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Suspect in Brooklyn subway train shooting called in the tip that led to his arrest, sources say

By Brynn Gingras, Shimon Prokupecz, Pervaiz Shallwani, Artemis Moshtaghian, Laura Ly, Kristina Sgueglia, Eric Levenson and Mark Morales, CNN

The man suspected of shooting 10 people on a subway train in Brooklyn on Tuesday called in a tip to Crime Stoppers that led to his capture Wednesday, two law enforcement sources told CNN.

Frank James, 62, was arrested without incident by patrol officers in Manhattan’s East Village neighborhood on Wednesday afternoon, officials said.

James called in the tip and told authorities he was at a McDonald’s on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, the sources confirmed. He essentially told police he saw his face on the news and knew he was wanted, the sources said.

He told the operator he would be inside the restaurant charging his phone but could not provide his phone number, a senior law enforcement source said. The call dropped moments later and was followed by a 911 call from another person who said they had spotted James, one of the two sources told CNN.

Patrol officers arrived at the McDonald’s but did not see him, the sources said. Just down the block, they came across a bystander who flagged James to them, the senior law enforcement source said. James was in custody by roughly 1:40 p.m ET, about an hour after he made his call.

LIVE UPDATES: Brooklyn subway station shooting

James is suspected of setting off smoke grenades and firing a handgun 33 times on a crowded N train traveling toward the 36th Street station in Brooklyn’s Sunset Park neighborhood. The attack left 29 people injured, including 10 who were shot, though none of the injuries appeared to be life-threatening, officials said. Five of the victims were young people commuting to school, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said.

The motive of the shooting is not yet known.

James was charged in federal court with violating a law that prohibits terrorist and other violent attacks against a mass transportation system, according to Breon Peace, US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York. If convicted, he could spend life in prison, Peace said. He was in federal custody Wednesday afternoon.

James will have his initial court appearance Thursday, according to a spokesperson for the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York. CNN has reached out to his federal defender for comment.

James had nine prior arrests in New York dating from 1992 to 1998, including possession of burglary tools, criminal sex act, and theft of service, NYPD Chief of Detectives James Essig said. He also had three arrests in New Jersey in 1991, 1992 and 2007 for trespassing, larceny and disorderly conduct, Essig said.

Wednesday’s arrest came hours after officials elevated James from a “person of interest” to a suspect — and shortly after the city issued an emergency alert to residents saying James was “wanted” and asking for tips.

The subway shooting represents a long-feared nightmare scenario for New York City, which relies heavily on its mass transit system. Subway ridership cratered during the Covid pandemic as many workers stayed home, and ridership has not returned to its pre-pandemic levels, in part due to wariness over an increase in violence on the transit system.

The photo gallery below contains graphic images. Viewer discretion is advised.

How investigators homed in on James

Officials laid out some of James’ actions prior to the attack and the evidence connecting him to the scene during Wednesday’s news conference.

James got on the subway’s N train at the Kings Highway Station on Tuesday at about 8:30 a.m. ET, Essig said. After opening fire on the train, he got off at the 36th Street station, boarded an R train across the platform and rode to the 25th Street station stop, Essig said.

Less than an hour later, he was spotted boarding the subway at the 7th Avenue and 9th Street station, about 1.5 miles away, Essig added.

Investigators combing through the shooting scene found a Glock 9 mm handgun, three extended magazines, two detonated smoke grenades, two non-detonated smoke grenades, a hatchet and keys to a U-Haul van, Essig said. Witnesses also described the suspect as a heavyset Black man wearing a neon construction jacket.

The gun found at the scene was purchased by James in Ohio in 2011, Essig said Wednesday. A credit card that was used to rent the U-Haul was also found, two law enforcement sources told CNN. Two officials told CNN they believe the gun jammed during the shooting.

