An NYPD detective who triggered the 50-shot barrage that killed Sean Bell in November 2006 said Wednesday that he feared for his safety when he opened fire on a vehicle carrying the 23-year-old and two friends.
Testifying in his defense at a department trial, Det. Gescard Isnora recounted a series of tense moments at a Jamaica strip club that led him to believe one of Bell's friends, Joseph Guzman, was reaching for a gun as the group was trying to speed away in a Nissan Altima.
"I was not going to wait for him to have the gun because by then it would have been too late," said Isnora in what was his first public recounting of the shooting near the Club Kalua.
Isnora, 40, was referring to Guzman reaching downward and then upward while he sat in the front passenger seat of Bell's vehicle. The resulting fusillade of police shots -- Isnora fired 11 times into the passenger side of the car -- killed Bell, and wounded Guzman and Benefield. Forensic evidence never determined which officer's bullets led to Bell's death.
"I absolutely did not want that to happen," Isnora said as Bell's fiancee and mother stared at him from their seats in the police department courtroom.
Isnora and two other detectives, Michael Oliver and Marc Cooper, were eventually acquitted in a nonjury criminal trial in April 2008 on charges related to the case during an undercover drug and prostitution investigation at the club.
However, Isnora and police officer Michael Carey, who wasn't charged criminally, face administrative charges that they violated police procedures when they fired their weapons. Isnora is also accused of improperly revealing his undercover role when he rushed up to Bell's car with his police shield and gun drawn. Both men face possible termination without pay if they are found guilty.
Under questioning by defense attorney Philip Karsyk, Isnora recounted how he went undercover into a raucous Club Kalua, where he saw patrons grabbing at strippers. Isnora also said he overheard an unidentified man in a White Sox baseball cap indicate to one of the women that he had a gun in his waistband.
Isnora said his concerns about a gun increased when he witnessed Guzman get into a heated argument with a man standing by a black SUV outside the club.
" ' You, get my gun, go get my gun,' " Guzman said, according to Isnora.
Bell then said, " 'Let's ---- him up, let's ---- him up," referring to the man in the SUV, Isnora said.
Outside the trial room, Bell's fiancee, Nicole Paultre-Bell, said: "Detective Isnora doesn't belong on the force. Instead of trying to save his job, he should have been trying to save lives that night.
"To me it seems that this detective was paranoid," Paultre-Bell said.
The trial continues Thursday before Deputy Commissioner Martin Karopkin.