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New Yorkers mourn a man of flaws, promise

Times Staff Writer

It was just 17 days ago that Sean Bell told the preacher he wanted to get married. Bishop Lester Williams was mildly surprised to see Bell in the first place, but he was flabbergasted by the younger man’s sense of urgency.

There seemed to be plenty of time: Bell had been with Nicole Paultre since high school, and fathered two children with her. But if Bell could have gotten married then and there -- never mind that the bride was not with him -- he would have done it, Williams said.

“You can’t marry someone without telling them,” he recalled gently telling Bell.

Williams was carrying the marriage license in his pocket Nov. 25, preparing to perform the wedding, when he heard that Bell was dead. Bell, 23, was shot leaving his bachelor party; undercover officers fired 50 rounds at a Nissan Altima, convinced he and his friends were armed. Police who searched the car later found no gun.

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For many, Bell -- a milk delivery man who dreamed about pitching in the major leagues -- has taken a place beside Amadou Diallo and Abner Louima, victims of notorious police brutality. By the end of this week, Bell’s face was airbrushed on T-shirts, and his name was spray-painted on the back windshields of vehicles. On the narrow street where he was shot, three dozen candles burned.

Eulogy instead of vows

Responsibility weighed heavily on Williams, who watched mourners pour into his church for Bell’s funeral on Friday. He was convinced he would never give a more important sermon. By the time he began to preach, the crowd spilled out of the church and down 108th Avenue for several blocks. People waited outside for hours. They climbed to the top of a wrought-iron fence across the street and strained to hear his voice.

“Ask not for whom the bell tolls,” Williams said. “It tolls for Sean. The bells are ringing outrage, and they will not stop ringing until justice prevails.”

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Bell was, the eulogist noted, at the second of two great crossroads. Four years ago, at 19, he set aside his dream of playing professional baseball when Paultre became pregnant.

Larry Minor, who was coaching Bell at Nassau Community College, remembers the conversation as if it were yesterday. Bell was a right-handed pitcher with an 85- to 87-mph fastball. He stared into the catcher’s glove with a calm intensity, as if he had tunnel vision.

“When you come across a young kid like that, you say, ‘Let me put a stamp on him at a young age, because he’s going somewhere,’ ” Minor said. “I can count kids who are special in my life. You get about five or 10. He was one of them.”

Near the end of his first season, Bell told Minor he was leaving school to work.

“It was very sad,” Minor said. “He was making a man’s decision at a very young age.”

Leaving baseball was not easy for Sean, said Kinglarry Crawford, 35, Bell’s second cousin. Though Bell got a job driving a UPS truck and delivering milk, he had shed the aura of celebrity that had surrounded him at John Adams High School.

From childhood, Crawford said, boys in southeast Queens saw sports as a way to escape poverty and crime. They did not have to look far for an example: Bell’s uncle, Frank Haith, is the head coach of the University of Miami’s men’s basketball team.

“Either you play some kind of sports, you rap, you get some type of lawsuit, or you have to win the lottery. They feel like that’s the way of getting out,” Crawford said. “Everyone was mad at him for stopping. They had this attitude: ‘You’re going to be the first to make it on this side of the family in baseball.’ He was that good.”

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With the birth of his first daughter, Jada, Bell settled happily into family life, but he never got much satisfaction from his work, Crawford said. Nicole Campbell, 30, who got to know him when he made deliveries to her workplace, remembers Bell showing her snapshots from his baseball career.

The neighborhood made it hard to stay straight, Crawford said. “There’s pressure every day,” he said. “The bad things you’re taught are good, and the good things you’re taught are bad.”

Court records show that Bell was arrested twice this year. In the spring, he pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor charge of criminal facilitation -- assisting someone to commit a felony -- and served five days of community service. And on Nov. 7, he was charged with a misdemeanor drug violation when he was caught with marijuana.

But just lately, friends say, Bell had started lifting weights with a new intensity. He and Paultre were thinking about leaving New York for Atlanta, a city with a lower cost of living, where “you could have a job for $7 an hour and still feel good about your manhood,” Crawford said. There was talk about pitching for a major-league scout.

“Things were looking real dark in his life,” said Jason Powell, 24, a friend from the John Adams baseball team, “and all of a sudden the door seems to open.”

It is not altogether clear why Bell decided the time had come to marry, but Williams, the minister, looked at him and saw that his decision had set like concrete. The wedding was going to be elaborate, with an elegant black-and-white color scheme, four cakes, and silver bells as wedding favors.

The night before, while Paultre was at a bridal shower, Bell went with friends to the Kalua Cabaret, a small strip club on Atlantic Avenue. Mingling in the crowd that night were two undercover police officers, who were there to document prostitution, narcotics and weapons violations.

At 4 a.m., Bell and his friends left the bar; relatives say they wanted to eat breakfast at a diner. The group got into an argument with a man outside, and one of Bell’s friends yelled, “Yo, get my gun,” police have said.

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When they headed for their cars, an undercover officer trailed Bell and his friends, followed closely by two unmarked police vehicles. The undercover officer approached Bell’s car, carrying a gun, and Bell accelerated forward, hitting him and then plowing into one of the unmarked police vehicles.

At that, five officers began firing from two directions.

A week later, much about the incident is still in dispute. Lawyers for the officers said that there was a fourth man in the car, and that he was armed; they also said that the undercover officer clearly identified himself as a police officer. On Thursday, police arrested four men in Queens, hoping to gather information on the fourth passenger.

On Friday, an attorney came forward on behalf of Bell’s companions that night, who say there was never a gun, or a fourth man. The police, said attorney Charles King, are “hellbent on trying to find a phantom gunman that didn’t exist within this wedding party.”

‘Why him?’

There were more strangers than friends among those who lined up this afternoon outside the Community Church of Christ, carrying umbrellas against the rain.

Cyril Vaughan, 63, stood outside the church for 2 1/2 hours as the wind picked up, taking pictures with a disposable camera. He was boiling with anger.

“I’m to the point, it’s like whatever it takes, I’m willing to do,” he said. “It’s so damn hard to talk about. It didn’t even have to be them. It could have been anyone.”

It was different for Bell’s friends, who, all week found themselves shaking off numbness.

John Maser, who coached Bell as a Little League player, remembered his first glimpse of the boy, “unbelievably athletic” at age 9, grinning from ear to ear for the length of the practice.

“If you handed him $20, at the age of 11,” Maser said, “he’d give you $20 back.”

Maser’s son had called to tell him the news about Bell. Maser made him repeat it several times.

“You sit there and you say, ‘Run this by me again?’ Why him? There’s millions of kids in New York City,” Maser said. “The stars were aligned and the planets spun in a certain direction, and then he was gone.”

ellen.barry@latimes.com


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