Time has played tricks with Nicole Paultre-Bell.
In the 10 years since her fiancé, Sean Bell, was killed by cops just hours before their wedding, the days have either flown by or crept along at a near standstill.
When she is with her daughters, at the park or supervising sleepovers, she blinks and the weeks whiz by. But if she watches the news or logs in on Facebook, or walks down the street that bears Bell’s name, the clock doesn’t move at all.
“I don’t think we’ve come very far,” Paultre-Bell says. “Every time an innocent person loses their life it hurts. It’s a reminder of how much work is still needed to be done.”
Before Ramarley Graham was chased into his bathroom by a cop who killed him, before Akai Gurley was shot and killed in a Brooklyn housing project stairwell, before Deborah Danner, a mentally ill elderly woman who swung a bat at a Bronx police sergeant was shot dead instead of Tasered, and before Eric Garner told a cop who was choking him in Staten Island that he couldn’t breathe, there was Sean Bell, who was killed by cops who fired 50 shots into the car where he sat with his friends, unarmed and helpless.
Bell, 23, was the featured player in a rite-of-passage ritual: a strip club bachelor party with his dad and closest friends, Trent Benefield and Joseph Guzman. In the early morning hours of Nov. 25, 2006, there were also undercover cops in Club Kalua near Bell’s home in Jamaica, Queens.
According to trial testimony, Bell and his buddies left the club around 2 a.m., and walked along Liverpool St. to Bell’s white Nissan. But before Bell, who was driving, could pull off, the Altima was surrounded by men with guns, only no one in the car knew they were cops.
Bell used the only weapon he had — his car — to bang an unmarked van and clip an undercover cop.
Bell’s foot was still on the gas when shots rang out — 50 of them — shredding the car and piercing other vehicles on the street, a neighbor’s home and a train station a full block away. Guzman, in the front passenger seat, absorbed 16 of the shots. He survived, as did Benefield, who caught four as he escaped from the back seat.
But Bell got the worst of it, his young life ended by a bullet in the neck. Cops never found a gun, or a fourth man they claimed had a weapon.
In the police version of events, a plainclothes cop, Gescard Isnora, followed the trio to their car after Guzman got into a beef in the club and threatened to go and get his gun. Isnora called for backup and broke cover. His next word — Gun! — started a chain of events that ended a life and damaged community trust. One cop reloaded and fired 31 times.
“You think they’re here to serve and protect us,” Sean Bell’s mother, Valerie Bell told the Daily News. “Now we’re afraid of our police officers.”
The city sat on edge when three of the cops who fired were put on trial on charges of manslaughter, assault and reckless endangerment. A judge acquitted them.
“Fifty shots?” Valerie Bell said in disbelief. “Come on. What can’t you understand? Breaking down somebody’s door? Ramarley Graham? What don’t you understand? A video? Eric Garner? What don’t you understand? Right is right, and wrong is wrong. If I shoot you, where am I going? Jail that same night.”
Bell was an aspiring baseball player. Scouts who saw him pitch his way to an 11-0 record during his senior year at John Adams High School in Ozone Park said he was good enough to go to the show. But he was smart enough to have a backup plan. He was also working on his certification to become an electrician.
He had a fiancée he loved and two daughters, Jada and Jordyn, he adored, and he didn’t want to leave them in the lurch while he chased a dream.
“I don’t know what it’s like to lose a child,” Paultre-Bell says, expressing sympathy for the mothers whose unarmed sons and daughters have been killed by cops. “But I know what it’s like to lose the father of my children.”
Bell’s father, William, turned 63 on Saturday. He said the days between his birthday and the anniversary of his son’s death anniversary are always the most painful of the year.
He said his wife, Valerie, still bursts out in tears out of the blue.
“She has what she calls her ‘Sean Bell moments,’ William says. “She’ll start bursting out in tears without talking or saying anything. I ask her what’s going on and she just says, ‘Oh, I’m having a Sean Bell-moment.’ That’s a mother who lost her son.”
William Bell was in the club with his son that awful night. He had protected him his whole life, but couldn’t do a thing for him then. So when news breaks of another police-involved killing — Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Freddie Gray in Baltimore, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, Eric Garner in Staten Island — the image of Sean Bell dying in his car on Liverpool St. takes over the father’s mind.
“That’s when I can’t sleep for a couple of days,” William Bell says. “It just comes back to me. I’m always afraid of going to sleep. When it first happened I could see him getting killed in the car, so I tried not to close my eyes at night. I started sleeping during the daytime. And I still get into that habit when I hear what happens and I say, ‘Oh man, another one?’ ”
The dad says he’s still horrified at the number of shots.
“I don’t care, people say you have to get over something, but that you can’t get over. . . It’s too much.”
Instead of a happy wedding, with a Soul Train and a layered cake, Bell’s family and friends ended up at a funeral with angry eulogies and news cameras.
In those crazy, hectic days before the funeral, with protests growing and lawyers spinning, Paultre-Bell had three immediate goals: to follow through on the marriage ceremony, to get the rings back and to change her name.
The nuptials were impossible. Sean Bell was dead, and they hadn’t signed the marriage license yet. The name change was easy. Nicole Paultre became Nicole Paultre-Bell.
As for the rings she got back both, but only held on to one. The other she placed on Sean Bell’s finger before his casket closed.
Paultre-Bell has since been married. She and her new husband have a daughter, her third.
“Annabell brought so much joy back to our lives,” Paultre-Bell says.
But the journey has not been easy. There was the survivor’s guilt, the justice fight, the anger and the fear.
“I was 22 years old when he was killed,” says Paultre-Bell, who launched a non-profit foundation, “When It’s Real, It’s Forever,” in Sean Bell’s honor. “A young mom working a full-time job. It was a regular normal life, what any young family should be doing. We planned to get married and unfortunately that day never happened. The adversity I faced really introduced me to myself.”
In 2010, the City Council renamed a stretch of Liverpool St., including the block where he died “Sean Bell Way.” Paultre-Bell says it is also fitting to be remembering Sean Bell in the weeks after Election Day.
“Every time I vote I remember that Sean lost his life, and he used to vote,” she says. “He was a voter. His signature is still there. His name is right under mine. I’m reminded of the right to vote, and how important our rights are. Sean had the right to come home that night.”