William Barnes Profile: This Man Shot a Cop

In a case that may change how we think of justice, the D.A. wants him to go to jail for it. Again

About 3:30 a.m., a call came over the radio: a burglary, right in the neighborhood. Barclay and Piatek hustled to the scene. Piatek saw a hunched figure in the basement doorway of a place called Marvin Hairstyling Shop, and turned his flashlight on the shape. “Police!” he yelled. “Freeze!”

 From the top of the stairs, Barclay ordered the robber, who wore a black raincoat, to come up to street level. As the man did, he stumbled at the top, and then — CRACK — fired a pistol shot that hit Barclay’s thigh and spun him. And again — CRACK — a bullet hit his shoulder and lodged itself against his spine. The shooter fled, firing another, wild shot as Piatek pursued him. Piatek fired two shots of his own, and as the man tried to climb a tall fence, the officer fired three more times. At last the robber fell and lay motionless.

Piatek ran back to his partner’s side. Barclay lay at the entrance to the beauty parlor. Piatek stayed by his side as panic crept into Barclay’s voice. “I can’t move,” he said.

Meanwhile, other officers arrived, just as the burglar jumped back to his feet. He had faked the extent of his gunshot injury, and now fired a last shot that shattered a patrol car’s windshield. And then he escaped.

Police found William
Barnes hiding in a house just a hundred yards from Eastern State Penitentiary. The place seemed to have a grip on him. And now he’d shot and paralyzed a police officer.

When the other prisoners heard about Barnes’s exploits, they called him the Germantown Cowboy. But quietly, he felt a profound guilt. “My past is a shameful one,” he later wrote in a letter from prison. “I am deeply ashamed.”

Life in prison evolved parallel to life outside. In the 1960s the penitentiary desegregated, in a halting fashion, and Barnes made new acquaintances from black “turf.” They welcomed him into their dice games, and made particularly good wine using canned fruit, which they fermented in emptied gallon paint cans. Prisoners who drank it vomited soon after, but they all searched for anything — even vomit-inducing — to break the monotony of prison.
Barnes specialized in diet pills. The prisoners worked out a scheme in which their visitors would use cigarette packs to smuggle the uppers into the visiting area, then casually throw away the packs after the visits. The next day a prison worker would empty that wastebasket into a larger trash can in the officers’ mess hall. Barnes took a job cleaning the officers’ mess, and would dig through the big cans searching for the special cigarette pack, stuffed with diet pills.