Suspects as Usual

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

"What's the charge?" King shot back.

"We don't have to tell you that," the detective said and then hung up. When King dialed Nelson's number, no one picked up.

Irate, King called Charlie Testagrossa, the Queens D.A.'s deputy executive assistant district attorney for major crimes, and lit into him.

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."

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  • "How do you expect people to cooperate with you if you can't assure us that they're going to be free from police harassment?" King fumed.

    Technically, Nelson wasn't under arrest. He wasn't handcuffed. He later told the Voice he didn't want to go, but he got into the unmarked car anyway. They're the police, after all.

    At the precinct, Nelson said, detectives asked him what he saw the night of the shooting. "Just tell us right now," he recalled their saying, "and you'll be able to leave in 10 minutes, and you won't have to wait for your lawyer." They asked him if he was on Liverpool Street when the shooting happened. He didn't tell police this, but he was. And so were several friends who were at the bachelor party, though none was close enough to Bell's car to qualify as the so-called fourth man.

    When Nelson continued to defer all questions to his lawyer, a lieutenant taunted, "What do you have a lawyer for if you didn't do anything?" Nelson said he didn't take the bait.

    About 30 minutes after being brought in, the questioning abruptly stopped, and Nelson was released. King said he thinks it was because the D.A.'s office intervened.

    "I've been floored and shocked at the police department's conduct on the local level," said King, an Ivy League–educated attorney from Rockland County who has made unsuccessful election runs for lieutenant governor and state attorney general but is a neophyte when it comes to cases of possible NYPD misconduct. "It changed my view forever of the kind of power that police have and how they can use it at cross-purposes to investigate what's the truth."

    Having grown up right here in Jamaica, Nelson wasn't shocked. He said he recognized it for what it was: an attempt "to justify what can't be justified."


    Paul Browne, the NYPD's chief spokesman, has denied the existence of a parallel investigation; he told the Voice that any arrests after the shooting were purely coincidental. In a December 12 interview, Commissioner Kelly said much the same thing, telling a TV reporter, "There hasn't been any stepped-up enforcement. That's clear. Any enforcement done in the area is done in the normal course of business."

    But by the time Kelly said that, police had conducted numerous raids and had taken into custody at least nine of Bell's acquaintances. One of those raids was on LaToya Smith's apartment.

    "All I could see was guns and flashlights," said Smith, 26. "My seven-month-old woke up out of his sleep. I was real scared. I was like, What's going on? . . . I've never been involved with the police. People around here know me as the churchgoing girl."

    Smith was eventually released, but her two brothers and another man in the apartment were arrested after a hidden semiautomatic was found. Smith said the questions police asked her brothers were as much about Bell and the other shooting victims as about the illegal gun.

    According to a retired detective who spoke on the condition of anonymity because a relative is an officer involved in the case, the NYPD assigned its entire warrants division, five squads comprising dozens of cops, to the Bell case.

    "The warrants squad was out there beating the bushes—that's how you get intelligence," said the retired detective, who added that most of the cops he knows who have worked this case believe the Fourth Man Theory. "Somebody's going to have something that they're going to give you. It's basic police work. Saturate the area; you turn the screws a little bit to get more information."


    Plainclothes officers fired 50 bullets at the car Bell was driving. The group of friends, including Kindred, above, had gone to a strip club for Bell's bachelor party.

    Such measures are routinely applied when trying to solve an especially egregious or high-profile crime. However, just about the only time such police resources are expended investigating those who have been shot, as opposed to those who did the shooting, is when a cop has pulled the trigger.


    Take the case of Ousmane Zongo, who was killed by a plainclothes cop on May 22, 2003, after being chased through a hallway inside a Chelsea storage facility. Hours after the fatal shooting, police ransacked his Morningside Heights apartment and took two of his roommates in for six hours of questioning about Zongo, a third roommate said.

    Then there's Patrick Dorismond, 26, who was killed by an undercover detective on March 20, 2000. The detective had approached Dorismond asking if he knew where to buy marijuana. Dorismond took offense, an argument turned into a scuffle, and the undercover shot Dorismond.

    Mayor Rudy Giuliani then directed that Dorismond's criminal record, including a sealed robbery arrest as a juvenile, be released to the press. Giuliani defended the decision by claiming that the public had a "right to know," and he also asserted that Dorismond was "no altar boy." It turned out, however, that Dorismond had been an altar boy. Dorismond's family said police also searched their home.

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