30 Years After Bernhard Goetz, a Subway Shooting Evokes Comparisons

Bernhard Goetz
A New York City subway shooting on March 10 brings to mind the 1984 "subway vigilante" incident involving Bernhard Goetz, seen here in 1996. REUTERS

An altercation in the New York City subway; a concealed handgun pulled from its holster; shots fired; straphangers running; widespread media coverage.

Those words describe a March 10 incident in which a former correction officer named William Groomes, 69, shot and killed a 32-year-old man during evening rush hour at the Borough Hall subway station in Brooklyn. But they also describe an incident well known to those New Yorkers who recall the days of graffiti-covered trains, higher crime rates and Bernhard Goetz, nicknamed the “subway vigilante” three decades ago after he shot a group of teenagers, one of whom had approached Goetz for money.

While the media this week was quick to compare the two subway shootings, Goetz doesn’t see too many similarities. “Other than both happened on the subway, there are no comparisons,” he said by email. Then he conceded: “One similarity is troublemakers got shot.”

In December 1984, three days before Christmas, Goetz, a white man who was then 37, left his apartment near Union Square in Manhattan. He boarded a No. 2 train and sat on the long Plexiglas bench. Four black teenagers—Barry Allen, Troy Canty, Darrell Cabey and James Ramseur—were in the subway car, traveling from the South Bronx housing project where they lived to a video arcade, where they planned to break into machines with screwdrivers.  

According to the now widely accepted narrative, Canty walked over to Goetz and said, “Give me $5.” Goetz would later say it was the grin on Canty’s face and the look in his eyes that made Goetz feel afraid. So Goetz stood up, unzipped his jacket, pulled out an unlicensed silver .38 Smith and Wesson revolver and put one bullet in Canty and each of his friends. They survived, but with serious injuries.

Someone on the train pulled the emergency brake and, after a brief confrontation with the conductor (“They tried to rip me off,” Goetz reportedly told him), Goetz jumped down to the tracks and ran through the tunnel to the Chambers Street station. There, he went out to the street, hailed a taxi and returned to his apartment. Just over an hour later, he was in a blue AMC Eagle rental car heading north, away from the city that would soon be in a frenzy to find him.

In the days after the shooting, locals lauded the unidentified gunman as a hero. They saw him as a vigilante standing up in the face of the 14,000 subway crimes that happened each year, about 38 every day. In 1982, even the head of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority said he didn’t let his teenage son ride the subway at night.

“If you look at the crime rate now compared to 30 years ago, it’s like you’re on a different planet,” says Michael Jacobson, director of the CUNY Institute for State and Local Governance and former New York City correction commissioner.

The day after the shooting, the New York Post published an editorial that addressed the gunman: “The editors and reporters of this newspaper understand your anger and frustration.… We endure the same fear and anger that exploded in you Saturday.”

Goetz spent nine days bouncing between motels under fake names and returned briefly to New York City. He told a neighbor by phone, “I’d rather put a bullet in my head” than go to the police.

But he changed his mind. On New Year’s Eve, in the final hours of 1984, he confessed to police in Concord, New Hampshire. New York City law enforcement officials came to interrogate and apprehend him; an assistant district attorney cut her holiday ski trip short and flew in a two-seater plane to get there.

“Nothing I’ve got to say is going to make sense,” Goetz told the officials, according to video records. He compared what had happened to water building up behind a dam, or a rat getting cornered and poked with “red-hot needles.” “What happened here is I snapped,” he told them. “They were intending to play with me like a cat plays with a mouse,” he said, referring to the four teens.

Then he said the lines that prosecutors would jump on in court: “I wanted to kill those guys. I wanted to maim those guys. I wanted to make them suffer in every way I could…. If I had more bullets, I would have shot them all again and again. My problem was I ran out of bullets.”

He also confessed to telling one of the boys, “You seem fine, here’s another.” His defense attorneys would later say that Goetz was delusional during his confession.

In the criminal trial, the jury found that Goetz had acted in self defense and was guilty only on charges related to having an unlicensed firearm. But the family of one of the teens, who was paralyzed from the shooting, sued Goetz in civil court in 1996 and won $43 million. (Goetz didn’t comment to Newsweek on how much of that he’s paid.) Since then, Goetz has run unsuccessfully for public office twice. The teens he shot have faced decades of problems, including incarceration and drug addiction; one died from a drug overdose in 2011, on the 27th anniversary of the subway shooting. It was considered a possible suicide.

These days, Goetz lives in the same building near Union Square where he has lived since the shooting and has become an advocate for New York City’s squirrel population and for marijuana legalization. (Police arrested him in 2013 for selling pot to an undercover officer; charges were later dropped.) He spends his time nursing squirrels at a nearby park and cemetery. The squirrels keep him “pretty busy,” he said by email.

As for the Borough Hall shooting, details are still emerging. So far, Groomes, the shooter, has only faced questioning.

Barry Slotnick, who represented Goetz in the criminal case, says the initial comparison between the two subway shootings is obvious. “When I heard it was a subway, I said I was going to get a lot of calls today,” he says.

But the Goetz case could prove even more relevant to the Borough Hall shooting, should a grand jury decide to indict Groomes. Starting with the Goetz trial, the law of self-defense changed, so that defense lawyers had to prove that any reasonable person also would have felt their clients’ actions were necessary.

“The burden of proof changed drastically,” Slotnick says about the Goetz case. “I had to prove that the whole world would have fired and shot in the subway car.”

Mark Baker, who also defended Goetz in the criminal case, says it’s problematic that in the Borough Hall shooting, Groomes appears to have pursued one of the men inside the station and was not necessarily cornered in a subway car. “Following these guys off the train with a weapon out, that to me is going to require some explanation,” Baker says.

An attorney for Groomes, Peter Troxler, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Goetz said, “I think this story will disappear in a day.”

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