Relatives sue FBI, say club sting was bungled

Tuesday, February 6, 2007


Relatives of three of the four people gunned down in a Paterson after-hours club sued the federal government Monday, claiming the deaths resulted from a bungled FBI sting operation.

Three men and a woman were massacred inside the illegal gambling club during an early-morning robbery Dec. 14, 2005.

"The FBI violated their own policies on undercover cases: to make sure that the safety of unrelated civilians is not in jeopardy," said the families' attorney, Rosemarie Arnold. "You have a virtual casino operating in a known dangerous neighborhood without any security. That to me is an invitation to robbery."

Four co-defendants are now behind bars, with the Passaic County Prosecutor's Office preparing a death penalty case against the alleged gunman.

FBI officials have declined comment and did not return a call Monday.

Based on police files, the lawsuit says the FBI set up the sting four months before the shootings to investigate drugs and arms trafficking by the Latin Kings gang. It claims the agency paid a former convict $3,500 a month to run the business -- known as Kings Court -- atop a warehouse on Railroad Avenue, but failed to properly train or supervise him.

The nine-count complaint filed in federal court in Newark names as defendants the U.S. government, three FBI agents and the four criminal defendants.

The victims' relatives say they hunger for accountability.

"I'm left wondering: Does the FBI realize what actions they set in motion when they opened this place?" said the sister of victim Tara Woods of West Paterson. "Somebody messed up and they have to be held accountable."

She asked that her name not be published for safety concerns.

Law enforcement sources say the club manager was a federal informant, and he had opened the club on the night of the shootings without notifying the FBI.

But the sister of Woods, a 29-year-old mother of two, isn't satisfied by that account.

"We want to know exactly what happened and why," she said. "This has devastated us. And that's one family. Multiply that effect by four."

Carmen Suarez of Paterson, who lived for more than 25 years with victim Ralph Hernandez, 53, said, "I want the people responsible for his death to pay."

Relatives of Jesus Antonio Gonzales, 31, also of Paterson, also are plaintiffs but could not be reached. The fourth victim was Johnny Melendez, 39, of Newark.

Investigators say the conspirators had envisioned an in-and-out robbery that would never get reported to police. Instead, they say, gunman David Baylor of Passaic snapped and shot the cowering victims point-blank.

"However solidified the [robbery] plan had been, at that point it went out the window," said John Latoracca, chief assistant prosecutor for Passaic County. "Baylor had effectively elevated the stakes a thousand times."

After the shootings, rumors spread quickly about FBI involvement in the illegal club.

Latoracca confirmed the club was the "subject of an undercover operation by the FBI." He was not aware of any armed guards, but said patrons were "wanded."

Baylor's death-penalty trial is tentatively set for September.

Baylor's attorney, Harley Breite, has attacked some of the state's witnesses as "people with lengthy criminal records."

"Is that the type of credible testimony we can rely upon to send somebody to death?" he said.

Baylor's co-defendants are Reginald "Khaddafi" Barris of Clifton; Beatriz Hernandez, 24, address unavailable, and Hamid Shabazz, 30, of Passaic.

All four have been indicted on felony murder, robbery and weapons charges.

Baylor, 27, and Barris, 25, are in the county jail in lieu of $5 million bail each. Shabazz is in prison for an unrelated robbery, and Hernandez is in undisclosed custody.

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What happened

Authorities give this account of the Dec. 14, 2005, shootings in Paterson:

All four defendants arrive in the club some time after 2 a.m.

David Baylor and Hamid Shabazz leave shortly after 4 a.m., then walk back in through a rear door that Beatriz Hernandez has opened for them.

Moments later, Baylor shoots the four victims as Reginald Barris punches and knocks the manager to the floor.

The intruders race to grab what they can -- a few thousand dollars. In their haste, they leave $1,000 in one victim's pocket.

The manager escapes and phones Paterson police, telling them he works for the FBI.

Source: New