Bernhard Goetz, shown in 1996, served just over eight months behind bars.

Story highlights

James Ramseur, 45, is found dead in a New York CIty motel room

Ramseur was one of four victims injured nearly three decades ago by Bernhard Goetz

Goetz was a man New Yorkers once dubbed "the subway vigilante"

New York CNN  — 

One of four victims injured nearly three decades ago by Bernhard Goetz, a man New Yorkers once dubbed “the subway vigilante,” has been found dead, according to a source with knowledge of the investigation.

James Ramseur, 45, was found Thursday, exactly 27 years to the day after a controversial subway shooting catapulted him and the others into the national spotlight, highlighting strained race relations and fears of widespread crime in New York City during the 1980s.

Ramseur was found unconscious in a Bronx motel room by motel staff members.

The cause of his death was not immediately clear.

Since that infamous 1984 shooting, Ramseur had a largely troubled life, having been convicted on rape and robbery charges. He was sentenced in 1986 for those crimes, and served 25 years behind bars, according to the state’s Department of Corrections and Community Supervision website.

“It’s always sad when someone takes their own life,” said former New York Mayor Ed Koch, who was in office at the time of the shooting. Koch’s comment was an apparent reference to media reports that say Ramseur died of a drug overdose.

CNN cannot independently confirm that account.

Goetz shot Ramseur and three other African-American teenagers on December 22,1984, aboard a Manhattan subway car.

The four victims said they were panhandling for money to play video games and had asked Goetz for $5.

Goetz, a white man, testified that he felt threatened and thought he was being robbed, and he fired several rounds into the youths.

A jury acquitted Goetz of murder and assault charges in the shooting, but convicted him of illegal possession of a weapon. He served just over eight months behind bars.

Lawsuits filed against Goetz were initially dismissed. But in 1996, a jury awarded Darrell Cabey – who was paralyzed in the shooting – $43 million for his injuries. A judge later ruled that Goetz, who had filed for bankruptcy, was still liable to pay the sum.

The shooting garnered national attention and came during a period of high crime in New York, said Mitchell Moss, professor of urban policy and planning at New York University.

The city’s crime levels peaked in 1990, noted Moss, when more than 2,200 homicides were reported across the five boroughs.

As of Thursday, police reported that the city’s 2011 numbers tallied less than 500.

“We really had a city out of control” during the 1980s, Moss told CNN. “New Yorkers were living in an environment in which they had really become accustomed to a high level of crime, some of this due to the crack cocaine epidemic, the economy and the shrinking of the police department.”

Some observers view the Goetz shooting as a low point in relations between blacks and whites in New York.