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Suspect in Brooklyn subway attack in custody and faces federal terrorism charge

On April 12, a man opened fire in a subway station at rush-hour in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Residents have mixed feelings about getting back on the trains. (Video: Alden Nussar, Zoeann Murphy/The Washington Post)

NEW YORK — Authorities said Wednesday they had arrested a man accused of shooting 10 people aboard a Brooklyn subway train a day earlier and charged him with a federal terrorism offense.

The arrest capped off a frenzied 29-hour period during which law enforcement officials said Frank R. James — a 62-year-old man who had posted a series of angry, bigoted videos online — filled a subway car with smoke, fired nearly three dozen rounds and then seemingly vanished, leaving behind terrorized commuters, a shaken city and a sprawling investigation.

“My fellow New Yorkers, we got him,” Mayor Eric Adams (D) said Wednesday after James was taken into custody.

James was being charged with “conducting a violent attack on a mass transportation vehicle,” according to the office of Breon Peace, the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York. Peace said James sought to “cause death and serious bodily injury” to passengers and transit employees on the subway system. If convicted, James could face a sentence of life in prison.

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In the wake of the subway attack Tuesday, investigators made a flurry of requests for public help in finding James. Police say they took him into custody without incident early Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan after receiving a tip, and said investigators were still trying to determine what motivated the attack.

Law enforcement officials and witnesses described the subway attack as a grim, terrifying burst of violence that shattered a routine morning commute.

According to police, the attacker was aboard an N train rumbling through Brooklyn on Tuesday morning when he lobbed a pair of smoke grenades onto the subway floor.

With smoke suffusing the car, police said, the attacker then pulled out a 9mm Glock handgun and fired off 33 shots, hitting 10 people. None of the injuries were life-threatening, police said.

On April 13, more than 24 hours after shooting 10 on a subway car in Brooklyn, the NYPD apprehended Frank R. James, who will be charged in federal court. (Video: Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

Then, police said, the attacker fled. Later that day, they identified James as a person of interest in the case, saying they had linked him to a piece of evidence found at the scene — a key for a U-Haul van. James had rented the van in Philadelphia, police said, and they later found it in Brooklyn, not far from another N train stop. By Wednesday morning, police said, James was considered a suspect in the case.

Attempts to reach James, his relatives and neighbors were unsuccessful. The federal public defenders in New York, who court records show were appointed to represent him, did not immediately respond to a request for comment Wednesday.

Police said James had previously been arrested nine times in New York during the 1990s, including on charges of possessing burglary tools and committing a criminal sex act. They also said he had been arrested in New Jersey in the early 1990s and again in 2007, on charges of trespassing, larceny and disorderly conduct. They described him as having connections to Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey and New York.

After the shooting, it appears that James boarded an R train that pulled into the station, rode it one stop and got out, James W. Essig, chief of detectives for the New York police, said at a briefing Wednesday. James was spotted entering the subway in Park Slope, his “last known whereabouts,” Essig said, before he was taken into custody.

In a bizarre twist, a person claiming to be James had called in a tip about his location, according to a law enforcement official with knowledge of the events. That caller, who police believe was really James, said he was at a McDonald’s in the East Village. A bystander tweeted a photo of someone who appeared to be James in that area around the same time, the official said, and another tipster also called police after recognizing him on the street.

Asked during a news briefing about James’s arrest whether he called the tip on himself, Keechant L. Sewell, the New York police commissioner, said police were “reviewing who exactly made that call.”

Police said that when they responded to the report about James’s location, officers looked in the McDonald’s, didn’t find him and then looked around the area. They soon spotted him, they said.

The manhunt ended in a subdued fashion, said Big Lee Lloyd, who was taking inventory at his bar nearby when James was taken into custody. People were already on edge, he said, and then he saw five police cars come flying in “from every direction.”

“One of my regulars ran out to see what was happening and he said, ‘I think it's the shooter from the subway,’” Lloyd said. Lloyd said he couldn’t believe the suspected attacker would come to “one of the most popular neighborhoods in Manhattan,” so he walked outside and watched.

“He went without a struggle,” Lloyd said.

Report finds mass violence can follow warning signs from attackers

Social media accounts appearing to belong to James offered a portrait of a man who had criticized Adams, ranted and cursed in videos, and described a familiarity with “the mental health system of New York City.”

An FBI agent, writing in a complaint, said that in YouTube videos, James had made remarks about New York City’s subways, Adams and “this homeless situation.” He also commented on conspiracy theories, the agent wrote, at one point saying he “should have gotten a gun, and just started shooting motherf-----s.”

Sewell had said there were “concerning” social media posts connected to James in which he talked about the city, homelessness and Adams, prompting a heightening of the mayor’s security.

