Did the 1984 New York City Subway Shooter Act Out of Fear or Racial Motivation?
“I wanted to kill those guys. I wanted to maim those guys," Bernhard Goetz said during his 1984 police interrogation. "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."
The New York City subway is the veins and arteries of the Big Apple. In 1984, the lifeline of the metropolis came to a halt after five bullets were shot into four black teenagers three days before Christmas on the No. 2 train, fired by the hands of one white man armed with an unlicensed gun.
The subway shooting gained so much steam through the city like a smoldering building on fire as tempers flared with people defending shooter Bernhard Goetz, who says he acted out of fear, while others said it was because of the victims’ race.
Thirty-five years later, the shooting still resonates with New Yorkers as the issues of race, class, fear, and panic continue to converge on a subway car.
“This was different in terms of elements you want," former New York Post reporter and author Charlie Carillo told Inside Edition.com. "This had race, this had money, this had fear, this had rage. All the things that are percolating in this city all the time come together in this perfect tabloid story."
“You have all the facts and what you want to do with it but hearing people saying all the time what is right and what is wrong [about] people they don’t even know,” Goetz said during his 1984 police interrogation.
New York City in the mid-1980s was dirty, dangerous, and dilapidated; it was climbing from the wreckage of the financial crisis of the late 1970s. President Ford essentially told the city to “drop dead” when officials asked for a bail out.
“When you rode the subways in the 1980s, you kept your eyes open. You didn't bury yourself in a book,” Carillo said. “There was crack cocaine, it was just beginning to come around. Even the police were afraid of people on crack cocaine.”
The underground labyrinth was and still is the cheapest and fastest way to get around the five boroughs. While the city tried to pick itself up from its bootstraps, straphangers were taking their lives into their hands getting onto the subways.
“New York was crime ridden. The subways were full of graffiti," Goetz’s attorney Mark Baker told InsideEdition.com in 2019. "It was very intimidating just to walk onto one of those trains... And it was walking down the street at night was a scary thing to do and so, I would say the general populace was gripped in fear."
“Like all social services in New York City, like all municipal services throughout this city... the subways sucked. I mean they just did. Everything sucked,” attorney Ron Kuby told InsideEdition.com. “Basically, you were trapped in what was essentially, a recycled beer can hurling down the tracks.”
“The subway is the equalizer. It's the only way to get around, and it's always been that way,” Carillo said. “When you rode the subways in the '80s you would hope for the best, and then you'd have a sense of humor about it.”
Bernhard "Bernie" Goetz thought of himself as one of those people.
Goetz was a sheepish looking 37-year-old who lived in Union Square in a rent-controlled apartment. His neighborhood was very bohemian, although he didn’t seem to be. He was well-educated and owned and operated a small business where he specialized in calibrating electronics. He was a noted loner, with even his own attorney labeling him “an average geek.”
It was in 1981 when Goetz said he was jumped on the subway by three black teenagers who stole his electrical equipment and badly beat him up in the process.
“He dutifully reported that to the NYPD and the cops didn't treat that as seriously as he felt it should be treated. And that's when he decided he was going to carry a gun,” Kuby said.
Soon after his mugging, Goetz applied for a pistol permit, saying he needed it because he carried large amounts of cash, as well as valuable equipment with him to and from his office, but was rejected. Goetz then purchased a .38 Smith & Wesson, but never got it licensed.
“He kept that gun with him,” Kuby added. “And he even said that he would never wear gloves in winter because they might interfere with quick access to his gun. And that's what he did up until the time he met the four men that he gunned down.”
Dividing the Equalizer
"New York city is a system that knows so much and is so good you decide what you decide what is right and wrong," Goetz said during his 1984 police interrogation.
December 22, 1984, was an unseasonably warm day, with temperatures rising to the 60s. Just before 2 p.m. that day, Goetz entered a subway car heading downtown from Union Square. Four teenagers from the Bronx sat near him.
Darrell Cabey, 19, and James Ramseur, 19, sat next to Goetz. Opposite from him sat Troy Canty, 19, and diagonal from Goetz was Barry Allen, 18. Canty struck up a conversation with Goetz and asked how he was doing that day. Canty and Allen moved to his left and Goetz claims Canty said to Goetz, “give me $5.”
Goetz rose from his seat, unzipped his coat and pulled out his gun.
He went into a combat stance, gripped the revolver with both hands like a police officer would in the line of duty, and opened fire. He shot Canty in the center of his midsection. He then turned and shot Allen in the back. He fired his gun again, hitting Ramseur in the arm and chest. He fired a fourth time but missed Cabey who dropped to the ground. Goetz would later say that as Cabey lay on the ground playing possum, he walked over to him and told the teenager, “you seem to be doing alright, here is another.” The shot hit Cabey's spine, paralyzing him from the waist down.
