From a new, irregular series of historical articles called “The Bad Old Days,” detailing true crimes in Bay Ridge from the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Around noon on Wednesday, September 2, 1982, George Dalton walked onto Fifth Avenue and sat down in the middle of the street. A bus approached—and drove around him. He got up and went into a store.
Dalton was 43 and six-feet tall; he had on a red athletic shirt over blue-jean bellbottoms. On his right foot, he wore a black shoe, and on his left, a cast. He had been walking with a crutch under his left shoulder and a suitcase in his other hand. At the since-relocated Indoor–Outdoor Gardener, then at No. 7704 (now Bay Ridge Pizza), he spoke with the owners and customers. “I didn’t sleep all last night,” he said. “I didn’t eat. I want to go to a hospital.” One of the owners, Helen DePaola, called BRAVO for him. But then he started to leave, to catch the bus.
“Wait till you see what I’m going to do now,” he told them.
He got on the B63 at 77th Street and pulled out a grenade.
He told the passengers to get off the bus, then told the driver, Luis Ayala, to take him to Victory Memorial. Ayala said he’d need to get clearance first from dispatch; Dalton let him off the bus to call, and Ayala ran away and called the police. Transit cops were among the first responders.
Dalton sat down on the bus’ steps; he couldn’t drive it by himself. BRAVO had shown up but refused to take him anywhere if he were wired to explosives. Helen DePaola came out to talk to him. He said he wanted coffee, so she got him coffee. He said he wanted to go to the hospital. Her husband, Peter, came out and asked what was going on. “He’s got a bomb,” she told him. Peter hurried her back inside.
It wasn’t just the grenade—it was also the suitcase, which Dalton said contained a bomb, wired to a red switch he held in his hand.
Dalton climbed off the bus around 1:45pm and set himself up between storefronts—Mollette’s Millinery Shop (7710 Fifth Avenue, now a carpet store) and the Oliva and Varriale Bakery (No. 7708, Doc Mike’s old office)—as police arrived and cleared the street; large crowds gathered at the barricaded corners to watch. Dalton held court there for eight more hours, often leaning or sitting against the narrow space between neighboring-store windows, demanding $20,000 [$50,000, adjusted for inflation] and then $120,000, a trip to JFK and a ticket to Saudi Arabia.
“At one point,” the Brooklyn Spectator reported, “talking to chief negotiator Lt. Robert Laudin, head of the police negotiating team, Dalton warned, ‘This will just kill you and me,’ referring to the grenade. ‘This,’ he said, pointing at the bomb in the suitcase, ‘will kill a lot of people.’”
Dalton was out of work. His last job had been with the MTA, as a power maintainer, at the substation on 64th Street, off Fourth Avenue, years before that hideous condo tower was built next door. Before that, he’d been chief electrician for Sheraton Hotels in Philadelphia and Charleston. He’d served in the military, though it wasn’t clear when or where; he’d have been about the right age for Vietnam, particularly during the conflict’s early years. He’d been treated for mental illness 13 years prior to the standoff on Fifth Avenue, in a hospital in Charleston, NC [the newspapers may have meant SC?], and he complained to police about recent treatment of an unknown nature he’d recently received at Victory Memorial.
During the week, it was later revealed, he had visited a travel agency, inquiring about tickets to Saudi Arabia. He had also gone into the law office of State Senator Christopher Mega—at 7703 Fifth Avenue, from which Mega watched the siege days later—for advice about a potential case against Sullivan County Jail, where Dalton said he’d recently done 10 days for theft of services from a restaurant in Monticello, NY, a village about 30 miles WSW of New Paltz. “The legislator said he did not believe Dalton had grounds for a suit,” the White Plains Journal News reported. Dalton told a BRAVO EMT that that’s where he had injured his leg, and that the cast he’d gotten had fallen off.
“Allan Israel, a pharmacist two doors from the siege, said Dalton had come into his store…and was ‘loud and boisterous,'” UPI reported.
“He came in…to ask where he could get plaster of Paris,” Israel said. “He was despondent about a doctor who wanted to charge him $80 for a cast and he was going to make his own.”
“He seemed like a typical nut, but he didn’t seem dangerous yesterday,” Israel said. “Today he sure is.”
Dalton’s brother, John, a 27-year-old lance corporal in the Marines, had been at the recruiting station on 86th Street near Fifth Avenue when the standoff began. He reported to the scene, along with 63-year-old George, Sr., and though John tried twice to talk to his brother, both attempts failed—Dalton just started screaming.
He was having a hard time; he’d separated from his wife, Mary, with whom he’d lived at 941 or 944 71st Street, with their four children. Dalton hadn’t seemed disturbed then. “It’s a shock,” a neighbor told the Spectator. He’d since moved in with his father and his brother, at 536 79th Street—just 300 feet or so from Fifth Avenue.
