Bernhard Goetz - the 'Subway Vigilante'
By Patrick Mondout
On the afternoon of December 22, 1984, four African American youths
boarded an express subway train in the Bronx on a mission to rob video
game machines in lower Manhattan. At about 1:40 in the afternoon, Bernhard
Goetz, a slight, eyeglass-wearing 36-year-old electronics engineer,
entered the same downtown train at the 14th Street station in Manhattan.
He too was on a mission.
With around 20 other passengers in the car, Goetz sat down across from
the group of four. A few moments later, two of the four - Barry Allen and
Troy Canty - arose and approached Goetz. The other two, James Ramseur and
Darrell Cabey, followed soon thereafter and they surrounded Goetz. Canty
asked Goetz for $5. Goetz acted as if he didn't hear Canty and asked him
to repeat himself. Canty responded, "Give me your money." Goetz
stood up, drew a 38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver from his jacket and
fired shots at the youths. All four were hit and, as Cabey lay bleeding,
Goetz said "You don't look too bad, here's another." The last
shot severed his spinal chord and left Cabey paralyzed.
The conductor of the train heard the shots and pulled the emergency
brake cord. The train came to a stop between stations and Goetz managed to
escape through the opening between two cars and he would not be seen again
for well over a week.
After the shooting, Goetz rented a car and fled to Vermont. If he
thought people would forget about the shooting after a few weeks, he was
wrong. Goetz finally surrendered nine days later to police in New
Hampshire on New Years Eve.
Trial of the Century
From the Lindbergh baby kidnapping to the O.J. trial to Martha Stewart,
every few years another trial is labeled "Trial of the Century."
This trial of the century featured a vigilante defendant who
appeared to have the support of the majority of Americans and
"victims" who had all committed serious crimes prior to their
attempt to rob Goetz. As if this story needed any added tension, the four
youths were black and Goetz was white.
Despite this last fact, this case never really was about race. Indeed,
one of the witnesses to the shootings was a young African-American woman
named Andrea Reid who was on the train with her husband and baby. At one
point she claimed that those "punks" got "what they
deserve." Also, one of the jurors who argued on behalf of Goetz was
an African-American bus driver named Robert Leach.
The four youths were all 18 or 19 at the time and claimed they were
panhandling money to play video games and had merely asked Goetz for $5.
Goetz claimed he believed he was being robbed.
In the later civil trial, newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin testified
that Cabey had told him about a year after the shooting that he and the
other three young men on the train intended to rob Goetz because ''he
looked like easy bait.''
The facts of the case were clear and very little was in dispute - Goetz
had confessed to the shooting and vigilantism is not supposed to be a
valid legal defense. Still, the jury acquitted him of the shooting and
convicted him only on one felony and two misdemeanor charges for the
illegal possession of firearms. For this, he was sentenced to eight months
at Riker's Island. Had the jury known he would do time for even these
charges, it is even-money as to whether or not they would have convicted
him on any charges.
Mayor Ed Koch of New York City tried to make it clear that the
acquittal of Goetz of all the serious charges shouldn't be interpreted as
an endorsement of vigilantism. Given the obvious jury nullification, it
was hard to see it that way.
Before the criminal case was over, Darrell Cabey, who had been
paralyzed and partially brain damaged in the shooting, filed a civil suit
against Goetz. That was in 1985. On April 24, 1996, a jury found that
Goetz had acted recklessly and deliberately inflicted emotion distress on
Cabey and awarded him $43M in damages ($18 million for past and future
pain and suffering and $25 million in punitive damages). Shortly
thereafter Goetz filed for bankruptcy. In such cases, the court would
usually garnish 10% of his wages for 20 years. But it is unlikely Cabey
will ever see any of the money as Medicaid has the first claim on income
Goetz receives (to reimburse the government for Cabey's medical bills).
Where Are They Now?
Bernhard Goetz announced his intention to leave his beloved New York
shortly after the announcement in the civil case. Echoing Richard Nixon's
famous remarks 34 years earlier, he told the New York Post: "Let's
say this town won't have Bernie Goetz to kick around anymore." His
lawyer in the civil case, Darnay Hoffman, announced that he most likely
would end up in Boston though St. Louis, San Diego and Cleveland were also
possibilities. He also revealed that Goetz had been advising congressional
committees under an assumed name on matters relating to the Space Shuttle
and proposed Mars missions (which might explain why the Mars Lander
overshot its target). Hoffman also revealed that Goetz had several offers
of employment, including one with a think tank. When Goetz announced his
intention to leave New York, the Associated Press caught up with Cabey's
attorney, Ronald Kuby who was obviously still trying to play his failed
race card when he said, "I didn't know the Klan had a think tank. Our
gain is their loss."
All of the youths have committed serious crimes in the time since except
for Cabey, who remains paralyzed. James Ramseur later brutally raped,
sodomized, beat, and robbed a pregnant nineteen year-old. He was