Inside the N.Y.P.D. Manhunt for the Brooklyn Subway Shooter – The New York Times


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Witnesses, video, police accounts and court records depict a troubled man’s carefully planned attack, and the lucky breaks he seized to melt back into the city.
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Michael WilsonAshley Southall and
The man lumbered into the Kings Highway subway station in Brooklyn, wearing a yellow hard hat and reflective safety jacket, dragging a rolling duffel bag and clutching a backpack. He swiped his MetroCard at a turnstile, and when it didn’t let him through, he flagged the agent in a nearby booth.
The agent pressed a button to unlock an emergency exit door, and the man and his gear entered the subway system. It was 6:12 a.m. on Tuesday, April 12.
By midmorning, terror and chaos would seize a nearby stretch of Sunset Park, locking down a busy South Brooklyn artery and halting or rerouting entire subway lines. Images of violence and disorder filled phone screens — bright pools of blood on a station platform’s gray floor; police helicopters thrumming high overhead, unnervingly still in the morning rain.
The attack was the worst on the subway in decades, and it came as New York wrestled with questions about public safety, both under and above ground. During the 31-hour manhunt that followed — documented through witnesses, surveillance videos, police accounts and court records — rattled New Yorkers, many missing work or worried for their children in school, were called upon to help capture a suspect who seemed to somehow disappear into the vast city.
It all began with a perfectly unremarkable entrance through that door. A construction worker, starting his day.
The station serves the N train, which begins at Coney Island and snakes through Brooklyn on its way to Manhattan and Queens. It runs above ground at Kings Highway, crawling through a graffiti-lined trench cut into Gravesend and nearby neighborhoods for the next several stops. Then it slips below ground, into the system’s dark tunnels.
The construction worker had been in the system for about two hours, but at some point he boarded the N. His train arrived at 59th Street in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood around 8:20 a.m.
The doors opened, and closed, and the train pulled away. The construction worker was sitting at the rear of the second car. He stood and pulled on a gas mask. He removed a canister from one of his bags, and smoke billowed out into the subway car. “Oops,” he said, according to a rider standing nearby. “My bad.”
He pulled out a handgun.
The train continued on, its conductor unaware of what was happening in the second car. It rumbled up the express track, passing stations on the parallel local line. Eric Acevedo, a teacher on his way to school in the Williamsburg section, stood at one of those stations, 45th Street, chatting on the phone with his sister, when the N came by, and he noticed the lights in the second car suddenly go dark.
Above the din of the train, he heard three shots — pop! pop! pop! A window shattered. I never heard a train make that sound, he thought. He turned to the stranger beside him and said, “That doesn’t sound good.”
Inside the car, a New York nightmare in an era of mass shootings was unfolding. Smoke filled the air as the gunman fired shot after shot after shot. There were about 35 people in the car, and those who tried to flee through the exits at the front and rear found them locked.
“I’m pregnant!” one woman shouted. Another passenger, Houari Benkada, 27, on his way to work at the New Yorker Hotel in Manhattan, went to help her and was knocked aside by a rush of passengers. Then he felt searing pain — a bullet had hit him behind his knee.
The train stopped in a tunnel — traffic. For riders in the adjacent cars, the scene through the window was horrific — smoke and gunshots and screams.
Passengers in the next car — the first on the train — banged on the train operator’s locked door. The operator, David Artis, looked back and saw smoke in the second car as passengers told him that a gunman had opened fire. He called in the shooting over his radio.
Finally, the train rolled into the 36th Street station. The doors opened, and smoke and frantic passengers poured out. Some fell bleeding to the floor; some ran away. Some stayed to help; some filmed with their phones.
The R train that Mr. Acevedo had been waiting for had since arrived at the same station, getting there before the N. It stood waiting, doors open.
Mr. Acevedo saw the smoke and the frantic people. A woman beside him grabbed his arm and said, “There was a shooting — I saw a lady bleeding.” He began to shout toward the platform: “Get on the train! Get on the train! Stop recording!”
