NEW YORK — As the NYPD and federal law enforcement scoured the city for the accused Brooklyn subway shooter on Wednesday, the burly suspect enjoyed some of Manhattan’s culinary delights.
At 10:30 a.m., Frank James sat outside the trendy Chinatown restaurant Dimes, just staring into space, said a source who spied the suspect. A few hours later, James grabbed lunch at Katz’s Deli, a separate source confirmed to the Daily News.
Around 1 p.m., the 62-year-old, apparently fed up with the food tour, called Crime Stoppers on himself at an East Village McDonald’s. An eagle-eyed worker spotted him and he was taken into custody at 1:42 p.m. at St. Mark’s Place and First Ave.
One day later, lower Manhattan was now at ease and abuzz with reported sightings of the gas mask-wearing gunman who shot 10 straphangers aboard an N train in Sunset Park and then wandered around the city.
“We heard he came to McDonald’s and then went and got a beer afterwards. Our friend saw him,” Salim Brisbane, 18, said outside the McDonald’s. “What the actual f–k?”
“It’s just another crazy person who went to this McDonald’s,” added Josh, 18, who lives in the area and regularly frequents the Golden Arches location.
James’ motive remained a mystery. But his bizarre ramble demonstrated he was able to hide in plain sight in some of the city’s busiest areas.
Indeed, from the time James entered Brooklyn via the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in a rented U-Haul cargo van at 4:11 a.m. Tuesday until he strolled casually from a subway station filled with injured and terrified straphangers nearly five hours later, the gunman was caught on an assortment of surveillance cameras.
Video showed the suspect ditching the U-Haul at Kings Highway at 6:12 a.m. clad in an orange work vest and yellow hardhat as if headed to work. He was carrying two bags, which authorities say were packed with fireworks, a gasoline-filled container, a torch and a Glock 17 pistol.
Nearby was an entrance to the N train. James boarded a Manhattan-bound train and traveled eight stops. At 8:26 a.m. he allegedly donned a gas mask, set off a smoke canister and fired 33 shots at straphangers on the crowded train as it approached the 36th Street station. Miraculously, no one was killed.
Amid the chaos, James ditched his belongings, his construction vest and mask and boarded an R train that traveled one stop. Video obtained by the Daily News from a bodega by the 25th Street station shows him emerging from the subway system by himself and walking away. A few seconds later, a group of people are seen running for their lives — seemingly unaware they were fleeing towards the suspected gunman.
“He was the first one out,” said Sulaimen Yehia, 33, who was working at Lotto Deli & Grill. “He already changed his whole gear. They were looking for gray and construction and he came out all black. Nobody thought he changed his clothes that quick.”
Sources said James was next seen on video strolling past the sprawling Green-Wood Cemetery before hopping a city bus to the subway stop at Seventh Ave. and Ninth St. in Park Slope, Brooklyn.
“If it was me I’d pick a different route, one that was less trafficked,” said John Williams, 71, who was sweeping outside his home on 7th Ave. in Greenwood Heights. “But I guess he had more on his mind than his route.”
James bought a mask at the 9th Street Quick Stop, worker Ismail Hossein, 24, confirmed, adding that a colleague had spoken to the FBI and NYPD.
The night of the attack, law enforcement sources told The News, James stayed at the Chelsea International Hostel on W. 20th St. An employee at the hostel, after much deliberation when asked about the notorious guest, told a reporter to come back next week. The 10th Precinct stationhouse is across the street and several doors down.
Wednesday morning, James was spotted at Dimes, the popular eatery that serves “eclectic, health-conscious California-style fare dished in a minimalist, white-&-blond-wood space.”
“He just sat there with the duffle bag looking off into space,” the source said. “No phone, nothing. And the bag was heavy.”
After James left, a customer called the cops, the source said.
Detectives came to Dimes after James was arrested and interviewed employees at the restaurant, the source said.
A couple of hours later, James made his way north had lunch at Katz’s, the famed pastrami palace on Houston St. in the Lower East Side. Workers at the restaurant known for a classic scene in the 1989 rom-com “When Harry Met Sally” were dumbfounded, saying they had no idea James had been among the customers. The News was unable to confirm James’ meal.
The stroll was coming to an end.
James, who had ranted on YouTube videos about homelessness, the conditions of the subways and societal decay, sat down at a McDonald’s at E. 6th St. and First Ave. and called Crime Stoppers. In the call, James stated that he was in the East Village, and that he was “seeing his face all over the news,” said the source. An operator asked James for his callback number — and he replied that he didn’t know it, because his phone was new, and that in any case its battery was about to die. James told the operator he’d be charging the phone at a McDonald’s or somewhere else nearby, the source said.
Officers from the nearby Ninth Precinct were now on high alert. In a strange yet appropriate twist, cops finally put the cuffs on James after a New Jersey security camera company worker recognized the oft-recorded suspect walking on St. Mark’s Place and flagged down a passing police vehicle.
James, arrested less than two miles from One Police Plaza, was then walked from the local police precinct before a bank of cameras and photographers. He’s charged with committing a terrorist act on mass transit.
Yehia, the worker at the Lotto Deli in Sunset Park, recalled Thursday how he was astounded to see the tape of James exiting the nearby subway station.
“He headed toward Fifth Ave. I see a bunch of people, and then they actually went the same way he did,” he said. “The gunman was with them, and they didn’t even know,” he said.