Linda Rodriguez was lying in bed when the knock at the door came. Her youngest son, Eric Maldonado, 17, heard it first. He figured it was his older brother Gilbert coming home. Gilbert Drogheo, 32, was a jokester, and Eric knew if he got up and let him in, they might be up all night chatting. Eric had school the next day, so he left it for his mother to answer. Before she did, the phone next to her bed started ringing.
Rodriguez expected it would be Gilbert, asking to be let in. “This is Detective So-and-So,” she remembers hearing after she picked up. “I’m outside your door. Can you come and get your door?” Rodriguez obliged, and four men entered her apartment. She remembers clutching her heart when she noticed that one of them was holding a sheet of paper.
“Do you know him?” one of the officers asked, showing her a picture of Gilbert. She did. “Did you watch the news this afternoon, this evening?” She had. “Did you see the shooting on the subway?”
“That’s exactly how they told me,” she recalled about a month later, sitting in her sunny eighth-floor apartment in Manhattan’s Grant Houses. “I’m sorry to say, that’s your son,” one of the officers said. Incredulous and hoping to prove that there had been a mistake, Rodriguez called Gilbert’s phone. A detective picked up.
Gilbert Drogheo was shot and killed on the mezzanine of the Brooklyn Borough Hall subway station during evening rush hour on Tuesday, March 10. On Monday, nearly two months after the shooting, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced that the shooter would not be charged with a crime.
The final minutes of Drogheo’s life, as told in eyewitness and law enforcement accounts given to the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and CBS, went something like this: Drogheo and 28-year-old Joscelyn Evering were riding a Brooklyn-bound 4 train after working together on an electrical contracting job on East 23rd Street. When the train reached Bowling Green, a 69-year-old retired New York City corrections officer named Willie Groomes boarded it, stepping between Drogheo and Evering.
Then something happened that started a confrontation. Perhaps the men bumped into each other, as happens on a crowded train. Some bystanders said that the younger men appeared to be drunk. Drogheo and Evering were “talking mad trash,” according to the Daily News’s witness, and one of the younger men allegedly used the word “nigger” (or “nigga”) when addressing Groomes. (Groomes and Evering are black; Drogheo was Hispanic.)
Groomes evidently took exception, telling the men, “I’m not your n——- , I’m not your boy,” the Daily News’s source said.* The argument turned physical. The Times’s sources said that one of the younger men punched Groomes in the head; CBS reports that Evering was “accused of pushing the retired officer into a vacant seat twice.” While still on the train, Groomes drew his .380 Ruger, a small handgun, from its holster.
Maria Sumina, a 28-year-old Crown Heights woman who was in the same train car on her commute home from work, told Gawker that she was listening to music in headphones and didn’t pay much mind to the initial altercation. “I did see some scuffling, but it was a packed rush-hour train. You kind of expect something like that,” she said.
But by the time the train arrived at Borough Hall, less than a five-minute trip from Bowling Green, it no longer seemed like an ordinary scuffle among straphangers. “It pulled up at Borough Hall, and instead of the usual amount of people leaving, getting on, or whatever, all I heard was a sort of scream, and people started panicking and trying to get out the door,” Sumina said. “It was literally a stampede.”
Sumina didn’t witness Groomes drawing the gun, but she did see him carrying it as he followed Drogheo and Evering off the train. “I saw him running with the gun—Willie Groomes—very much looking like a guy that was about to shoot a motherfucker,” she said. “I’m not experienced with that stuff, but he looked angry.” Other witnesses reported seeing Groomes draw the gun while still on the train. According to DNAinfo, “at some point Drogheo put [Groomes] in a bear hug on the platform” but “the former guard managed to free himself and Drogheo fled up a nearby staircase.”
[There was a video here]
A bystander-shot video, first obtained by CBS, picks up inside the station. Groomes is descending a staircase toward the Manhattan-bound 4 and 5 train tracks—the opposite platform from the train he’d just arrived on. “Yo, OG, don’t shoot him. Don’t shoot him...Put that shit away, OG,” a man shouts, evidently at Groomes, as he goes.
