For roughly two decades, Sabir Jones bounced in and out of jail on a series of serious charges involving drugs, guns, assaults and sex crimes.
Mr. Jones, 39, was plagued by homelessness, drug abuse and mental illness. He slept in Newark’s Penn Station and panhandled outside, regularly having run-ins with the police.
More recently, he joined the population of emotionally disturbed people living in New York City’s subway system. And it was on a busy Midtown Manhattan platform, the authorities say, that his chronically disturbing behavior erupted in attacks on two passengers.
About noon Wednesday, Mr. Jones punched a 26-year-old student from Queens in the face, fracturing his jaw, the student said. Authorities said he then targeted a woman commuting to work and waiting for the E train in the Fifth Avenue-53rd Street station.
Police officials said Mr. Jones shoved her into a moving train, bashing her head and sending her onto the subway tracks, critically injured. Other passengers helped her back onto the platform and called 911.
She was taken to NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital with a head injury and was in critical condition, police officials said Wednesday. Neither police nor hospital officials would discuss her condition Thursday.
The unprovoked assaults unnerved a city reliant on the subway as its lifeline. High-profile attacks have fed fears over the safety of a system trying to win back ridership that plunged during the coronavirus pandemic. City efforts to coax homeless and mentally ill people from the system have had mixed success.
Michael Kemper, the Police Department’s chief of transit, said Mr. Jones had been “known to the department” through a previous arrest and by his constant presence in subway stations. Officials said they quickly identified him as the attacker by reviewing subway camera footage.
The student who was punched Wednesday said that when he stepped out of an E train, he encountered Mr. Jones, who was screaming obscenities. He hurried away, but Mr. Jones came up from behind and punched him, said the man, who asked to remain anonymous because Mr. Jones was still on the loose when he spoke about the assault.
The student said he fled the station and underwent surgery on Thursday. He said he did not see Mr. Jones push the woman onto the tracks, but when he saw a photo of Mr. Jones later, he recognized him as his attacker and then called the police.
After the attacks, Mr. Jones apparently returned to his old Newark haunt.
Police officials in the New Jersey city said their officers were called to the Penn Station area just after noon on Thursday after getting a call that Mr. Jones had been seen there. The officers arrested him and handed him over to U.S. marshals. New York officials had not charged him with any crime by Thursday evening.
Mr. Jones has a long history of criminal convictions in and around Newark dating back nearly two decades, ranging from joyriding to weapons and drug possession, from sex offenses to attacking and throwing urine on a police officer, said Robert Florida, a spokesman for the Essex County prosecutor’s office.
Mr. Jones’s older brother Malik Jones, 45, said in an interview that his brother suffered from mental illness.
“He’s all right when he’s taking his medication,” he said. “When he doesn’t, it’s a very different situation. Then it’s all over with.”
“He started acting out in his 20s — we’d be at the store and he thought people were talking about him — he heard voices,” Malik Jones said while standing at the door of his family’s home in Orange, N.J., on Thursday afternoon.
He said his brother’s violent outburst could just as easily have been aimed at his own relatives.
“The person who was hurt, that could have been my family,” Malik Jones said. “My mother, my sister, my daughter could have been pushed the same way. I just don’t want him to be in jail for the rest of his life.”
Mr. Jones has a history of homelessness, mental illness and drug abuse, according to a person who was given access to some of his social service records.
In November 2021, workers from an organization that does homeless outreach on the subway, the Bowery Residents’ Committee, talked to Mr. Jones at a station in Manhattan. The person said he told them he used the synthetic marijuana K2, took psychiatric medication and had been homeless for four years.
Although subway crime is slightly down this year compared with last year and the chance of becoming a crime victim on the subway is low, the prospect of being shoved while on a platform is a perennial urban nightmare.
In May, a woman was partially paralyzed after a man shoved her head against a moving train at the Lexington Avenue/63rd Street station. The last fatal push occurred in January 2022, when Michelle Go, 40, was shoved onto the tracks at the Times Square station and hit by an R train. Martial Simon, 61, a homeless man with schizophrenia and a history of erratic behavior, was charged with second-degree murder in Ms. Go’s death but deemed unfit to stand trial.
Mr. Jones was similarly troubled. According to a bulletin put out by the Newark Police Department in March 2021 after he had been reported missing by relatives, he had been diagnosed with depression and psychosis.
Outside Newark’s Penn Station on Thursday, in an area littered with used needles, vomit and pigeon droppings, drug users nodded out or panhandled.
Steve Manzano, a cleaning contractor assigned to tend the area, said Mr. Jones was a regular.
“He’s all over the place, and he’s screamed at me before,” Mr. Manzano said. “I know he’s got anger issues, and he can be scary.”
As he returned to sweeping, he expressed pessimism about the legal system’s ability to handle someone like Mr. Jones.
“What are you going to do with the guy? The mental institutions are overbooked — he’ll be in and out,” he said. “It’s just like a turnstile.”
Maria Cramer contributed reporting.