Suspects as Usual

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

"Had Shea told the truth, he probably would not have been indicted and gone to trial. But he would have lost his job, and that's what you've got going on here too [in the Bell shooting]."


Given such a history of spin-doctoring, it's not surprising that the NYPD's bedside manner can be harsh after one of its own shoots someone.

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

See also:
  • The 50-Day Vigil for Sean Bell
    Open thread in Power Plays
  • Waiting All Night for Justice
    Photo gallery
  • Hours after the Bell shooting, Queens minister Erskine Williams Sr. escorted Trent Benefield's mother to Mary Immaculate Hospital to see her wounded son. After two hours of getting jerked around, Williams demanded they be allowed to see Trent. A police inspector finally acquiesced. Williams found both Benefield and Joe Guzman handcuffed to their beds and shackled.

    "What the hell is this? Who's doing this here?" Williams recalled saying. He summed up his ensuing conversation with the police inspector:

    "But, um, Reverend, we thought they were suspects."

    "I don't want to know what you thought. Was there a gun?"

    "Well, we don't know."

    "Then what in the hell is he handcuffed for?"

    Pointing to Guzman, who was on a respirator after being shot 15 times, Williams asked the inspector, "Where the hell is Joe going? What's he going to do, get up and run?"

    Clearly to Williams, the police, from the start and without evidence, treated the victims as suspects. In the weeks that followed, as police tried to obtain that evidence, many who knew Bell, Guzman, or Benefield say they were also treated like suspects.

    Williams's eldest son was one of the first to get caught up in the parallel investigation. Erskine Jr., who goes by "B.J.," had spent the first two nights after the shooting in the hospital room of Benefield, who is his best friend. Five days later, at 6 a.m. on November 30, police came to his house and took the 25-year-old into custody because he hadn't paid a $25 ticket he was issued in February 2005 for loitering.

    Instead of immediately taking him to the precinct, detectives questioned him in their car in the parking lot for 90 minutes.

    As the younger Williams recalled, "They said, 'Do you know anything about the fourth man?' They made me take off my jacket and looked for tattoos. . . . They asked me, 'What do you know about Trent?' I said, 'He didn't tell me nothing. He said he'd talk to me about it when he got out.' "

    After B.J. was taken inside the precinct station, things got contentious.

    At one point, he said, one of the cops "pointed to this other guy and said, 'Look at the officer's hands. Look how big his hands are. Stop bullshitting us or else he's going to slam your fucking head against the wall.' "

    Eight hours later, police released B.J. Williams without charges. The cops never did bring up his loitering ticket.

    By that time, the search for a fourth man had become the central theme of the media coverage of the case.

    Police spokesman Browne said his boss, Kelly, mentioned the possibility of a fourth man—based on the observations of an undercover on the scene—only at the first press conference. "That's all we've said on the subject," Browne said.

    Other forces—namely the media and the police unions—are responsible for the Fourth Man Theory's taking on a life of its own, Browne contended.

    Several press accounts reported as fact the existence of a fourth man, who, as Charlie King points out, by implication had a gun, or why else would police be interested in him?

    The cop unions also attempted to spin it. "There was a fourth person involved, no doubt," Philip Karasyk, attorney for three of the detectives involved in the shooting, told the Associated Press on November 29.

    But as speculation ran wild, Kelly's silence, while not fueling the fire, also did nothing to squelch the theory.

    As it turned out, the life span of the fourth man lasted just a couple of days after the story stopped making front-page news.

    On December 12, an NY1 reporter, paraphrasing her interview with the commissioner, said, "Kelly sought to distance himself and the NYPD from any talk of a fourth man, saying it was fueled by unnamed sources and lawyers for the police officers involved."


    In other words, 17 days after the controversial shooting, Kelly was apparently satisfied there was no fourth man. It's the same conclusion that could have been reached by reading the NYPD's preliminary report from the day of the shooting or listening to the police radio transmissions from the incident, neither of which contained a reference to a fourth, possibly gun-wielding, man.

    Given the lack of evidence from those NYPD sources, believing Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, who both told police there wasn't another guy, was another option.

    Nearly a month after the shooting, a Queens D.A. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, as much as confirmed the existence of a parallel investigation but couched it diplomatically.

    "There was an understanding that Mr. King's clients won't be interviewed by police, and that message was a little slow in getting out," the official said four days before Christmas. "But I think now it has trickled down to the foot soldiers, and I think it has stopped."

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