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Boston Carjacking Unravels 2

Mar 13, 2014 by

Police Perimeter near MIT in Cambridge, photo: Joe Spurr

Police Perimeter near MIT in Cambridge, photo: Joe Spurr

In part I, we reported significant discrepancies in the story of the key witness in the Boston Marathon bombing-MIT police officer killing. These discrepancies cast doubt on his credibility—and therefore on the entire public narrative around those events.

We have been told that the witness was carjacked by the brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, and that Tamerlan confessed to him their guilt in both crimes.

Here, in Part II, we take a closer look at that witness, who has publicly remained anonymous, known only by the pseudonym “Danny.”

Why “Danny” Matters

The carjacking victim is an important figure in this singular national drama—and presumably could be a key witness if Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s case comes to trial.

With Attorney General Eric Holder’s decision to seek the death penalty, it is a good bet that the government is looking for the younger Tsarnaev to settle for a guilty plea in return for avoiding execution. If that comes to pass, we may never hear his testimony on what took place and why. Even if he does end up testifying, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev may find it prudent not to tell the whole truth, since he will surely be intent on engineering a sentencing deal. Under the more likely plea-bargain scenario, the mysterious carjacking victim, known to the public only as Danny, may never have to testify either. With one brother dead, the other presumably trying to avoid execution, and another potential person of interest, a friend of the Tsarnaevs named Ibragim Todashev, shot dead while in FBI custody, the prosecution may have no need to put Danny on the witness stand. In that event, the story he has already told—or, rather, the dominant narrative of several he has provided—will remain the final word on who committed the bombing and the MIT homicide.

Clearly, this witness’s unique role makes him worth scrutinizing.

 “Danny” in silhouette, interview with CBS News

“Danny” in silhouette, interview with CBS News

Why Is Danny Still Anonymous?

On April 25, 2013, the Boston Globe published what became the most complete account of Danny’s involvement in the events of April 18. The article recounted how the Chinese national, a male, age 26, with an engineering Masters from Northeastern, returned to China after getting his degree, then came back in early 2013 and co-founded a tech startup. He lived in an apartment near MIT with a roommate, had a new Mercedes SUV, and liked to go for nighttime drives in and around Boston to unwind.

In an exclusive interview, Danny told the Boston Globe’s Eric Moskowitz that he had been working late on April 18, and then went for a drive, which was for him a customary way of blowing off steam. He was in his leased SUV, which he’d had for just two months since returning from China, and which had only 2500 miles on it. After driving for about 20 minutes, he saw police heading toward MIT. He said that his housemate, a female, texted him in Chinese that something was going on at MIT. But he ignored the text. He finally stopped to check the text, in the Brighton neighborhood of Boston at 60 Brighton Avenue, across the river from Cambridge.

At that moment, a car pulled in behind him, and a young man wielding a pistol approached. Danny was forced to let the assailant (and soon, a second young man) into his car. He drove them around the greater Boston area, provided cash from his bank account, and then, while one brother was paying for gas, managed to escape and tell his story to police.

In a situation like this, one might think that Danny would welcome a chance to tell his story. At a minimum, many people would admire him for his bravery in escaping from armed carjackers. It also seems like it would have been a priceless promotional opportunity for Danny’s new startup. It’s hard to think of someone with a budding business who wouldn’t embrace an opportunity to get his brand out everywhere. Furthermore, the downside seemed minimal. One of his carjackers was dead, and the other badly wounded and in custody.

So why not be identified?

In his first interview, with ABC affiliate reporter Nick Spinetto, Danny indicates that personal safety is the rationale for his wanting anonymity:

Today, he and I spoke at length. For safety reasons, he asked us not to reveal his name, but he did describe in vivid detail his capture by the wanted terrorists, those brutal minutes he thought he would die and, ultimately, his brave escape.

In a subsequent interview with the Boston Globe, on the other hand, Danny indicates that modesty was the rationale for his anonymity:

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, kneading his hands, uncomfortable with the praise he has received from the few friends he has shared the story with, some of whom encouraged him to go public. “I don’t feel like a hero…I was trying to save myself.”

However, when I later had a chance to interview Eric Moskowitz, the Globe reporter who produced the most detailed account to date of the carjacking, he provided me with yet another reason why Danny wanted to remain anonymous: that he didn’t want his mother to be worried about him.  Danny’s father, he had explained to Moskowitz, knew about the carjacking, but his mother didn’t—and he hoped to keep her from finding out by masking his identity in news stories.

It’s not clear how his mother and others close to him back in China would not at least wonder given press reports that identified the carjacking victim as Chinese, aged 26, recently returned from China, with an engineering Masters from Northeastern, a new Mercedes SUV, and a tech startup. They are also the very details, after all, which made it possible for Moskowitz to locate Danny in the first place.

