12/23/1985 at 01:00 AM EST
The people are looking for an easy answer," Bernhard Goetz told a friend while still an unknown man on the run after shooting four young blacks on a New York subway car. "They're looking for a good guy defending himself, or a Clint Eastwood."
The people, mad as hell about crime and determined not to take it anymore, thought they had found their hero in the Subway Vigilante, Goetz's nom d'headline. On that graffiti-stained train one of the toughs had asked or demanded five bucks from him, and Goetz, who had been painfully injured in a prior mugging, gave them bullets instead. Amid nationwide applause for The Man Who Fought Back, a Manhattan grand jury indicted Goetz only for illegal possession of handguns.
But as Goetz himself had implied from the beginning, things were not so simple. Two of the youths had been shot in the back. And Goetz, in a statement to police, observed, "I know in my heart I was a murderer." By his own account, he had walked up to the prostrate Darrell Cabey, said, "You don't look too bad. Here's another" and pumped a dumdum slug into his body.
There is no lover so fickle as the American public, and such revelations soon put the awkward, stammering Goetz on the express track from hero to creep. The Manhattan D.A., insisting that he was responding to new evidence and not to the riptide of public opinion, convened a second grand jury in March, which slammed Goetz with four counts of attempted murder.
A year after the shooting Goetz's case is still plodding through the courts. If and when Goetz stands trial, a jury will decide whether it was reasonable for him to believe he had to fire all those shots to save himself.
Meanwhile, Goetz remains free on $5,000 bail. His legal prospects have improved markedly, thanks to his purported victims. James Ramseur, 19, recovered from his wounds, was arrested in May and charged with beating, raping and robbing an 18-year-old woman at gunpoint on a rooftop. Barry Allen, 19, is awaiting trial for allegedly robbing a man in an elevator in October. Troy Canty, 20, reportedly told a cop at the scene, "We were going to rob him, but the white guy shot us first." Cabey, 20, who by some accounts chose not to participate in his buddies' confrontation with Goetz, remains in the hospital, paralyzed for life.
Would Goetz shoot again tomorrow if he found himself in the same situation? "Yes," he says unhesitatingly.
Americans may yet learn that some stories have no heroes.