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.
“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.”
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 that 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.”
“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.
“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.”
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.
A year earlier, police took similar actions in the aftermath of their fatal shooting of Amadou Diallo. Hours after the infamous February 4, 1999, 41-bullet barrage, police searched the tiny apartment the African immigrant shared in the Bronx, upending beds and drawers. Diallo’s cousin, Abdourahmane Diallo, and another roommate were taken into custody and questioned for several hours about Amadou’s background. Detectives asked Abdourahmane if Amadou had any enemies who might want to hurt him even as they kept from him the fact that police had killed him.
Detectives also scoured Diallo’s past for a criminal record—which he didn’t have. However, word was leaked to the press that Diallo, who was hit 19 times after police allegedly mistook his wallet for a gun, had lied on an asylum application. He claimed he was from Mauritania, where slavery is common; that his parents were beaten to death as part of an ethnic-cleansing campaign; and that he had been held in a military camp before escaping. In truth, he was from a relatively well-off family from Guinea but lied because he wanted to stay in the United States.
“[The police] leaked his immigration status,” Diallo’s attorney, Kyle Watters, told the Voice. “It seemed like there was an attempt to cloud the reputation or goodness, if that’s a word, of Mr. Diallo. . . . The dirt that they dug up, if you want to call it dirt, certainly had no relevance to what happened at the scene.”
The NYPD’s penchant for parallel investigation goes back further. On July 4, 1996, Nathaniel Levi Gaines Jr., a 25-year-old Navy veteran of the first Gulf war, was shot and killed by Officer Paolo Colecchia on a subway platform in the Bronx. Colecchia made several claims as to why he pulled the trigger—Gaines had a gun; Gaines was stalking a woman; Gaines tried to throw him onto the tracks. As Colecchia tried to get his story together, his brethren attempted to dig up dirt on Gaines, going to the office of the New York State Thruway Authority, where he worked as a toll taker, and questioning his co-workers. In fact, police were so busy with this parallel investigation that no one from the NYPD notified Gaines’s parents of his death. That job fell to a reporter seeking comment on the questionable shooting.
Meanwhile, a witness had seen Colecchia shoot Gaines in the back as he ran down the subway platform. Colecchia served three years in prison on a manslaughter conviction. He was the last city police officer to do prison time for a line-of-duty killing.
“They tried all sort of things to cover it up,” the victim’s stepmother, Mary Gaines, told the Voice. “We immediately knew it was all a bunch of lies. That’s just the way they do things.”
She said Gaines’s father, Nathaniel Sr., who served in Vietnam, died 14 months after his son’s death. Nathaniel Sr. was stricken with cancer, the wife said, but his son’s death drained him of his will to fight it.
“You don’t want to know how something like this destroys a family,” she said.
But keeping the police department’s reputation from being destroyed is what it’s all about. One of the most notorious New York City police shootings bears that out. On April 28, 1973, Clifford Glover, a five-foot, 98-pound 10-year-old, was shot in the back while running away from Officer Thomas Shea in South Jamaica.
While looking for two people who had robbed a taxi driver, Shea and his partner encountered the boy and his stepfather, Add Armstead, who were heading to the latter’s job at a junkyard. Shea contended that as he approached the stepfather and son, the boy fired a shot at him. Shea said he returned fire, striking the boy, who then ran. Before falling, the boy passed the gun off to his father, Shea claimed.
Meanwhile, Shea’s fellow cops conducted a frenetic parallel investigation. In his book The Trial of Patrolman Thomas Shea, author Thomas Hauser described how “patrolmen from the 103rd Precinct reviewed files at the Queens County Narcotics Bureau in hope of finding Add Armstead, Eloise Glover [the boy’s mother], or Clifford Glover mentioned as a suspect.” Hauser also wrote that police also futilely pursued a tip from an “anonymous source” that “the real Clifford Glover” had died three days after birth and that the child shot by Shea had been shipped to New York by a cousin of Eloise Glover “for welfare purposes.”
Even after investigators had come up empty for a couple of days, Hauser wrote, a police union trustee urged the “investigating” cops, “Keep trying. There has to be something out there that will substantiate Shea’s story.”
The facts didn’t help Shea. Al Gaudelli, who prosecuted the cop for the Queens D.A., told the Voice that no gun was found. Ballistics tests showed that Shea shot the boy “T-square in the back,” Gaudelli added. Still, a jury acquitted Shea (though he was later fired from the NYPD because of the incident).
The Glover shooting highlights one of the primary reasons that cops pursue parallel investigations: to try to save their jobs. “Shea really thought he had the robbers in that cab robbery, but he didn’t say that,” Gaudelli said. “He knew that under police guidelines the only time you could shoot was if there was imminent fear of deadly force, which there wasn’t. So he said, ‘I saw they had a pistol,’ instead.
“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.
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.”
Ten days after that official spoke with the Voice, Trent Benefield was arrested and charged with loitering when he was found outside an apartment where people were shooting craps.
The question is especially relevant because a grand jury has been convened in the case.
But some of the damage from the parallel investigation won’t be undone. A week after B.J. Williams was questioned, police took his brother Gerald into custody.
Gerald Williams was standing with a friend in front of the Bricks on December 6 when two officers approached them. The friend ran, was caught, and was charged with possession of a bag of crack found in a stairwell. Gerald Williams didn’t move and didn’t have any drugs on him but was taken in anyway.
They briefly asked him about the drugs and then, he recalled, began bombarding him with questions about the shooting victims. “I said, I don’t know who no fourth man is. There is no fourth guy.”
Eventually the police let Gerald Williams go with no charges.
“I never had handcuffs on me a day in my life. I guess that’s kind of hard to believe for them because I’m a male black at my age,” the 24-year-old said.
What’s more, until this incident, Williams had planned to become one of them. He took the police exam and was applying to John Jay College of Criminal Justice. He wanted to be a cop.
“For right now, I’m soured on the whole thing,” he said.
Additional reporting: Daryl Khan
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on January 2, 2007