A Subway Death, a Narrative, and a Witness

On March 23, a malevolent, intoxicated hobgoblin named Ryan Beauchamp viciously attacked Joshua Basin – a poet, music lover, levelheaded friend and son – and hurled him onto the tracks of the Bedford Avenue subway station, where he was pinned and killed by a train. At least, that’s the way it was portrayed in the media and discussed in the comment sections: Joshua Basin was the helpless bystander and a victim who’d been murdered in cold blood before a gallery of straphangers.

I was one of those horrified witnesses. For two weeks, I held off on publicly speaking about what I saw because I didn’t want to undermine a potential homicide case. But with a murder charge no longer in play, I can now step forward to say that the incident did not occur as it was said to have. Ryan Beauchamp was no “Subway Slayer.”

The first eyewitness accounts of the incident detailed a scene so ghastly and drawn out that it was difficult to separate factual evidence from storytelling. According to the narrative, an intoxicated man boarded the L train at Union Square. Purported witnesses have said online that he hassled several people before finally verbally assaulting the younger Joshua Basin and his friends. He quite possibly “poked” or “pushed” Joshua. When the train pulled into the Bedford Avenue station, Ryan was reportedly heard to utter the words “it’s show time.” Then he may or may not have pulled Joshua out as the doors opened.

On the platform, they came to blows, whereby it was reported that the drunk or high man pushed Joshua onto the tracks. Some sources claimed Ryan had fallen onto the tracks, as well. In either case, a Manhattan-bound train hit and pinned Joshua Basin as he tried climbing back up to the platform. The man who initiated the fight fled like a coward, leaving his victim pinned and awake, conscious of his fate. Joshua was later pronounced dead at Bellevue Hospital.

Shortly after, the police released a sketch artist’s drawing on a wanted poster that included a headline with the coded logic of “Wanted for questioning regarding an assault…” with the later phrase “…causing his death.” This was now a homicide investigation, and Brooklyn residents were on the lookout for a nameless killer.

There were two things I couldn’t get past as I quietly surveyed the hourly updates of sparse and sometimes inaccurate information that was posted online: how poor a job the media was doing in its coverage, and how perverse, violent, and assured in their beliefs the comment writers were becoming. They wanted the killer’s head, and anyone voicing any doubt or skepticism about the information being presented was shot down and cursed out.

On NY1, Joshua Basin’s mother spoke about what a good son Joshua had been and how he wouldn’t hurt anyone. I felt so terribly for this woman, for her loss, for her being kept in the dark like this while the detectives pieced together witnesses’ testimonies. The news sources were all reporting homicide. Someone had killed her baby – a good kid with lots to live for, according to his friends.

As rumors circulated and the frenzy of outrage reached its peak, the around-the-clock manhunt ended with the capture of someone matching the killer’s description. Ryan Beauchamp was a 33-year-old homeless man who’d possibly been shacking up with the Occupy crowd in Central Park. He stood in stark contrast to the 20-year-old community college kid who, in news reports, was intimately identified by just his first name. In a photo, Joshua sported a sly come-hither look. Meanwhile in his mug shot, Ryan Beauchamp looked like a thick-necked, brick-laying mobster from the thirties, hair wild and wearing a smirk. People online were ecstatic, and wished him a quick flight into hell.

I knew I could alleviate some of the negative press Beauchamp was receiving by talking to the media, but I was concerned about a backlash, and reporters at my door. I also feared (and still do) that during those extreme, adrenaline-spiked minutes, I might have mixed something up, gotten something wrong, might have already graphed a few false memories over the real ones, and that any mistake I made could hurt either Beauchamp or the Basin family even further.

I decided to tell my story to the detectives at the 94th Precinct and let justice prevail in the courtroom, if it came to that. I’m glad I did: the officers who worked around the clock trying to piece this case together were straightforward, intelligent, respectful, humorous people with the best intentions at heart.

This is what I told them.

That Friday night, after a dinner of Korean barbecue, my wife and I got on the L train at Union Square. She took a seat on the bench and I stood before her, holding the bar above. Ryan Beauchamp entered the car to my right, and instead of walking behind me, where there was room, pushed directly between my wife and me. His face was super red – he seemed intoxicated, falling forward as he walked, and I backed away and said something like, “Don’t mind me, man, Jesus.”

