A Troubled and Troubling Life

  • 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.

    In 1975, after his divorce, Goetz moved to New York City to start his own small business. He specialized in calibrating sophisticated electronic equipment to precise manufacturing standards. The minute attention to detail, the quest for accuracy, seemed to suit him. "Machines don't hurt you," he has sometimes said. He ran the business out of his own spartan, meticulous apartment, where he stored the equipment acquired from suppliers all over the city. In order to bid on bargains at auctions and sales, Goetz often carried several thousand dollars in cash with him.

    In 1977 he moved to a one-bedroom apartment on the northern fringe of Greenwich Village. For Goetz, the tan brick building was an oasis amid what he saw as the tawdry turbulence of 14th Street, a thoroughfare of cut-rate clothing and furniture stores. He launched a one-man crusade to clean up the street, pestering city agencies to do something about the litter, the junkies and the homeless.

    In January 1981, Goetz experienced what may have been the watershed event in his life. While traveling home with some electrical equipment, he was jumped by three black youths at the Canal Street subway station. He was smashed into a plate-glass window, and suffered torn cartilage in his knee. His deepest bruises, however, were psychic. Two of the muggers escaped; one was nabbed by an alert policeman. Goetz was outraged that the suspect spent less than three hours at police headquarters while Goetz was there for more than six. Being the victim of such an act, says Atlanta Psychiatrist Alfred Messer, "creates a sense of helplessness and fear; and the more lasting that effect, the greater rage or anger you have, much of which is directed toward the self."

    Later that year, Goetz applied for a pistol permit. Although he cited the fact that he routinely carried large sums of cash and valuable equipment, his application was rejected on grounds of insufficient need. Goetz was bitter. On a subsequent trip to his family's Florida home, he bought a nickel-plated, lightweight Smith & Wesson .38-cal. revolver.

    The weather was unseasonably warm on the Saturday before Christmas when Goetz strolled out of his apartment. He descended into the 14th Street station of the Seventh Avenue subway line. As the No. 2 express screeched to a halt, Goetz, wearing a blue windbreaker, quickly scanned the cars, looking for a relatively empty one. According to his later statements, he took a seat across from the door through which he entered, on a long bench. Directly opposite him sat Troy Canty, 19; to Goetz's right, on a short two-seat bench, sat Darrell Cabey, 19, and James Ramseur, 19. Diagonally across from Goetz sat Barry Allen, 18.

    Canty asked Goetz how he was. Fine, Goetz replied. Anywhere else in the world that might seem like an innocuous exchange; on a Manhattan subway it can be ominous. According to Goetz, two of them, probably Canty and Allen, got up and moved to his left. Goetz knew that something was up. He also knew that he had a loaded gun tucked in his trousers. As Goetz recounts the incident, Canty then said, "Give me $5." Canty's attorney claims his client made a request, not a demand.

    Goetz rose slowly, partly unzipping his jacket. He asked Canty what he had said. Canty repeated the statement. Goetz says that one of the others made a gesture indicating that he might have a weapon. Goetz later told police that by then he had mentally constructed his "field of fire." Said Goetz: "I had no intention of killing them at that time, but then I saw the smile on his face and the shine in his eyes, that he was enjoying this. I knew what they were going to do. Do you understand?"

    Goetz finished unzipping his jacket and pulled out the silver-colored gun. He assumed a combat stance, gripping the revolver with both hands, and shot Canty through the center of his body. He then turned slightly to his right and shot Allen, who had turned to flee, in the back; he fired again, wounding Ramseur in the arm and chest; he then fired a fourth time, a shot that may have missed, at Cabey. Said Victor Flores, 47, a transit authority employee who witnessed the mayhem: "The kids were frightened, backing off, trying to get away. There was no reason to shoot them. They fell one after another. Bang! Bang! Bang!" By his own account, Goetz then walked over to Cabey, who was sprawled on the seat, perhaps playing possum. "You seem to be doing all right," Goetz said. "Here's another." That fifth and last bullet, one of two expanding dumdum slugs in the revolver, may have severed Cabey's spinal cord, paralyzing him from the waist down. In one of the case's many oddities, Flores disputes Goetz's account of what happened with Cabey. "He didn't shoot the kid a second time. He didn't say anything either."

    Afterward, in a telephone conversation recorded by a neighbor and later printed in New York magazine, Goetz agitatedly explained how he felt at the time: "If you corner a rat and you are about to butcher it, O.K.? The way I responded was viciously and savagely, just like a rat." Notes Psychologist Morton Bard: "One could argue that Goetz was reliving the earlier incident when he pulled the trigger. The difference is that he acted out dreams of retaliation that most people resolve through fantasy." Goetz's subsequent explanation was more explicit: "I know in my heart I was a murderer . . . I just snapped."

