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Monday, March 3, 2008

Top officer testifies for prosecution in Bell case


"It is getting hot, getting hot!" was the frantic telephone call a police commander remembered getting from a detective in the moments before Sean Bell was shot dead after partying at a Jamaica strip club.

In testimony Friday in State Supreme Court in Queens, Lt. Gary Napoli said that Gescard Isnora, who was working undercover, called him with an urgent message - that there might be a gun among a group of men arguing outside the club. "I told units to move in to where Jessie is," Napoli, 50, testified, referring to Isnora by his nickname.

Moments later around the corner on Liverpool Street, Napoli said that he suddenly saw the Nissan Altima Bell was driving speed away from the curb. The next instant, recalled Napoli, he heard a collision and then shooting. Bell, 23, died in a 50-shot barrage fired by cops early on Nov. 25, 2006.

Napoli testified as a prosecution witness in the trial of Isnora, 29, and detectives Michael Oliver, 36, and Marc Cooper, 40. Isnora and Oliver are charged with first- and second-degree manslaughter, as well as assault. Cooper is charged with reckless endangerment, a misdemeanor. The case is being tried without a jury before Judge Arthur J. Cooperman.

Under questioning by Executive Assistant District Attorney Charles Testagrossa, Napoli said he did not see the collision or shooting because his Toyota Camry was facing in the wrong direction. The supervisor of an undercover operation targeting suspected prostitution at the Kalua Cabaret, Napoli said he drew his own gun in his car, then ducked low, got out and hunkered down for cover at the rear of the vehicle. Napoli didn't fire any shots.

Napoli said that he didn't hear anyone shout "police" or "Stop, police" and didn't recall seeing any of the officers in his unit display a badge, although he stressed he wasn't looking for the latter in the chaos.

Unlike other civilian witnesses who testified hearing a pause of as long as 10 seconds in the shooting before it resumed, Napoli said on cross-examination that the shots seemed continuous. When the firing stopped, Napoli said the quiet seemed "surreal."

"We were all in a bit of a surreal situation at that time," Napoli said. Napoli's testimony meshed with that of earlier prosecution witnesses who claimed there was an angry altercation between Bell and another man outside the club and that there was a collision between Bell's car and a police van. Other witnesses also reported they did not see police badges on the cops or hear any warnings before the shooting.

But Napoli is the first witness to give evidence that Isnora relayed to his supervisor his fears that there might be a gun among Bell's entourage. Under cross-examination by Isnora's attorney, Anthony Ricco, Napoli appeared to undercut the prosecution's suggestion that the unit was trying to get arrests at Kalua to avoid being disbanded.

"We were out there because it was our job," Napoli said. "Whether we made an arrest wouldn't have kept [the unit alive]." Outside court, Napoli's attorney Howard Tanner told reporters the lieutenant still believes his cops were legally justified in firing. Tanner told Newsday that Napoli could face departmental charges for the shooting incident.

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