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New York Councilman Killed in City Hall

Aired July 23, 2003 - 19:01   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. Thanks for being with us. Tonight the assassination of a New York City council member inside the walls of city hall, just a short walk from Ground Zero in what many would expect to be one of the most secure areas in the country.
A gunman shot and killed councilman James Davis. That is the councilman right there. A police officer in the council chamber then returned fire, killing the gunman, who has been identified as a political opponent of Davis.

What remains unclear right now is exactly why this man was not required to walk through a metal detector when he entered city hall where Mayor Mike Bloomberg was at the time when the city is supposed to be on perennial orange alert.

CNN's Maria Hinojosa has been on the story since it broke this afternoon. She joins us now from outside city hall with all the latest -- Maria.

MARIA HINOJOSA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, just first let's get to some breaking news.

CNN has learned now that the FBI received a call at about 11 a.m. this morning from a man identifying himself as Askew, saying that he was a victim of harassment by city council member James Davis. That information has now been passed on to the NYPD. But that might give some people a clue as to what happened here today.

Now earlier today at about 2, as you said, Anderson, city council was getting ready to have their regular mundane proclamations about the Puerto Rican parade and about public toilets when at about 2 p.m. shots rang out from the second floor balcony.

At that point there were shots returned. We have heard anywhere from five rounds to 20 rounds. Then with ambulances immediately arriving on scene and certainly a tremendous amount of security, two victims were led out. They were led out, Anderson, even as they were being -- CPR was being performed on them as they were being led out on the stretchers.

Now, for a long period of time this afternoon what we were being told was that the gunman was on the loose. So there was a tremendous amount of concern. Again a lot of chaos.

The situation here at city hall was immediately evacuated and surrounded. You had very large presence of security here. You had the bomb-sniffing dogs. You had the SWAT teams. You had officers in full gear going in and out of city hall, which has been off limits.

Now, we do know now that the brother of the dead city councilman, James Davis, is very upset about this and he's saying that this had something to do with some kind of political rivalry between his brother, James Davis, and the shooter, who is known as Othniel Askew.

Let's listen to what his brother has to say.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The system killed my brother. But it's all right. I'm confused right now. How is it that city hall, how can this happen in city hall?


HINOJOSA: Which is the question that everyone in this area has. If you don't know this area, we're about a half a mile north of Ground Zero. This is one of the very tight, secure areas. As you said, Anderson, we're in permanent orange alert here. So it's very surprising how something like this could happen.

Even we are not allowed in and out of these gates on a usual way. The city hall right behind me, this is not an area where you can get out. And when you go into city hall you always have to go through the metal detectors.

We have heard witnesses saying that Othniel Askew accompanied the city councilman and the city councilman led him in, saying he was friend of the city councilman's. Of course, he had no clue that within minutes he was going to be shot by this man.

Now this is raising some questions that Mayor Bloomberg says he has to address in terms of security here at city hall.


MICHAEL BLOOMBERG, NEW YORK CITY MAYOR: We do not know how someone got a gun into the building. We have security. Obviously, there was a breakdown some place. Somebody got an unauthorized gun into city hall and tragically used it. And part of the investigation will be to see what broke down in our procedures and to rectify them.


HINOJOSA: Now, James Davis, the city councilman who has now passed, was a former minister, a former police officer.

And one of the things he did was to actually rally around gun violence in his Brooklyn community. But we're hearing that perhaps there was a political rivalry in this sense. At least his brother is trying to perhaps go this route, because the city councilman was such a steadfast supporter of gun control.

One last thing right now, there are family members outside of the city council member's home with flowers and wreaths. A lot of sadness there -- Anderson.

COOPER: Maria, appreciate the details on this developing story.

Now on of those who witnessed the shooting was a fellow member of the city council, Peter Vallone Jr., who joins us now.

Peter, thanks for being with us. You saw Councilman Davis moments before he was shot and killed. What happened?

PETER VALLONE JR., NYC COUNCIL MEMBER: Councilman Davis was the way he always was. He gave me a huge hug, told me he loves me. Made a joke at my expense like he always did. I called him a numb nut. He turned and went up to the balcony with the man who apparently shot him. That's the way he always was with everyone.

And then I went to the front of the council chambers. He went up to the balcony. Minutes later we heard the gunshots and bedlam broke out there.

COOPER: And a man very close to you, a few feet away from you, returned fire?

VALLONE: There was luckily a member of, apparently, of the speaker's detail, intelligence detail, who was in plans clothes a few feet away from me who actually returned fire because he wasn't getting fired at, but fired up into the balcony. The balcony is not that far away. You can have a normal conversation from the balcony to the main floor.

No one knew what was going on. We didn't know if the man who was shooting back was a cop because he was apparently new and we didn't recognize him and he was in a suit.

COOPER: And did you see this man, Othniel Askew, who -- prior to the shooting? I mean, you saw him with the councilman?

VALLONE: I saw the councilman with people. I didn't see him. But other council members do recognize him as being someone who's been to city hall before.

COOPER: He has been with the councilman there before?

VALLONE: I'm not sure if it was with the councilman but he's been there before.

COOPER: And today you told me that the councilman was going around -- because this man was apparently registered to possibly run against the councilman. You're saying today councilman Davis was going around saying what.

VALLONE: Today, Councilman Davis was going up to other council members saying, "This man used to be against me and now he's with me." So it's a complete mystery as to why this happened.

COOPER: What kind of a man was Councilman Davis.

VALLONE: Davis, as you said, he was a minister, he was a character, he was a hard, hard worker.

COOPER: Former police officer.

VALLONE: Former police officer. I'm chairman of the public safety committee. He's on my committee. Hardest worker I had there. He was chair of the subcommittee on juvenile justice.

He spent his whole life working to stop the violence. In fact, ironically today, not too many people know this, he was putting in a resolution, calling on tougher standards in the work place to prevent violence in the work place.

So today was what he was about, the way he just hugs people, smiles at people, and at the same time works very hard to stop violence.

COOPER: Mayor Bloomberg has said in a subsequent news conference later today just a short while ago, said basically they're going to change the policy. Now everyone including himself is going to have to go through the metal detector.

Is that enough to protect city hall?

VALLONE: Well, that's good, but I would also recommend that we have some armed police officers inside the council chambers because the normal sergeants at arms in city hall are not armed. And if this man, who was a hero, this police officer who shot back up into the balcony, was not there, you know there were six shots in the balcony before anything was done.

Unfortunately all -- apparently James was lying on the floor at that time, but he could have turned his gun and without this officer in there, there was nothing to stop him.

COOPER: I know it's been just an unbelievably difficult day for you, Councilman. I appreciate you coming in to talk about it.

VALLONE: Thank you. And I'm doing this just for the memory of James. It's a huge loss to the people of New York.

COOPER: Thank you very much.


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