In the chaos, one man — the attacker — seemed to have a plan. While dozens of people ran or fell, he transformed. He left the N train car, quickly shed his gas mask and construction outfit — the helmet, the jacket — and dropped his belongings on the platform.
And as victims and survivors from the second car raced to the closest cars on the parallel R train, the gunman may have made his way further down, toward the middle cars. It had been only a few moments since the shooting stopped, but the gunman had become another fleeing passenger, riding the same train as the people he had just shot.
Just like that, the R train had become a means of escape for the victims and their attacker.
Jordan Alzos-Benke, 41, and his 3-year-old son, Spiro, were in their customary spot toward the middle of the R — on the sixth car, to be exact, chosen because it is the closest to the exit at their destination station. Mr. Alzos-Benke was taking Spiro to school and chatting with another parent when he sensed a commotion further up the platform. Several people spilled into his car.
The train left the station.
Father and son were getting off at the next stop, but an imposing figure now stood between them and the door. “I’m looking at this heavyset Black guy who’s six feet-ish tall, my height,” Mr. Alzos-Benke said later. “I would have remembered that guy on any day on that train. It was a big guy in my way as I was trying to get off the train.”
The train stopped at 25th Street. The big man, dressed head to toe in dark clothing, moved to get off — a relief for Mr. Alzos-Benke and a familiar feeling to any parent herding small children on and off the subway. “I’m like, great, he will clear a path for us,” Mr. Alzos-Benke said. “He’ll push through and whoever may be blocking the door will get out of his way.”
But then his son darted in front of the man.
“I’m holding Spiro’s hand, but the guy is between me and Spiro,” Mr. Alzos-Benke said. “I kind of look up at him, and very politely he’s like, ‘After you.’”
An announcement said the train would be held in the station. People flooded off, and the commotion was enough that Mr. Alzos-Benke said several parents picked up their children. Behind him, Mr. Acevedo feared a stampede.
“Calm down New York! The shooting was at 36th Street! Be civilized!” Mr. Acevedo shouted. Beside him, a woman was crying. “I was told there was a bomb on the R train,” she said.
As Mr. Alzos-Benke led his son to the crowded stairs up to the street, he saw the same stranger from his car, hurrying up the steps past the slower line of people to his right. By the time Mr. Alzos-Benke got to street level, he was focused on getting his son to school, and he lost track of the man. He would report his sighting to the police later that day.
Back at 36th Street, police officers and firefighters were descending into the station. They blocked access in and out, unaware that the gunman was already gone. The casualties were quickly tallied — 10 wounded by gunshots, none gravely. It was an outcome as welcome as it was unlikely, considering that someone had just fired 33 shots into a locked metal tube crowded with trapped targets, and had then vanished.
Mayor Eric Adams was uptown at his Gracie Mansion residence, attending a Covid-19 briefing over Zoom when he learned of the shooting. He had tested positive for the coronavirus two days earlier, and had been restricted to his home since then.
A former New York City police captain, his first instinct was to rush to the scene, but members of his staff urged otherwise. Instead, a command center was set up in a different room. Soon, he said later, he was in near-constant contact with Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell.
The news swept across the city and far beyond. Panicked parents texted from across the country: The news said Brooklyn, are you OK? Helicopters took to the skies over Sunset Park, and the city blasted alerts to smartphones asking people to avoid the neighborhood.
But the gunman seemed to have simply walked away, making his way uphill from Fourth Avenue to Seventh Avenue, where, a law enforcement official said, he boarded a bus that carried him the 10 or so densely populated blocks to another subway station. At 9:15 a.m., he descended the stairs at that station, the 7th Avenue-9th Street stop in Park Slope, where an F or G train could take him out to Coney Island or into Manhattan or Queens.
At the 36th Street station, the items the gunman had left behind proved to be a trove of clues. A cache of fireworks, a gun, a container of gasoline, a torch — and bank cards and the key to a U-Haul van. The gun was quickly traced to a purchase a decade earlier in Ohio, sold to a man named Frank Robert James.
The name matched the one on the bank cards. Mr. James was 62 and had recently been staying in Philadelphia.
