The definition of a powder keg is a dangerous or volatile situation.
The following true story was undoubtedly that and so much more. I frequently write about topics that intrigue, fascinate, enrage and horrify me simultaneously. I always want to show the human elements, good, bad, or ugly, and use common sense to ask why, why, why? I cannot understand this tragedy on any level. Hopefully, in these volatile times, it will rise above the rest of the violence as one that was preventable.
It happened on Sunday, October 26, 2008, at the Westfield, MA Sportsman’s Club. The building is part of a 375-acre compound in Western Massachusetts that drew hundreds of people on that fateful day. The website promoted the event with boasts saying it would include “…machine gun demonstrations, rentals, and free handgun lessons.”
“It’s all legal & fun. No permits or licenses required!!!!” As for children, the Star Democrat Newspaper reported: “You will be accompanied to the firing line with a Certified Instructor to guide you. But You Are In Control “FULL AUTO ROCK & ROLL.” Children under 16 would be admitted free, and adults and children were offered free .22-caliber pistol and rifle shooting.
Edward Fleurey, the former Pelham, MA Police Chief, and owner of the COP Firearms & Training, promoted this event, sponsoring the Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo as “an educational event.”
It appears that there was another perfect storm of misinformation, incorrect assumptions, no quality control, and arrogance on the part of the police chief, eight-year-old Christopher Bizilj’s father, and others.
Massachusetts law, at the time, legally permitted children to fire a weapon if they had parental consent and were supervised by a certified instructor. But it did NOT apply to machine guns, which no one may fire under 18; NO exceptions.
What Happened on Sunday, October 26, 2008?
An eight-year-old boy from Ashford, CT, Christopher Bizilj, attended a gun show in Western Massachusetts with his father, physician, and Medical Director at the Johnson Memorial Hospital in rural Connecticut, along with his older brother, 11-year-old Colin, on the second day of the two-day event. The father viewed it as an educational event and okayed using an automatic machine gun despite not having the proper experience with this class of firearm.
Dr. Bizilj, Christopher’s father, was intent on videotaping his son and, at first, was unaware of what was happening. Gun experts stated that he was improperly holding the 9mm micro Uzi due to inexperience.
The gun jammed several times while Christopher was attempting to shoot a pumpkin. This particular gun can fire 20 rounds/second, 120 rounds per minute.
There was such a powerful recoil that Christopher lost control of the gun and unintentionally shot himself in the head once as his father videotaped!
What a horror show! How could this EVER occur? There are so many incredible twists and turns to this story!
The Brady Center for Gun Violence reacted immediately after the event and stated, “It is unconscionable that the gun fair allowed and encouraged young children to fire machine guns,” said Daniel Vice, a senior attorney with The Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence.
On the event day, Christopher reportedly had previously fired handguns and rifles. However, it was his first time firing an automatic weapon. Unfortunately, his father made the fatal error of allowing him to fire the mini Uzi machine gun, as he thought the small weapon had minimal recoil. How wrong he was!
Changes in child safety concerning firearms indicated the following:
- As of May 2021- Forbid sale to juveniles, addicts, or the mentally incompetent; Forbid the delivery of handguns to minors. After an extensive internet search, nothing is mentioned concerning children and attendance at gun shows!
- Massachusetts residents 15 years and older who wish to possess, carry, and transport firearms, ammunition, and feeding devices must have a firearms license. Municipal police departments issue firearms licenses.
- Any firearms safety instructor who knowingly issues a basic firearms safety certificate to a person who has not completed a firearms safety course approved by the colonel shall be punished. Punishment is a fine, not less than $5,000 nor more than $10,000; imprisonment for not more than two years in a house of correction, or by both such fine and imprisonment. (For other general policies, refer to this website: https://giffords.org/lawcenter/state-laws/universal-background-checks-in-massachusetts/)
For those New Englanders familiar with the Eastern States Exposition and Fairgrounds in West Springfield, MA, a gun show was held even this past March 2022 for two days at the Better Living Building in which admission for children under 12 was free! So what has been learned since 2008?
