Sean Bell and his fiancee had already shared a high school romance, then two children. In the early hours of what was to be their wedding day, the reception hall lay waiting, covered in satin and adorned with balloons. But the ceremony never occurred Saturday. Police shot 50 rounds at the groom’s car as he drove away from his bachelor party, killing the 23-year-old hours before he was to walk down the aisle.
The hail of gunfire at a car full of unarmed men drew an outcry from family members and community leaders. Two passengers, who had been celebrating with the groom at a strip club, were also injured; one was struck by at least 11 bullets.
The officers’ shots struck the men’s car 21 times after it rammed into an undercover officer and hit an unmarked NYPD minivan, police said. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly said it was too early to say whether the shooting was justified.
The gunfire also sprayed nearby homes and a train station, though no residents were injured.
Police thought one of the men in the car might have had a gun, but investigators found no weapons. It was unclear what prompted police to open fire, Kelly said.
He said the incident stemmed from an undercover operation inside the strip club in Queens. Seven officers in plain clothes were investigating the Kalua Cabaret; five of them were involved in the shooting.
According to Kelly, the groom was involved in a verbal dispute outside the club after 4 a.m. One of his friends made a reference to a gun.
An undercover officer walked closely behind Bell and his friends as they headed for their car. As he walked toward the front of the vehicle, they drove forward — striking him and a nearby undercover police vehicle.
The officer who had followed the group on foot was apparently the first to open fire, Kelly said. That officer had served on the force for five years. One 12-year veteran fired his weapon 31 times, emptying two full magazines, Kelly said.
It was the first time any of the officers, all of whom carried 9 mm handguns, had been involved in a shooting, he said.
At some point, Bell backed his car up onto the sidewalk, hitting a building gate. He then drove forward, striking the police vehicle a second time, Kelly said.
It was unclear whether the shooters had identified themselves as police, said Kelly, whose account was based on statements made by witnesses and the two officers who did not shoot their weapons. Police could not question the other officers because the district attorney must first complete an investigation, he said.
The groom was driving. Joseph Guzman, 31, was in the front passenger’s seat and was shot at least 11 times. Trent Benefield, 23, who was in the back seat, was hit three times. Both men were taken to Mary Immaculate Hospital, where Guzman was listed in critical condition and Benefield was in stable condition.
Kelly said there may have been a fourth person in the car who fled the scene.
Three officers, including the officer hit by the car, were treated and released. Another detective remained hospitalized for hypertension, Kelly said.
Abraham Kamara, 38, who lives a few blocks from where the shooting occurred, said he was getting ready for work around 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."
Kelly said undercover officers were inside the club to document illicit activity. With one more violation the club would be shut down, he said.
He said the establishment has a "chronic history of narcotics, prostitution and weapons complaints."
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 the families of Bell and his fiancee.
"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 fiancee had two children, a 3-year-old and a 5-month-old.
After meeting with the two wounded men at Mary Immaculate, 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," Sharpton 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."
Associated Press Writers Jennifer Peltz, Tom Hays and Cristian Salazar contributed to this report.