The U-Haul van was rented by James, police said. The van was recovered near the Kings Highway Station, and surveillance video showed James leaving it on Tuesday morning, according to a criminal complaint. The neon construction jacket, which had been discarded on the subway platform, had a receipt for a storage unit in Philadelphia registered to James, the complaint states.

Federal prosecutors believe he visited the storage facility filled with ammunition and more weapons on the evening before the Tuesday attack, according to court documents.

On Tuesday, authorities executed a court-authorized warrant to search the storage facility and found “9mm ammunition, a threaded 9mm pistol barrel that allows for a silencer or suppresser to be attached, targets and .223 caliber ammunition, which is used with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle,” among other things.

According to the complaint, law enforcement executed a search warrant at a Philadelphia apartment authorities believe James rented for 15 days beginning around March 28 and found “an empty magazine for a Glock handgun, a taser, a high-capacity rifle magazine and a blue smoke cannister.”

Investigators did not find any other weapons or explosives in the van, two law enforcement officials said. The officials said it appeared James may have slept in the vehicle. They said a license plate reader detected the van driving over the Verrazzano Bridge from Staten Island into Brooklyn around 4 a.m. ET Tuesday.

Authorities also tracked the purchase of a gas mask to James through an eBay account, two officials said.

His family did not respond to CNN’s request for comment.

How the shooting unfolded

People aboard the train car on Tuesday morning said smoke filled the car and gunshots rang out, causing people to push their way to the other side of the train in panic and confusion.

Hourari Benkada, 27, who was shot in the back of the knee, said he thinks he was sitting next to the shooter.

Speaking from a hospital bed Tuesday, Benkada said he’d gotten into the last car of the N train and sat next to a man with a duffel bag who appeared to be wearing an MTA vest. The man let off a “smoke bomb,” said Benkada, a housekeeping manager at the New Yorker Hotel.

“And all you see (is) smoke — black smoke … going off, and then people bum-rushing to the back,” Benkada said. “This pregnant woman was in front of me. I was trying to help her. I didn’t know there were shots at first. I just thought it was a black smoke bomb.

“She said, ‘I’m pregnant with a baby.’ I hugged her. And then the bum-rush continued. I got pushed, and that’s when I got shot in the back of my knee.”

The shooting started about 20 seconds after the train took off from the 59th Street station and felt like it lasted for nearly 2 minutes, Benkada said.

Claire Tunkel, 46, who was in the subway car where the shooting took place, described the scene as chaotic. She said she couldn’t see anything because of the smoke, but she heard people crying out for help and others saying they were bleeding.

People were rushing to the front of the car, and some fell to the ground, she said. “You could feel the bodies.”

Suspect talked about mass shootings in videos

James has also been linked to multiple rambling videos posted on a YouTube channel. He documented his travel from Wisconsin to the Northeast in a series of videos in recent weeks.

James talked about violence and mass shootings in the videos, including one uploaded Monday in which he said he’s thought about killing people who have presumably hurt him.

In another video posted last week, James rants about abuse in churches and racism in the workplace, using misogynistic and racist language. Many of the videos that James uploaded included references to violence, including at a set group of people he believed had maligned him, in addition to broad societal and racial groups that he appeared to hate.

In another video posted last month to the same channel, James said that he had post-traumatic stress.

In a video posted in February, he also criticized a plan by the Adams administration to address safety and homelessness in the subway in part through an expanded presence of mental health professionals. In a racist and rambling recording, James called the new effort “doomed to fail” and described his own negative experience with city health workers during a “crisis of mental health back in the ’90s, ’80s and ’70s.”

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CNN’s Rob Frehse, Sonia Moghe, Sharif Paget, Caroll Alvarado, Nicole Chavez, Alaa Elassar, Amir Vera, Travis Caldwell, Jason Hanna, Peter Nickeas, Yon Pomrenze, Elizabeth Wolfe, Chris Boyette, David Shortell, Paul P. Murphy, Juan Alejandro Olarte-Cortes, Hannah Rabinowitz and Holmes Lybrand contributed to this report.

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