    Two women were cowering at the other end of the car. According to Goetz, he asked them if they were all right. When a conductor entered the car, Goetz asserted that the wounded men had tried to rip him off. The train came to a stop before reaching the Chambers Street station. Goetz slipped out, ran along the darkened tracks, and then clambered onto the Chambers Street platform and up the stairs into the street.

    He returned home, changed his clothes, packed a bag. He rented a blue American Motors Eagle and headed for Vermont. In a motel in Bennington, he disassembled the .38 and later dumped it, along with his blue windbreaker, into a snowy woods. A week later he called his neighbor Myra Friedman. Goetz sought her help and her ear; he poured out his story in an anxious, confused monologue.

    By the time of that call, Bernhard Goetz, dubbed the Subway Vigilante, was already a national sensation. The police reported hundreds of calls praising the gunman--some lamenting his lack of accuracy. The New York tabloids engaged in a frenzied competition of hysterical headlines. Man-in-the-street interviews revealed blacks and whites enthusiastically supporting the gunman. The exuberant graffiti spray-painted on New York's East River Drive proclaimed POWER TO THE VIGILANTE. NEW YORK LOVES YA!

    Goetz's four teenage victims proved to have numerous arrests among them. The police recovered three screwdrivers from the jackets of two of the victims. They were not so much weapons as tools of their trade: robbing video-game machines. Canty's brother, free-basing cocaine while talking to a New York Post reporter, said that Troy was high at the time of the shooting. Goetz told Friedman on the phone, "Those guys, I'm almost sure, are vicious, savage people." An attorney in the D.A.'s office confirmed Goetz's suspicions: "This was a rough bunch of kids." (In a bizarre twist, Ramseur was arrested last week for faking his own kidnaping, apparently to see how the police would react.)

    On New Year's Eve, a very nervous man in a leather bombardier's jacket walked into the police station in Concord, N.H., and said that he was the fugitive wanted for the New York subway shootings. The policemen read Goetz his Miranda warning, telling him he did not have to talk if he preferred not to. He wanted to. For the next four hours, two of which were videotaped, Goetz unburdened himself. While he did not feel he had done anything wrong, Goetz said he had "acted like a cold-blooded savage." Several times he punctuated his account by remarking that all he wanted was privacy and that when he returned to New York, "they were going to wipe the floor with me." When two New York City detectives arrived to interview him, he became hostile. Emerging from the Concord station, Goetz was engulfed by the first of many hordes of reporters. "Vultures," he sneered.

    In New York he was arraigned on charges of illegal gun possession and attempted murder. Bail was set at $50,000 (later reduced to $5,000), and he was put into protective custody at Riker's Island. The jail was deluged with calls by those offering money and support. Goetz softly declined. He raised his own bail, and returned to his apartment five days later.

    On Jan. 25 a Manhattan grand jury decided that he had been justified in his use of force, and declined to indict him on any charges but illegal possession of weapons. District Attorney Robert Morgenthau was criticized for a lack of vigor in pressing for a homicide indictment and for his decision not to allow any of the youths to testify. Morgenthau, who is up for re-election this year, was accused of swaying with the breeze of public opinion. Morgenthau rationalized his decision not to allow any of the youths to testify by saying that he did not want to give them automatic immunity from any pending criminal charges. He suspected that such a guarantee might prejudice the jurors in favor of Goetz.

    After the decision, Goetz seemed slightly intoxicated by his notoriety. He recommended that more civilians be trained to carry guns. He showed up at the funeral of a slain cabby. Every other day he seemed to give another "exclusive" interview. His soapbox preaching rebounded against him, redoubling the calls for a new investigation. Says his lawyer Barry Slotnick: "It took him out of the light of the humble, decent Bernie Goetz and made him a public figure who was pontificating on things." Information from his videotaped confession began to leak out. The man the public had proclaimed a hero had called himself a monster, and people wondered whether he might not be right.

    More than six weeks after the first grand jury's decision, Morgenthau announced that on the basis of "significant new evidence" a second grand jury would be convened. The new evidence, which Morgenthau would not divulge, consisted at least in part of testimony by Ramseur and Canty, both of whom received immunity, and Flores, who has suggested that Goetz might have been looking for trouble. Goetz practically begged to testify, but he balked when Morgenthau insisted that he sign a complete waiver of immunity.

    Slotnick tartly described the outcome as the result of "a very zealous presentation." Morgenthau did not deny that his office had been more aggressive the second time around. "There wasn't new evidence," he said, "until we looked for it and found it." Goetz's lawyers insist that there was no actual new evidence.

    Goetz was arraigned on the new charges last week. When the assistant district attorney asked that bail be raised, Slotnick told the judge, "You're looking at the best-known face in the country. He couldn't flee." The judge agreed. The date set for the first pretrial hearing is May 16. Goetz was curiously serene about it all. Said he: "It's probably the best thing. Hopefully, this will end the controversy. The story would come out one way or the other anyway."