To say that this was a rare event is true, although there have been other documented cases. It is a fallacy to say that the officials running the gun show did their job. To say that safety control is the number one priority at our Westfield Sportsman Club seems to have been a bald-faced lie when you read the advertisements. Finally, to say legislators should not rush to judgment to change laws involving minors is ludicrous!
Police Chief Edward Fleury was charged with involuntary manslaughter and wanton and reckless conduct, furnishing guns to minors ( up to 20 yrs), and ten years in prison for each of three counts of furnishing machine guns to children.
Michael Spano, a 15-year-old unlicensed non-certified instructor, assisted in helping Christopher’s father said more than once that the gun he chose was not a good idea because it shoots fast and kicks hard.
MassLive reported that under cross-examination by the defense attorney, Rosemary Scappicchio, Spano’s job was to run people through the line as smoothly as possible, as Chief Fleury didn’t want the line to back up when it got busy.
Nothing to brag about:
The defense claimed Chief Fleury was NOT supervising the firing line, nor was he selecting weapons for the children. Instead, he was taking $5 from patrons at the gate.
Spano’s father, Domenico Spano, New Milford, CT, and Carl Giuffre, Hartford, CT, brought the machine guns to the gun fair and had machine gun licenses. Both pleaded not guilty to involuntary manslaughter.
Michael Spano also reported that several police officers saw children shooting machine guns at the event and never told anyone to stop or that it was illegal.
Dr. Bizilj appeared to take no personal responsibility. Initially, he called it a tragic accident and then decided to file a civil suit blaming Michael Spano and his lack of credentials. Finally, Dr. Bizilj signed a liability waiver saying he thought the event would be well supervised and safe.
A trustee and 50-year member of the Sportsman’s Club told reporters, “This one got away from us… I am sick over it.” But, when asked whether he thought it was appropriate for a child to shoot an Uzi, Mitchell said, “That’s a parental decision to make. If the father okayed it, then it was his choice.”
Surprised or Too Frightened to Let Go of the Trigger?
“An automatic weapon will fire when the trigger is pulled and keep firing until the trigger is released or the gun runs out of ammunition.”
- Officer Joseph F. Lech III of the Springfield Police Department and Range Master was in charge of weapons training at the event. He commented about the inherent dangers of automatic weapons, saying, “Automatic weapons are different from shooting a single shot or a semi-automatic weapon. All guns, when fired, will recoil or jerk slightly backward and up, he said. The shooter needs to lower the gun and re-aim after each shot. With a fully automatic Uzi firing up to 600 rounds a minute, the gun will recoil with each round fired. This continuous recoil will go back and up, back and up, back and up, back and up.”
- If the person shooting the weapon is not prepared or does not have the physical strength to control the gun, the combined recoil can cause the weapon to jerk backward violently.
- The Israeli-made Micro UZI was introduced in the 1990s as a handgun-type version of its sub-machine gun brother. The Micro UZI is designed for the role of personal defense in combat units.
- A semi-automatic weapon fires one round each time the trigger is pulled. Per instruction, the shooter holds the shoulder stock tightly against the shoulder to counteract the recoil. Christopher did not have the gun in this position.
- In 2010, the Sportsman’s Club settled criminal allegations by agreeing to pay a $1,000 fine and donate $10,000 to children’s charities following a wrenching victim impact statement by Christopher’s mother found here” https://www.nbcconnecticut.com/news/local/plea-in-boys-uzi-death/1878145/;
- The divorced Bizilj parents filed a $4 million wrongful-death suit against several defendants in November 2010, alleging that the machine gun jammed twice, was defective, and inspected by an unqualified 15-year-old before the child attempted to fire it. The suit was settled for $700,000 in December 2010.
- Dr. Bizilj intended to use the money to start a Foundation in Christopher’s name for adventures for underprivileged children, such as Christopher’s activities, including hiking Alaskan glaciers, mining precious gems in Nevada, and learning to request gelato in Italian before Christopher died. The machine gun expo was yet another adventure. Really??
- Lloyd’s suit claims the Sportsman’s Club’s policy excludes coverage for bodily injury arising from “activities performed by or on behalf of the insured, or operations necessary to the promotion and holding of gun or firearm shows.”
The Two Week Criminal Trial-
During the trial, Christopher’s father testified. During questioning by the prosecutor, he was asked whether he’d considered safety; Dr. Bizilj replied: “You can imagine this has gone through my head a thousand times.”