Most of the afternoon, Dalton stood or sat atop a steel cellar door in the sidewalk, pulling the pin out of his grenade, a Mark II from WWII, and sticking it back in. He drank beer, swallowed pills, smoked cigarettes and “drank water and soda from a pewter mug,” the Spectator reported. “He kept alternating the grenade from one hand to the other and held on to a red switch wired to the bomb inside the suitcase.”
Police were convinced Dalton was capable of making the bomb and that the device—a milk carton wired to batteries and a switch Dalton was holding—appeared real enough when he opened the suitcase for police to get a glimpse at it.
He took an American flag out of the suitcase and presented it to the police.
“Anybody want to take me to the airport?” he shouted to the crowd at one point. “He”—the negotiator, Laudin—“doesn’t want to take me.”
“Police said Dalton talked about his continued unemployment, his love of President Reagan and his belief that the country was going ‘downhill,'” UPI reported. “‘Blow yourself up,’ some spectators shouted at the man, who dropped his pants at one point.”
Brooklyn Union Gas workers shut off service to the area, in case of an explosion. Nearby stores and residences were evacuated. News photographers crowded into an apartment near the scene, inhabited by the McLaughlin family, who served them coffee. The police redirected Fifth Avenue traffic down 78th and 75th streets and set up headquarters across the street, in a store called Hometronics. (I can’t figure out if this was across Fifth Avenue and/or across 77th Street.)
Besides negotiators, who stood off the curb 10 feet away, “scores of detectives,” cops in bomb vests and members of the bomb squad stormed the scene. Police with high-power binoculars occupied rooftops to try to get a better look at the insides of the suitcase when Dalton opened it. “What are you looking at?” he shouted to them, according to the Spectator. “Then, pointing to his head, Dalton yelled, ‘There’s nobody home up here, believe me.’”
The DePaolas, who owned the gardening shop, thought the police provided Dalton with a “captive audience” and exacerbated the situation. “He was still rational in the beginning,” Helena told the Spectator. “Before police and everyone came. Then he started to talk about the $20,000, Saudia Arabia, what was going on in the world, his cast, high prices. It didn’t start out like it was a maniac. It was just somebody who desperately needed help. Everybody has their pressure, their boiling point. All of us have a breaking point; some of us are lucky to have friends to talk to.”
The standoff continued as night fell. It wasn’t until a little before 10pm that progress was made—Dalton agreed to move off the avenue, to Owl’s Head Park. An explosion-proof bomb squad truck, known as Big Bertha, arrived, and he climbed in the back with his suitcase and grenade and sat on the ledge. “Dalton appeared on the verge of throwing the grenade at one point,” UPI reported, “when he realized two Emergency Service cops were creeping across the roof of the bomb squad truck.”
Jumping from the ledge of the truck, Dalton cursed and brandished the grenade as 25 cops near the vehicle backed off. He later returned to the truck and was driven to the park. There, he sat on the back of the truck clutching the grenade—its pin removed.
“Flanked by two police hostage negotiators, [he] was whizzed through the streets of the normally sedate middle-class neighborhood to a grassy hill in dark Owls Head Park near the Brooklyn waterfront,” the Journal News reported. “Crowds of people clapped, cheered, shouted or hooted as the truck and its entourage of police cars, fire trucks and ambulances headed to the park.”
Officials surely reasoned the empty park would be a safer place for a bomb to explode than the middle of Fifth Avenue, threatening fewer people and causing less property damage, but it was a hell of a choice to have to make. Owl’s Head Park could have been blown up!
But it didn’t come to that. Dalton dropped his grenade around 10:30pm. “Police smothered [it] with a metal bomb net,” the Spectator reported, “but neither the grenade or the bomb ever exploded.”
“Dalton surrendered and was bundled into a police car,” the Times reported.
Lieut. Robert Louden, commander of the police hostage negotiating team, who had spent the whole day talking to the man, told reporters that ”no one thing” had produced the surrender. ”It was just a culmination of talking to him,” the lieutenant said. He said Mr. Dalton surrendered after being assured that the police would not shoot him. Referring to the grenade—which at that point was still not known to be a dud—the lieutenant said, ”He dropped it to the ground and scared the hell out of us.’’
The suitcase was brought to a bomb-disposal site in the Bronx. It turned out the grenade was a practice model and did not contain explosives; the suitcase “bomb” was just a bundle of wires and batteries—also containing no explosives.
Dalton was to be charged with kidnapping—for the bus passengers—grand larceny by extortion, reckless endangerment and menacing. But he doesn’t appear in the NYS prisoner database; perhaps he was declared mentally ill and hospitalized instead? Whatever happened, the newspapers don’t seem to have stuck with the story, and one unusually wild day in Bay Ridge faded even from most local memories.