As Groomes nears the bottom of the stairs, a figure standing on the platform below—wearing a black hat, black jacket, and lighter-colored pants—seems to flee, darting away from the foot of the stairs. At this point, the cameraperson retreats to the mezzanine and pans away, and the viewer is treated to a disorienting shot of the mezzanine’s tiled floor.
Seconds later, the camera comes back up to show Groomes ascending the same staircase he’d just descended. At the mezzanine, he approaches a man in a black hat, black jacket over maroon shirt, and lighter-colored pants: Drogheo, who had evidently ascended the staircase on the opposite side of the same mezzanine.
Drogheo takes a small step toward Groomes as he approaches. Groomes swings his left hand, making contact with Drogheo’s face, and the two men grapple. Seconds later, the shot goes off at point-blank range, a bystander screams, and the rush-hour crowd goes running. When police arrive, Drogheo is on the floor. He attempts to stand up, stumbles into a wall, and hits the ground again.
Joscelyn Evering was arrested on the scene, charged with menacing and felony assault. Willie Groomes was taken into police custody, questioned, and released without an arrest. Gilbert Drogheo was transported to the Brooklyn Hospital Center, where he was later pronounced dead.
Joscelyn Evering’s version of events, which has been taken up by protesters affiliated with the group NYC Shut It Down, is more charitable toward the younger men than the accounts printed in the papers. “From what Joscelyn and his mother told me, Groomes sort of stumbled onto the train—into him and Gilbert—and Joscelyn, seeing the older black man stumbling in, said, ‘Are you OK, my nigger?’” wrote an activist named Keegan Stephan, who has spoken with Evering and his mother, in an email. “Groomes got enraged by the younger black man calling him ‘nigger.’ I see this as a sort of generational gap around the usage of the word. Groomes began lashing out at them, Gilbert stood up for his friend, and, well, you know the rest.” Phone calls to Paula Livingston, Evering’s mother, were not returned.
“For Gilbert to talk the shit? I guarantee you—I believe he did that,” Linda Rodriguez said. “Talked all the trash. He’s my son.” She remains skeptical that Gilbert would have initiated a physical fight: “But hitting the man? I doubt it. No.”
In the image provided to Drogheo’s family to identify his body, his face appears bruised; his eyes are darkened; his forehead is swollen; he has a cut on the corner of his mouth. Rodriguez said of the photo: “He died horrible.”
Elizabeth Arroyo grew up a few blocks away from the Bronx apartment where Gilbert Drogheo’s grandmother lived, in Norwood. She met Drogheo through mutual friends when she was 19 and he was 21, and the two began dating.
As a young man, Drogheo was handsome, she said, and “crazy,” in a good way. “We were both young,” she said. “We just had a good time together...when you were with him, you wouldn’t need anything.”
Drogheo was originally from Norwood. He was born in July 1982 and he and his mother lived with his grandmother in the Bronx till the early 1990s, when Linda Rodriguez met and married Junior Maldonado, a handyman and construction worker who lived in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Mother and son moved in with Maldonado, and Drogheo grew close to him, while still maintaining a bond with his birth father, Gilbert Sr.
Gilbert Sr. died of heart complications in 2004. Maldonado died of natural causes this past February, just a month before the subway shooting.
When Arroyo met Drogheo, she was working at a pharmacy in the Bronx; he was unemployed. Drogheo had dropped out of high school sometime around the 10th grade, and had allegedly begun running afoul of the law several years before that. A source told the New York Post that his first arrest came when he was 12 years old. (The crime was not specified, and I haven’t found any record of such arrest, perhaps because Drogheo was a juvenile.) In 2003, he was shot and injured in Norwood following a dispute over money during a card game.