More breaks seemed to come investigators’ way. The police found the U-Haul shortly after 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, parked in Gravesend near the Kings Highway subway station. The news panicked Mr. Adams.
“If you’re old enough, anytime you hear ‘U-Haul,’ you think of Timothy McVeigh,” he said later, referring to the man who detonated a bomb in a Ryder truck in Oklahoma City in 1995. A search of the U-Haul revealed a propane tank, but no explosives.
Another break: A passenger who had been on the N train and had seen the gunman said it was the same man captured in a surveillance photo showing him dressed like a construction worker that morning, entering that station.
By the late afternoon on Tuesday, confident that Mr. James was most likely the man in the gas mask, the police decided to release his name and picture, and to refer to him as a person of interest. The Police Department posted the name and photos on Twitter at 7:55 p.m.
Little is known about where Mr. James went in the almost 11 hours after he entered the Park Slope station — if anywhere. At least one witness told the authorities that she spotted a man matching Mr. James’s description sitting in the station as late as 5:40 p.m. in a dark baseball cap and with a dark bag nearby. He let at least two trains go by without boarding.
Mr. Adams ordered police officers who worked that day’s shift to stay on overnight. Quietly, he also called police officials about whether several other shootings that night — five in three hours in the Bronx alone — might be linked to the subway attack.
That evening, city officials discussed the possibility of broadcasting another phone alert, like the one that had warned people to stay away from the area of the shooting on Tuesday. This time, the goal would be to spread Mr. James’s name and face — in effect deputizing every New Yorker with a smartphone by giving them their own personal wanted poster. Although rare, such alerts had been issued during other city emergencies — including the attack by the so-called Chelsea Bomber in 2016.
Officials with the city’s Office of Emergency Management expressed discomfort over such a widespread alert for someone classified only as a person of interest. The officials agreed to send the alert if he was identified as a suspect in the shooting.
Night fell over the city, but by sunup on Wednesday, there were no new leads.
Early that morning, Michael Hill, the morning host on WNYC, the city’s National Public Radio affiliate, announced that Mr. Adams was expected to call in at 8:30 a.m. Shortly after, the mayor did, and quickly cut to the point.
“We have now upgraded the person of interest to being a suspect,” the mayor said.
Mr. Hill asked a question that seemed to be on the minds of many New Yorkers: “Mr. Mayor, how close are police to locating suspect Frank James? Why is it seeming to take so long? It’s 24 hours after this incident.”
Mr. Adams replied that in fact, the investigation was proceeding rapidly and praised it as “good, old-fashioned police work.”
“Being able to identify the van, being able to identify his social media channels, using all the pieces together to this puzzle,” he continued. “This is actually an amazing turnaround with the lack of information that we had.”
With Mr. James named as a suspect, city officials sent the phone alert about him that had been prepared during the previous night’s discussions. At 10:21 a.m., smartphones across the city shrieked with the alert and a link to his image.
At that very time, a 17-year-old boy on a school field trip in Chinatown noticed a heavyset man sitting on a bench — just sitting. Not looking at a phone, not eating or drinking. The teen, Jack Griffin, had seen pictures of Mr. James, and this man looked just like him. He discreetly photographed him and posted on Twitter at 10:29 a.m.
“Possible frank james sighting?” he wrote in a message posted alongside two images. He tagged #FrankJames and #lowereastside. After about 30 minutes, he said later, he also called Crime Stoppers.
The police returned his call more than two hours later, at 1:20 p.m., and the Crime Stoppers account on Twitter replied as well, asking the teen where he had seen the man. By then, Mr. James had entered a McDonald’s several blocks away, on First Avenue in the East Village.
For some 14 hours since Tuesday night, New Yorkers had been shown the face of Frank James, over and over in their social media feeds and on their screeching phones, urging people to call if they saw him.
Thirty-one hours after the smoke and gunfire, another call arrived at Crime Stoppers, this time from the McDonald’s in the East Village. The caller had seen the pictures all over, and recognized them. He said his name was Frank James, and he understood they were looking for him.
Chelsia Rose Marcius, Troy Closson, Karen Zraick, Michael Gold and Julia Carmel contributed reporting.
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