NEW YORK – Police have found a man suspected of fleeing with a gun after police shot and killed a groom hours before his wedding, though the man's lawyer said Friday that his client wasn't armed or directly involved.
Police said clues gathered during a raid on a Queens home suggested the man, identified by his lawyer as 27-year-old Jean Nelson, was with three unarmed men early Nov. 25 moments before officers fired 50 bullets at their car. Sean Bell, 23, was killed, and two men with him were wounded, sparking outrage in the city.
Nelson, who was detained Thursday but released, saw the shooting, his attorney Charlie King said. However, he "did not have a gun, nor was he in the car as police have suggested," King said.
The first officer to open fire has claimed he followed four men to the car, where he believed there was a gun, but no weapon was found. Police union officials have suggested the fourth man fled with one, although the wounded men, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman, contend there was no fourth man.
A law enforcement official said Friday that investigators had not ruled out Nelson as being the fourth person. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.
Meanwhile, Bell's family prepared for his funeral Friday evening at the church where he was to have been married hours after the shooting.
The Rev. Lester Williams, who had planned to preside over the wedding, said writing Bell's eulogy has been a draining, tearful endeavor.
"I am exasperated. I'm overwhelmed, and I am angry," Williams said Thursday. "This has been one of the saddest times of my life, behind the death of my own mother."
An unidentified undercover officer and four others — identified as detectives Mike Oliver, Mark Cooper and Paul Hedley and Officer Mike Carey — have been placed on paid administrative leave while the Queens district attorney's office conducts a grand jury investigation that could result in criminal charges.
The intensity of the search for the fourth man reflected its potential impact on a case rife with conflicting accounts and unanswered questions about why the five officers unleashed such a barrage.
An undercover officer has told investigators that another missing witness — a man dressed in black and standing in front of a sport utility vehicle — argued with Bell and his companions as they left a Queens strip club where Bell was having a bachelor party. The officer was part of a team investigating complaints about prostitution and drug dealing at the club.
Outside the club, the man in black reached into his pocket as if he had a weapon as Bell challenged him to a fight and one of the groom's friends said, "Yo, get my gun," two law enforcement officials said, citing the undercover officer's account.
Officials said the exchange prompted a second undercover detective to follow Bell and three other men as they walked away toward their car, apparently suspecting the men meant to arm themselves and attack the man in black.
Moments later, the second undercover officer started shooting at the car when Bell, trying to drive away, bumped him and smashed into an unmarked police van.
Through his lawyer, the detective has insisted that he clearly identified himself as a police officer as he tried to stop them. He also has said he spotted Guzman, then sitting in the passenger seat, making a sudden move for his waistband before he and four other officers opened fire.