Months after the two became a couple, in 2004, Drogheo was arrested for a robbery in Brooklyn and sent off to serve a four-year sentence at Gouverneur and Southport correctional facilities. By that point, Arroyo said, she had fallen hard: “He was who I loved, and [being with him] was what I wanted to do. And nobody could tell me different.” They kept in touch; Arroyo visited him in prison, and upon his release in 2008, the pair moved in together in Pelham Bay. Gia, their daughter, was born in June 2009.
In August 2009, Drogheo was arrested on a number of charges including assault, menacing, and criminal mischief, and sentenced to five days in prison. In 2012, he was imprisoned for a month over a parole violation.
For all his record of trouble, Drogheo’s loved ones—gathered a month and a day after the shooting in Linda Rodriguez’s apartment, watching television and eating breakfast as Drogheo’s uncle Fernando Ressy installed new curtain rods over the windows—recalled him as a charismatic and generous man who returned their love deeply, and who seemed to be learning to settle down.
After Gia’s birth, Arroyo said, the couple broke up and got back together, but even when she and Drogheo weren’t romantically attached, he was “always around,” helping to raise his daughter. They lived together from when Gia was two years old to just before she turned four, when they broke up again and Drogheo moved in with his mother and uncle in Manhattan.
At the time of Drogheo’s death, Arroyo said, they were on the mend, and he was planning on moving back to the Bronx to be with her and Gia. He would ride over to see her for lunch, eating Chinese food with her and heading back to his job as an electrician’s apprentice at a Queens company called Electrical Contracting Solutions when his break was up, Arroyo said: “You came on the train just for me!”
As Arroyo recounted the lunches, sitting in Rodriguez’s living room, Gia—now a round-eyed, gangly five-year-old—tugged at the leaves of a potted plant in the corner. “You having a fun time with my plant?” Rodriguez called from the kitchen. Like a lot of kindergarteners, Gia alternates between periods of shyness and goofy confidence. She likes bacon and eggs, but not toast; Spongebob Squarepants but not Fairly Oddparents. Drogheo used to joke that when Gia grew up and went on her first date, he’d be hiding somewhere close by with a laser gun, ready to spring into action if the date made a wrong move.
“We had plans for our daughter. Plans for her going to college,” Arroyo said. “Now it’s just us.”
She added: “It just makes me so sad that she’s going to grow up, and this is going to be her history. You’re going to be able to look it up on the computer. She’s going to see that that was her dad.”
The Post reported that Drogheo was arrested 23 times in total, a number that Arroyo said is “exaggerated.” It’s not clear how the Post arrived its count. A nationwide search on Nexis and a New York state criminal history search turn up a total of three adult criminal cases against him. The remaining arrests may have failed to bring about criminal charges, or occurred when Drogheo was a juvenile: juvenile records are unavailable to the public under New York law, according to a 2014 report from the Juvenile Law Center.
The third, after the 2004 robbery and the 2008 assault, happened last year. On May 24, during a break in his relationship with Arroyo, he was with another woman in Camden County, New Jersey, and they got into a dispute that may have turned violent. According to the Post, Drogheo punched the woman in the mouth. Police were called. In September, Drogheo pleaded guilty to threatening to kill another person—the other woman, presumably—and was sentenced to two years probation. The sentence was still in effect when he died.
Arroyo bailed Drogheo out after the arrest. She said that she hadn’t known Drogheo to be a violent man—that he might become physical if he were defending her or Gia from someone he felt to be a threat, but “to just be violent, or to hurt me? Absolutely not.”
“Yes, he was wild at a young age,” Arroyo said. “Yes, he did all that. But he was just at the point in his life when he was like, ‘OK, I’m just going to work, come home, watch my sports. Go out on the weekend with my friends, if I have plans, and that’s it.’
“I’ve seen him in all his phases: his crazy phase, his dumb phase. And these last couple of years were like his downtime, you know? He was winding down from that whole young, immature stage.”
“If you thought he was a dickhead, you would always think he was a dickhead, because he would never change. This is who he is,” said his uncle, Ressy. “And if you loved him, you would always love him. He would never change.”
