Suspects as Usual

After the Sean Bell shooting, the NYPD opened a surprising investigation—into the victims

Thirteen hours after Sean Bell was killed and his two friends were wounded in a barrage of 50 bullets, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly held a press conference to explain what led to his cops shooting the unarmed men in their car.

During his detailed description of the November 25 pre-dawn shooting on Liverpool Street, near a Queens strip joint, Kelly noted, "There may have been a fourth individual in the car who fled." Even as he said it, there were two investigations under way: There was the standard probe by the Queens district attorney's office and the NYPD's Internal Affairs Bureau into the shooting, but there was also a separate investigation by police bent on finding this "fourth man" and clearing their brethren, whatever the cost.

In the days following the shooting, even as city officials were assuring community and religious leaders of a fair and thorough investigation, the three men's criminal records, including some sealed juvenile cases, were leaked to the press in what their attorneys said was an effort to "dirty up the victims." Police raided apartments in the complex where one of the men lives and another used to hang out. As many as a dozen friends and acquaintances were taken into custody and questioned. Police officials claim any arrests in what some describe as a "parallel investigation" were coincidental. It was an attempt at spin that spun out of control.

Sean Bell's friend Jean Nelson was identified by police as the alleged "fourth man."
photo: Willie Davis/Veras
Sean Bell's friend Jean Nelson was identified by police as the alleged "fourth man."

Details

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  • "There was about 72 hours where it was just insane. . . . It was cops gone wild," said attorney Charlie King, who represents, at last count, 11 people questioned by police in the aftermath.

    Allegations of such parallel investigations are not new. In fact, historically, the police response after cops shoot unarmed people appears to come from the same blueprint—look at Diallo, look at Dorismond, or go way back and look at the case of little Clifford Glover.

    The Sean Bell case introduced a twist: a mysterious, gun-wielding man who fled the scene. Call it the Fourth Man Theory.


    Ideally for the NYPD's reputation, the hunt for a fourth man would have yielded a gun at the scene and thus help exonerate the five officers who fired the shots that killed Bell, who was to be married later that day, and wounded his friends Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, who had been at his bachelor party at the Kalua Cabaret just before the shooting.

    It now appears that there was no fourth man, but that doesn't mean the search for him—or, more to the point, for an excuse—was entirely in vain.

    "The immediate advantage of it is, if at the outset of public conversation about the event you plant in people's minds that there was a fourth man or a gun and sometimes that sticks," said Christopher Dunn, associate legal director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. "In a way, they're framing public discussion about it so that it deflects blame away from the officers."

    Descriptions of the so-called fourth man began to emerge in media reports immediately after the shooting. The fourth man could've been in or near the car. Maybe he was armed with a gun. He could've been wearing a beige jacket. His nickname might be "M.O." or maybe "Ducky."


    Larenzo Kindred (in baseball cap) was with Sean Bell the night he was killed.

    Five days after the shooting, the raids and hours of interviews provided police with the identification of someone who was supposed to be this mystery man. At about 8:30 p.m. on November 30, detectives approached a 27-year-old man named Jean Nelson outside a Jamaica housing complex as hardscrabble as its nickname— "the Bricks."

    Nerves were already raw. There had been a number of clashes between residents and members of the press. When a police helicopter hovered overhead, people screamed at it and flipped it the bird. An impromptu shrine to Bell, growing by the minute with additions of poetry, stuffed animals, and bottles of Hennessy, stoked emotions. Some people wore T-shirts emblazoned with Bell's image. A few muttered about violence against police.

    Nevertheless, detectives barreled into the midst of this scene and demanded that Nelson come with them.

    By then, Charlie King had met with Queens D.A. officials, and it was agreed tha t the men, including Nelson, who were with Bell the night he was killed would cooperate with their investigation as long as the police weren't involved. (King didn't want the police to be able to tailor their grand jury testimony to the men's statements.) King said he also received what he called a "blanket assurance" from the D.A. that his clients wouldn't be "hassled or intimidated" by police.

    When Nelson spotted the detectives coming for him, he quickly dialed King's number. The attorney said he told Nelson to put a detective on the line and told the cop about the agreement with the D.A. King said he added, "He's not to talk to the police. You are to leave my client alone." He gave the detective phone numbers for the D.A. and a police supervisor and told him to check it out himself.


    "Hold on," King said the detective told him. But 20 seconds later, he was back on the phone and told King, "We're taking him in. We have our orders."

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