A few days later on the Today Show, Matt Lauer summarized Danny’s reasons for wanting to remain anonymous:

“Well, even now that he knows that…uh…you know, that they’re both, one is dead and one is in custody—as you can see, he didn’t want his identity revealed, he has said he will testify in the trial—gladly—and he knows he’ll be identified at that time, but for now he wants to stay under the radar.”

Danny’s desire for anonymity became even muddier when he offered an entirely different explanation in a CBS News interview. In that exchange, Danny’s face was obscured and his voice altered. CBS Senior Correspondent John Miller addressed the identity issue in a post-interview chat with a program host:

“I asked him about why he wanted to be disguised, and he said, you know, I don’t know if there is anyone else out there from this plot, if these guys have friends, if I’m going to be a witness at some trial, but at this point I’d rather keep my identity concealed.”

Miller, himself a former FBI spokesman who practically coached Danny through his interview, must have realized how silly this sounded and pointed out that he knew of no witness who had been targeted by terrorists.

“And that’s certainly understandable, although in the history of terrorism, I can’t think of a case where the terrorist organization has targeted a witness.”

This in itself was something of a red herring since, according to the official account, the Tsarnaev brothers were “lone wolves” without any confederates on the loose.

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (left), Tamerlan Tsarnaev (right), surveillance image

Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (left), Tamerlan Tsarnaev (right), surveillance image

A Media Strategy for Danny

In my attempts at sorting out some of the ambiguities surrounding Danny, I turned to the Globe’s Moskowitz, who had probably interacted the most with the mysterious source. Although he initially indicated he was too busy to see me, my persistence eventually won me a meeting with the reporter on May 22 in the Globe’s cafeteria.

I was particularly interested in learning how it was that Danny’s story, rather than being shared with all journalists, ended up being essentially curated by a handful of reporters from large, establishment news organizations. I was also interested in sorting out numerous confusing and conflicting elements of Danny’s tale.

What follows is a detailed accounting of my efforts to understand the whys and wherefores of the key witness in “settling” the Boston Marathon bombing mystery.

First, I asked Moskowitz what he could tell me about the “story of the story.” Here is what he said:

Within 48 hours of the carjacking, producers for the major TV networks had obtained Danny’s license plate and then somehow traced it to him—although how is unclear since it was a leased vehicle owned by a dealership. Danny declined to talk to the TV people but, unsure how to handle the media inquiries, he reached out to his former master’s adviser at Northeastern University. The adviser consulted Ralph Martin, Northeastern’s general counsel, who happened to be a former District Attorney of Suffolk County, which includes Boston.

Martin advised that if Danny was seeking fame, he should give interviews to TV. But if he wanted thoroughness, he should talk to the Globe. Danny’s academic adviser then spoke to a friend of his, an urban planner for the city of Cambridge, who had a longstanding relationship with Moskowitz (Danny’s thesis adviser knew Moskowitz, too), and the planner contacted him on the Monday after the carjacking.

That is how the sole print journalism access to the key witness in this extraordinary event was handed to a junior Globe reporter with no real investigative or crime experience, rather than to one of the veteran gumshoes who populate the Globe newsroom.

It was nice of the Globe to let Moskowitz keep his scoop. From a pure morale standpoint, this reflects well on the paper’s management. But given the serious questions that should have been asked of Danny—and weren’t—it probably has not served the larger interest. Of course, Globe editors probably made a correct calculation that the situation was so delicate that, rather than lose it, they would cooperate with the scenario as it was unfolding, rather than demand a switch to a more senior, potentially more hard-nosed and skeptical reporter.

***

Danny’s thesis adviser told Moskowitz that Danny would call him.  But he didn’t.

After an internal debate at the Globe about whether it was worth antagonizing a prized source, Moskowitz set out to identify and locate Danny himself. Moskowitz says he provided the sketchy biographical details about Danny to his brother, who knows Mandarin—and who found Danny’s comments about matters of interest to Chinese students on a Chinese language website. The comments included his name and email address. Another friend got him into Danny’s apartment building and he knocked on the door.

There was no answer at first, but then the door cracked open. The reporter identified himself and asked for “Danny” by his real Chinese name. The man at the door said, “He’s here,“ and Moskowitz says he responded, “I’m just glad you’re OK.”

Danny let him in and the two talked, as Moskowitz tells it, “about everything other than the event. I kept him talking.” They discussed Danny’s master’s thesis and how Moskowitz knew Danny’s professor from his reporting on urban issues.

Moskowitz told me he dared not broach the subject of an interview at the time, but did so later by email.

***

Moskowitz said he found Danny extremely skittish, in general. He chalked it up to his essential nature, maybe to cultural differences. “If he’s embarrassed or thinks he will disappoint, he disappears,” he said.

James “Jamie” Fox, criminologist, Northeastern University

James “Jamie” Fox, criminologist, Northeastern University

Danny, however, was in command enough to want a mentor on hand—even one he barely knew. That mentor was another Northeastern professor, a criminologist named James “Jamie” Fox, an often quoted and media-savvy fellow with his own blog on the Globe website. Purportedly also introduced to Danny via the thesis adviser, Fox quickly offered himself as an intermediary to the media. He would become a key figure in this story—present and active when Moskowitz interviewed Danny for the Globe.

