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Dark World, Pale Hero—New Yorkers Rally Behind Subway Gunman Bernhard Goetz

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It was fitting that it happened in the subway. The subway is the darker side of every New Yorker’s consciousness, the cradle of every angry and fearful fantasy, the engineering marvel of the turn of the century become a contemporary paranoid’s nightmare. Thundering trains, their walls inscribed with dizzying layers of graffiti, roar through blackened tunnels as expressionless straphangers brace against the lurch of the cars. Always the trains seem too crowded or too dangerously empty. And always there lurks a vision of the young men—two, three, four—”asking” for money and backing it up with a fist or a knife or a gun. More than a rider a day reported being mugged on the system last year, and thousands of others may have been too hardened to abuse to report it.

Don’t ask New Yorkers to be rational when it comes to the subway….

It was a strange Thursday-morning motorcade that roared down Interstate 93 between Concord, N.H. and Manchester, and an ordinary motorist might well have been mystified. Two Concord police cars, screaming down the passing lane with flashers blazing, hitting speeds up to 90 mph, might have been in pursuit of some fleeing desperado. But those 11 or 12 cars tearing along behind had the look of an entourage, racing in the wake of some superstar. Could it be a wanted gunman? Or a conquering hero?

The answer was yes to both questions. When, five hours later, the police convoy, stripped of its hard-driving press escort, finally drew up to Manhattan’s One Police Plaza, the tall, blond, slightly stooped man who emerged, his hands cuffed before him, was Bernhard Hugo Goetz, 37, wanted on four counts of attempted murder. To the people of New York, or at least its vocal majority, Goetz was a champion, a dream figure—and his shooting of four black youths a noble event.

It was 1:50 p.m., three days before Christmas, on the No. 2 IRT express, the one sometimes known as “the Beast.” Precisely what happened is still uncertain, but at least two of the four young men approached Goetz, a self-employed electronics engineer, between the Canal and Chambers Street stations. They played cool, leaned close and finally embarked on the age-old mugger’s litany: Hey man, got a light? Got the time? Hey man, got $5 for me and my friends to play video games? “Yes,” replied the intended chump, “I have $5 for each of you.” But when his hand came out of his jacket, it held a chrome-plated .38, and as other passengers in the car watched in horror, the would-be victim put at least four slugs into both the two youths who had accosted him and their two companions. Then, after checking to see if anyone else was hurt and explaining to the conductor, “They tried to rip me off,” he jumped off the halted train and disappeared into the tunnel. His victims—Troy Canty and Darrell Cabey, both 19, and Barry Allen and James Ramseur, 18—were taken to city hospitals. Canty and Allen sustained relatively minor injuries, Ramseur suffered multiple wounds, and Cabey, with a pierced lung and severed spine, was paralyzed from the waist down.

For nine days New York lost sight of the man one tabloid dubbed the Death Wish vigilante, harking back to the Charles Bronson movie. But the gunman was much on the city’s mind. Observed New York Governor Mario Cuomo: “A vigilante is someone who takes the law into his or her own hands. Impatience with our own system of justice, while not unusual, is dangerous.” Added Mayor Ed Koch: “That’s the difference between the wild West and a civilized society.” But despite such warnings and some serious unanswered questions—Had the four youths actually threatened the gunman? Why were two of them shot in the back?—many New Yorkers seemed quite comfortable with the Wyatt Earp approach. News that the four victims had criminal records and were carrying “sharpened screwdrivers” (the tools later proved to be of the ordinary, un-sharpened variety) loosed any remaining inhibitions, and the city engaged in a vicarious celebration of the gunman’s explosion.

Appearing with radio-call-in-host Bob Grant, a brass-knuckle conservative, Curtis Sliwa, head of the volunteer-subway-patrol group called the Guardian Angels, gave his unqualified endorsement to the anonymous shooter. The man’s victims, he said, “were sleaze and slime, and this guy was doing what he should…. If he can fight and go the whole nine yards, maybe we can…light into these thugs and punks.” Enthusiastic callers agreed. “I felt so isolated when I was mugged,” lamented one. “I wish I coulda hada gun.” A black man suggested that Sliwa come up to Harlem and “start mowin’ down the junkies and the pushers.” Finally a retired police captain called to tell of the time he had been accosted by toughs in a subway, had pulled out his old service revolver and, without firing a shot, had watched them run from the car. Grant congratulated the man, bade him farewell and, as he was about to hang up, added, “And Captain, the next time that happens—use that gun.”

Not everybody in New York was so sanguine. All three major newspapers counseled, more or less sincerely, against self-service execution. Perhaps the most passionate condemnation of the vigilante spirit came from columnist Jimmy Breslin, who wrote that “we in New York arrived at that sourest of all moments: when people become what they hate.” He explained later: “People hate the guy that stole their car or shot somebody. But if you don’t watch yourself, you can wind up at the same level. The bottom line is that people are rejoicing over a 19-year-old kid, who will be in a wheelchair for a lifetime. I’m sorry, include me out.” His city’s contrary passion made Breslin’s Irish temper boil over. “Nobody’s saying there’s no crime in this city, but somebody has to say you have no right to kill back on your own, to play God and execute people. Nobody seems to want it,” he thundered, “but we will live by the law!”

