SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Three men, including a small-town police chief, were indicted Thursday on involuntary manslaughter counts in the gun-fair death of an 8-year-old who accidentally shot himself in the head with an Uzi that a prosecutor said he never should have been allowed to handle.
The club where the fair was held also was charged. The fair had promised shooters would have certified instructors in an advertisement, but District Attorney William Bennett said the child, Christopher Bizilj, was supervised by an uncertified 15-year-old boy.
Christopher, of Ashford, Conn., lost control of the 9mm micro submachine gun as it recoiled while he was firing at a pumpkin Oct. 26 at the Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo at the Westfield Sportsman's Club in western Massachusetts.
Pelham Police Chief Edward Fleury was charged because he owns the sponsor of the gun fair, COP Firearms & Training. Two men who brought the automatic weapon to the show, Carl Guiffre of Hartford, Conn., and Domenico Spano, of New Milford, Conn., also were indicted.
An involuntary manslaughter conviction carries a maximum 20-year prison sentence, but the term could be five years or less for someone with no prior convictions.
Fleury and the club also were indicted on four counts each of furnishing a machine gun to a minor. A conviction on each count is punishable by up to 10 years in prison, up to $10,000 in fines and the loss of a firearms license for at least 10 years.
Bennett said prosecutors know of at least four children, including Christopher, who fired automatic weapons at the fair. He added that Fleury had wrongly assured Guiffre and Spano that it was legal for children to use the Uzi under Massachusetts law.
"A Micro Uzi is made by and for the Israeli Armed Forces and is intended to meet the operational needs of Israeli Special Forces," Bennett said, noting the weapon has a rate of fire of 1,700 rounds per minute. "It is not a hunting weapon."
Thomas Drechsler, an attorney for the club, said it continues to extend its "deepest sympathy" to the Bizilj family, but denies any wrongdoing. He said neither the club nor any member gave the Uzi to Christopher or any children, and weren't in the immediate area when the accident happened.
"The club is disappointed by the indictment," he said. "The club's intention is to plead not guilty and the club denies they participated in any criminal act."
Fleury, Guiffre and Spano did not immediately return calls for comment.
The machine gun shoot drew hundreds of people to the sporting club's 375-acre compound. An advertisement said it would include machine gun demonstrations and rentals and free handgun lessons.
"It's all legal & fun — No permits or licenses required!!!!" reads the ad, posted on the club's Web site.
"You will be accompanied to the firing line with a Certified Instructor to guide you. But You Are In Control — "FULL AUTO ROCK & ROLL," the ad said.
The ad also said children under 16 would be admitted free, and both adults and children were offered free .22-caliber pistol and rifle shooting.
Christopher's father was 10 feet behind him and reaching for his camera when the child fired the weapon.
Bennett said Charles Bizilj (pronounced bah-SEAL') had selected the compact weapon for his 4-foot-3, 66-pound son to fire after he was assured it was safe. He had thought the Uzi's small size made it safer, but the opposite was true, the prosecutor said.
"Although it might appear a heavier or longer weapon would be more dangerous, the small size of the weapon together with the rapid rate of fire made it more likely that an 8-year-old would lose control and the muzzle of the weapon would come close to his face, which is what happened here," he said.
The father was not charged because he was a layman and based his decision on information from others who should have known it was too dangerous, Bennett said. The 15-year-old boy who was supervising Christopher with the Uzi also will not be charged, he added.
Christopher's family did not immediately return a call seeking comment. His father has said his son had experience firing handguns and rifles but the gun show was his first time with an automatic weapon.
Fleury, the police chief, has been on sick leave since the boy's death, according to Kim Leahey, administrative aide for the Pelham Board of Selectmen. Leahey said the board would have no statement on the indictment until it consults its attorneys.
Fleury is one of two full time officers in Pelham. In a statement issued shortly after the accident, the board said Fleury's company was a "purely personal pursuit" and not subject to their approval.