In A Nutshell
During a peak of violent crime in New York City, ordinary guy Bernhard Goetz made international headlines when he defended himself from an attempted mugging in a subway car by shooting his four attackers. He became known as the “Subway Vigilante.”
The Whole Bushel
In 1981, Bernhard Goetz was one of many New Yorkers to fall prey to violent crime. He had been beaten and mugged by three assailants, none of whom were successfully prosecuted, and like many New Yorkers, he was tired of living in fear of being attacked. Unlike most, he was prepared when it came—with a five-shot .38 revolver and plenty of practice using it.
While on his afternoon subway commute in December of 1984, four youths assumed threatening positions around him—isolating him near the back of the car—and he quickly mapped out a rapid pattern of fire. One of the young men, Troy Canty, said, “Give me five dollars.” Some details of what happened next are in dispute, but the following is agreed upon.
Goetz quickly stood and stepped away from Canty while drawing his revolver and saying something to the effect of, “I have five dollars for each of you.” He then fired four shots within just a couple seconds, examined another of the men, Darrell Cabey, and said something like, “You don’t seem too bad.” He then fired again in Cabey’s direction. A main point of dispute during Goetz’s trial was whether his fourth or fifth shot struck Cabey. One struck the train wall, and the other severed Cabey’s spinal cord, rendering him paralyzed.
Amazingly, though all were shot, none of the men who accosted Goetz were killed. To many New Yorkers, Goetz was something of a folk hero; to others, he was psychotic at best and a racist at worst (all four of his attackers were black). His trial was as spectacular as it was divisive; Goetz claimed self-defense, while the men he shot claimed they were simply panhandling and hadn’t threatened Goetz. In the end, the jury disagreed (the sharpened screwdrivers carried by the youths might have had something to do with it), acquitting Goetz of attempted murder and assault, but convicting him on a weapons charge, for which he served 250 days. Cabey was later awarded $43 million in a civil suit. Goetz filed bankruptcy, and claims not to have paid a dime.