He pushed past other people with the same disregard until he arrived at the next door over. The train pulled into the Bedford Avenue station. My wife and I exited from the right door, and as soon as we stepped onto the platform, I turned and saw Joshua Basin swinging at Ryan Beauchamp as Ryan fell towards us, nearly hitting one of the station’s green columns.

I immediately grabbed my wife and put her behind me. Joshua’s hat fell off as he swung. Ryan, it was clear to me, was not a very good fighter, and stumbled over. When Ryan got up he stumbled and then ran toward the other side of the platform. Joshua Basin chased after him.

The eyewitnesses who have since come forward overwhelmingly suggest Ryan started the fight in the train, but I was not there and cannot attest to this. What I do know was that after the first fight ended, Ryan Beauchamp ran away, and Joshua Basin, along with at least one other friend, chased him down. I couldn’t tell right away who was with Joshua, as twenty or so people were scattering out of the way of the fight.

When Joshua caught Ryan, near the opposite edge of the platform, he tore into him – kicking him, punching him, just wailing on Ryan Beauchamp, who had curled into a ball to shield himself. I recall a second figure opposite Joshua involved in the fight, his friend it seemed, but I can’t be sure if the friend was helping or hurting. There was just a lot of movement.

At that point I ran over to help break it up. I remember thinking my best bet was not to go after Joshua or the second person standing over Ryan, as they might start swinging at me, but to try and pull Ryan out from under them. Others, it seemed, were moving forward to help as well, so I felt confident I’d have backup.

This part is a bit mangled. Ryan was somehow able to free himself, and it turned into a wrestling match, and then suddenly, inexplicably, Ryan Beauchamp’s feet were in the air and he was looking over at me, eyes wide. The two men tumbled onto the tracks together. Everyone gasped and I broke into a short sprint, but just as I neared the edge, they both popped up and began trying to hop up onto the platform.

At that moment a woman to my left let out a scream, and I knew what that meant and turned to see the oncoming train speeding down the tracks. I looked back at Josh and Ryan and began screaming “Get down! Lay down! Lay down!” but they were energized by terror and trying to pull themselves back up to the platform. When I turned back to the train, it was less than twenty feet away.

I didn’t want to watch them die, so I spun around and plugged my ears. That’s when I saw my wife watching not only me, but everything, taking it all in. I tried to will her eyes to focus on me. I knew from researching an earlier story about an L-train suicide that witnesses of such things often experience insomnia, depression, nightmares. But I couldn’t help her, and she watched the train hit Joshua Basin and spin him around and pin him in that small space between the train and the platform.

I remember feeling a deep emptiness welling up inside me, along with a sense of unfortunate responsibility. I went and sat next to Joshua, who was facing the train. I yelled and pounded on the train to keep him awake, aware, and with us. I told him he was going to be all right but he kept saying No. A blonde woman knelt behind him, and soon three others came around, then a few more who kept their distance but who wanted to help, to undo the situation.

He kept trying to move himself but couldn’t and we cautioned him against moving in general. A man who identified himself as a doctor came over and I offered him my place and went over to be with my wife, who was distraught. As I held her I noticed a boy who had been with Joshua standing behind us, wide-eyed, strangely defiant looking, being comforted by two crying girls. Then the cops showed up and told everyone to get the hell out of there, and we did.

The cops had already begun cordoning off the L-Train stairs as my wife and I passed them and walked the two blocks home. She was in a weepy daze. I was experiencing a powerful sort of hyper-attentive adrenaline high. When we got home we talked about it, and her response, over and over, was “Why?”

When I was later asked to pick Ryan Beauchamp out of a lineup, and saw him shaking in that small room alongside the look-alikes in Greenpoint’s 94th Precinct, I felt an overwhelming sense of despair. The jury was out: he’d killed a kid, fled, and then got caught. I knew I’d do what I could, but one thing was certain: if they charged him with murder, it meant the subway cameras didn’t catch everything, that my testimony was in direct conflict with someone else’s, and that Ryan Beauchamp’s battle would be an uphill one.

This story of a predator being successfully hunted down and dragged in for questioning was disseminated across a hundred blogs, news sources, and social media sites. It made its way through local fixtures like Gothamist and eventually hopped the pond to Britain’s Daily Mail. And almost all of these sources, with a few notable exceptions, insinuated that Ryan Beauchamp had murdered Joshua Basin. It was the talk of Williamsburg, the cafés where copies of the sketch still hung in the windows, the bars where people discussed having known somebody who’d been there and saw it happen.

