|Authorities say Police Chief Edward Fleury promoted the gun exposition where Christopher Bizilj died. (DAILY HAMPSHIRE GAZETTE)|
A small-town police chief who authorities say promoted, organized, and profited from a firearms exposition where children were encouraged to shoot machine guns and where an 8-year-old killed himself with a Micro Uzi was charged yesterday with involuntary manslaughter.
Although the event was promoted as an opportunity for children to fire machine guns under the supervision of certified instructors, 8-year-old Christopher K. Bizilj had been supervised by a 15-year-old boy who was "knowledgeable about guns" but not certified as a firearms instructor, Hampden District Attorney William M. Bennett said in outlining charges against Pelham Police Chief Edward B. Fleury and two others.
The Oct. 26 death at the Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo at the Westfield Sportsman's Club horrified the region and provoked outcry from parents, lawmakers, and some gun enthusiasts, who condemned it as a senseless tragedy.
In the event, the 8-year-old's father, Dr. Charles Bizilj, stood 10-feet behind his son while the boy aimed at a pumpkin with an automatic weapon that fires 1,700 rounds a minute and is notoriously difficult to handle. When Christopher squeezed the trigger, the gun jerked out of control and fired a bullet into the right side of his head.
Yesterday's indictment was authorities' attempt to assess responsibility for the death.
Bennett said the boy's father had taken Christopher to the gun show and chose the Micro Uzi for him to fire, but would not be charged. "He is already being punished and will continue to be punished" in mourning Christopher's death for the rest of his life, Bennett said.
Fleury, Pelham's police chief of 22 years, was singled out as the central force behind the expo. He organized it through a business he ran, COP Firearms & Training, and marketed it in advertisements that said that the $5 entry fee was waived for children under age 16 and that there was "no age limit or licenses required to shoot machine guns."
"It's all legal & fun," the online advertisement read. "You will be accompanied to the firing line with a Certified Instructor to guide you. But You Are In Control - 'FULL AUTO ROCK & ROLL.' "
Bennett said Fleury took a portion of the proceeds from the event. He was charged with involuntary manslaughter, which carries a penalty of up to 20 years in prison. Fleury was also charged with four counts of furnishing a machine gun to a person under 18, punishable by up to 10 years in prison. Bennett said three of the counts stemmed from other instances in which minors were allowed to fire machine guns at the expo.
In addition, the Westfield Sportsman's Club, a 59-year-old, all-volunteer organization, was charged with involuntary manslaughter and four counts of furnishing a machine gun to a person under 18, charges that could result in fines to the club but not penalties against its officers.
Two Connecticut gun dealers who supplied the Micro Uzi and other machine guns for the expo, Carl Giuffre of Hartford and Domenico Spano of New Milford, were each charged with involuntary manslaughter. They were not charged with furnishing a machine gun to a minor because they had "reasonable reliance" on Fleury's authority as a police chief that the gun expo was legal, Bennett said.
But Bennett said state law is clear that it is illegal to give a person under 18 a machine gun, under any circumstances, with or without parental consent.
The Micro Uzi Christopher fired was designed for Israeli special forces and is known among some gun enthusiasts as the "fifty-fifty," a grim reference to the chance the gun will hit its target or kill its user.
Charles Bizilj chose the gun for his son, Bennett said, because he believed its small size would make it easier to handle. In fact, Bennett said, the small size made it more difficult to control than guns with longer, heavier barrels.
A gun safety instructor well-known in Pelham for teaching firearms courses to adults and children, Fleury had been involved in another notable shooting accident. In 2003, while showing six students at the Pelham Community Center how to handle a pump-action rifle, he accidentally fired a bullet that tore through a wall of the center, hit a doorframe, and cracked a window. In a letter that he released after the shooting, Fleury said he had checked the chamber and had not realized the gun was loaded. He said he was "totally distraught," and he outlined five safety precautions he would take to prevent a similar accident.
"You can be certain that this will not happen again," he wrote.
Since Christopher Bizilj's death, Fleury has been on sick leave as police chief. Pelham, a town of 1,400 located east of Amherst has one other full-time officer, who has been serving as chief, and one part-time officer.
About a dozen residents have written to the Board of Selectmen calling for the chief's resignation, while a handful have spoken out in his defense, said James Huber, a Pelham selectman. Huber said the board is now trying to decide what action, if any, to take. "We're going to make a determination where the town goes next," Huber said.
John M. Collins, general counsel for the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association, said that Bennett had "cast a wide net" in charging Fleury with manslaughter and that he believes that it would be unusual if Fleury were convicted.
"The criminal statutes are for criminals who intend to hurt someone else," Collins said. "No one can believe the chief intended to hurt anybody, certainly not an 8-year-old kid."
Other legal specialists said Fleury could be convicted if a jury, shown the ads that promoted the shoot for children, concludes that he engaged in wanton and reckless conduct that led to Christopher's death.
Fleury's lawyer, David C. Kuzmeski, said he was disappointed with the charges. "We will defend them and feel confident that when it's all over, Chief Fleury will be exonerated," he said.
Thomas Drechsler, a lawyer hired by The Westfield Sportsman's Club, and Edward George, the club's general counsel, said the club plans to plead not guilty to all charges. George said the club had an "excellent safety record." Guiffre and Spano and Bizilj did not respond to phone messages.
Michael Levenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.