“He could be the toughest guy around outside, but whenever [Gia] was around, he was a big puppy,” Arroyo said. Rodriguez, Drogheo’s mom, chimed in, finishing her de facto daughter-in-law’s sentence. “Big puppy! He’d always be like ‘OK, whatever she wants. Don’t scream at her! Don’t hit her! Don’t do nothing!’”
At work, Ressy said, Drogheo had been thriving. “His attendance was on point. He was eager. He was so happy that he had a job. Part of society,” Ressy said. “He just needed that chance, and he got that chance, and he saw his life turned around.”
Julio Gutierrez, an electrician at Electrical Contracting Solutions who was in charge of Drogheo’s group, confirmed that Drogheo had gotten two raises in his two years on the job, and that he regularly showed up early: “He was trying really hard to change his life. He was trying to do the best for his daughter and for him. Good worker. Never had a problem with him.”
Gutierrez worked alongside Drogheo on the day of the shooting, and said that while Drogheo wasn’t intoxicated or aggressive when the two men parted ways, it wasn’t entirely surprising to him that his coworker might have had a few drinks and gotten into an altercation before going home. He said that he and Drogheo had been out drinking together in the past, and that on Mondays, Drogheo would sometimes regale him with stories of drunken weekend exploits: “‘Hey, I did this during the weekend. I went here, I went over there, a couple drinks, a couple over here. You know, I was in trouble.’” But Drogheo’s stories were “nothing serious,” he added.
Nothing in Gilbert Drogheo’s 32 years—nor even in the few minutes from Bowling Green to Borough Hall—adds up to an explanation for what happened inside the station on March 10, or for the prosecutor’s decision that followed. How did the confrontation between the armed Willie Groomes and the unarmed Drogheo turn fatal? And why wasn’t Groomes arrested or charged with a crime?
The district attorney’s office released a short statement about its decision not to put Groomes’s case in front of a grand jury, but declined requests for further comment. The statement read:
Following a full and fair investigation into the fatal shooting of Gilbert Drogheo inside the Borough Hall subway station on March 10, 2015 by retired Corrections Officer William Groomes, I have determined that criminal charges are not warranted in this matter.
Based on interviews of multiple eyewitnesses to the events leading up to the shooting, our review of video tapes of the shooting itself and other evidence, I have decided not to put this case into the grand jury and will not bring criminal charges against Mr. Groomes. While the death of this young man was indeed tragic, we cannot prove any charge of homicide beyond a reasonable doubt.
If this is the prosecutor’s last word, it’s oddly incomplete. Groomes did have a permit for his gun, but that’s not the same as a license to shoot. New York’s self-defense law allows for use of deadly force against an assailant only when the defender is under the imminent threat of deadly force himself, said Gregg Pinto, a former Brooklyn assistant district attorney who now operates a private practice. (After Pinto discussed the case in an interview with Gawker the week of the shooting, Arroyo called Pinto to raise the possibility of his representing the family.)
Moreover, unlike in so-called “stand your ground” states like Florida, New York law requires you to retreat before firing your weapon.
Even if it were proven definitively that Drogheo had started the fight on the train, his killing in the station does not appear to meet either provision for self-defense.
Before he reached the stairwell to the Manhattan-bound tracks, where he appears at the start of the video, from the outbound Brooklyn platform where he got off the train, Groomes would have passed two full-height exit turnstiles and an emergency door. Once he descended to the Manhattan platform, Groomes could have taken a short walk to a passageway to the R, 2, and 3 train platforms. If he’d gone the other way, he would have gone past two staircases to a separate mezzanine, and eventually an exit leading to Court and Joralemon Streets.
If Groomes were in fear for his life—though he had a weapon and Drogheo did not—any of those options would have taken him away from the threat. Instead, he reversed course and went back up the stairs to meet Drogheo. Judging by the video, not only was he failing to retreat, he was in active pursuit.
