Boston marathon bombings | The carjacking

Terrifying ride ends in daring escape

 

The victim of the Tsarnaev brothers’ carjacking filled in some of the last missing pieces in the timeline of the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspects.

The Boston Globe

The 26-year-old entrepreneur had just pulled his new Mercedes to the curb to answer a text when an old sedan swerved behind him, slamming to a stop. A man in dark clothes got out and approached the passenger window. It was nearly 11 p.m. last Thursday.

The man rapped on the glass, speaking quickly. Danny, unable to hear him, lowered the window — and the man reached an arm through, unlocked the door, and climbed in, brandishing a silver handgun.

“Don’t be stupid,” he told Danny. He asked if he had followed the news about the previous Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings. Danny had, down to the release of the grainy photos of suspects less than six hours earlier.

“I did that,” said the man, who would later be identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “And I just killed a policeman in Cambridge.”

He ordered Danny to drive, the beginning of an achingly slow odyssey last Thursday night and Friday morning in which Danny felt the possibility of death pressing on him like a vise.

In an exclusive interview with The Boston Globe, Danny — the victim of the Tsarnaev brothers’ much-discussed but previously little-understood carjacking — filled in some of the last missing pieces in the timeline between the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier, just before 10:30 p.m. on April 18, and the Watertown shootout that ended just before 1 a.m. Danny asked that he be identified only by his American nickname.

Talk of girls, cars

The story of that night unfolds like a Tarantino movie, bursts of harrowing action laced with dark humor and dialogue absurd for its ordinariness, reminders of just how young the men in the car were. Girls, credit limits for students, the marvels of the Mercedes-Benz ML 350 and the iPhone 5, whether anyone still listens to CDs — all were discussed by the two 26-year-olds and the 19-year-old driving around on a Thursday night.

Danny described 90 harrowing minutes, first with the younger brother following in a second car, then with both brothers in the Mercedes, where they openly discussed driving to New York, though Danny could not make out if they were planning another attack. Throughout the ordeal, he did as they asked while silently analyzing every threatened command, every overheard snatch of dialogue for clues about where and when they might kill him.

“Death is so close to me,” Danny recalled thinking. His life had until that moment seemed ascendant, from a province in Central China to graduate school at Northeastern University to a Cambridge startup.

“I don’t want to die,” he thought. “I have a lot of dreams that haven’t come true yet.”

After a zigzagging trek through Brighton, Watertown, and back to Cambridge, Danny would seize his chance for escape at a Shell Station, his break turning on two words —“cash only” — that had rarely seemed so welcome.

When the younger brother, Dzhokhar, was forced to go inside the Shell Food Mart to pay, older brother Tamerlan put his gun in the door pocket to fiddle with a navigation device — letting his guard down briefly. Danny then did what he had been rehearsing in his head. In a flash, he unbuckled his seat belt, opened the door, stepped through, slammed it behind, and sprinted off at an angle that would be a hard shot for any marksman.

“F—-!” he heard Tamerlan say, feeling the rush of a near-miss grab at his back, but the man did not follow. Danny reached the haven of a Mobil station across the street, seeking cover in the supply room, shouting for the clerk to call 911.

His quick-thinking escape, authorities say, allowed police to swiftly track down the Mercedes, abating a possible attack by the brothers on New York City and precipitating a wild shootout in Watertown that would seriously wound one officer, kill Tamerlan, and leave a severely injured Dzhokhar hiding in the neighborhood.

Danny, who offered his account only on the condition that the Globe not reveal his Chinese name, said he does not want attention. But he suspects his full name may come out if and when he testifies against Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.

“I don’t want to be a famous person talking on the TV,” Danny said. “I don’t feel like a hero. … I was trying to save myself.”

Danny, trained as an engineer, made scrupulous mental notes of street signs and passing details, even as he abided the older Tsarnaev’s command not to study his face.

“Don’t look at me!” Tamerlan shouted at one point. “Do you remember my face?”

“No, no, I don’t remember anything,” he said.

Danny had come to the United States in 2009 for a master’s degree, graduated in January 2012, and returned to China to await a work visa. He came back two months ago, leasing a Mercedes and moving into a high-rise with two Chinese friends while diving into a startup.

When the ordeal had started, Danny prayed it would be a quick robbery. Tamerlan demanded money, but Danny had just $45 in cash — kept in the armrest — and a wallet full of plastic. Evidently disappointed to get so little out of holding up a $50,000 car, he told Danny to drive. The old sedan followed.

