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Brooklyn subway shooting suspect will have a court hearing on terrorism charges

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Today, Frank R. James has a court appearance on federal terrorism charges. He's the man accused of entering a crowded subway train car on Tuesday morning, setting off smoke grenades and opening fire with a gun. Ten people were hit by bullets, 13 others injured in the understandable panic. NPR's Quil Lawrence joins us from New York. Quil, good morning.

QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Good morning.

INSKEEP: What's known about Mr. James?

LAWRENCE: He was born in New York. He's lived in many other places, including Philadelphia, Milwaukee. He's 62 years old. He's got a string of criminal charges against him in the 1990s, but no felonies. Police say that if he'd had a felony, he wouldn't have been able to purchase the 9 mm handgun, which NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig said he bought out of state.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JAMES ESSIG: The gun used in this, a 9 mm Glock, which was recovered at this crime scene, was purchased by Mr. James in 2011 in Ohio.

LAWRENCE: And that was the pistol that was discovered at the crime scene and was traced back to James. The rest is whatever we can figure out from these long, bigoted, ranting videos he posted online, which include references to his own possible mental health issues and criticism of New York City Mayor Eric Adams and crime in the city.

INSKEEP: So we get a sense there that any motive here is going to be rather confused at best, but what other evidence might suggest what he intended?

LAWRENCE: I mean, it seems like he was preparing for something big. The police found this rented van. They found gasoline, more smoke grenades, a hatchet. And in - there was more ammunition abandoned at the scene. But also, in what appeared to be his former residences, there was ammunition and weapons discovered. So it's not easy to say what else he might have been planning, whether this attack went as he planned it. It's unclear.

INSKEEP: In any event, he's going to do no more because he was apprehended yesterday. There have been so many stories about the chase for him and the way that the police tried to track him down in the city. How, in fact, was he apprehended?

LAWRENCE: Yeah. So he was named as a person of interest when they found the keys for the rented van. And then the police flooded traditional media, as well as social media, with pictures and information about him. And then they started scanning surveillance footage. The police chief, Keechant Sewell, said that they shrunk his world very quickly. They tracked him getting back on to a train and then going into Manhattan. However, it's just - it's not clear that all of this necessarily mattered. What seems to have mattered were tip lines. Several people in the public say they've called in. But police sources have told the Associated Press that one of the people who called in was James himself, and he said he was in a McDonald's in lower Manhattan. And that is, indeed, where police found him - on a corner nearby, about 30 hours after the attack. They took him in without incident.

INSKEEP: In other words, he seemed to be ready to come in, according to this report.

LAWRENCE: Yeah. If he indeed called the tip line on himself and said, come and get me, yes, he seemed to have no other plan other than getting arrested. But this is all speculation.

INSKEEP: The subway is so central to New York City life. What's it like to be in the city now?

LAWRENCE: Yeah, you know, it really is like the bloodstream of the city. I was on the subway on the day it happened, only a couple of hours later, on the same route. And, you know, New Yorkers are tough, but they've been through a lot. And there's already a lot of COVID anxiety, people looking to see who's wearing a mask on the subway and who isn't. And after this, you know, people had to get back on the subway. He was still at large Tuesday afternoon. So, you know, kids had to go back home on the subway. People had to get back on their commute. So there's a lot of anxiety.

Gun violence is up. Last night, just a couple of hours after James was arrested, there was a teenager grazed by a bullet outside one of Brooklyn's busiest subway hubs. And there have been several other gun crimes committed in the time that it took to apprehend James. So Mayor Eric Adams was elected as a tough-on-crime Democrat. It's kind of hard to see, though, what he can do about someone buying a gun in a different state and bringing it to the city, planning this sort of attack.

INSKEEP: NPR's Quil Lawrence is in New York City. Quil, thanks so much.

LAWRENCE: Thanks, Steve. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.