at the club to celebrate Bell’s bachelor party around 11-12 midnight. He’d come in Bell’s car, which was stopped briefly by a uniformed officer. The group proceeded to the rear of the club, where they sat near the stage.
After the club closed, Kollore left with the rest of the group, who congregated outside in front. He noticed Coicou standing in front of his SUV from which loud music was blasting. Kollore began walking toward Bell’s car when he turned around and saw Bell “having words” with Coicou, who had his hands in his pockets. The conversation turned loud with “shouting back and forth,” “angry facial expressions,” and at one point Bell and Coicou were “face to face.” Kollore thought Coicou may have a gun in his pockets, as indicated by his body language. Kollore walked over the Bell, put his arm around his back and told him to “come on.” He didn’t remember saying to Coicou, “I’m going to take that gun from you” but admitted he may have said that.
Kollore and Bell began walking down the street toward Liverpool, followed by Guzman and the others. As they rounded the corner onto Liverpool, the SUV drove by slowly. After passing them, it sped on.
Kollore walked to his friend’s car, parked across the street from the Altima, while Bell and Guzman got into the Altima. Kollore saw the Camry drive by.
When the Altima pulled out, it smashed into a van coming around the corner just then. At that point, Kollore said, the minivan’s passenger-side door opened and a white man with dark hair emerged (who was presumably Officer Carey, not charged here), holding a gun. Kollore heard gunfire and saw a flash from Carey’s muzzle. Bell’s car backed up and collided with some kind of railing surrounding a building behind it. Bell then pulled back out and tried to drive around the minivan, but didn’t make it, and crashed into it again. Then there was more gunfire. Carey fired several times, kneeling down on one knee.
When a bullet pierced a car he was standing next to, Kollore took off, running down the street. Eventually, he met up with two others in the group, and they tried to call Benefield. But Benefield didn’t answer his phone. When they got back to 95th and Liverpool they saw why: Benefield was lying face down, handcuffed.
After being told by a paramedic that the three shooting victims had been taken to various hospitals, they proceeded first to Jamaica, to visit Bell, and after they were told to go home, proceeded on to Mary Immaculate to visit Benefield and Guzman.
The gunfire lasted about a minute. Kollore heard no police commands and saw no shields.
On cross examination, Anthony Ricco asked Kollore why he hadn’t called 911, instead calling Benefield. Kollore just stared at him, as if it was the craziest question in the world, as if it never entered his mind to call the police. Just another clash of cultures. If I’d just witnessed a shooting, the first thing I’d do is call 911. Of course. And when the officers arrived, I’m sure they’d all have nothing but pity for the hysterical white girl, never ever suspecting me of being involved. If I was in Kollore’s shoes, I’d likely think a lot differently.
Kollore said he’d possessed a gun in 1993 for protection. He never carried it on the street with him while selling drugs.
A good deal of cross examination was taken up with questioning about Kollore’s belonging to a rap group, along with Guzman and Larenzo Kinred (but not Bell or Benefield) in 2001. The group produced a CD containing songs about the hustling life. Titles included “We Be Thuggin'”, “Let Off A Shot”, and “Gangsta.” I didn’t really see this testimony as probative of anything (are those former Oscar-winners for best song, pimps because of their number, “Life is Hard For A Pimp” — or whatever it was called?), but maybe the judge might have thought something of it, since he let it all in. On the way out of the courtroom, several prosecution-side spectators were very angry that ADA Testagrossa hadn’t protested more to its admission. One woman said, “he did, but the judge overruled it. What’s the point of continuing to object?”