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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FBI / AP

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.

PHOTOS: Photos: Boston Celebrates Capture of Bombing Suspect

421 comments
evil.aaronm
evil.aaronm

Bigger question: if these two purported clowns were able to fly under our surveillance radar and pull this off - in broad daylight, no less - what does that say about the abilities of our ever-vigilant authorities?  All that spying, and they couldn't stop these guys.  All those heavily armed bodies going door-to-door - assaulting people who obviously did not resemble the suspect - and they can't find this kid.  I'm not sure who the bigger clowns were, but I fear how this will impact what's left of the Constitution.

evil.aaronm
evil.aaronm

To all the bed wetters who think this article is a new, revealing HowTo for running a hostage situation, how do you know the bad guys didn't plan to kill the kid, anyway, and he escaped before they could?  Killing hostages - after monologuing, no less - isn't a new tactic: geez, it's been a stale,  predictable plot device for decades!  You act like Crowley's revealing state secrets.

elmer
elmer

With this article would be terrorists in the future will NOW kill their victims/hostages so that they cannot be traced. What a stupid article.  You should have kept your article in the closet for your reading and not released to the public. Terrorists will now have the idea to KILL ALL THEIR CONTACTS, etc.

MobileCasinoBoy
MobileCasinoBoy

Why would you call the 2 Boston bombers domestic terrorists?  Neither were born in the US, and only one was a citizen for just 8 months. They both had valid Russian passports. 

ArchyC
ArchyC

A "stupid mistake" caught them? Really?  I thought it was all those billions we taxpayers pay to have our calls monitored, and now you're telling me it was their stupid mistake?  I want my money back. 

jArturo
jArturo

I could not agree more!

ucheharpers
ucheharpers

may the next car hijacked victim be this reporter, then he can lecture the terrorists how not to keep him alive...

IT22
IT22

OMG Time..REALLY? Thanks for tipping off all future Terrorists to make absolutely sure you kill anyone you are in contact with. Good job of scolding them for their mistake in not killing this guy to make that whole getaway successful. The next hijacked car owner killed is on your conscience. Sometimes I wonder if news writers have brain cells missing. They love to give the details on mistakes made or details on how the cops figured some thing out so the next person can do it right. They just value a good story over the bigger picture of safety for all of us. I have more disgust with the media every day. They'd sell their mothers for story.

Gomerite
Gomerite

Am I missing something? Let's say these terrorists allowed the kidnap victim to live because they are stupid. Now suppose they had read an article like this one (or heard it discussed) before their rampage. You lay out the danger of witnesses very clearly and repeatedly, offering the sage advice that killing such bystanders right away is the intelligent policy. Aren't you providing helpful tactical advice to mentally challenged terrorists and other unbalanced people? Why would you want to do that? But maybe I'm paranoid. Maybe all the would-be terrorists out there would never read Time and identify with descriptions of others like themselves. If that's true, calling the brothers "bone headed" and "possibly stupid", and repeatedly railing (against?) their "colossal error", and "major blunder" couldn't possibly have negative consequences. And plus, it makes everyone have a little chuckle at the terrorists' expense. Definitely newsworthy. Thanks bunches.

JohnTlag
JohnTlag

They weren't the brightest of chaps. It was a high stress situation. Not the best combination.

haroldginn
haroldginn

In this article Mr. Crowley writes "... driving to Manhattan, about four hours away and killing numerous more people."  Mr. Crowley, have you considered high school? It's not too late.

MarcPhila
MarcPhila

This whole hijacking situation is one of the main reasons why the conspiracy theorists say that this was all staged. 

elvisthree16
elvisthree16

I think it also had something to do with FBI monitoring them for the last five years.

arker
arker

Maybe the title should have been worded a bit differently.

SamiaTheBagel
SamiaTheBagel

@onekade to be fair, this article was written 4 days b4 carjacker story. But a lot of the reports still don't make complete sense

mkb
mkb

Many other people were saved from his mistake. Good things also comes from stupidity. Thank god 

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RebeccaGoehner
RebeccaGoehner

It is very easy to find out how this happened.  A simple Google search reveals it.  When one brother went into the store the victim of the car jacking figured it was his best chance because there was only one of them.  He thought ahead of time about the direction he would run in, and took into account the angle the brother left in the vehicle would be shooting in, once he exited the vehicle.  Taking into account the angles of the vehicle (a Mercedes SUV) and the direction to run that would be most strategically blocked from the shooter by the vehicle's angles, he quickly and with forethought, unstrapped his seat belt and flew out of the car running at that angle.   The carjacked victim literally ran for his life in that predetermined, strategic direction.

