N.Y. Subway Arson Assault Spurs Call for Film Boycott : Crime: Token clerk is in critical condition. Officials say attack on him mimicked scenes from ‘Money Train.’
A gruesome arson attack that left a subway token clerk fighting for his life in a hospital burn unit Monday led to a call for a boycott of the new movie “Money Train” after Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani and police officials said the assault appeared to be a copy of scenes from the film.
The clerk, 50-year-old Henry Kaufman, remained in critical condition at the New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center with burns over most of his body after the attack in Brooklyn early Sunday morning in which two men sprayed a flammable liquid into his token booth, set it on fire and blew it up.
A similar attack appears twice in the Wesley Snipes-Woody Harrelson movie, in which a pyromaniac named Torch terrorizes the city’s subways. In the movie, however, the clerks escape without injury.
Although New York suffered a series of arson attacks on token booths a decade ago, city officials blamed the weekend attack on the movie.
“This is a horrendous crime,” said Giuliani. “So far as we know this has been done for no reason. This appears to be very, very similar to scenes in the movie.”
“It has been seven years since we have had an incident” of this sort, city Police Commissioner William Bratton said at a news conference with Giuliani and City Transit Authority President Alan F. Kiepper. “It is a strong coincidence that within the last week, a movie opened in this city that has several scenes depicting this type of an incident.”
In Washington, Republican presidential front-runner, Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas, who has made attacks on Hollywood a feature of his campaign, called for a boycott of the film.
“For those in the entertainment industry, who too often engage in a pornography of violence as a way to sell movie tickets, it is time for some serious soul-searching,” Dole said in a speech on the Senate floor. “The American people have a right to voice their outrage, and they can do so not through calls for government censorship, but by derailing the ‘Money Train’ at the box office.”
The wife of the victim also leveled her anger at the film and its stars. “Have Wesley Snipes call me,” Kaufman’s wife, Stella, told New York’s Daily News. “I just want to talk to him.”
Snipes publicist, David Pollick, released a statement quoting the star as saying, “My prayers are with Harry Kaufman and his family.” The film’s other star, Woody Harrelson, said Monday night through his publicist, Catherine Olim, “I feel terrible for Mr. Kaufman and his family. I’m sure the movie did not create the mentality of the men who perpetrated this crime, but still, I feel remorseful and am deeply saddened by what happened.”
Columbia Pictures, which released the film, also issued a statement saying company officials were “appalled and dismayed” by the attack. The statement termed the attack an “isolated act of senseless violence” that “should be condemned as it is unequivocally by the producers, the director of this film and the employees of this studio.”
Despite such protestations, however, the apparent copycat nature of the attack seems certain to increase pressure on the movie industry at a time when Dole and other public figures, especially conservatives, have been using Hollywood as exhibit A in their argument that the nation is suffering because of public standards regarding violence and sexuality have become too lax.
Dole, in particular, was quick to make that point. “Yesterday’s incident should also reinforce the message that Hollywood writers and producers have a major responsibility to make sure that their movies and TV shows don’t cross the line in terms of violent or sexual content,” he said in remarks by telephone to students at the University of Northern Iowa.
Kiepper, the city’s top transit official, said his agency did not allow Columbia to film the torching scene in an actual subway tunnel for fear of inspiring violence. Agency officials said they also had asked Columbia to include in the film a depiction of the system’s automatic firefighting equipment, which is designed to make such attacks impossible. Columbia spokesman Ed Russell declined to comment on the company’s contacts with the transit authority.
In theory, the fire suppression system, installed after the attacks in 1988, is supposed to detect any material sprayed into the booth and automatically release halon gas, which smothers any fire. In the actual event, the fire suppression equipment failed to work. City officials said they were looking at evidence indicating the equipment’s sensors may have been deliberately blocked. Token clerks are known to block the sensors from time to time so that they can smoke, officials said.
Clerks, who must spend hours each day confined to one of the subway system’s 741 tiny booths, have been known to block the sensors with cups or clothing.
Kaufman is a smoker, but officials said the sensor could have been blocked before his shift began.
Police said the attack occurred at 1:45 a.m. on Sunday after two men walked up to the booth where Kaufman was working.
The explosion and fire demolished the booth. Kaufman was set ablaze and the force of the blast hurled him from the flaming structure.
An earlier related story appears on F2. Times staff writers Elaine Dutka in Los Angeles and Ronald Brownstein in Washington contributed to this story.