End of the Line

4 minute read

Visitors to Warner, N.H., often stop by Hillside Books, an antique bookstore, to sit by the fire and chat with Owner Thomas Stotler. A day or two after Christmas, a mild-mannered traveler dropped in. He said he was from New York but wanted to get away from the city for the holidays. Soon the conversation turned to crime in the city. The man told Stotler he had been mugged five times and talked at length about how little protection New Yorkers had from criminals. The book dealer asked his guest if he had heard about the fugitive “vigilante” who had shot four youths he felt were threatening him on a New York subway. “How did you hear about it?” the visitor asked. “He was interested in it,” said Stotler, “but he didn’t try to pin me down for details.” After a while, the New Yorker left without purchasing a book. “I thought he was a nice guy,” Stotler said. “And after hearing what he did, I still do.”

A few days after visiting the bookstore, Bernhard Hugo Goetz, 37, ended his nine-day flight from justice. Since pulling out a silver revolver on a subway and pumping bullets into four teen-agers who asked him if he had $5–leaving one of them partly paralyzed–Goetz had driven to New Hampshire in a rented car, returned to New York for one day, then taken off again in yet another rented car. On a crisp, bright afternoon in peaceful Concord, N.H., Goetz grew tired of fleeing. The pale, gaunt electronics engineer walked into local police headquarters and calmly told an officer, “I am the person they are seeking in New York.”

Goetz was a legend before the public even knew his name. He was dubbed the Subway Shooter, the Death Wish Vigilante. Like a scene from a Charles Bronson movie suddenly splashed into tabloid surreality, his violent act unleashed a torrent of conflicting emotions among those who cast him as either an urban hero or a reckless vigilante. While there was no evidence that the young men had actually attacked Goetz, all had criminal records and three were carrying concealed sharpened screwdrivers that could have been used as weapons. A police hot line set up to collect clues to the fugitive gunman’s identity and whereabouts was deluged instead with calls from admirers.

The son of immigrants from Germany, Goetz was born in New York City but spent most of his childhood in small towns upstate. A divorcee with no children, Goetz began operating his own company, Electrical Calibrations Laboratories, out of a sparsely furnished apartment on the fringe of Greenwich Village in 1976. Neighbors describe him as a quiet, humorless man whose efforts to rid the community of derelicts, muggers and drug dealers were marred by occasional racist outbursts.

A tragic turning point in Goetz’s life came in January 1981. In another Manhattan subway station, three men tried to rob Goetz of an estimated $1,000 worth of electronics equipment. A policeman arrived on the scene just after one of the assailants injured Goetz, tearing cartilage in his rib cage. Two of the thugs fled; one of them, Fred Clarke, was apprehended. The ensuing legal case was in many ways emblematic of the murky public perceptions of the criminal justice system. Clarke was ordered to show up at a mediation hearing but failed to appear. Goetz assumed he went unpunished. In fact, Clarke was later brought to trial and served four months in jail after pleading guilty to third-degree-assault charges. He was arrested and convicted of robbery three more times in the past four years, and is currently in jail in upstate New York.

Goetz spoke of the mugging when applying for a gun permit in 1982. “The incident was an education,” he said. “It taught me that the city doesn’t care what happens to you.” The police denied the application on the grounds that he did not show sufficient need to carry a firearm for protection. That rejection did not stop Goetz from getting a gun; he bought one legally in Florida.

Deciding not to fight extradition, Goetz was returned to New York City two days after his surrender. He was charged with attempted murder and criminal possession of a weapon, and Manhattan Criminal Court Judge Leslie Snyder ordered him held in lieu of $50,000 bail. When sympathetic New Yorkers flooded him with offers of bail money, Goetz spurned them, saying he would rather raise it on his own.

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