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Bernard Goetz's Subway Gunshots Echo Still

Bernard Goetz's Subway Gunshots Echo Still

By Carl M. Cannon - December 22, 2014

Across the nation, law enforcement personnel are on high alert after the weekend’s assassination of two New York City patrolmen, one a newlywed and the other a devoted father of two. It’s hard to read about hate crimes at Christmastime, but that’s what this was, pure and simple.

Violent crime that takes the lives of the innocent, regardless of whether they are in uniform -- or whether the shooter is a police officer -- reverberate through the victims families’ for generations. And when motivated by politics and race, they roil the entire country.

Just such a shooting took place 30 years ago today, when a 37-year-old electrical engineer named Bernard H. Goetz was approached by four young men on a subway car in lower Manhattan.

Goetz still lives in New York, but when it comes to street crime, the Big Apple of today is a different place than it was on December 22, 1984, when he boarded the Seventh Avenue express train near his Manhattan home. New York City had one of the highest crimes rates in the country. It has always been a tough town, but from the mid-1960s to 1980, violent felonies had tripled in the city. Realistic concerns about being a crime victim had become one of the defining characteristics of living in New York.

The subway system provided no respite or sanctuary. Its infrastructure was a mess, “deferred maintenance” being the preferred euphemism as transit authorities struggled vainly to keep ahead of vandals who smashed thousands of windows on the subway cars.

Richard Ravitch, chairman of the MTA, candidly told a city business group in 1982 that he himself was nervous about riding the trains at night -- and had forbade his teenage sons from doing so. Millions of New Yorkers felt the same way: By the end of that year, ridership had declined to its lowest levels since World War I.

For many residents, however, mass transit remained their only viable means of commuting to work. One of those New Yorkers was Bernard Goetz, a bespectacled passenger who looked, as Darrell Cabey later told Jimmy Breslin, “like easy bait.”

He wasn’t, but Cabey and his three companions didn’t realize that until too late.

Goetz had been recently robbed and assaulted, and was so incensed by the lenient treatment of his assailants that he’d sought permission to carry a licensed firearm. His petition was denied, but he bought one anyway, a .38-caliber Smith & Wesson, which he was carrying, hidden, on the fateful subway ride.

Darrell Cabey was 19, as were two of his mates, Troy Canty and Barry Allen. A fourth youth, James Ramseur, was 18. All were from the Bronx and on this day they were carrying screwdrivers, apparently with the intention of breaking into video machines at an arcade and stealing the change. When they saw Goetz, Canty and Ramseur approached him and said, “Give me five dollars.”

The young men later said they were panhandling; Goetz took it as a threat. He stood up, pulled out his revolver and fired five shots. One missed, but the other four all hit their targets. None of the boys were killed, but Cabey was grievously wounded: He would never walk again.

The “Subway Vigilante,” as he was dubbed in the tabloids, turned himself in to police. He was charged with assault and put on trial. A jury of his peers -- that is to say, beleaguered New Yorkers -- were receptive to Goetz’s claims of self-defense, and he was convicted only of the gun charge.

He served eight months for that -- it would be a lot longer today -- and resumed his life. In the ensuing three decades, his name has surfaced from time to time: He has run for office, marched in a vegan parade, was pinched last year on a marijuana charge (since dropped).

Life didn’t go smoothly for the young men he shot. Darrell Cabey sued Goetz in civil court and was awarded $43 million, none of which he has ever collected. Barry Allen continued his life of petty crime and did some time in prison. Troy Canty went into drug rehab, and was later arrested for domestic abuse.

In an apparent attempt at revenge, James Ramseur reported to police that after he left the hospital, two men hired by Goetz kidnapped him at gunpoint, claims that were quickly unraveled as a hoax. A little over a year later, he was sent to prison for holding a gun on a pregnant woman while she was raped. Three years ago today, he was found dead of a drug overdose in a Bronx motel room. It was the 27th anniversary of his confrontation on the subway.

Carl M. Cannon is the Washington Bureau Chief for RealClearPolitics. Reach him on Twitter @CarlCannon.

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