And yet when the police and DA finally charged Ryan Beauchamp with a crime, it was for aggravated assault, not murder. Stunned New Yorkers took to the Internet, asking how the police could’ve failed to follow through with a charge of manslaughter, if not homicide.

Since then, public sentiment about this case has shifted a bit as more witness testimonies have been made public. The word “alleged” has crept into more newspapers articles. But there exists a shadow of unease in how the information first reached us, how the narrative took us in one direction only to dramatically reverse gears.

Even now, two weeks later, I hear the prevailing myths continuing to rumble, echoing those opinions I first read in the comment sections of websites – responses that, alongside the prayers and condolences offered to Joshua’s family, called for vigilante justice and rained down their vitriolic messages, sickening and judgmental and careless in their offenses. And whenever these anonymous posters felt compelled to back up their heated responses, they always referred back to a falsity or half-truth first reported online or on TV.

In the comments sections now, you can sense the distaste left in the mouths of the readers. They’ve begun turning on each other. Reading Gothamist, it’s almost as if two camps have formed: Team Joshua and Team Ryan. Some posters elsewhere have even begun turning on the bystanders. How could you let this happen? Why didn’t you do anything? The simple answer is, it all happened very quickly. Less than fifteen seconds and they were on the tracks. The more complicated answer is: it looked brutal. You don’t just jump between two men throwing fists.

Was Joshua Basin a violent guy? On this night he was violent, but I’ve been provoked into violence before and I’m not considered a violent guy. Was Ryan Beauchamp being belligerent? At the very least he was pushy, and he seemed pretty wasted to me. But this might have been just a bad night for him. It’s not about them being good or bad people, it’s about how they responded in the span of a minute, and how one guy is now dead and the other went to jail.

We’re naturally social creatures who thrive on conversation and sharing, so our compulsion to offer opinions can easily be exacerbated by the anonymity afforded by certain sites and by the support groups we fabricate and structure using social media. Unfortunately it’s not too difficult to find oneself in a position of having typed something one immediately regrets, or to find oneself mixed up in a flame war, or to without even realizing it help perpetuate a harmful narrative of spurious claims based on little evidence.

Commenters and journalists alike should practice the art of Slow Replying, taking the time to digest the information they read, possibly even checking other sources, before chiming in with a response. Otherwise you risk coming off as shallow, or trigger-happy, or stupid. And in some cases, like this particular one, where another human’s life may hang in the balance, the ability to withhold comment until more facts become available is actually in my mind a form of social responsibility.

It’s been reported that Ryan Beauchamp may be mentally ill, which could be true; but because we’d already been fed one false scenario already, it smacks of a counterbalance narrative rushing in to replace the initial invective used to describe him.

There are also rumors he was a Wall Street commodities broker who once attended boarding school in Westchester with one of Donald Trump’s sons. A person claiming to know him said he was smart and agreeable when sober. These and a hundred other details will begin to come out and further shape public perception of Ryan Beauchamp. I can do nothing about these rumors. I urge readers to do nothing about them as well.

It was my intention to provide with this recording some sense of what actually occurred that night. It’s certainly not the whole truth; it can never be, but time brings out more voices and facts, providing balance and clarity. It sounds like there was a lot of good in Joshua Basin and I hope his mother and his friends find peace. He was a beloved son and loved by many, it would seem, given how highly his friends spoke of him on TV. This whole situation came about because of rash and unfortunate mistakes in judgment, and in the end was ultimately avoidable. I also hope that Ryan Beauchamp finds some treatment and help in whatever awaits him in the justice system.

Last Wednesday my wife and I we were sitting on the L when the doors opened at 14th Street-Union Square and a tall, well-dressed blonde woman and her equally intelligent-looking date got on the train and stood in front of us. “He had to be guilty of something,” said the woman, talking about Ryan Beauchamp. “No innocent person just runs away.”

I looked up, saw her lips were wine-stained, watched her date shrug his shoulders. “You just don’t do that,” she explained further. “He killed that kid, I don’t care what they say. He was homeless. Maybe even a serial killer.”

Her date looked around the crowded car and tried to play it off. “That’s a pretty big theoretical leap,” he said. “Going from homeless to serial killer.”

“He killed that guy like it was nothing,” she scolded. “Everyone knows it. Have you even read what they’re saying about him? Do you care?”