NEW YORK – The case of NYPD officers opening fire on an unarmed bachelor party outside a Queens strip club — killing the groom on his wedding day and injuring two — was sent to the local district attorney for review Saturday.
The incident began when a car full of three men rammed into an undercover officer as the group left a bachelor party at the Kalua Cabaret at roughly 4:14 a.m. ET Saturday. Police thought one of the men in the car might have had a gun, and opened fire, unloading 50 rounds and killing Sean Bell, 23.
However, a search of the car uncovered no weapons and details were still unclear.
"We can't say with certainly why they fired," said Commissioner Raymond Kelly.
Kelly said the deadly incident stemmed from an undercover operation inside the club that was aimed at its chronic history of prostitution, weapon possession and narcotics.
It began when an undercover officer overheard a man inside the club infer he had a gun at roughly 3 a.m. The officer notified other cops outside.
Soon after that, a group of eight men — including the groom and his two friends — were seen arguing with one man outside the club.
Kelly said the argument stopped when one of the eight said, "Yo, get my gun."
The group of eight split apart, and three of them got into a Nissan Altima. Bell was the driver of that car. Kelly said the car then rammed into an undercover officer and unmarked police minivan as it left. At that point, the officers opened fire.
Police sprayed 50 rounds at the car, hitting the vehicle 21 times, and hit nearby homes, though no residents were injured.
Kelly said a veteran officer fired his weapon 31 times, emptying two full magazines. All the officers carried 9mm handguns.
The dead groom was identified as Bell. Two others in the car, Trent Benefield, 23, and Joseph Guzman, 31, were taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital. Kelly said there may have been a fourth person in the car who fled the scene.
Several officers were injured in the incident, none seriously, Kelly said.
Abraham Kamara, 38, who lives a few blocks from where the shooting occurred, said he was getting ready for work at about 4 a.m. when he heard bursts of gunfire.
"First it was like four shots," he said. "And then it was like pop-pop-pop like 12 times."
A grand jury was investigating the incident. Kelly said none of the five officers who had a combined 49 years of experience on the job had ever discharged their weapons in the line of duty. He has not been able to interview the officers because the district attorney must first complete an investigation, he said.
"We will learn more about this shooting when we have the opportunity to interview the officers who fired," Kelly said.
Kelly said undercover officers were inside the club to document illicit activity. With one more violation the club would be shut down, Kelly said.
He said the establishment has a "chronic history of narcotics, prostitution and weapons complaints."
The club has been closed in July 2005 for prostitution, but allowed to reopen about three months later. It has since generated complaints, Kelly said.
The Kalua Cabaret is next to an auto-body repair shop on a gritty block across from a Long Island Rail Road station. The club is housed on the first floor of a two-story brick building.
Juan Escobar, the building's owner, said the establishment has been there for about four years. "All the time, we have problems," he said. "Once in a while police come."
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he was following the case closely and he was in touch with community leaders.
"Although it is too early to draw conclusions about this mornings shootings ... we know that the NYPD officers on the scene had reason to believe that an altercation involving a firearm was about to happen and were trying to stop it," the mayor said in a statement.
The shooting drew angry protests from family members and the Rev. Al Sharpton.
Sharpton went to Jamaica Hospital, where Bell was pronounced dead, and Mary Immaculate Hospital on Saturday and held news conferences afterward. At Jamaica Hospital, the civil rights advocate stood with about two dozen members of Bell's and his fiancee's family.
"I will stand with this family," he said. "This stinks. Something about the story being told did not seem right."
Sharpton said Bell and his fiance, Dee, had two children, a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old.
After meeting with the two wounded men at Mary Immaculate Hospital, Sharpton said he was outraged to find the pair handcuffed to their hospital beds. The two were unshackled later Saturday and have not been charged with a crime.
"We're not anti-police ... we're anti-police brutality," he said.
Robert Porter, who identified himself as Bell's first cousin, said he was supposed to be a DJ at the wedding. He said about 250 people were invited to the ceremony and were flying in from all over the country. He said his cousin wasn't the type to confront police and that he was "on the straight-and-narrow."
"I can't really express myself. It's a numb feeling," Porter said. "I still don't want to believe it, a beautiful day like this, and he was going to have a beautiful wedding, he was going to live forever with his wife and children. And this happened."
This isn't the first time the NYPD has come under scrutiny over police-involved shootings.
In 1999, police killed Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was shot 19 times in the Bronx. The four officers in that case were acquitted of criminal charges.
And in 2003, Ousmane Zongo, 43, a native of the western African country of Burkina Faso who repaired art and musical instruments in the Manhattan warehouse, was shot to death during a police raid. Zongo was hit four times, twice in the back.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.