A Troubled and Troubling Life

Who is Bernhard Goetz, and why did he do what he did?

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With his hunched, narrow shoulders, his chin tucked resolutely into his chest, and his slinky, slouched walk, Bernhard Hugo Goetz looks rather like a human question mark. The inner man bears the same punctuation: Victim or victimizer? Hero or malefactor? Loner or leader? He is gentle, but demonstrably violent. Personable, but introverted. Idealistic, but cynical. He desires privacy, but has courted publicity. He is humble, but strangely messianic. He lives in New York City, but claims to loathe it. He is not indicted for attempted murder; he is indicted for attempted murder. In his public statements and interviews he has often said what he is not--"I am not a hero"; "I am not a public figure"--but never what he is.

The original, eerily accurate police drawing of Goetz showed the face of the "before" figure in comic-book ads for body-building devices, the pale visage of the scrawny, bespectacled fellow at the beach who gets sand kicked in his face by a burly bully. When the news first flashed that a wispy-haired man in a windbreaker had shot four teenagers who threatened him on the subway, that 98-lb. weakling became overnight a quixotic urban American hero. Because nothing much was known about him, the 37-year-old electrical engineer became a tabula rasa on which Americans etched their uneasiness and projected their fantasies of retaliation. Goetz was also a media-made man, composed of scraps of headlines and bits of film topped off with a pundit's knowing gloss. He seemed to symbolize the spirited underdog, the man who bellows out of his apartment window, "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore!"

But it was not so simple. Bernhard Goetz was far more complex than the mythic black and white of banner headlines. As details of his life became known, he took shape as a frightened, brooding, obsessive man somehow transformed, as he put it, into a "monster."

The youngest of four children, Goetz was born in Queens but raised in the dairy country of upstate New York. His father, a German immigrant to the U.S., ran his own bookbinding business and a 300-acre dairy farm. When Bernhard was twelve, his father was accused and convicted on charges of molesting two 15- year-old boys. The elder Goetz appealed the verdict and later pleaded guilty on a reduced charge of disorderly conduct. To cushion Bernhard and his sister Bernice from the trauma, he sent them to a boarding school in a cathedral town in Switzerland, where Goetz spent his high school years.

By the time he entered New York University in 1965, the family had moved to Orlando, Fla., where his father further prospered developing medium-priced tract housing. It was to the family's spacious home overlooking a lake that Goetz returned after graduating from N.Y.U. with a B.S. degree in electrical and nuclear engineering. In order to avoid military duty in Viet Nam, he feigned mental illness. Goetz joined his father's development company and entered into a brief, unhappy marriage.

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