Mass. club pleads no contest in boy’s Uzi death

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. — A Massachusetts sporting club is donating $10,000 to children’s charities as part of a deal settling criminal charges in the death of an 8-year-old boy who accidentally shot himself in the head with an Uzi during a gun fair.

Christopher Bizilj’s parents approved the Westfield Sportsman’s Club’s plea deal reached today in Hampden Superior Court, where his mother’s description of their grief left the judge visibly shaken.

Christopher, a third-grader from Ashford, Conn., died after the accidental shooting during an October 2008 gun fair at the Westfield club. His father and brother were a few feet away.

Three men who arranged the gun fair and provided the weapons are scheduled to stand trial in June on charges of involuntary manslaughter, including Pelham’s former police chief.

Through its attorney, the Westfield club pleaded no contest today to a charge of involuntary manslaughter and paid a $1,000 fine, the maximum it faced under state law.

It also will donate $10,000 in Christopher’s name to two charities: $5,000 each to the Shriner’s Hospital for Children and to the Children’s Miracle Network through Baystate Children’s Hospital.

The four charges the club faced of illegally providing a machine gun to a minor will be dismissed after one year if the donations are made — something that the club’s attorney, Thomas Drechsler, said will happen as soon as possible.

Club members “want to put an end to these proceedings and not put the court, the district attorney, the family or anyone else through the trauma of having a trial,” Drechsler said, joined by Robert Gorham of Springfield, who became the club’s vice president about a year after the incident.

Gorham said little during the proceedings or afterward, but told the judge that “one of the hardest days I ever spent in my life” was helping Christopher’s mother put up balloons at the club last fall to mark what would have been the boy’s 9th birthday.

Christopher lost control of the 9mm micro submachine gun as it recoiled while he fired at a pumpkin Oct. 26, 2008, at the Machine Gun Shoot and Firearms Expo.

Three men face charges of involuntary manslaughter: Edward Fleury, Pelham’s former police chief; and two men who took the automatic weapon to the show, Carl Guiffre of Hartford, Conn., and Domenico Spano, of New Milford, Conn.

All have pleaded not guilty.

The fair had promised in an advertisement that shooters would have certified instructors, but prosecutors said Christopher was supervised by Spano’s uncertified 15-year-old son.

Fleury was charged because he owns the sponsor of the gun fair, COP Firearms &Training. He also was indicted on four counts of furnishing a machine gun to a minor.

District Attorney William Bennett has said at least four children, including Christopher, 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.

Christopher’s father was 10 feet behind him and reaching for his camera when the child fired the weapon.

He dropped to the ground and was briefly conscious before being rushed to the hospital, where he died still wearing the outfit he had selected specifically for the event, which he had eagerly anticipated for months.

“We trusted this event would be fun and safe,” his mother, Suzanne, said in a written statement read aloud in court Thursday. “My family has been ripped apart and relationships have been badly damaged.”

Suzanne Bizilj said they mourn every day for the son they never got to raise, and described being unable to shake the image of her son in the hospital with a bloody towel around his head and tubes connected to his small body.

She also described snipping locks of his hair and taking plaster casts of his hands and feet after he died so she would have remnants of his short life.

Hampden Superior Court Judge Peter Velis, who accepted the sportsman’s club’s plea deal today, called her statement “one of the most, if not the most, bone-chilling things I’ve heard since I’ve been on the bench, and I’ve heard a lot.”

“This poor young fellow lies in his grave. … What in God’s name was anyone, if not everyone, thinking?” he said. “The good memories of this boy are going to be kept alive, not the bad memories — this community does not deserve anything less.”

Prosecutors have said Dr. Charles Bizilj 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.

The weapon fires 20 to 25 rounds per second, Bennett 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 was not charged.

The boy’s family also has filed a $4 million lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Springfield against the club, the event’s promoters and those who supplied the weapon and ammunition.

That suit is pending, and the gun club remains a defendant.

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