If you don't panic in a situation where you know you will lose your life soon, it is amazing how quickly your mind can work to save yourself. 


RadheShyamGupta
RadheShyamGupta

U.N.O./U.S.A.N.A.T.O./WORLD ARMY with pious peaceful Society must/ should not flee from any part of the world.If they are facing financial problems they should take donations from all the countries who should pay voluntarily.

RadheShyamGupta
RadheShyamGupta

If anyone attacks either in BOSTON,Washington,Delhi,Banglore,Hyderabad,Mumbai,Karachi,Islamabad,Afghanistan,Beijang,Russia,London,etc.in any part of the WORLD then U.N.O. should send its world Armed force to all those places to control/punish the guiltyby all means to maintain Peace,security,Justice.

RadheShyamGupta
RadheShyamGupta

We have to save the whole world,& the Humanity,mankind from all types of trouble makers.we do not want the THIRD WORLD WAR.Some stupid,mad people may want it but as a SENIOR RESPONSIBLE PERSONS OF THE WORLD we have to make them understand by al possible means.

RadheShyamGupta
RadheShyamGupta

International President-World Friends Association For Peace & Security,Mr.Radhe Shyam Gupta,Advocate,Supreme Court of India appeals to the U.N.Secretary General,VETO POWERS of the WORLD,N.A.T.O.,Members of the SECURITY COUNCIL of the U.N.O.to put penalty on the Country/countries/their Presidents,Prime Ministers/Members of the Parliaments to be responsible for the Terrorist Attacks on the INNOCENTS/their dependents Families if their country/countries/I.S.I./security agency/political parties/groups/Organisations etc. should be held RESPONSIBLE/personally liable for punishment to the crime,financially also liable to pay/their Bank accounts/properties to be attached/confiscated.

slofiredon
slofiredon

Michael Crowley if you wonder how these terrorists could make those kinds of mistakes just make a review of your "article" and the corresponding responses from readers!! Freedom of the press allows a person to write whatever they desire but I think most professional journalists maintain a level of responsibility to filter their releases. In what single way does your article benefit society as a whole? Most likely, even though extremely remote, the next duo of incompetent terrorists will take your advice and summarily eliminate any and all potential witnesses...   

If you are trying to show how smart you are by pointing out these missteps...you just confirmed how stupid a person can be!!! 

cyangant
cyangant

Poor parents...one sibling dead, another loses a leg, fbi photos show as he was dropping the backpacks right next to the kids he was smiling...they would have killed more people if they had made it to NYC, time to put the dog down

KSM
KSM

If idiots like those can cause such massive amounts of grief and damage, it's frightening to imagine what a smart person could do if he were so inclined.  Objectively, it is far easier to commit acts of violence and destruction than it is to prevent such acts. 

SethBullock
SethBullock

Let this be a lesson to all the future terrorists.  Make sure you kill everyone!

NickAmes
NickAmes

Fortunately for us, they were DUMMIES. We need our effective Intel Services and Laws to be able to catch the rest!!! Every one of us who has been following the story knows these guys were DUMMIES and, that we would plan things out a lot better IF we were to do some thing like this. So, let's be Thankful we've got so many Good People on the job, sniffing out Plots. We'd be over run with Terrorists by now, if we didn't have Strong Institutions.

WKSloane
WKSloane

This article will be reprinted in a Terrorism for Dummies Manual. 

Jamoke201
Jamoke201

It's is hard to believe this article was written by a professional journalist.  I assumed it must have been written in a blog or something because of the lack of sense of the writer.  How can you highlight that the bombers should have killed their hostage?  You are not at home watching a movie pointing out the errors in the screen writing.  This is a person's life and unfortunately people read your articles.  This sounds far fetched, but if any of your readers ever take a hostage and heed your advice, well that is blood on your hands.  I'm sure you've heard the expression that the pen is mightier than the sword.  You get the Jamoke of the day award.  Congrats!

subhasishbaruah
subhasishbaruah

By pointing out the mistakes of the arrested Boston bombersTIME magazine is doing a great disservice to USA and citizens of all countries  who have died in the War against global terrorism . In fact while reading your article I felt as if for the sake of more masala news you want to ensure that Carjackers kill their victims the next time they commit such crimes. How sick and irresponsible of you! That too coming from a renowned magazine! Shame, Shame, Shame! Why don't you publish a primer for terrorists? Terrorists will appreciate your efforts and your dipping sales figures may also improve. 

knightsbridge
knightsbridge

Dzhokhar said they did it to "defend Islam." How killing people can defend Islam I do not understand this mentality of JIHAD,we have to do more study on this JIHAD ideology.

realitytest
realitytest

Great idea!   Give a handy pointer to incubating hostage takers-  to be sure to kill them.   You even put it in the headline! 
THINK!   Who else would be really interested in making a note of this  "blunder"? Not only would they not want to be caught,  but also not to be ridiculed.

