NEW YORK (AP) – Officers have raided at least one home, picked up the son of a clergyman for an unpaid ticket and scoured vacant lots with a leave-no-stone-unturned intensity akin to a murder manhunt. But the search has nothing to do with a fugitive killer.

Instead, police are simply trying to locate a key witness – and perhaps a missing gun – in the fatal police shooting of an unarmed man. They believe the witness, if he even exists, could provide the missing piece to the puzzle of why five officers unleashed a 50-shot barrage that killed Sean Bell on his wedding day outside a strip club in Jamaica, Queens.

Police critics on Friday warned of a backlash: They claim the search has created a climate of fear in a community already outraged by the death of Bell, 23, and the wounding of two other unarmed men who attended his bachelor party at the club.

They say police have concocted a “phantom gunman” in a desperate effort to show that officers were justified in opening fire.

“This kind of police conduct is frightening, and it serves as a chilling impact on those witnesses who want to come forward and simply tell what they saw, what they heard, so that justice can be served,” said Charlie King, an attorney who said he represents several potential witnesses.

A man on his way to Bell’s wake Friday, 47-year-old Albert Williams, agreed that Jamaica was on edge. “This has got to stop,” he said. “It’s crazy. They’re running into people’s houses looking for a fourth guy.”

Later in the evening, hundreds mourned the slain groom at a funeral held at the same church where he was to be married to his high school sweetheart just one week earlier.

“They took his life, but we can’t let them take his legacy,” the Rev. Al Sharpton said. “We must give Sean a legacy. A legacy of justice, a legacy of fairness. We don’t hate cops, we don’t hate race, we hate wrong.”

The first officer to shoot at Bell’s car has claimed he believed there was a gun in the car and that a group numbering four were retrieving it to settle a street dispute. No weapon was found, but police union officials have suggested a fourth man fled with one.

Police said earlier this week that clues gathered during a raid on a Queens apartment known for drug dealing indicated that one witness, identified as 27-year-old Jean Nelson, may have been with the victims before the shooting.

A law enforcement official said on Friday that investigators have taken statements from civilian witnesses that put a fourth man, possibly Nelson, near the car the time of the shooting. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the investigation was ongoing.

Nelson, who was detained Thursday but released, was an eyewitness to the shooting and claims police fired without warning, said Charlie King, his attorney. However, he “did not have a gun, nor was he in the car as police have suggested,” the lawyer added.

In a statement, police officials insisted Friday that their investigation was “appropriate.” And Mayor Michael Bloomberg, speaking on his weekly radio show, called some of the criticism unfair.

Officials with fraternal organizations for black police officers called for calm and cooperation, and one said he was troubled by the level of mistrust.

People “not wanting to call the police, it bothers me,” said Victor Swinton, president of the Guardians Association. “We are there for them. They’re not there for us.”

“Remember, the police department – these guys are out there, and women – are out there trying to protect us,” he said.

King alleged that police had picked up the son of the Rev. Lester Williams, the pastor who conducted Bell’s funeral, for questioning at 6 a.m. Thursday, using an unpaid $25 ticket as cause. Williams later said that investigators “definitely did strong-arm” his son over why he visited the two wounded men, Joseph Guzman and Trent Benefield, in the hospital.

At other times this week, officers were seen scouring vacant lots and other spots around the scene of the shooting in search of ditched weapons.

Police “seem hellbent on finding a phantom gunman who didn’t exist,” King said.

The hospitalized survivors also have claimed through their lawyer that a fourth person was never involved. Benefield was in stable condition on Friday and Guzman in critical condition.

Shakeema Chavis, 25, knew Bell from high school and said she is disturbed by the police department’s behavior in the search for witnesses in Jamaica, a notoriously crime-plagued neighborhood.

“They would have caught a fourth person. They would have run after him,” she said through tears. “They’re just bullet-happy. They’re just gun-happy.”

“I think 99 percent of the black and Hispanic community would agree with me,” she said.

An unidentified undercover officer and four others – identified as detectives Mike Oliver, Mark Cooper and Paul Hedley and Officer Mike Carey – have been placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of a grand jury investigation that could result in criminal charges. Two of the officers are black, two are white and one is Hispanic.


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