The drop in crime during the 1990s was New York City's biggest story, but no observer in the media saw it coming. By the time the press caught on, it was already a done deal.
It might have been a case of living in the forest and not being able to see the trees. Or maybe they ignored it because deep in the veiled chambers of their hearts they liked that New York was dangerous, especially given that the real blight almost never touched the neighborhoods they themselves lived in. You get that sense when you hear well-heeled whites bemoan the transformation of Times Square.
They also might have blown it because crime first began to change in April of 1990?years before anyone deemed it possible.
The year 1990 was the nadir for this city. I knew people who'd lived here their whole lives?people who had stayed on even after the madness of the 1970s?who were ready to pack it all in and get out. New Jersey started to look good. Even in the Bronx neighborhood I grew up in?full of city-hardened people who aren't the type to cry wolf?there was a pervasive sense that the thin membrane of decency that sheltered everyone from the darkness had broken and the thieves and brigands were now firmly in charge. New York was a sewer, and it looked like it would only get worse. We had a record 2245 murders in 1990. It was also a banner year for rapes, muggings and car thefts. Feral youth gangs roamed the city, robbing and looting, and if you think I'm exaggerating, you were hanging around different parts of the city than I was. I remember hearing young criminals heading out to do crimes, saying they were going to "get paid."
There's a tendency now to look back and blame David Dinkins. Whatever you think about Dinkins, though, the man inherited a city on fire. Myself, I blame Ed Koch, whom I consider the worst mayor we ever elected. After losing the bitter 1989 Democratic primary Koch handed an empty shell of a city over to Dinkins and walked away. I swear you could hear him snickering.
It was also in 1990, however, that I think things began to change.
On Thurs., April 12 of that year a three-time convicted loser named Ricky Pickett was hanging out at the Van Dyke Houses in Brooklyn, smoking weed and drinking cheap brandy with four of his friends. They got good and high and then jumped on the subway to go to a nightclub in Manhattan. Ricky Pickett had no money, but he knew where he could find some. The gang of five transferred at Utica Ave. and hopped on a 4 train. There they spied a middle-aged white man sitting by himself. Pickett's eyes lit up as he looked at his mark and told his stoned crew, "I'm going shopping. This one is real."
At 10:45 p.m. Ricky Pickett slowly approached the man and then, with a violent fury, picked him up and threw him to the floor. Pickett then lifted him off the floor and held his arms as his friends ripped open the man's back pocket, stealing his wallet. Next Pickett threw the man down on a subway seat. Now these boys were going to have some fun. They weren't satisfied with just a wallet; they were going to beat the poor guy up, too?give him a taste of the Brooklyn thug life. But suddenly the victim wasn't cowering anymore. He kicked two of Pickett's friends in their chests, pulled out a silver handgun and squeezed off three shots. One hit Ricky Pickett in the chest.
Two of the thugs ran from the train screaming as it pulled into Borough Hall. The two other goons ducked into the last subway car, hoping this suddenly emboldened shooter wasn't coming for them. He wasn't. He bent down, picked up his hat and dashed out of the station. He hit Court St. and disappeared into the Brooklyn night.
That left Ricky Pickett. He eventually followed his two friends into the last subway car. They looked at him in horror?blood was rushing from a gaping hole in his chest. He tried to say something but crashed to the floor. Before the train doors closed, his two friends ran off. The train pulled out of the last station in Brooklyn. By the time it reached Bowling Green, Ricky Pickett was dead. He died alone on the floor of the subway car.
News of the incident hit the papers and local tv news with the usual fury, but New Yorkers didn't express outrage about the vigilante violence a la Bernie Goetz. Blacks and whites seemed relieved that a mugger like Ricky Pickett had met his end in such a fitting manner. It was the first time I've ever seen an incident in which a white man shot a black man dead in New York and most everyone you talked to was willing to admit that the killer had done the right thing. Calls flooded radio talk shows, and the unknown shooter was being hailed by people as a street hero. The NYPD made a cursory effort to catch the guy, but everyone knew their hearts weren't in it. They rounded up Pickett's crew and laughed as the idiots claimed that the man had robbed them. The crew came clean and gave the cops the real deal. Maybe even they didn't like Ricky Pickett. For a few days some serious wanted posters hung around the Borough Hall station. But they soon came down. And by the following week the lead detective on the case was saying that they'd tried to find the shooter, but with no luck, and so the case was closed.
The vigilante's violent act of self defense rang true for a lot of people fed up with the Ricky Picketts of New York. For months after the shooting, whenever a felon was released from a Brooklyn court, some cop, court officer or correction officer would insincerely wish the ex-con good luck on the street and tell him that he should remember that the subway vigilante was still on the loose.
I talked with Peg Tyre, a former Newsday crime writer who covered the Pickett shooting.
"...With that shooting people started to think that maybe it wouldn't be so bad if some vigilantism came creeping in," she told me. "There was a sense throughout the city that Ricky Pickett got what he deserved. No one was weeping over his death."
Still, as Tyre says, there remained a long way to go. The future held the Sept. 2, 1990, slaying of Utah tourist Brian Watkins as he came to the defense of his mother at a 57th St. subway station. Then there were all those horrific shootings of innocent children in the summer of 1990. The Zodiac Killer was also on the loose that summer. One of New York's most inferior police commissioners, Lee Brown, was still in office. The Crown Heights riots were a year away. The city had its work cut out for it, but Ricky Pickett's killing was the bell that marked that New York was ready for a change. Dinkins brought in Bratton as police commissioner, Bratton listened to Detective Jack Maple's arguments about how to effectively police New York, the Safe Streets Program was started and by 1993 Rudy Giuliani came along to amp all those measures up.
The last question is: What ever happened to Ricky Pickett's shooter? He was never found, but the smart money always said he was someone in law enforcement who choose not to turn himself in. Maybe he panicked and figured it was safer to cut and run than face a Brooklyn jury. He might not have been charged with the shooting, but he was odds-on to be charged departmentally, so silence was golden, especially for someone waiting for a police department pension.
What makes people think he was in law enforcement was the way he wisely took the initial beating and had the presence of mind to go for his gun at just the right moment. He shot dead into Pickett's chest?just like cops train to do at the firing range. The 4 train carries plenty of cops, court officers and correction officers from Brooklyn and Long Island coming in to work the late shift in the Brooklyn and Manhattan courts.
And then there's the matter of the wallet. Pickett's friends did steal the guy's wallet, and the police did recover a wallet, but they said it wasn't the vigilante's. They never did say just whose wallet it was that they recovered, and no one bothered to ask.
The truth of the matter is that no one wanted to prosecute the subway vigilante. You think the Brooklyn D.A. wanted to go into court with this one? Everyone wanted this story to just go away, and it eventually did. Maybe the vigilante still rides the 4 train. I'm sure he finds it safer now than he did in April of 1990.