On Wednesday nights, when Mary “K.C.” Gethins clocks out at her day job as a security officer, she changes into what she calls “my colors” — the signature red beret and red jacket of the Guardian Angels, which was founded 40 years ago on Feb. 13, 1979.
Likening the transformation to that of Clark Kent, the 46-year-old Bronx resident and 20-year Angels veteran says, “It just feels good knowing I’m out there helping people.” She dons these threads just after work so that, even before she rendezvouses with the rest of her patrol, her presence can be felt on the subway. Once her colors are on, she’s officially on the lookout for sexual deviants as part of a special, predominantly-female Guardian Angels unit called the Perv Busters.
“We’ve gotten a lot of guys caught,” Gethins says. “We don’t always get the credit for it, but that’s not what we do it for.”
Gethins, a de-facto captain of the team, wrangles up about seven or eight volunteers for regular Wednesday patrols and whatever other nights they’re available. She says the troupe alerts police about the location of suspected perpetrators as well as offenders they catch in the act — groping straphangers, exposing themselves, and other sexual misconduct. The Perv Busters has been covered extensively in the press, and was even credited with helping cuff "a subway groping suspect accused of fondling a woman’s backside" in December, according to the New York Daily News.
Founded three years ago in response to a steep rise in reported subway sex crimes, the Perv Busters is one of the ways the Guardian Angels stay relevant in what is often called by local politicians “the safest big city in America.”
But New York certainly wasn’t perceived as such on Feb. 13, 1979.
That night, for the first time, Curtis Sliwa, then the manager of a Bronx McDonald’s, organized a dozen of his employees into a team of night watchmen, who initially surveyed over a few subway lines, keeping them as safe as they could.
"It was like Jesse James, hold ups on trains,” Sliwa, 64, says, explaining that, back then, city budget cuts left subway cars and platforms devoid of law enforcement during the evening hours. “There was no Uber, there was no Lyft at the time. The people who used the subway, they were the middle class, the lower-middle class, the poor. … They would constantly be victimized.”
What was originally called the Magnificent 13 Subway Safety Patrol quickly expanded, spilling into more trains and onto neighborhood streets. They soon became known as the Guardian Angels, with the red berets giving the group a paramilitary look.
The Angels were not without controversy, however. The group early on was prone to making citizens’ arrests which begot cries of vigilantism from some members of the NYPD and then-Mayor Ed Koch. Sliwa was also personally the center of controversy on a few occasions, admitting to staging crime-fighting scenes for publicity — which he later regretted — and was shot five times, allegedly by a member of John Gotti’s Gambino crime family.
Not all members of the law enforcement community opposed the Angels. Joseph Giacalone, a retired NYPD sergeant, who was on the job as the Angels rose to prominence in the early ’80s and is now an adjunct professor at John Jay University, says that he and many fellow cops viewed the Guardian Angels as helpful to the cause of safety when encountering them on the streets.
"They never got in the way," he says. "They gave people a sense of normalcy, the ability to take a bus or a train and not get robbed."
Though he didn’t directly refer to Koch or any member of the NYPD brass of the time, Giacalone said that sometimes "those who are in charge are out of touch with what’s happening on the street level," and that could have contributed to a misperception about the Angels.
"If people feel safer, it doesn’t matter what’s going on," he added.
The Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association and the New York Civil Liberties Union declined to comment.
Sliwa says the organization reached a city enrollment peak of around a thousand in the mid-80s.
A turning point came when Rudy Giuliani was elected mayor in 1993. Sliwa says he was the first mayor to embrace the Angels and, under Giuliani, crime rates across the city plunged.
Despite its impact on Guardian Angel membership, which according to Sliwa is down to 128 today, he says he’ll “take the Disneyfication [of New York] every day of the week.”
“People like to romanticize what it was: the grit, the grime, the crime,” he continues, describing the pre-Giuliani Five Boroughs. “Those were horrible days.”
Though depleted in numbers locally, the Angels have expanded internationally, with a presence in 13 countries and 130 cities, according to Sliwa, who himself has since gone on to become a recognizable media personality with his own radio show on WABC.
The Guardian Angels — many of them not as spry as they were in their younger days — still patrol New York, but the organization has adopted more of a community outreach profile here as well.
At the Junior Guardian Angels Community Service Center in Washington Heights, for example, Angels watch over students doing homework and offer courses in martial arts and other disciplines.
“We’re just trying to get them to become good citizens, not necessarily Guardian Angels,” says Dennis “Super Stretch” Torres, 55, who runs the Center and has been part of the Angels since its inception. (He didn’t reveal his actual age, then 15, to Sliwa in 1979, so as to remain among the ranks.)
For the Angels’s 40 years of community service, Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. and City Councilmember Ritchie Torres awarded Sliwa a citation on Feb. 9.
There’s also the new Perv Busters, which Sliwa says has “filled a void” in subway law enforcement.
“It’s the best thing I’ve ever done, besides my children of course,” Gethins says of joining the Guardian Angels and fronting the Perv Busters. “We’re 40 years in and there will be another 40 after that. Hopefully I’ll be able to do it as long as my two legs allow me.”