One of the New York Police Department officers involved in the 50-shot killing of an unarmed man on his wedding day gave his account of the incident for the first time publicly Wednesday, saying the last thing he wanted do to that night was fire his gun.
Detective Gescard Isnora testified at a departmental trial for him and fellow officer Michael Carey in the 2006 shooting death of Sean Bell on his wedding day.
Isnora said he fired 11 times after Bell rammed him with his car, because he said he believed Joseph Guzman, who was sitting in the front seat, was going for a gun.
"All I saw was his arm coming up. I wasn't going to wait for him to have the gun, because then it's too late," he testified. "Me firing my weapon, that was the last thing I wanted to do."
Bell died, Guzman and another friend were seriously injured. No weapon was found in Bell's car, sparking accusations that the NYPD was too quick to use deadly force in his case and others. The disciplinary proceeding follows a 2008 non-jury trial where Isnora and two other officers were acquitted of criminal charges. Carey was never charged criminally.
Isnora was an undercover detective at the time, and he recounted that the night started off with a request from his superiors to go a topless club to try and buy drugs or solicit prostitution.
He arrived with a police team to the dark, crowded bar and noticed a lot of aggressive behavior by male patrons, grabbing at women and arguing, he said. At one point, he thought he saw a patron gesture to his waist as though he had a gun. Then about 4 a.m., outside the bar, two groups of men were bickering over a woman, Isnora said. One group was made up of Bell and his friends, and that's when he heard Guzman say "Go get my gun. Go get my gun."
Isnora stuck mostly to emotion-free police speak, but his voice rose when he talked about hearing Guzman's statement about the gun.
"It's not something you say playfully or in a joking manner," Isnora said. "If you say it, you're going to do it."
Isnora said he decided to follow Bell, Guzman and Trent Benefield out to their car because he believed they were going to commit a drive-by shooting. He checked in with his lieutenant who told him to go, and a group of officers headed toward Bell as well.
The department attorney, Nancy Slater, hinted that Isnora should have kept his cover.She suggested that Isnora overreacted, and that he wasn't in danger but had already been distressed because of the arguments he'd witnessed inside. She brought up his request to transfer out of undercover.
She reiterated that no gun was found at the scene.
"But you yelled 'gun'" she asked.
"Correct." Isnora replied.
"Then you discharged your weapon?"
Guzman denied saying anything about a gun; other witnesses also testified that the dispute ended peacefully. He and Benefield testified that they never heard the officers yell warnings before opening fire and tried to drive away because they feared for their lives.
Outside court, Bell's widow Nicole Paultre Bell — who added Bell's name after he died — said the evidence shows Isnora shouldn't be on the force.
"I was thinking that Sean was probably afraid, seeing a man there with a gun so he tried to get home to his family," she said. "He tried to take off like any person would do."
A judge ended up acquitting the three officers of state charges that included manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment.
Michael Palladino, the head of the detectives union, said the officers should be praised, not vilified, for their important work. Patrick Lynch, head of the patrolmen's union, said the officers are heroes.
"On the streets, things don't always go perfectly," Lynch said.
After hearing evidence at the disciplinary trial, the administrative judge will make a recommendation to Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly about whether and how to discipline the officers, who aren't on active duty but collect a paycheck. Kelly has the final say.
The two other officers acquitted in the criminal trial are trying to negotiate plea deals in their disciplinary cases.
Last year, the city agreed to pay $3.25 million to the estate of Bell, $3 million to Guzman and $900,000 to Benefield to settle a civil suit.