He has been labeled the Fourth Man in the notorious police shooting of Sean Bell - a mysterious figure fleeing the scene as bullets raked a Queens street.
But Jean Nelson's account of that fateful night paints a dramatically different picture of the catastrophic events - an account he has now given to the Daily News in an exclusive interview.
The stocky, soft-spoken 27-year-old Nelson had been a close friend of Bell's for the past five years.
So close that only hours before the shooting - on the afternoon of Nov. 24 - the two had gone shopping along Jamaica Ave. for wedding rings for Bell; he was to marry Nicole Paultre the next day.
But in the early hours of Nov. 25, Bell's plans exploded in a tragic hail of 50 bullets that also seriously wounded two boyhood friends as the trio, unarmed, sat in Bell's car. All 50 were fired by five plainclothes cops on a desolate street outside the Kalua Cabaret in Jamaica.
The five cops have yet to officially tell their story. But some of their lawyers have claimed Bell tried to run down an undercover detective, who said he thought he saw someone in Bell's group reach for a gun - prompting him to fire his weapon 11 times.
For Nelson, those chaotic final moments on Liverpool St. are still vivid in his mind. Sitting in the Pershing Square Restaurant in midtown with his lawyer, Charlie King, the young man gave the most detailed witness account yet of what happened that night.
"I thought they [police] were trying to kill us all," Nelson said as he recalled how bullets went "whizzing by my head" as he and several bystanders to the incident ran up Liverpool St. in an attempt to escape the gunfire.
If his account is true - and there are still several witness accounts to be heard - then almost everything that has been reported about Nelson so far is wrong, and the Police Department and the media of this city owe him a huge apology.
One newspaper in this town has already labeled Nelson in a front-page story "a gun-toting man who fled the scene," and police sources have said a witness spotted Nelson inside the club with a gun.
Nelson denied that he had any gun that night. He said he didn't even attend Bell's bachelor party at the Kalua strip club - something that police have consistently told the press.
"After Sean and I bought the rings that afternoon," Nelson said, "I asked him if he wanted to go to Eugene's, this club in Manhattan. He told me, 'No, I'm going to Kalua tonight.'"
Nelson and another friend went to the Manhattan nightclub anyway, where he said they partied until 3 a.m. or so.
"After that, I drove back home to Queens and ran into a friend who told me Sean and a bunch of the guys were still at Kalua," Nelson said.
Nelson and his buddy drove the 20 blocks from his home to the strip club on 94th Ave., but when they got there, it was 4 a.m. and the club's doors were locked.
"We tried to get in but couldn't," he said.
Just then, Bell emerged, greeted them outside for a few moments, then tried to go back in to get the rest of the bachelor party group.
"Sean couldn't get back in, and all of a sudden this stranger who is standing outside challenges him and they have some words," Nelson said, recalling that the stranger stood next to a dark SUV.
"Sean was pretty drunk and I told him to forget about the guy," Nelson said.
As the club emptied, the rest of the bachelor party joined Nelson outside, and the group - now numbering eight - headed around the corner toward Liverpool St.
Bell, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield were in one group. They headed for Bell's Nissan Altima parked on Liverpool, while Nelson and the others trailed behind.
"I was in the street walking toward my car parked on 95th Ave.," Bell recalled.
He then saw a dark SUV drive up Liverpool St. Then another car - with a black man in the driver's seat and a white man in the front passenger seat - went by. That car, we now know, contained Lt. Jerry Napoli, the head of the nine-cop surveillance team assigned to the Kalua Cabaret that night, and two other members of the team. Napoli's car stopped in the middle of the block just after it passed Bell's car.
"Then I see this guy running past me and across the street toward Sean's car with a gun in his hand," said Nelson. At this point, he was standing 25 feet away from Bell's car.
"The man with the gun never yelled 'police,'" Nelson said, backing up similar claims by Benefield and Guzman, both of whom were wounded in the shooting.
Nelson recalls exactly what words the man with the gun did scream out, but said he will tell that only to a grand jury.
"Sean's window was closed anyway and I'm not sure if he heard," Nelson said.
Nelson's account also contradicts another key part of the initial police version. Bell's car, he said, did not ram a second undercover police van two times before the shooting started.
"Sean pulls out of his parking spot like he was trying to get away from the man with the gun," Nelson said. "That man jumps ... to get out of the way. Just then the van comes up Liverpool on the wrong side of traffic and collides with Sean's car."
According to Nelson, Bell threw his car in reverse, and as he did so, someone - either the man in the street with the gun, or someone from the van - started shooting.
"There was a volley of shots," Nelson said. After that, he said he saw Bell's car roll forward slowly "like it was in neutral or something," and stop when it rolled into the van.
Nelson and the other stunned bystanders on the street all started running up Liverpool to escape the bullets.
"We're all running," he said, "and I hear more shots, and I feel bullets whizzing past my head."
As he ran onto 95th Ave., Nelson heard someone who was running behind him fall to the pavement. That's when he noticed it was Benefield, who had somehow gotten out of Bell's car but was still being shot at.
"I kept hearing shots back on Liverpool," Nelson said. "I said to one my friends, 'They're killing them all; they're killing them.'"
Originally published on December 15, 2006