A gunman’s rampage in a packed New York City subway car Tuesday morning set off a frenzied search that ended about 29 hours later — with an investigation spread across multiple states, forensics analysts scrutinizing security video and social media, and a tip to a Crime Stoppers hotline leading to a suspect’s arrest on the street.
While state and federal authorities now focus on a potential motive for why the gunman, who police say they believe is Frank James, 62, opened fire and wounded at least 10 people during a rush-hour commute, questions still remain about how he seemed to move undetected through the subway and travel from Brooklyn to Manhattan’s East Village while being the subject of an intense manhunt.
At a news conference announcing James’ arrest before 2 p.m. Wednesday, New York City Police Commissioner Keechant Sewell said an “all hands on deck” investigation and the work of hundreds of New York police detectives helped authorities close in on him.
“We were able to shrink his world quickly,” Sewell said. “There was nowhere left for him to run.”
A call alerting officers to James’ location is believed to have come from the gunman himself, police sources said.
With such a sprawling and vigorous pursuit, law enforcement experts had expected him to be found relatively quickly, as members of the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the U.S. Marshals Service, and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security banded their vast resources. James is expected to appear Thursday in federal court in Brooklyn on charges related to the shooting.
But getting to his arrest required law enforcement to first figure out who was behind the attack, which occurred Tuesday just before 8:30 a.m. on a subway nearing the 36th Street station in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood, police said.
The shooter was wearing a gas mask and a construction vest when he tossed two smoke canisters inside a Manhattan-bound N train as it approached the station. Then, police said, the gunman fired a barrage of 33 bullets, sending panicked commuters racing out of the train once it finally stopped. Wounded and bloodied people collapsed onto the subway platform.
The shooter — described by witnesses as being about 5-foot-5 and 180 pounds — seemed to vanish in the chaos, and police were trying to determine whether he fled up the stairs or escaped through the tunnel.
As it turned out, in what would help break the case early on, investigators said, he left behind evidence: the gun used in the shooting, as well as a bag with smoke canisters and fireworks, a hatchet, a spray bottle with gasoline and a fuse.
In addition, investigators found a key. The key, senior law enforcement sources said, was traced to a U-Haul van with out-of-state plates.
All those items left at the scene were major finds — especially because cameras operated by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority inside the 36th Street station weren’t working properly, law enforcement sources said.
“He’s not necessarily the brightest bulb in the circuit,” former New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said of the shooter. “And it’s not that we, the police, are always so smart but that the criminals are so stupid. They help us in so many ways.”
Police said the U-Haul had been rented from Philadelphia. They said they were able to determine the name of the customer — Frank R. James — and put out an alert for the van’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, a man in a section of Brooklyn known as Gravesend had had a conversation with the superintendent of his building about a U-Haul with Arizona plates that had been blocking a driveway since Monday.
After he heard the news that police were searching for a similar U-Haul and realized that the subway line that connects to the 36th Street station is nearby, the man decided to call 911, NBC New York reported.
Police descended on the van. While they didn’t find James, they discovered a table, chairs and memory foam pillows inside, as if someone had been living in it, senior law enforcement sources said.
Police used security cameras from the area to determine a description of its driver and found grainy video evidence of a person who appeared to be the shooter entering the nearby subway station, carrying a bag that looked similar to the one that was recovered later.
Meanwhile, as one branch of the investigation was making headway, investigators focusing on the firearm — a 9 mm Glock handgun — were trying to determine its origin.
Using the serial number, they were able to tie the weapon to a pawn shop in Columbus, Ohio. Twelve hours after the subway shooting, ATF officials said, they learned it had been purchased in 2011, as well as the buyer: Frank R. James.
The mounting evidence helped shift James from a person of interest into law enforcement’s main suspect as of Wednesday morning.
Besides Philadelphia, authorities said, James also had an address in Wisconsin. His exact ties to New York or why he would have been in Brooklyn weren’t immediately clear.
Police said Wednesday that a criminal record includes nine arrests in New York from 1992 to 1998 on charges of possession of burglary tools, criminal sex act and theft of service, as well as three previous arrests in New Jersey in the 1990s and 2007 on charges of trespassing, petty larceny and disorderly conduct. All of the charges were misdemeanors, officials said, which wouldn’t have stopped him from purchasing a gun.
Upon learning of his identity, police confirmed social media posts they said he made, including a video from the YouTube channel Prophet of Truth 88, a platform where he appeared to express controversial views and go on lengthy, profanity-filled rants. He also seemed to talk about death in several videos and the desire to “exterminate” certain groups of people in one clip.
In a video posted Monday, James appeared to say he had experienced the desire to kill people, but he didn’t want to go to jail. In one uploaded March 18, he appeared to claim he has severe post-traumatic stress disorder.
Tracking down those who know James was crucial, said Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD detective and professor at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
“We also want to make sure that there wasn’t anyone else who was helping him,” Giacalone said.
But what James had been doing between the shooting up to his arrest must also be fleshed out in the investigation.
Police said Wednesday that James fled the shooting by boarding a train at the station and exiting after only one stop. But almost an hour after the shooting, at around 9:15 a.m., James was back on the subway in another section of Brooklyn known as Park Slope, police said.
At some point, he traveled to Manhattan’s East Village. Someone called in a tip to Crime Stoppers that a man matching his description was inside a McDonald’s restaurant there. But when police got there, he was gone, NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig said.
Police sources said they believed that James also called the tip line saying he was at a McDonald’s.
“This is Frank. You guys are looking for me. … My phone is about to die,” the caller said, according to the sources.
Police scoured the scene and apprehended James nearby without incident, Essig said.
Big Lee Lloyd, whose East Village bar, The Hard Swallow, is located a block from where police grabbed James, said the suspect’s arrest “happened so quickly.”
“He didn’t struggle at all,” Lloyd said. “They took him in the squad car and took him away.”