Breslin’s prediction would be tested sooner than anyone expected. At 12:10 on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, after a week of apparently aimless drifting through New England, Bernhard Goetz walked into the Concord, N.H. police station and told the officer on duty, “I am the person they are seeking in New York.” Though most of the details of Goetz’s subsequent 13-hour conversations with authorities remain undisclosed, New Yorkers did learn that the chrome-plated gun had been scattered in pieces in a Bennington, Vt. wood. And through the tabloids, they were informed of Goetz’s slightly chilling assessment of his deed. “I’M SORRY,” headlines blared, “BUT IT HAD TO BE DONE.”

Eagerly, New Yorkers waited to see whether Goetz’s real-life specifications matched the nice-guy-pushed-to-the-brink image they had created for him, and were delighted to find that, at least superficially, the picture. The son of German immigrant parents, he had grown up in small-town upstate New York and attended a prep school in Switzerland. (He had been sent there, it was later discovered, after his father had been arrested on charges of molesting two 15-year-old boys.) Goetz, said a sister, had always been quiet and studious. A nuclear engineer by training, he preferred, after a failed marriage and a brief stint in his father’s land-development business in Florida, a solitary, unassuming career servicing complex electrical machinery in his $650-a-month three-room apartment.

Then, true to the Bronson script, the quiet man was mugged. In January 1981 he was attacked in a subway station by three youths who grabbed some electronics equipment he was carrying. One of the teenagers, who was later apprehended, tried to push him through a glass door, causing cartilage damage in Goetz’s chest. Even more painful was the news, after the boy’s arrest, that the case would be settled in a noncriminal mediation process. Or, as a policeman explained, “You go over there and shake hands with all the guys and all of them go home.” In fact, the youth was eventually jailed for third-degree assault, but Goetz was permanently disillusioned. The experience, as well as his subsequent failure to obtain a gun permit, he said later, “taught me that the city doesn’t care what happens to you.”

Though Goetz was denied a permit, he carried a gun anyway. It was a .38 revolver he had bought legally in Florida, and he would occasionally display it to the children of a fellow tenant in his apartment building on Manhattan’s 14th Street. Opinion about Goetz in the building varied. Some admired the fervor with which he championed campaigns to make the neighborhood safer. “He is a gentle, caring soul,” says his neighbor Joanne Friedman. “He cared about doing good and cleaning things up.” But others wondered whether his civic concern masked a certain fanaticism. Goetz was denied membership on a tenant committee for making disparaging racial remarks, and had once launched into a screaming diatribe when another resident politely refused to sign one of his petitions in the building’s lobby. Says another neighbor, “Bernie is one of the few people I can think of for whom the insanity clause might apply. He just had one more run-in than he could afford with a part of society he couldn’t stand.”

Goetz, in fact, had once feigned mental illness as a way of avoiding the draft during the Vietnam War, and his behavior after his New Hampshire confession was somewhat erratic as well. Changing his mind twice, Goetz eventually decided to waive extradition and take the high-speed ride back to New York. But he still declined to hire a lawyer. “The truth,” he reportedly told a policeman, “will speak for itself.”

What it will say, of course, is a matter of dispute. At Goetz’s press-packed arraignment in Manhattan Criminal Court, Assistant District Attorney Susan Braver, who had questioned Goetz in New Hampshire, told the judge that an across-the-board plea of self-defense by Goetz would be impossible. She pointed out that he had shot two of the youths in the back. “He intended to kill every one of them,” she said, “and only stopped [shooting] when he ran out of ammunition.”

Strong stuff, legally. But if the case ever makes it to trial, Braver may have a hard time finding a venue where a jury of Goetz’s peers will do more than slap him on the wrist. New York, possessed by its subway-induced dream of revenge, still loves him. A huge spray-painted sign on the East River Drive says as much. A telephone company employee dug into his life savings to bail Goetz out of the city jail at Rikers Island—though the offer was refused. (Goetz later raised the $50,000 bail and was freed to await possible indictment.) And a radio-talk-show host counted 50 calls praising the gunman for every call condemning the shooting.

But it’s not just New York. In San Diego a similar poll showed a four-to-one margin in favor of Goetz. Contributions to his defense fund have been received from as far away as San Jose, Calif.; Yakima, Wash.; Winnipeg and Toronto. And up in Warner, N.H., Thomas Stotler, a bookseller with whom the fugitive had chatted shortly after Christmas, told the press that he thought his visitor a hero. “When the police can’t look after you, you have to do it yourself,” said Stotler. “Up here, it’s live free or die. And they’d better get it together down in New York.”

Who would have thought the subway ran so far?