Groomes told detectives that he had intended to perform a citizen’s arrest on Drogheo and Evering. According to Pinto, that extraordinary assertion does little to strengthen a self-defense claim. As a retired jail guard, Groomes is given no special arresting privileges under the law. “The same standard would apply: Did the shooter reasonably fear imminent deadly physical force?” he said. “The answer to that is no.”
Shortly after the shooting, Pinto said that he believed Groomes was not arrested because of a “professional courtesy” extended from the NYPD to their uniformed counterparts in the city’s Department of Correction. “There is a professional courtesy that gets extended to anyone with a badge,” the ex-ADA said. “You’ll never hear the NYPD actually talk about it, but it exists as a sort of unwritten rule... If he was some random guy who didn’t work for the city, he would be sitting in Rikers right now.”
At the time, Pinto believed that Groomes would be indicted eventually—that the “courtesy” would extend only as far as giving the shooter some time outside of a jail cell to see his family and prepare his inevitable defense. This week, Pinto said that he was shocked to learn that Groomes wouldn’t be indicted. He said that the Brooklyn DA’s office routinely brings cases to a grand jury with less substantial evidence against the defendant than it had against Groomes—he called them 50/50 cases, because the evidence could lead a grand jury either way.
But something about Groomes was different. “None of those cases have a big amount of press attention, and none of those are a shooting that occurred yards from the DA’s office, or were committed by somebody who carries a badge,” he said. (The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office sits about two blocks from Borough Hall.)
Pinto said he hesitated to directly attribute the lack of charges to Groomes’s status as a former CO. “I have to think that there’s something more in play if they’re not letting a jury decide,” he added. “I don’t think anyone normally would get this benefit. So there must be some explanation.”
Pinto also pointed to the prosecutor’s use of the word “homicide” in its statement. If the evidence didn’t merit a murder indictment, he asked, what about a lesser charge? “This seems to be one of those examples of something where you may not have the [premeditated] intent, but from the outside, it seems like there’s enough there to support something like manslaughter or criminally negligent homicide.”
He added: “Why not be transparent? They could release information about what they felt the shooter had said that justified the use of force. They really haven’t done any of that.”
In the weeks between her son’s killing and the district attorney’s announcement that the shooter wouldn’t be indicted, Linda Rodriguez called the prosecutor’s office regularly—sometimes every day for days on end. “They keep stalling me. ‘We’ll get back to you, Mrs. Rodriguez,’” she said about a month after the shooting. “They already know me. That’s how much I call.” On many of those calls, Rodriguez said, the office told her nothing.
One hint about prosecutors’ otherwise secretive investigation comes from the one piece of information that Rodriguez says representatives consistently did give her on her phone calls: that they were waiting on the results of a toxicology report on Drogheo’s body, which could confirm or refute witnesses’ claims that he appeared to be drunk.
“What I don’t understand is that even if all that is true—even if the toxicology reports come back and say that he was completely intoxicated—how does that change the video?” Pinto said. “I thought that video was pretty clear, or certainly clear enough to make an arrest, that there was no self-defense, that at the very least it’s a manslaughter case.”
The case of Willie Groomes echoes that of Bernhard Goetz, the Manhattan electrical engineer who in 1984 fired five shots at a group of four teenagers on a downtown 2 train after one of them either asked or demanded that Goetz hand over five dollars. All four young men were seriously injured—one was paralyzed from the waist down—and Goetz, arguing that he believed he was about to be mugged, was found not guilty of all charges except for illegal gun possession.
Still, Goetz was indicted and stood trial, while Groomes will not. Dubbed the Subway Vigilante, Goetz became a New York tabloid fixture and an odd sort of folk hero after the shooting. Graffiti on the FDR Drive screamed Power to the vigilante. New York loves ya!, Time magazine reported in 1985.
Unlike Goetz, Willie Groomes has almost completely avoided the spotlight. Calls to a New York City phone number listed under his name were unreturned, and the New York City Department of Correction, in response to a Freedom of Information Law request for his personnel file as an officer, said it would only release Groomes’s records with his permission. He retired from the department in 1993, after serving for 18 years.