This is JUST the kind of thing that leads to more of same. 

RitaFinta
RitaFinta

I am very interested to understand more about the mother, the wife and the "best friends" of these killers.  Did no one knew where these two spend their time, what they spent their money on, who they associated with, where they stored all the materials used in the bomming?  Did they have loving relationships?  Did he adore his daughter, loved his wife and had a warm relationship with his mother and worked hard to provide a good life ?       

PageTurner
PageTurner

Gee, Time.  Are you stopping to think that maybe your hip liberal anti American stance contributed to the care and feeding of vermin like these?

When you denigrate and revile those who support your liberties by portraying them as rubes and bumpkins while extolling the virtues of all those who would take those liberties away you create the climate that excuses killing innocents to make an extremist point.

Bill Ayers, Katherine Boudin - why have you rehabilitated these to America hating, unrepentant terrorists?  Why don't you question the character of those who count them among their closest friends?

This terror on our shores in on you.

MarkDiaz
MarkDiaz

Two radicalized men killed 3 (so far) and injured hundreds. They could have had a much worse impact. Thank heavens they were not more bloodthirsty or better trained or the damage would have been far worse. I'm a Bostonian, and took the bombing very hard. I think the bombers actually took joy in the damage and hurt they caused. They hurt innocent people. What's wrong with them? They killed 8 year old Martin Richard, and severely wounded his mom and his sister - one report was that his sister lost her lower leg. . It's terribly sad. 

MaryFloyd
MaryFloyd

Mary Floyd: My theory is that, in the case of Muslim or other multiple-wife religions, a man who has four wives leaves three men who can never hope to have a normal life with a wife and children. Those leftover men are the ones who kill themselves to try to kill others.

reptar100
reptar100

@MobileCasinoBoy US Citizenship makes them "domestic" enough.

Furthermore, the plan was hatched, planned and executed w/o any foreign coordination (it also looks better on the US vs THEM scorecard)

WilfTarquin
WilfTarquin

@MarcPhila Conspiracy theorists think EVERYTHING is staged. Except, naturally, things which really are staged, like the campaign the Kochs organized against TSA, in which they drafted the conspiracy theorists to fight. In fact, the best description for conspiracy theorists is "gullible sheep", which is just deliciously ironic.

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@Jamoke201 

He still is technically correct.... the man should have been killed. If you are under the gun of the FBI you do not leave talking mouths behind - only shot heads.

The idea is to think of the brothers trying to get away.... or do more harm.... they obviously wanted one or both and thus it makes NO SENSE to leave a live hostage whatever your damned morals have to say : It WAS NOT YOU, IT WAS THEM

KSM
KSM

@subhasishbaruah - Frankly, those were some pretty obvious mistakes.  Anybody dumb enough to have made them isn't smart enough to avoid making similar ones, and anybody smart enough not to make them gained nothing from the article anyway.

pjbf
pjbf

@knightsbridge "How killing people can defend Islam I do not understand"

Funny, I feel the same about Christianity at times.

If you think these morons, and the 9/11 hijackers represent all of Islam, then you must think also that Westboro Baptist "Church" represents all Christians.  Let's not get into how many people have been killed in Jesus's name, hmm?  

Hadrewsky
Hadrewsky

@knightsbridge 

Islam itself is responsible... if that garbage was not in their holy creed of scrap papers of chronological order than MAYBE Islam wouldn't breed such violence.


No Islam - No Islamic Jihad garbage. This goes for all religions with its holy books full of violence including the Bible.

SwiftrightRight
SwiftrightRight

@Hadrewsky @Jamoke201 How can you say some as stupid as "is technically correct.... the man should have been killed" 

I won't even go into the moral implications But lets say they decide to kill they guy. They proceed to shoot him in the head landing a one shot kill and within SECONDS "shots fired" police dispatches are have alerted every officer in the area. Not only that, depending on the area their location could have been nearly instantaneously triangulation based on the noise of the shot. And that's assuming they get a one shot kill. Killing folks in real life does not work like CSI: Bumtucket. Most people can't shot for crap and most victims don't just hold still and say "shot me" Heck even with military training most close quarters combat fatalities require multiple hits with weapons WAY more powerful then a 9mm pistol