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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.

"Easy Bait"

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.

Endorsing Vigilantism?

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.

$43,000,000

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 convicted.
 

 

Share Your Memories!

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Your Memories Shared!

"What Bernhard Goetz did was disgusting. He should have been convicted with more charges and put in prison for a long time. He should not have had a gun on a subway train, and he should not have shot them. The urge to hurt Darrel Cabey proved he was out of control. He sayes it was an act of self-defense, but I think he knew exactly what he was doing. He paralyzed some one for the rest of there life just becuse he asked for five dollars."

--asherz

"I only wished there were more Bernhard Goetz's in this world! One thing we don't need is these genetic defects running around and terrorizing honest folks. Bernie, your number one baby!!!!"

--Anonymous

"Bernard Goetz had every right to defend himself. Evidently, the perpertrators has histories of serious crime, and even went on to commit serious crimes after the incident. I wish he would've killed them. "

--Anonymous

"I know how he must have felt. I hope that the fall-out of his actions was worth it."

--Gent



 

TRIAL OF GOETZ

The trial was a media circus. It was even made into a movie by the American Playhouse (available from Amazon.com).


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