NEW YORK – Frank James has posted dozens of videos speaking out against race, violence and his struggles with mental illness. One stands out for its relative calm: a silent shot of a crowded New York subway car in which he raises his finger to indicate the passengers, one by one.
Even though police arrested James on Wednesday in the Brooklyn subway shooting that injured 10 people, they were still searching for a motive among a flood of details about the 62-year-old black man’s life.
An erratic work history. Arrests for a series of mostly low level crimes. A storage locker with more ammo. And hours of rambling, bigoted, crass videos on his YouTube channel that indicate deep, simmering anger.
“This nation was born in violence, it is kept alive by violence or the threat of it, and it will die a violent death,” James says in a video where he takes the nickname “Prophet of doom”.
After a 30-hour manhunt, James was arrested without incident after a tipster – believed by police to be James himself – said he could be found near a McDonald’s in the Lower Manhattan’s East Side. Mayor Eric Adams triumphantly proclaimed “We got it!” Police say their top priority is getting the suspect, now charged with a federal terrorism offense, off the streets as they investigate his biggest unanswered question: Why?
A wealth of evidence, they said, are his YouTube videos. He seems to have opinions on almost everything – racism in America, the new mayor of New York, the state of mental health services, 9/11, the Russian invasion of Ukraine and black women.
A federal criminal complaint cited one in which James exposed too many homeless people on the subway and blamed the mayor of New York.
“What are you doing brother?” he said in the video posted on March 27. “Every car I went in was full of homeless people. It was so bad I couldn’t even stand up.”
James then denounced the treatment of black people in an April 6 video cited in the complaint, saying, “And so the message for me is: I should have picked up a gun and I just started shooting. “
In a video posted a day before the attack, James criticizes crime against black people and says things would only change if some people were “trampled, kicked and tortured” out of their “comfort zone”.
Surveillance cameras spotted James entering the subway turnstiles on Tuesday morning, dressed as a maintenance or construction worker with a yellow hard hat and an orange work jacket with reflective tape.
Police said other passengers heard him say only “oops” as he set off a smoke grenade into a crowded subway car as it rolled through a station. He then set off a second smoke grenade and began firing, police said. In the ensuing smoke and chaos, police say James fled by slipping into a train that pulled up to the platform and exited after the first stop.
The firearm, extended magazines, a hatchet, detonated and undetonated smoke grenades, a black trash can, a rolling cart, gasoline and the key to a U-Haul pickup truck were left at the scene, police said.
This key led investigators to James and clues to a life of setbacks and anger as he bounced between factory and maintenance jobs, got fired at least twice, moved between Milwaukee, Philadelphia, New Jersey and New York.
Investigators said James had previously been arrested 12 times in New York and New Jersey from 1990 to 2007, including for possession of burglary tools, a criminal sex act, trespassing, theft and disorderly conduct.
James had no felony convictions and was not prohibited from buying or possessing a firearm. Police say the weapon used in the attack was purchased legally from an Ohio pawnshop in 2011. A search of James’ storage unit and apartment in Philadelphia revealed to the least two types of ammunition, including that used with an AR-15. rifle, a taser and a blue smoke bomb.
Police say James was born and raised in New York. In his videos, he said he completed a machine shop course in 1983, then worked as a gear machinist at Curtiss-Wright, an aerospace manufacturer in New Jersey, until 1991, when he was hit with bad news: He was fired from his job, and soon after, his father, whom he had lived with in New Jersey, died.
Records show James filed a lawsuit against the aerospace company in federal court shortly after losing his job for racial discrimination, but it was dismissed a year later by a judge. He says in a video, without giving details, that he “couldn’t get justice for what I went through.”
A spokesperson for Curtiss-Wright did not immediately respond to a call seeking comment.
James describes the entrances and exits of several mental health facilities, including two in New York’s Bronx borough in the 1970s.
“Mr. Mayor, let me tell you that I am a victim of your mental health program in New York,” James said in a video earlier this year, adding that he was “full of hate, anger and of bitterness”.
James says he was later a patient at Bridgeway House, a mental health facility in New Jersey, although this could not be immediately confirmed. Messages left at the establishment were not returned.
“My goal at Bridgeway in 1997 was to get off Social Security and go back to f—— work,” he says in a video, adding that he enrolled in college and took a course computer-aided design and manufacturing.
James says he eventually got a job with telecommunications giant Lucent Technologies in Parsippany, New Jersey, but says he ended up getting fired and returned to Bridgeway House, this time not as a patient but as an employee of the maintenance staff. A message seeking comments has been sent to Lucent Technologies.
“I just want to work. I want to be a productive person,” he said.
Touches of the serious, struggling man appeared after James’ parked car was hit in Milwaukee. Eugene Yarbrough, pastor of Mt. Zion Wings of Glory Church of God in Christ next to James’ apartment, said James was impressed that the pastor confessed to hitting the car. Neither James nor anyone else was there to see the crash. And James called him to say it.
“I just couldn’t believe it would be him,” Yarbrough said. “But who knows what people will do?