“In less time than it takes to pour yourself a glass of water, the whole thing happened,” Carillo explained.
The train came to a halt when someone pulled the emergency break just before reaching the Chambers Street station. A conductor entered the train car and saw the teens lying on the ground in pools of their own blood. Goetz told the conductor that the teenagers tried to jump him. Goetz then managed to slip out of the car and into the dark subway tunnels.
By the time the ambulances arrived, Cabey already suffered permanent brain damage from oxygen deprivation to the brain and was paralyzed from the waist down. Recovery from his injuries was not possible and to this day, he operates at the intellectual level of an 8-year-old, according to Kuby, who represented Cabey in a civil trial against Goetz.
“Bernhard Goetz was a guy who was looking for this moment to vindicate a past trauma, and he decided to play that out on that train that day," Kuby said.
Goetz's attorney has a different outlook on the event.
“We take no glee in [what happened to Cabey],” Goetz's attorney said to InsideEdition.com. "It's a horrible fate, and Mr. Goetz took no glee in that, but it was him or them as he felt at the time, and he did what he had to do."
That night, Goetz returned to his apartment, changed his clothes, rented a car and for reasons unknown headed to New England, where he would disassemble his pistol and take refuge in Concord, New Hampshire, in hopes that what just occurred would blow over.
“People are looking for a hero or they are looking for a villain,” Goetz told authorities during his 1984 interrogation.
News quickly spread that a “subway vigilante” was on the run. The shooter was nowhere to be found, nothing was known about him and there were four teens who had been wounded from his bullets.
“Their lives changed forever on that day," Carillo said. "They were never going to have any kind of a normal life."
Receiving as much attention as the shooting, were the alleged past actions of the four teens who were shot. Reports quickly circulated that the teens had prior arrests and that cops had found screwdrivers on three of the victims. The teens were reportedly going use them to rob a video arcade, according to a report. None of those screwdrivers were drawn during the Goetz shooting.
Sketches of the shooter were circulated and it became national news.
Goetz turned himself into authorities on New Year’s Eve in New Hampshire. Detectives in New York City were notified and went to New Hampshire, where Goetz confessed to what he did.
“He sat down, they got the camera running, and it just flooded out of him," Carillo said. "And he couldn't lie. He had to talk about how he felt. [He said] ‘I wish I'd had more bullets,’ I mean, this was a guy really on the edge, or over the edge."
He told police he didn’t like the way Canty looked at him, saying that there was a “shiny” look in his eyes, as if he was being mocked, and at that point, Goetz believed he had no choice but to open fire.
“For combat, you have to be cold-blooded and I was. And it was at that point I decided to kill them after all, murder them all, do anything,” Goetz said during the recorded interview with authorities.
He was brought back to Manhattan where he was arraigned on charges of illegal gun possession and attempted murder. His bail was initially set at $50,000, later reduced to $5,000, and he was put into protective custody on Rikers Island. He posted his own bail and returned home five days later. He then became the most intriguing man in the country.
As the case moved forward, news about Goetz began to come out, including an incident at a 1980 community meeting where he used racist slurs while complaining about Latinos and black citizens.
“Bernhard Goetz was every white guy, whoever felt frightened by black people in New York, ever,” Kuby said.
His actions on the train divided the city, with those fed up with the crime ravaging New York calling him a hero and others saying he was a racist who needed an excuse to shoot a person a color.
His attorney said his client acted out of fear and the shooting was never racially motivated.
“He felt they were going to beat him up. He did what he felt he had to do at that time,” Baker said. “We discounted this, him having a racial connotation to it. I don't think if these kids were black, brown, yellow, purple, he would have acted any differently. He believed, and the jury accepted that belief, that he was about to be beaten up.”
But current New York City Public Advocate Jumaane Williams, who grew up in Brooklyn and was eight when the shooting occurred, tells InsideEdition.com, “It’s hard to take race out of incidents like this.”
“But the question is, if it was four young white men, would it have the same result given even the same circumstances?" Williams added. "And it's hard to think that it would have, particularly with the venom afterwards. And so it shouldn't occur. And there was language that, ‘I wished I [hadn't] ran out of bullets. I wished I had done more harm. That kind of venom and that kind of energy generally comes when there are more melanated people involved.”
As Goetz awaited trial, the city’s divide on if what Goetz did was right, wrong, racially motivated, or if he acted out of fear intensified by the day.
