SIX. Seven Seconds in the Bronx: The Delicate Art of Mind Reading
The 1100 block of Wheeler Avenue in the Soundview neighborhood of the South Bronx is a narrow street of modest two-story houses and apartments. At one end is the bustle of Westchester Avenue, the neighborhood’s main commercial strip, and from there, the block runs about two hundred yards, flanked by trees and twin rows of parked cars. The buildings were built in the early part of the last century. Many have an ornate facade of red brick, with four- or five-step stoops leading to the front door. It is a poor and working-class neighborhood, and in the late 1990s, the drug trade in the area, particularly on Westchester Avenue and one street over on Elder Avenue, was brisk. Soundview is just the kind of place where you would go if you were an immigrant in New York City who was looking to live somewhere cheap and close to a subway, which is why Amadou Diallo made his way to Wheeler Avenue.
Diallo was from Guinea. In 1999, he was twenty-two and working as a peddler in lower Manhattan, selling videotapes and socks and gloves from the sidewalk along Fourteenth Street. He was short and unassuming, about five foot six and 150 pounds, and he lived at 1157 Wheeler, on the second floor of one of the street’s narrow apartment houses. On the night of February 3, 1999, Diallo returned home to his apartment just before midnight, talked to his roommates, and then went downstairs and stood at the top of the steps to his building, taking in the night. A few minutes later, a group of plainclothes police officers turned slowly onto Wheeler Avenue in an unmarked Ford Taurus. There were four of them—all white, all wearing jeans and sweatshirts and baseball caps and bulletproof vests, and all carrying police-issue 9-millimeter semiautomatic handguns. They were part of what is called the Street Crime Unit, a special division of the New York Police Department, dedicated to patrolling crime “hot spots” in the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Driving the Taurus was Ken Boss. He was twenty-seven. Next to him was Sean Carroll, thirty-five, and in the backseat were Edward McMellon, twenty-six, and Richard Murphy, twenty-six.
It was Carroll who spotted Diallo first. “Hold up, hold up,” he said to the others in the car. “What’s that guy doing there?” Carroll claimed later that he had had two thoughts. One was that Diallo might be the lookout for a “push-in” robber—that is, a burglar who pretends to be a visitor and pushes his way into people’s apartments. The other was that Diallo fitted the description of a serial rapist who had been active in the neighborhood about a year earlier. “He was just standing there,” Carroll recalled. “He was just standing on the stoop, looking up and down the block, peeking his head out and then putting his head back against the wall. Within seconds, he does the same thing, looks down, looks right. And it appeared that he stepped backwards into the vestibule as we were approaching, like he didn’t want to be seen. And then we passed by, and I am looking at him, and I’m trying to figure out what’s going on. What’s this guy up to?”
Boss stopped the car and backed up until the Taurus was right in front of 1157 Wheeler. Diallo was still there, which Carroll would later say “amazed” him. “I’m like, all right, definitely something is going on here.” Carroll and McMellon got out of the car. “Police,” McMellon called out, holding up his badge. “Can we have a word?” Diallo didn’t answer. Later, it emerged that Diallo had a stutter, so he may well have tried to say something but simply couldn’t. What’s more, his English wasn’t perfect, and it was rumored as well that someone he knew had recently been robbed by a group of armed men, so he must have been terrified: here he was, outside in a bad neighborhood after midnight with two very large men in baseball caps, their chests inflated by their bulletproof vests, striding toward him. Diallo paused and then ran into the vestibule. Carroll and McMellon gave chase. Diallo reached the inside door and grabbed the doorknob with his left hand while, as the officers would later testify, turning his body sideways and “digging” into his pocket with his other hand. “Show me your hands!” Carroll called out. McMellon was yelling, too: “Get your hands out of your pockets. Don’t make me fucking kill you!” But Diallo was growing more and more agitated, and Carroll was starting to get nervous, too, because it seemed to him that the reason Diallo was turning his body sideways was that he wanted to hide whatever he was doing with his right hand.
“We were probably at the top steps of the vestibule, trying to get to him before he got through that door,” Carroll remembered. “The individual turned, looked at us. His hand was on—still on the doorknob. And he starts removing a black object from his right side. And as he pulled the object, all I could see was a top—it looked like the slide of a black gun. My prior experience and training, my prior arrests, dictated to me that this person was pulling a gun.”
Carroll yelled out, “Gun! He’s got a gun!”
Diallo didn’t stop. He continued pulling on something in his pocket, and now he began to raise the black object in the direction of the officers. Carroll opened fire. McMellon instinctively jumped backward off the step and landed on his backside, firing as he flew through the air. As his bullets ricocheted around the vestibule, Carroll assumed that they came from Diallo’s gun, and when he saw McMellon flying backward, he assumed that McMellon had been shot by Diallo, so he kept shooting, aiming, as police are taught to do, for “center mass.” There were pieces of cement and splinters of wood flying in every direction, and the air was electric with the flash of gun muzzles and the sparks from the bullets.
Boss and Murphy were now out of the car as well, running toward the building. “I saw Ed McMellon,” Boss would later testify, when the four officers were brought to trial on charges of first-degree manslaughter and second-degree murder. “He was on the left side of the vestibule and just came flying off that step all the way down. And at the same time, Sean Carroll is on the right-hand side, and he is coming down the stairs. It was frantic. He was running down the stairs, and it was just—it was intense. He was just doing whatever he could to retreat off those stairs. And Ed was on the ground. Shots are still going off. I’m running. I’m moving. And Ed was shot. That’s all I could see. Ed was firing his weapon. Sean was firing his weapon into the vestibule. . . . And then I see Mr. Diallo. He is in the rear of the vestibule, in the back, towards the back wall, where that inner door is. He is a little bit off to the side of that door and he is crouched. He is crouched and he has his hand out and I see a gun. And I said, ‘My God, I’m going to die.’ I fired my weapon. I fired it as I was pushing myself backward and then I jumped off to the left. I was out of the line of fire. . . . His knees were bent. His back was straight up. And what it looked like was somebody trying to make a smaller target. It looked like a combat stance, the same one that I was taught in the police academy.”
At that point, the attorney questioning Boss interrupted: “And how was his hand?”
“It was out.”
“And in his hand you saw an object. Is that correct?”
“Yeah, I thought I saw a gun in his hand. . . . What I seen was an entire weapon. A square weapon in his hand. It looked to me at that split second, after all the gunshots around me and the gun smoke and Ed McMellon down, that he was holding a gun and that he had just shot Ed and that I was next.”
Carroll and McMellon fired sixteen shots each: an entire clip. Boss fired five shots. Murphy fired four shots. There was silence. Guns drawn, they climbed the stairs and approached Diallo. “I seen his right hand,” Boss said later. “It was out from his body. His palm was open. And where there should have been a gun, there was a wallet. . . . I said, ‘Where’s the fucking gun?’”
Boss ran up the street toward Westchester Avenue because he had lost track in the shouting and the shooting of where they were. Later, when the ambulances arrived, he was so distraught, he could not speak.
Carroll sat down on the steps, next to Diallo’s bullet-ridden body, and started to cry.