How a Stupid Mistake Led Police Straight to the Boston Terrorists

How a hostage's escape led police to the Tsarnaev brothers before they were able to kill again

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Two images taken from surveillance video of men the FBI are calling suspect No. 2, in white cap, and suspect No. 1, in black cap, as they walk near each other through the crowd before the explosions at the Boston Marathon on April 15, 2013

Among the many mysteries lingering over last week’s horrors in Boston is this one: How did the Tsarnaev brothers allow the man they carjacked on Thursday night to get away? The release or escape — it’s unclear which is the case — of a person to whom they had identified themselves immediately put the police hot on their trail. For Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, it was a colossal error. For the rest of the world, it was a crucial development that led to their capture and may have saved numerous lives.

To recap: after the FBI released images of the two on Thursday night, the men sprang into malevolent action. They first shot and killed an MIT campus police officer. Then they carjacked a man — who has not been identified but is described as a Caucasian in his 20s — and rode with him in his black Mercedes SUV. According to federal authorities, the Tsarnaevs used the man’s ATM card to withdraw $800 from bank machines in the area. This would explain keeping him alive initially, rather than shooting him and taking his car: the brothers would have needed his ATM PIN to access the cash.

The mystery involves what happened next: the Tsarnaevs either dumped their hostage at a Cambridge gas station, or allowed him to escape, perhaps in the confusion after Dzhokhar was caught trying to shoplift junk food from the gas station’s convenience store. (That would count as another pretty boneheaded move, by the way.) The man was unharmed, though understandably hysterical, and immediately called 911.

[Update, April 22, 2:55 p.m.: A federal affidavit released today asserts that the carjacking victim “managed to escape,” though it doesn’t explain how. The affadavit also describes how one of the Tsarnaev brothers showed the victim that he had a loaded gun and told him, “Did you hear about the Boston explosion … I did that.”]

Why had they not already killed him? If the allegations against the Tsarnaevs are true, they were obviously quite capable of killing in cold blood. Assuming they had his ATM number, the owner of the Mercedes no longer served any obvious use to them. What’s more, he knew exactly who they were: the Tsarnaevs had reportedly identified themselves as the marathon bombers.

Naturally, the carjacking victim provided police with the make and license-plate number of his vehicle. Even better, the Tsarnaevs now had their very own GPS beacon, as authorities tracked the location of a cell phone the man had left in his car. Within minutes, police had found the men and an ensuing gun battle left Tamerlan dead and Dzhokhar in hiding, soon to be caught. End of rampage.

Fortunately, things ended that way. The Tsarnaev brothers were armed and had multiple explosive devices. (The carjacking victim told police they drove to another car and transferred arms from it into his vehicle; by some reports the brothers were driving in two separate cars when police confronted them in Watertown.) If no one had been expecting the Mercedes driver home that night, they might have driven his SUV for hours before a missing-person report would have had police searching for the vehicle. By one account, the brothers told their presumably terrified passenger that they “wanted to head to New York.” Officials have said they believe the brothers planned more violence. It’s not implausible to imagine the men driving to Manhattan, about four hours away, and killing numerous more people. Or they could have quickly made their way to one of Boston’s crowded nightlife strips and gone down in a blaze of demented glory.

If the Tsarnaevs intentionally released their hostage, it’s possible they exhibited a note of empathy for a person they had met face to face. But if they made a stupid mistake by allowing him to escape, they would hardly be the first domestic terrorists to commit such a major blunder. After blowing up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City in April 1995, Timothy McVeigh was caught after being pulled over for driving without a license plate, always a good way to attract police notice quickly.

After the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, one of the plotters tried to get back the $400 deposit he’d put down on a rented truck that had carried the bomb. He got a visit from a SWAT team and a life sentence instead.

Faisal Shahzad thought he was being clever when he filed off the vehicle identification number on the dashboard of the SUV he tried to blow up in Times Square in May 2010. He didn’t realize that automobiles bear VINs in multiple hard-to-reach locations and was arrested two days later.

And from overseas, there’s the story of the Palestinian terrorists in Israel, thrown off by a daylight-saving clock change, whose bomb exploded while they were still transporting it.

The Tsarnaev brothers were competent enough to kill at least four people. But by letting one man escape with his life, they may have committed a blunder that indirectly spared the lives of many others.

This item has been updated to reflect new reports about the carjacking victim’s possible escape. An incorrect reference to Timothy McVeigh renting a Ryder truck under his real name has been deleted.

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