brooklyn subway shooting

‘Prophet of Doom' Pleads Guilty to Federal Terror Charges in Brooklyn Subway Shooting

He didn’t have a plea agreement, and prosecutors are seeking to put him in prison for decades

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The 63-year-old man accused of setting off smoke grenades and opening fire on a rush-hour subway in Brooklyn this past April, wounding 10 riders in a bloodbath as the train moved between stations, pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal terrorism charges in the case.

Frank James, who referred to himself as the "prophet of doom" in online posts before the shooting, has been held in a federal jail in Brooklyn since the April 12 attack in Sunset Park. Dressed as a maintenance worker, James fired a 9-mm handgun at least 33 times after setting off a pair of smoke grenades — wounding victims ranging in age from 16 to 60 in the legs, back, buttocks and hand as the train pulled into a station.

One of the city's worst subway attacks in recent years, it sparked a 30-hour manhunt that ended only when he called the police on himself -- and raised questions about the MTA's surveillance footage system and camera protocol in the following months.

Miraculously, none of the victims suffered life-threatening gunshots. Other subway riders were hurt as well, mainly in the chaos that ensued after the barrage of rapid gunfire and curtains of smoke in the midst of the morning rush. Prosecutors said the assault was “intended to inflict maximum damage at the height of rush hour.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara Winik said James set off smoke grenades before shooting so that passengers would flee to one side of the subway car, enabling him to shoot them more easily. The trajectory of his gunshots showed he was aiming “center mass” for maximum lethality, she said.

The attack upended the ritual of the morning commute, "endangering the lives of countless New Yorkers who rely on the safety of the subway system every day," Winik said.

Following the attack, a law enforcement search of James's apartment and storage unit uncovered a cache of weapons, prosecutors said, including handgun ammunition, a barrel for a handgun that allows a silencer to be attached, a high-capacity rifle magazine, a stun gun and a blue smoke cannister.

Pictures: Multiple People Hurt in Brooklyn Subway Shooting

James initially pleaded not guilty to charges in connection with the attack, but told his lawyers in December that he wanted to plead guilty. They didn't immediately explain why he wanted to admit his involvement. His lawyers said James had struggled with mental illness, but James told the judge he was of sound mind while admitting his guilt on Tuesday.

Wearing a beige jail jumpsuit and reading from a prepared statement, James said "while it was not my intention to cause death, I was fully aware a death or deaths could occur as a result of my discharging a firearm in such an enclosed space such as a subway car."

He pleaded guilty to all 11 counts in his indictment. Ten of those charges — each one corresponding to a specific victim — accuse him of committing a terrorist attack against a mass transportation system carrying riders and workers. The 11th charge accuses James of discharging a firearm during a violent crime.

"Today’s guilty plea demonstrates that the Justice Department will work relentlessly to hold accountable those who engage in mass violence and terrorize our communities," said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland.

He didn’t have a plea agreement, and prosecutors are seeking to put him in prison for decades. His lawyers — arguing that his conduct amounted to aggravated assault, not attempted murder — said he shouldn't serve more than 18 years.

"Mr. James has accepted responsibility for his crimes since he turned himself in to law enforcement," James' lawyers, Mia Eisner-Grynberg and Amanda David, said in a statement. "A just sentence in this case will carefully balance the harm he caused with his age, his health, and the Bureau of Prisons’ notoriously inadequate medical care."

In a letter to Judge William F. Kuntz II late last week, prosecutors indicated they planned to seek a harsher punishment than the roughly 32-to-39-year sentence that federal sentencing guidelines would recommend.

James planned the attack for years and endangered the lives of dozens of people, prosecutors said in the letter. He allegedly began purchasing items to use in an attack as early as 2017, including smoke grenades, weapons, ammo and a disguise, the Department of Justice said. In the months leading up to the attack, prosecutors said James conducted online searches for things relating to NYC and the subway system, particularly in the area where he conducted the attack and where he parked his rented U-Haul van.

"Frank James cold-bloodedly shot innocent New Yorkers traveling on the subway in Brooklyn and brought terror to our great city. James’s crimes of violence have been met with swift justice,” said U.S. Attorney Breon Peace for the Eastern District of New York. “James’s admission of guilt to all eleven counts of the superseding indictment acknowledges the terror and pain he caused. This guilty plea is an important step towards holding James fully accountable and helping the victims of the defendant’s violence and our great city heal."

Previously, he vowed to fight the charges and refused to leave his jail cell to appear at an earlier court hearing, leading Kuntz to issue an order instructing U.S. Marshals to use “all necessary force” to ensure that James showed up to Tuesday's plea hearing.

James balked at being taken to a court date in October but appeared later that day after Kuntz issued a similar order for him to be forced to court if necessary.

Defense attorneys did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Monday, when courts were closed.

Before the shooting, James, who is Black, posted dozens of videos online in which he ranted about race, violence and his struggles with mental illness. In some, he decried the treatment of Black people and talked about how he was so frustrated, "I should have gotten a gun and just started shooting." In one video, he appeared to be in a packed New York City subway car, raising his finger to point out passengers one by one.

In other videos foreshadowing his plans, he stated "if you hear the name Frank James on the news, if something happens to a Frank James that’s sixty-something years old, chances are that’s me."

James, who's been locked up at a Brooklyn federal jail since his arrest, told Kuntz that a jail psychologist visits him once a month “to speak with me and see how I'm doing."

In a jailhouse interview with The Associated Press in August, James spoke about his lifelong struggle with mental health and the notoriety he gained at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, where he befriended the disgraced R&B star R. Kelly.

“It’s going to be a long case,” James said. “People don’t have enough information yet to judge me... All in all I’m a good person at heart. I’ve never hurt anybody.”

After the guilty plea was announced, the MTA said in a statement that those impacted by the "reprehensible attack deserved and received justice...we hope this perpetrator will never again be free to hurt innocent people."

On a day when a gunman opened fire at an NYC subway station, the cameras were offline. Andrew Siff reports.

James had been scheduled to stand trial in late February, where prosecutors said evidence would've refuted James' claim that he intended only to injure, not kill. He now faces up to life in prison on each of the 11 counts, according to the DOJ.

The gunman did not express remorse for his actions, but said he will do that when he is sentenced over the summer. A specific sentencing date has not yet been set.

Copyright NBC New York/Associated Press
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