“It was the argument in every bar, in every restaurant, in every office. It was the water cooler argument,” Carillo added.
A popular female comedienne even offered to help pay for Goetz's bail. A New York Times poll after the shootings and found that 52% of New Yorkers believed the shootings was justified. Of those who felt it was justified, 56% were white and 45% were black.
In the spring of 1985, Goetz’s trial began. As it did, so did the demonstrations outside court both for and against Goetz.
“The onslaught of the media was oppressive,” Baker recalled. “We were photographed going to the men's room. I mean, it became somewhat overbearing on a daily basis."
In 1987, a predominantly white jury acquitted Goetz of attempted murder, but found him guilty of illegal firearms possession. He served 250 days in prison.
The verdict was as polarizing as the incident.
“I was waiting for the city to explode when the only thing Goetz was convicted on, was the weapons possession charge. I thought that was unbelievable,” Carillo said.
“He got the sentence that's required for the conviction of that offense," Baker said. "The jury heard the facts. Everybody's got opinions in a case like this, but unless you're in the courtroom for seven weeks, and you hear the evidence from the witness stand, and you see the demonstrations in the well of the courtroom, and you go out into that subway, which the jury did, in that confined space, walking around, imagining themselves in Bernie Goetz's position, you don't have a right to an opinion in my view."
For some people of color, the verdict was proof of what many suspected to be true about the American criminal justice system.
“I think the value of black life is not that high in American society,” Williams said. “That's something that we have to grapple with, and it's something that we have to understand why, and it goes way back. And, I often ask folks, because people who think will say, ‘Oh, that's in the past,’ I'm like, ‘At what point in history did we ever catch up?’”
The Imperfect Balance
“I don’t regret pulling the trigger,” Goetz told Larry King in 2004, “I guess feeling guilty is not one of my strong points.”
After his trial, Goetz did everything but go away from the spotlight. He went on many local and national news outlets to vent about what he called the issues in New York City, he urged his fellow citizens to arm themselves, and when he was asked about what he had done in 1984, he said he had no regrets.
“I wouldn't expect him to feel remorse. Goetz is proud of what he did. Goetz was looking forward to doing it, he was glad that he did it,” Kuby said.
For Williams, he believes it is "very telling" that Goetz does not regret what he did.
“You tried to kill four human beings," Williams said. "If you don't feel any remorse for that, especially so far removed, there should be something that's saying those lives are worth something, especially that young man that was paralyzed."
In 1996, Cabey's mother, Shirley, took Goetz to court in a civil lawsuit. Kuby, who represented the Cabeys, said said he need only use Goetz’s own words against him when he took the stand.
“So amidst the mass of evidence that I had at my disposal, I made a very conscious decision that I was going to try this case almost exclusively with Goetz's own words,” Kuby said. “And if there was going to be a finding of liability made against Bernard Goetz, it was going to be because of his own filthy, vile, racist mouth. So I had every statement he ever made. I had every television transcript of every crazy interview that he had given.”
Included in the statements presented were Goetz's comment that Cabey’s mother would have been better off if she had an abortion.
A jury awarded $18 million in compensatory damages and $25 million in punitive damages. Goetz immediately declared bankruptcy. Cabey has never been able to collect any of the damages awarded to him and he continues to live in a vegetative state.
As for the other three victims, each faced various troubles in the aftermath of the shooting.
Troy Canty faced a stint in rehab and was arrested for shoplifting in 1990. He was sentenced to probation. InsideEdition.com's attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Barry Allen was arrested and convicted for robbery in 1991. In 1995, he was placed on a conditional release to parole. His current whereabouts are unknown.
During the Goetz trial, James Ramseur was convicted of raping, sodomizing and robbing a pregnant woman in 1986. He was conditionally released in 2002 and returned to prison in 2005 on a parole violation. He was released again in 2010. On the 27th anniversary of the shooting, Ramseur was found dead in his apartment. He suffered a fatal drug overdose in a possible suicide. He was 45.
Goetz still remains a polarizing figure. In 2001, he ran for mayor of New York City, but lost. In 2005, he ran for public advocate and lost again. "That's funny," Williams, the current public advocate for New York City, said of Goetz's boldness to run for the seat he currently holds.
Goetz continued to make headlines. In 2013, he was arrested for selling marijuana to an undercover cop, though the charges he faced were dropped a year later. When Inside Edition tried to speak to Goetz in 2013, he said what he did was “no big deal."
He declined to speak to InsideEdition.com for this story, saying in an email that he is “not doing any interviews at this time.”
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