The Saturday afternoon before Christmas in 1984, on a New York City subway car making its run downtown, two black teenagers approached Bernhard Goetz. One of the teens said to the slightly built blond man, "Give me five dollars." Seconds later, Goetz fired five shots from his Smith & Wesson revolver and four young men were injured--one with a severed spinal cord. After the train came to a quick stop, Goetz jumped to the tracks below and disappeared into the darkness of the subway tunnel. City newspapers dubbed the gunman "the subway vigilante."
During the early 1980s, New York City experienced unprecedented rates of crime. Murders during the decade averaged almost 2,000 a year and, in the city's increasingly dangerous subway system, thirty-eight crimes a day, on average, were reported. Citizens did not feel safe. It is not surprising, therefore, when the city's newspapers ran stories on the December 22 shooting on the IRT express, the shooter was widely praised for his actions: "Finally," many a New Yorker said, "someone has had the courage to stand up to these thugs...."