Crime History: Bernhard Goetz, NYC’s “Subway Vigilante,” Opens Fire in 1984

Bernard Goetz at Gun Club Luncheon at Gargiulo's Restaurant in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Luncheon of the Federation of NY State Rifle and pistol Clubs. [Photo by Anthony Pescatore/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images]

With street crime, racial tensions, homelessness, AIDS, crack cocaine, ineffective policing, and broken-down public services raging out-of-control, New York City circa late 1984 was not infrequently likened to “Hell on Earth.”

And if that was the case, New York’s famed subway system, then at the height of dangerousness and disrepair, oozed and burned like the dankest, deepest pit of the urban inferno.

Muggings and even murders occurred regularly onboard the trains, on station platforms, and even in the tunnels that connected them. Many New Yorkers felt helpless, and had come to consider beatings, stick-ups, and worse just another fact of life in the city.

"Time" magazine cover, dated April 8, 1985.

“Time” magazine cover, dated April 8, 1985.

It all boiled over on December 22, 1984, after four teenagers carrying sharp screwdrivers allegedly prevented a slight, bespectacled electronics expert named Bernhard Goetz from exiting a number 2 train. The youths reportedly demanded Goetz give them five dollars. Instead, Goetz whipped out an unlicensed pistol and shot each of his supposed attackers.

In addition, before getting off the train, Goetz leaned down toward Daryl Cabey, one of the wounded teens on the floor, and said. “You don’t look so bad; here’s another.” Goetz fired one more time and split Cabey’s spine in two.

Bernhard Goetz was white. The accused muggers were black. New York’s racial divide looked poised to split wide open — but public reaction to Goetz, among all of the city’s ethnic groups, proved to be complicated.

Related: The Deadliest Decade — Pop Culture Highlights From Nine Totally ’80s Crimes

Bernhard Goetz, escorted by detectives, leaves New York Police headquarters, Jan. 3, 1984, after his return from Concord, N.H., where he turned himself in and admitted to shooting four youths on a New York subway train in December. [AP Photo]

Bernhard Goetz, escorted by detectives, leaves New York Police headquarters, Jan. 3, 1984, after his return from Concord, N.H., where he turned himself in and admitted to shooting four youths on a New York subway train in December. [AP Photo]

Immediately after the shootings, Goetz fled into the subway tunnel and then hid out in Vermont for eight days. New York media had a field day with the notion of a “subway vigilante.” Eventually, Goetz turned himself in to authorities and became one of the most divisive figures in New York City history.

First, numerous private citizens of every color and creed expressed support for Goetz. Enthusiasm rode high for the notion of someone fighting back against unbridled predators in the manner of Charles Bronson’s trigger-happy character in the Death Wish film series. As a result, the tabloids even labeled Goetz “the Death Wish gunman.”

Among boosters — and there were many throughout all five boroughs (and beyond) — “Goetz for Mayor” buttons turned up in copious numbers, as did multiple versions of a T-shirt reading “Thug Buster: Acquit Bernhard Goetz.”

Even African-American civil rights leader Roy Innis, of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), deemed Goetz “the avenger for all of us” and offered to raise money for the shooter’s legal expenses.

Numerous other residents, however, believed that Goetz acted out of racism, and claimed that the explosion of support for him was just white New Yorkers suddenly feeling as if they could vent taboo feelings.

"New York Post" cover, dated April 18, 1985

“New York Post” cover, dated April 18, 1985

The third most common take on the case was that Goetz may well have felt threatened, but he was wrong to both possess the gun and to use it. Law and order, after all, is best left to professionals.

As the case headed to trial, the wounded teenagers claimed they were simply panhandling and wanted money to go to an arcade. They said they carried screwdrivers to open videogame coin receptacles and steal the quarters therein. Each teen had a prior criminal record.

In early 1985, Daryl Cabey, who was crippled by Goetz’s bullets, turned on his three companions in the press. He said that the others intended to rob Goetz, but he’d wanted no part of it.

All these facts hardly encouraged sympathy for the shooting victims from the public.

Come the trial, Goetz’s defense team invoked the New York self-defense statute that reads, in part: “A person may not use deadly physical force upon another person … unless … he reasonably believes that such other person is committing or attempting to commit [one of certain enumerated predicate offenses, including robbery].”

It worked. The jury, six of whom had fallen prey in the past to street crime, acquitted Goetz of attempted murder and first-degree assault. He ended up serving eight months for criminal possession of a weapon in the third degree.

Eleven years later, radical leftist lawyers William Kunstler and Ron Kuby filed a civil lawsuit against Goetz. Before a mostly nonwhite jury, Kunstler and Kuby invoked Goetz’s admission that he had used racist language in the past and had smoked PCP-laced marijuana during the eighties.

Related: “A Most Violent Year” — 5 Scary Truths About the Crime-Ridden NYC of the 1980s

Their gambit worked as well. Goetz lost, and was ordered to pay Cabey a total of $43 million for the shooting — $18 million would be for pain and suffering, $25 million would be for punitive damages. To date, Goetz maintains he hasn’t paid “a single penny” to Cabey.

At present, New York has ruled for years as the safest big city in America. The subways carry millions without incident daily. Whether or not Bernhard Goetz has anything to do with that remains open for heated debate.

Just ask anyone who lived in New York at the time. They will have an opinion.

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Main photo: Bernard Goetz at Gun Club Luncheon at Gargiulo’s Restaurant in Coney Island, Brooklyn. Luncheon of the Federation of NY State Rifle and pistol Clubs. [Photo by Anthony Pescatore/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images]