Frank James is led out of the 9th Precinct in Manhattan...

Frank James is led out of the 9th Precinct in Manhattan by members of the NYPD and FBI on April 13, 2022. Credit: John Roca

Brooklyn subway gunman Frank James pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal terrorism charges for shooting up a morning rush hour train last April, wounding 10 passengers and sending New York City into chaos.

In a proceeding before Brooklyn federal judge William F. Kuntz II, the 63-year-old James answered “guilty” a total of 11 times when by asked by the judge if he shot and wounded the 10 passengers April 12 in an act of mass transit terrorism, and used a firearm to commit the act, a separate federal offense.

James, a drifter who had been living in Philadelphia in the days before the attack, said in court that he didn’t intend to kill anyone when he fired his 9-mm handgun on the train but acknowledged that death could have occurred. The guilty plea followed weeks of motions by James' defense attorney seeking to move the February trial to Chicago over pretrial publicity.

Clad in khaki-colored federal jail garb, James showed no apparent emotion as he admitted his guilt to the terrorism charges. He would say more at sentencing to express contrition, James told the court.

What to know

  • Brooklyn subway gunman Frank James pleaded guilty Tuesday to federal terrorism charges for shooting up a morning rush hour train last April, wounding 10.
  • The guilty plea comes days after federal prosecutors filed a superseding indictment charging him with 10 counts of committing a terrorist attack — one for each gunshot victim — or other violence against a mass transportation system.
  • James was arrested April 13 in the East Village of Manhattan, about 30 hours after the attack.

“I intend to make a complete statement expressing my remorse at time of sentencing,” he said.

No sentencing date was set by Kuntz, who ordered that a presentence report be completed by early July. While James faces a maximum sentence of life in prison, both the defense and prosecution believe he faces less than that under federal sentencing guidelines. However, the sides disagree over what guideline range applies: Prosecutors believe James could face up to 37 years in prison, while defense attorney Mia Eisner-Grynberg said the range had a maximum of 18 years.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sara K. Winik said in court that because James had planned the attack, beginning in 2017, and had made a dry run that prosecutors were prepared to show he intended to kill train passengers when he opened fire on them, aiming for the center body mass of his victims. Prosecutors intend to ask for Kuntz to give James a sentence above the guideline recommendations, Winik said. 

In a statement, United States Attorney General Merrick Garland noted that “as described in court filings, the defendant set off a smoke bomb in a New York City subway car and then fired a handgun more than 30 times, striking ten innocent passengers.”

“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,” Garland said.

According to investigators, James — disguised in an orange reflective jacket and yellow hard-hat to look like an MTA worker — set off a smoke-emitting device in a subway car before opening fire on his captive victims. The smoke-emitting device caused panicked passengers to scramble to one end of the subway car, officials said, allowing James to more easily shoot at his victims.

Officials said James foreshadowed his attack with internet postings, including online videos. “If you hear the name Frank James on the news," he said in one, "if something happens to a Frank James that’s 60-something-years old, chances are that’s me.”

Brooklyn U.S. Attorney Breon Peace applauded the combined efforts of federal and NYPD investigators that resulted in the apprehension of James within 30 hours of the attack.

On April 12, within hours of the subway shooting, law enforcement officials released video surveillance and other images of James — an appeal to the public for help.  James used mass transit after the attack to travel to the East Village in Manhattan where a number of people eventually recognized him from news reports and alerted police. Cops arrested James without incident near a fast-food restaurant.

“Today’s guilty plea is a distinct admission of the terror Mr. James inflicted on New Yorkers last April in Brooklyn, and he is being held accountable for his reprehensible actions that morning,” NYPD Commissioner Keechant L. Sewell said in a statement. “Our nation’s largest transit system is the lifeblood of New York City. And its subway riders expect and deserve the brisk, coordinated, and meticulous work exhibited by everyone involved in bringing this terrible incident to a successful close.”

Defense attorney Eisner-Grynberg didn’t return a telephone request for comment.

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