A YouTube account under the name of “prophet oftruth88” created in 2014 shows a man who appears to be James ranting and cursing in front of the camera in numerous videos.

In January, in a 44-minute video titled “Dear Mr. Mayor,” James criticized Adams’s plans to address gun violence and mental health issues. Tackling violent crime and public safety have been pivotal priorities for Adams, the former police captain elected mayor last year.

James, who said he was born and raised in New York City, condemned employment and training programs for low-income Black youths, adding that he had been a “victim” of those and calling his experiences a “horror show.”

He warned Adams that his program might slow down gun violence and a mental health epidemic, “but you aren’t going to stop it. … Violence is a part of your city. Violent people live in your city.”

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During the video, James said that although he identifies as Black, he was tired of those he referred to using the n-word, adding that he was “bitter,” as well as “full of hate and anger.”

After announcing his arrest on Wednesday afternoon, police laid out more details about both how they found James and ways they connected him with the attack.

In a complaint filed in federal court that day, an FBI special agent wrote that they found numerous items linked to James. Investigators spotted two bags at the attack scene, the agent wrote, containing the U-Haul key as well as bank cards, a pistol, gasoline and fireworks.

The pistol, the agent wrote, was legally purchased by a “Frank Robert James” in Ohio. One of the bank cards was issued to “Frank James,” the agent wrote in the complaint, which was filed in U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of New York.

The agent also said U-Haul provided records showing that James had rented the U-Haul in Philadelphia on Monday afternoon, less than a day before the Brooklyn attack, after reserving and paying for it last week. Early Tuesday morning, the agent continued, police surveillance videos filmed the U-Haul arriving in Brooklyn.

In the complaint, the FBI agent wrote that investigators also found a discarded jacket allegedly worn by the attacker, which contained a receipt for a storage unit registered to James. Records from the ride-hailing service Lyft showed James had visited it Monday afternoon, the agent said, and investigators who searched the unit found ammunition and targets.

On Wednesday, the agent continued, investigators searched a Philadelphia apartment rented by James and found “an empty magazine for a Glock handgun, a taser, a high-capacity rifle magazine and a blue smoke cannister.”

The Philadelphia police were assisting “out of state authorities in any way we can concerning this individual,” a spokesman for the department said.

A woman in Philadelphia, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said she recognized James when his face was shown on television. The woman said she had lived on her block for five decades and that over that span James had periodically lived nearby. It’s an area where “everybody knows everybody,” she said, but James’s family kept to themselves. The woman also said she did not believe he had lived in the area for some time.

While authorities laid out a litany of ways they zeroed in on James, investigators in New York had also faced a hurdle due to issues with the security cameras at the 36th Street station. Adams had said there was “some form of malfunction with the camera system,” and police later said video cameras were not working at three subway stations.

Malfunctioning cameras set investigators back about four or five hours in terms of getting images of James that could be distributed to the public, according to the official with knowledge of the investigation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to address an ongoing probe.

Detectives had identified James as a person of interest while they scoured the surrounding area for images of him, the official said. It was other Metropolitan Transportation Authority cameras that gave police “two critical images” of James from a station in Park Slope, this official said.

Police said at least 29 people were injured, 10 of them by gunfire, after a man opened fire in a rush-hour subway train in Brooklyn on April 12. (Video: Alden Nussar, Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which operates New York City’s subways, had announced last fall that cameras were installed in every station. Sarah Feinberg, the New York City Transit Authority’s interim president between March 2020 and August 2021, led the push for those cameras, which was driven by fears about crime. Transit officials felt the subway’s closed-circuit surveillance system was insufficient, Feinberg said.

The MTA directed questions about the system to comments made by Janno Lieber, its chief executive, during media appearances Wednesday. Lieber told CBS News that a camera located by a turnstile in the 36th Street station had an apparent server problem, causing it to fail, but others captured different angles of the suspected attacker at other points.

Trains resumed traveling through the 36th Street station on Wednesday, even as those injured in the attack were still seeking to recover. Health-care officials on Wednesday said nine people, all of them in stable condition, were still admitted at hospitals.

Others were still grappling with what had happened in other ways. Jordan Javier, a restaurant manager whose graphic videos of the shooting and immediate aftermath went viral, was in a nearby train car when the gunfire began. He heard popping noises and saw smoke, thinking at first there was a fire.

He found out about the arrest Wednesday when a colleague texted him. “I’m happy they got him,” Javier said. “I’m happy to get him off the streets so this doesn’t happen again.”

Berman, Salcedo and Kornfield reported from Washington. Maura Ewing in Philadelphia, Shayna Jacobs in New York, and Matt Zapotosky, Joanna Slater, Justin George, Jennifer Jenkins, Magda Jean-Louis and Monika Mathur in Washington contributed to this report.