And while the Goetz shootings were a national sensation, public reaction to Drogheo’s death and to the lack of prosecution for Groomes has been muted. The incident did not dominate any news cycles like the killings of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, or Freddie Gray. Despite the shocking video, interest faded quickly; before the news of the non-indictment this week, the most recent news article on the shooting available via Google search dated to March 16, just five days after the incident.
Public protests, when they’ve happened at all, have been small. At an April demonstration that attracted about 20 supporters and at least that many police officers, protesters marched from the Brooklyn criminal courthouse to the district attorney’s office a few blocks away, blowing whistles, chanting slogans, and banging on plates. MJ Williams, an organizer with the group NYC Shut It Down, speculated about why the public hasn’t taken up Drogheo’s case the way it did Eric Garner’s, which saw huge crowds of Shut It Down-affiliated protesters literally shutting down the West Side Highway and Verrazano Bridge.
Partly, Williams said, there’s the fact that Groomes was a retired corrections officer, not an on-duty police officer. His use of lethal force was private, not institutional. There’s also the matter of race: Groomes isn’t the all-too-familiar white man with a gun killing an unarmed black man.
“I don’t know if this comes into play here, but this wasn’t a white-on-black issue,” Williams said. “Will Groomes is African American, at least as far as I can tell from the videotape. But I think that highlights that [law enforcement violence] is not strictly a matter of race; this is a matter of policing against civilians.”
Then there’s Groomes’s age and Drogheo’s criminal record: What sort of lowlife gets into an altercation with an old man on the subway? The Daily News printed Drogheo’s old mugshot, as if he were the perpetrator, not the victim. The Post approvingly published an interview with Goetz, who declared that Drogheo and Evering “were looking for trouble, and they picked the wrong guy.” The Times was predictably more restrained in its coverage, but nonetheless quoted another ex-jail guard who said she understood why Groomes chose to carry a gun: “We work with the garbage of New York. We got to protect ourselves.”
Arroyo said that she would never read the Daily News again after it ran the mugshot instead of asking the family for a more neutral photo. Rodriguez repeatedly asserted to me that her household was peaceful, and that she was a hardworking woman—as if, after the terror and heartbreak of her son’s death, her entire family was now on public trial. For the record, Rodriguez is a sweet and redoubtable matriarch—the kind of person who insists on cooking you breakfast the first time you meet her, then berates you for not eating it quickly enough.
On Monday, on one of her routine and ordinarily fruitless calls to the prosecutor’s office, she learned that Groomes would not even stand trial. She said that Ken Taub, a deputy district attorney, told her, “Talk to your lawyer. I’m sorry, but we’re not bringing this to the grand jury.”
Rodriguez said that she did not find it shocking that Groomes would walk free, because she believes that the justice system is corrupt, but she was baffled that the case was being thrown out before it even saw a grand jury for a possible indictment. “It was on video. What more could you need?” she asked. “This is injustice. Anybody who has a badge, or you have a license to a gun: If you feel something, it’s OK to shoot somebody. Don’t worry about it. The prosecutor won’t indict you. There’s no crime committed.”
The family is unsure of its next move, if any. Rodriguez maintains hope that the case will somehow gain new life in criminal court, but is open to the idea of a civil lawsuit. Drogheo was killed before he had a chance to make good on his plan to move in with his girlfriend and daughter in the Bronx, and now, Elizabeth and Gia hope to move into his old apartment with Linda and Fernando in Manhattan. In Gilbert’s absence, the already tight-knit family is closing ranks in order to strengthen itself; if they can’t have Gilbert back, they’ll at least have each other close by. “As long as I’m surrounded by them, I feel more. When I’m alone, I kind of lose it. I sit down. I start crying,” Linda said. “I have to constantly keep busy, because if I don’t, I start thinking about my son on the floor.”
She continued: “I still sleep with the phone by me, thinking he’s going to call me,” just as she thought he was calling her on the night of his death. “‘Open up the door. I’m in the front.’ But that’s not going to happen no more.”