The Controversial Videotape-
The jury had the horrendous task of viewing the videotape more than once made by Dr. Bizilj as Christopher was shooting. “When you look at the video, I ask that you take your time. It’s unpleasant. It’s your duty. Play it in slow motion,” the judge said. Bennett said the video shows 15-year-old Michael Spano, who was supervising Christopher, wasn’t paying attention.
WWLP Channel 22 News Cast of Father’s Testimony – (No Graphic Video) 1+ Minute https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sAVCzmacfZc
Questions from the jury-
The first question was not revealed publicly; The second question asked of the judge was to give a legal definition of furnishing a machine gun to a minor. Judge Velis re-read his original instructions to the jury on that point.
As of Friday, January 15, 2011, former Pelham Police Chief Edward Fleury was acquitted and declared innocent of all charges by the jury after the 27-month ordeal. An acquittal occurs in a criminal trial when a defendant is found not guilty by a judge or jury. After a clearing, the constitutional prohibition against double jeopardy prevents further prosecution of the defendant for the same crime, even if new evidence is discovered. Fleury was shaken, grateful, and said, “I’d rather be dropped into hell than go through this again.” When asked, he said he was considering nursing as an alternate career.
The Victim’s Family-
Christopher’s mother, relatives, and friends attended court each day and quickly left after the verdict was read. They then went into the Hampden district attorney’s office with victim advocates. Dr. Charles Bizilj (now divorced from the child’s mother) testified during the trial in its initial week but did not attend the reading of the verdict.
Note – Even though the victim’s family had been wronged, damaged, and left with a hole in their hearts forever after such violence, my research did not indicate any opportunity to deliver victim impact statements in the case of acquittal. A civil suit appears to be the only option.
As of January 18, 2011, Special Prosecutor William M Bennet stated in each filing for defendants Spano and Giuffre that their conduct “was factually similar to that of his co-defendant Edward B. Fleury.” However, the involuntary manslaughter charges were dropped for Connecticut defendants Domenico Spano and Carl Giuffre. Fleury contracted them to supply the machine guns.
After the verdict, Bennett said, “I still think it was important that we brought the charge. At the very least, we shut down machine gun shows. Although I am disappointed in the verdict, I would certainly do it again.”
Christopher’s death inspired the State of Connecticut to pass a law the following year that banned children under 16 years old from handling or shooting machine guns.
Connecticut Legislation as a result of this tragedy-
The law prohibits transferring, selling, or giving machine guns to minors under 16, including temporarily transferring the weapon to them for use in target shooting, on a firing or shooting range, or any other purpose (CGS § 53-202(c)). A violation is punishable by a fine of up to $1,000, imprisonment of five to 10 years, or both.
As one source stated, regarding Federal law, there are no existing laws as to minors’ use of machine guns. “It’s a very gray area.”
In the Aftermath
The 2nd Annual Christopher Bizilj Memorial Fund was held in early December 2011) to benefit Baystate Children’s Hospital in Springfield, Mass was a success. During this event, the goal was to provide toys for its patients and to help continue the hospital’s bereavement box program to assist parents in dealing with their loss”. Their inaugural effort raised more than $2,000 for toys for patients at Baystate Children’s Hospital in December 2010. Unfortunately, the more recent activity could not be located online.
Four months after the passing of Christopher, Dr. Bizilj wrote a self-published book to deal with his grief. The book, One Road Out: Heal After the Sudden Loss of a Loved One is described as a step-by-step guide to wading through the grieving process. It is only by perusing the few reviews that are all over the map, some saying, “a wonderful book,” Others saying “..arrogant and why isn’t he in prison?” That’s the public talking.
Where Is He Now?
I looked up Dr. Bizilj, an internal and Emergency Service MD. It appears he is still practicing in rural Connecticut, Ashford, with some other offices in the Greater Hartford area. He was recently awarded “A Patient Safety Excellence Award” in 2022 by his medical group.
Final Words: If you found this blog valuable, please share and read about another similar 2014 case in Arizona in which the Uzi accidentally killed a nine-year-old girl who an experienced man was instructing!