Photos forced suspects’ move, cracking bombing case
This Monday, April 15, 2013 photo shows a man who was dubbed Suspect No. 2 in the Boston Marathon bombings by law enforcement, on the left side of the frame, wearing a white baseball cap, walking away from the scene of the explosions. The FBI identified him as 19-year-old college student Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who along with his brother Tamerlan, 26, previously known as Suspect No. 1, killed an MIT police officer, severely wounded another lawman and hurled explosives at police in a car chase and gun battle during a night of violence, early Friday, April 19, 2013. Tamerlan Tsarnaev was killed overnight, officials said, while his brother Dzhokhar remains at large. (AP Photo/David Green) EXCLUSIVE CONTENT-SPECIAL RATES APPLY FOR NON-AP MEMBERS AND SUBSCRIBERS.
Moments after investigators went before television cameras to broadcast photos of the two men in ball caps wanted in the Boston Marathon bombing, queries from viewers started cascading in – 300,000 hits a minute that overwhelmed the FBI’s website.
It marked a key turning point in a search that, for all the intensity of its first 72 hours, had failed to locate the suspects. While it’s unclear how much the tips that resulted helped investigators zero in, experts say it instantly turned up already intense pressure on the two men to flee or almost certainly be recognized – increasing the chances they’d make mistakes that would lead to them being exposed.
The decision to ask the public for help also was something of a gamble, one that investigators had to weigh carefully.
“It was a good decision to put this out to the public . . . and this would have been a calculated risk. But the intent would have been to get these guys to change their pattern” of behavior, said Martin Reardon, who spent 21 years as an FBI agent and is now a vice president of security consultant The Soufan Group.
Releasing the photos greatly increased the odds the two men would be recognized and turned in, even as it significantly upped the chances they would try to vanish or commit more mayhem – exactly the scenario that played out.
“Clearly these guys were reacting and responding exactly as (law enforcement) predicted,” said Robert Taylor, a criminologist at the University of Texas at Dallas who studies terrorism. “If you saw your face on TV and everywhere else as associated with the bombing . . . you would act irrationally, and that’s exactly what they did.”
After three days without being able to identify a suspect by name, investigators clearly made the decision to release the photos Thursday on the belief that, without doing so, the suspects might remain at large for weeks or months, with the chance to flee or to act again, said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor in Miami.
So with photos in hand, investigators made a choice deemed both necessary and prudent.
“And then the worst possible thing happens,” Weinstein said. “They do actually begin their flight and then start to wreak vengeance on the whole city of Boston.”
Weinstein, Reardon and other experts had differing opinions on whether investigators’ decision to release the photos was worth the cost exacted by the two men: the killing of a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer, a carjacking, the shooting of a transit police officer and a block-by-block manhunt that led officials to shut down Boston and many of its surrounding suburbs.
But all agreed the photo release was pivotal in breaking open the case, because it instantly deprived suspected bombers Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, and his 19-year-old brother, Dzhokhar, of time, anonymity and options.
Investigators gathered hours of videotape footage from security cameras that scanned the area around the bombing and appealed to the public to turn in their own video and photos, for help in determining the sequence of events and identifying a suspect.
They then used software to search for certain types of objects or people matching a height and weight description.
By Thursday, once facial recognition software and agents had narrowed the search to images of two young men, investigators had to make a decision about how to proceed.
Meanwhile, the Tsarnaev brothers were already on edge.
At an auto body shop near their home, the younger brother, Dzhokhar, had often stopped to talk with owner Gilberto Junior about cars and soccer. But on Tuesday, the day after the bombing, the normally relaxed young man showed up biting his nails and trembling, Junior said.
The mechanic told Tsarnaev he hadn’t had a chance to work on a Mercedes he’d dropped off for bumper work. “I don’t care. I don’t care. I need the car right now,” Junior says Dzhokhar Tsarnaev told him.
By Thursday afternoon, the brothers had to know their options were narrowing quickly.