“Relax,” Tamerlan said, when Danny’s nerves made it hard for him to stay in the lane. Danny, recalling the moment, said, “My heart is pounding so fast.”

Looking through Danny’s wallet, Tamerlan asked for his ATM code — a friend’s birthdate.

Danny pulled up as instructed on an unfamiliar side street. The sedan stopped behind him. A man approached — the skinnier, floppy-haired “Suspect No. 2” in the photos and videos released by investigators earlier that evening — and Tamerlan got out, ordering Danny into the passenger seat, making it clear that if he tried anything he would shoot him. For several minutes, the brothers transferred heavy objects from the smaller car into Danny’s SUV.

With Tamerlan driving now, Danny in the passenger seat, and Dzhokhar behind Danny, they stopped so Dzhokhar could withdraw money from the Bank of America ATM using Danny’s card. Danny, shivering from fear but claiming to be cold, asked for his jacket.

Tamerlan agreed to retrieve Danny’s jacket from the back seat. Danny unbuckled, put on the jacket, then tried to buckle the seat belt behind him to make an escape easier. “Don't do that,” Tamerlan said, studying him. “Don’t be stupid.”

Danny thought about a girl he secretly liked in New York. “I think, ‘Oh my god, I have no chance to meet you again,’ ” he recalled.

Dzhokhar was back now. “We both have guns,” Tamerlan said, though Danny had not seen a second weapon. He overheard them speak in a foreign language — “Manhattan” the only intelligible word to him — and then ask in English if Danny’s car could be driven out of state. “What do you mean?” Danny said, confused. “Like New York,” one brother said.

They continued west on Route 20, in the direction of Interstate 95, passing a police station. Danny imagined dropping and rolling from the moving car.

The tank nearly empty, they stopped at a gas station, but the pumps were closed.

Doubling back, they returned to the Watertown neighborhood and grabbed a few more things from the parked car, but nothing from the trunk. They put on an instrumental CD that sounded to Danny like a call to prayer.

Suddenly, Danny’s iPhone buzzed. A text from his roommate, wondering in Chinese where he was. Barking at Danny for instructions, Tamerlan used an English-to-Chinese app to text a clunky reply. “I am sick. I am sleeping in a friend’s place tonight.” In a moment, another text, then a call. No one answered. Seconds later, the phone rang again.

“If you say a single word in Chinese, I will kill you right now,” Tamerlan said. Danny understood. His roommate’s boyfriend was on the other end, speaking Mandarin. “I’m sleeping in my friend’s home tonight,” Danny replied in English. “I have to go.”

“Good boy,” Tamerlan said. “Good job.”

The SUV headed for a gas station. Dzhokhar went to fill up using Danny’s credit card, but quickly knocked on the window. “Cash only,” he said. Tamerlan peeled off $50.

Danny watched Dzhokhar head to the store, struggling to decide if this was his moment — until he stopped thinking about it, and let reflexes kick in.

“I was thinking I must do two things: unfasten my seat belt and open the door and jump out as quick as I can. If I didn’t make it, he would kill me right out, he would kill me right away,” Danny said. “I just did it. I did it very fast, using my left hand and right hand simultaneously to open the door, unfasten my seat belt, jump out … and go.”

Danny sprinted between the passenger side of the Mercedes and the pumps and darted into the street, not looking back, drawn to the Mobil station’s lights. “I didn’t know if it was open or not,” he said. “In that moment, I prayed.”

Safe at last

The brothers took off. The clerk, after brief confusion, dialed 911 on a portable phone, bringing it to Danny in the storeroom. The dispatcher told him to take a deep breath. The officers, arriving in minutes, took his story, with Danny noting the car could be tracked by his iPhone and by a Mercedes satellite system, mbrace.

After an hour or more — as the shootout and manhunt erupted in Watertown — police brought Danny to Watertown for a “drive-by lineup,” studying faces of detained suspects in the street from the safety of a cruiser. He recognized none of them. He spent the night talking to police and the FBI.

“I think, Tamerlan is dead, I feel good, obviously safer. But the younger brother — I don’t know,” Danny recalled thinking, wondering if Dzhokhar would come looking for him. But the police knew the wallet and registration were still in the bullet-riddled Mercedes, and that a wounded Dzhokhar had probably not gotten far. That night, they found him in a boat.

When news of the capture broke, Danny’s roommate called to him from in front of the television. Danny was on the phone at the time, talking to the girl in New York.

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