Councilmembers Recall Colleague’s Fatal Shooting
Five City Councilmembers recalled their experiences at City Hall, last Wednesday when Councilmember James Davis was slain by a political rival. The rival, Othneil Booz Askew in turn was shot and killed by a New York City police officer.
Councilmember Peter Vallone Jr. recalls: "I was in the council chamber when James came by and gave me his usual big hug and I called him ‘goof ball,’ as I usually do. Several minutes later, shots rang out, lots of shots, and as I dove for cover I noticed a man not more than 10 feet to my left shooting up toward the balcony. I didn’t know who he was but he turned out to be one of the good guys."
In fact, the "good guy" was Police Officer Richard Burt, who turned out to be the hero of the moment as his shots found their mark—Davis’ killer.
Councilmember Hiram Monserrate (D–Corona) said he spoke with Davis briefly before the shooting started. The Brooklyn lawmaker congratulated Monserrate for getting good media coverage on his dispute with Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the latter’s policy to permit disclosure of immigrants’ status to federal authorities and the New York Police Department.
After Davis continued on his way, Monserrate recalled, "I was standing behind my seat waiting for the meeting to be called to order when suddenly I heard two shots and I immediately got down on the floor. I shouted to Councilmember Gale Brewer to take cover, that the noise was gun shots, which were coming from the balcony, and I thought the guy was shooting at councilmembers.
"I was in tremendous fear. There were 10 or 12 shots and you can imagine the echo. It was horrifying. People were disoriented and at one point cops were screaming to everyone to get out, but no one had control of the situation. Some councilmembers ran for the door, but I waited because I didn’t know what was going on. Cops were firing up toward the balcony. We had no idea who was shot.
"Finally they escorted us out of the building and the press started to interview us, but I was still traumatized. Then somebody told me Councilman Davis had been shot and the guy who shot him had also been shot. I felt awful. Later a cop told me James was dead."
Monserrate (D–Corona) explained that he and Davis had become quite close since entering the council because of their similar backgrounds. They had known each before being elected because both had been police officers and both had been active with their respective minority group line organizations. In 2000, both won Democratic district leader positions as insurgents against the regular organizations in their respective boroughs and the following year, each won election as a councilmember.
"We were the only two former cops in the council, so we had a strong common bound," Monserrate concluded. "James was a strong ally, very independent."
Monserrate spoke to the Gazette before he revealed to police that he had received death threats from a volunteer who worked for a political rival in his council district.
Councilmember David Weprin (D–Hollis) was in the council chamber studying the agenda for the meeting which was to begin momentarily when "I heard a big boom and everyone shouting ‘get down, get down’," he recalled.
"There must have been 15 or 20 shots, but I never looked up. I called ‘911’ but there was no answer after the shooting stopped. Then the cops told us ‘get out, get out’ and we left by the side entrance. There was chaos outside with reporters asking all of us lots of questions because they thought the shooter was still at large.
"We were there about a half hour when they carried two stretchers out of the building. One was Davis. He was alive and they were working on his chest. The other guy was alive too, and they were giving them oxygen. Then they took them away and later I heard James was dead."
Despite their different political backgrounds, "[Davis] being anti-organization and me an organization guy, we became good friends through our meetings as freshman councilmembers and the trip we made to Israel with a group," Weprin said. He remembered Davis as "always joking, full of life, charismatic and a big Kibitzer. They called us the odd couple."
When she heard the first "pop," Councilmember Helen Sears (D–Jackson Heights) was at the rear of the council chamber under the balcony. The next thing she knew, Catherine Fickelson, a council aide from Manhattan pulled her down to the floor.
"Shortly after, she pushed me over to the bathroom (in the rear corner of the chamber) and soon a crowd of people came stampeding in—squashing us in. Then someone, I don’t remember who, took us over to the mayor’s side. The mayor was there and he stayed cool and kept order.
"When things settled down, I went back into the chamber to get my purse and everything was in disarray, with chairs upturned and papers scattered all over the place. It was unnerving and I still felt like I was in shock. It was such a tragic thing to happen to James."
Councilmember Melinda Katz also wound up in the mayor’s office. She had been doing an interview with New York 1 in the rotunda of City Hall "when all of a sudden, I heard shots and screaming—I never heard anything that loud before—and everyone came running out of the council chamber.
"For a moment, we couldn’t get the door to the bullpen (the former Board of Estimate Room, which now holds the mayor’s staff open, but finally they did and there was just Helen Sears and myself in there. The mayor was unbelievable, as cool as a cucumber, really in charge."
The last time Councilmember Tony Avella saw Davis alive was just before the council meeting was to start. Avella was looking up at Davis in the balcony, trying to get his attention to tell him the session was about to start. Avella turned and looked away.
"A couple of minutes later, I heard the gunshots, and as I turned to look toward the balcony again I looked up and saw the assailant clearly visible, arms fully extended, just shooting at something in the balcony. Once I realized he was shooting a gun, I dove for cover because from the balcony you can see everything on the floor of the council chamber."
After the shooting stopped, the Bayside lawmaker said, "The cops rushed us out of the chamber and over to the mayor’s side. Shortly after we arrived there, we were interviewed by detectives and asked to identify pictures of suspects. We didn’t leave City Hall until about 6:30."
Avella called Davis’ murder tragic. "He was a good guy, a community person." He also felt a kinship with him because both voted against the 18.5 percent real estate tax increase in November and both "caught hell from the mayor later on because of it."
The final time the councilmembers saw their colleague, Councilmember James Davis, was as he lay in state in the rotunda at City Hall this past Monday.