James Comey recalls a 'life-changing' run-in with a gunman who broke into his childhood home

Comey said the experience forced him to always have “some weapon at hand nearby.

April 15, 2018, 10:10 PM

James Comey's highest-profile interactions with criminals came during his time as a prosecutor and later as the head of the FBI, but his first encounter with one came when he was a teenager.

He came face-to-face with an armed burglar back when he was 16 years old, when the suspect broke into his house in Bergen County, New Jersey, and threatened Comey and his younger brother.

Comey, now 57, detailed the tense standoff during his exclusive interview with ABC News’ chief anchor George Stephanopoulos, recalling how he convinced the man to lock him and his brother in a bathroom in an attempt to stay out of harm’s way.

The terrifying episode left Comey so shaken that to this day, he told Stephanopoulos, he always “had some weapon at hand nearby,” and the weapon of choice for many years was a butcher’s knife.

“I thought about the Ramsey rapist every night, I don't mean most nights, I mean every night for at least five years,” Comey told Stephanopoulos.

The drama unfolded back in October 1977, "at the same time that the Son of Sam, David Berkowitz, was terrorizing New York City, that summer of '77 was known as the time of the Ramsey rapist," Comey told Stephanopoulos of the criminal who had been given the nickname based on the New Jersey town that he had been targeting.

"It was a Friday night. And -- I was a nerd, so I was home working on a piece for a literary magazine. I was writing about peer pressure. And I was in my room when a gunman kicked in the front door of the house. And the next hour or so was terrifying and life-changing," Comey said.

PHOTO: A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies, and Leadership by James Comey
Flatiron Books

The retelling of the story about his run-in with the gunman – whom Comey believed was the so-called Ramsey rapist – came when Comey met with Stephanopoulos in his childhood home as part of his interview about his new book, "A Higher Loyalty: Truth, Lies and Leadership," which goes on sale on April 17.

"This was such an intense period here that the Boy Scouts actually had a service where, if you were babysitting, they would call you every half hour because of fear of the Ramsey rapist 'cause there'd been so many attacks around this area," Comey said of the tension in 1977.

Police later told Comey they believed his family home had become a target because the suspect had seen a person lying down watching television in the basement. What the suspect didn't know was that it was Comey's younger brother, Peter, who had been watching TV and not his older sister who had been visiting on a break from college but wasn’t at home that night.

Comey told Stephanopoulos that he had been upstairs when the suspect broke in and grabbed Peter, eventually bringing him up to their parents’ bedroom, which was near his.

"As I stepped in, I looked to my right, and there was a guy with a gun and wearing a wool ski hat," he said, adding that he then momentarily lost his vision, regaining it to find his brother being pinned down.

"He jumped on Peter, put his right knee in the middle of his back, and stuck the gun with his left hand into his ear and turned to me and said, 'You move, kid, and I'll blow his head off.' And I didn't move,” Comey said.

"I don't know. But in my mind, I knew he was about to shoot us. And he had encountered two boys he didn't expect to encounter. .. I was a senior in high school, 5'10", healthy boy,” he added. “And I thought, ‘He's about to kill us.’ And that's the moment that changed my life and my outlook on life.

"I panicked at first, and started to pray. And then a strange wave of cold washed over me. And I was -- I don't know how to explain it -- I felt almost like a stone and started thinking, 'If he shoots Pete first, I'll roll off the bed and grab him,'” Comey explained. “And then I started speaking, just instinctively, just speaking, and lying about how much we hated our parents. We didn't care what he did to the house. We didn't care what he took. We wouldn't even tell them that he was there. ‘Our parents are terrible.’ And I just kept going on and on and on.”

The suspect made the boys guess where he could find any money in the house, going on a makeshift tour of the home. At one point, Comey said the suspect "drank milk from the refrigerator."

Comey convinced the man to lock him and his brother in a downstairs bathroom, lying that it had been sealed up when, actually, they could escape through the window. The suspect checked the window quickly and couldn't open it himself so he decided to lock the boys in the bathroom as he made his exit.

"He said, 'Tell your mommy and daddy you've been good little boys,' and then pushed us into the bathroom and wedged a chair against the outside. And so I thought, 'We're done here.' And my plan was to stay in that bathroom for the rest of the night," Comey said.

His brother had other plans, though, arguing that they should go alert someone that they believed to be the Ramsey rapist was on the prowl. Peter, who is two years younger, climbed out the window first, with Comey following, Comey recalled.

The gunman spotted the boys after they tried to escape, grabbing Peter and then forcing him and Comey against the back fence, Comey said. His neighbor’s Siberian husky intervened, however, alerting the dog’s owner.

The neighbor, a local football coach, came over and faced the gunman, too, Comey said.

"It gets chaotic," Comey said, likening the scene to one written in "a movie script."

The gunman heard the coach's wife yelling for him and the gunman took off in the direction of the coach's wife and mother. The Comey boys and the coach ran into the Comey's house to call the police.

The gunman tried unsuccessfully to bring the women into the Comey house, eventually giving up, Comey said. He then forced the women into the coach's house.

PHOTO: FBI Director James Comey delivers the keynote remarks at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance Leadership Dinner March 29, 2017 in Alexandria, Va.
FBI Director James Comey delivers the keynote remarks at the Intelligence and National Security Alliance Leadership Dinner March 29, 2017 in Alexandria, Va.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

The police arrived a short time later and the gunman ran out of the coach's house and escaped into nearby woods.

A manhunt for the suspect ensued and a suspect was arrested days later but was never convicted. It was never determined if the man had in fact been the Ramsey rapist.

But Comey noted that while "there was never a resolution of the case," the positive outcome was that "that night, the Ramsey rapist attacks stopped."

He said the experience left a lasting impression, both in the terror he felt in the immediate aftermath and in the way he approaches life now.Comey said that for years after the attack, he kept a butcher knife in between his mattress and the box spring, with the handle facing outwards.

"I've always, since then, had some weapon at hand nearby," Comey said.

He said his brush with a gunman has prompted him to seize every opportunity in life, joking how his kids know that he's "a sunset guy" because he "always make 'em get outta the car and look at a sunset, 'cause this could be your last day."

"All the things that annoy us in our lives aren't that important when you've seen the end of your life and realize just how short and precious life is," Comey said.

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