One of Danny’s conditions for the interview with Moskowitz was that Professor Fox would be there.

According to Moskowitz, some of the lack of clarity in his account of what transpired on the night of April 18 may have resulted from frequent interruptions by Professor Fox and by what seemed to him to be interview-steering by the criminologist.

As for Danny, Moskowitz described him as “guileless.” “He told me his ATM password,” he said.

Fox Guarding the Henhouse

Moskowitz told me he didn’t feel comfortable introducing Danny to me, but that Fox might be able to arrange it.

If Danny was guileless, Fox was anything but.

In my brief dealings with the professor, and my attempts to get him to arrange an interview for me with Danny, I found him consistently determined to control access to Danny. He told me he would “try” to arrange it, but that it would be up to Danny, and then insisted that if an interview were to take place he would probably need to be present. And, after promising to make a concerted effort to arrange such an interview in the short window of time before I had to leave Boston, Fox appeared to lose interest. He ended up ticking off a series of laughable excuses.

Finally, he got back to me. He said that Danny was reluctant to meet with me. He said that Danny had read some of my early writing on the Boston case, and was displeased because I had noted how several of the young characters in the story appeared to drive expensive cars.

Mostly, though, Fox said that “Danny” was just nervous about meeting with me—and Fox seemed to me a bit nervous about “Danny” meeting with me, too. The long and short of it is that I have never heard from Danny, and never again from Fox.

The Case of the Incurious Criminologist

Troubled by Fox’s role in the story, which hardly squared with what one might expect from a criminologist—whose principal concern is studying crime, not squiring mysterious witnesses—I researched his statements on the bombing story.

In this CNN video, Professor Fox, like some kind of Boston Zelig, is standing beside the only other carjacking witness, an immigrant gas station attendant to whom “Danny” ran for help. This is during an interview of the attendant by CNN’s Piers Morgan—it is not clear why Fox is standing next to this man.

Fox turns out to be less the investigator than the fiery orator.

In one of his blogs, about the purported difficulty in finding a cemetery that would inter Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s body, he wrote:

“I truly understand and appreciate why many folks want nothing to do with the corpse of a man who apparently hated America and our way of life.”

He also wrote:

“[I]f and when [Dzhokhar] Tsarnaev were scheduled to die, his name and image would be plastered all over the news, further increasing his undeserved celebrity in the minds of those on the political fringe who view our government as evil and corrupt.”

And:

“The bombing seems to have been an attack against American life, not specifically American lives. Those killed and injured were unfortunate surrogates of the intended target: America and the freedoms we enjoy.”

It’s a mouthful given how little we knew at that time about any of this—and even how little we know almost a year later.

John Miller, PR Man for the FBI, Among Other Things

Fox was hardly the only well-situated figure who moved to promote what looks like an agreed-upon “consensus narrative.” Consider CBS’s John Miller, one of the TV reporters who got access to Danny.

That’s the same John Miller who reported the strange and long-delayed (May 16) exclusive about how Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, grievously wounded and bleeding badly, nevertheless managed to pull himself up and scrawl a confession-cum-manifesto on the wall of the boat in which he was hiding.

That’s the same John Miller who left journalism in 2002 and spent the next eight years in government national security posts, including helping Chief William Bratton establish counterterrorism and criminal intelligence bureaus at the Los Angeles Police Department, serving as the top spokesman for the FBI, and then going to work for the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, which oversees both the FBI and CIA.

Thus, John Miller has close relationships with key people at the very agency whose actions call everything into question about this story.

Summing Up

As we see, a small group of journalists and one criminologist have effectively acted as gatekeepers to this mystery witness. Yet, as we reported in Part I, the story told by the central witness in the Boston Bombing case does not add up. Have the gatekeepers not noticed?

We spelled out some of the many discrepancies that appear to undermine the tidy notion that the facts of the Boston Marathon bombing were settled within days of the heinous event. Perhaps it would be helpful to sum up the inconsistencies:

— Danny was afraid for his life.
— Danny was not afraid for his life.

— Danny’s car was taken from him and he was ejected almost immediately.
— Danny was carjacked for 30 minutes.
— Danny was carjacked for 90 minutes.

— Danny’s captors told him they would not harm him.
— Danny’s captors told him they had planted the Marathon bombs and killed the MIT cop and would harm him if he did not play ball.

— Danny’s captors told him to get out of his car and took off without him.
— Both of Danny’s captors got out of the car and virtually ignored him.
— One of his captors remained in the car and Danny escaped when the man fiddled with a GPS, although the moment he opened the car door, the man made a futile grab at him.

— Danny wanted anonymity because he was mostly worried about his own safety.
— Danny wanted anonymity because he didn’t want his mother to worry.
— Danny wanted anonymity because he didn’t want to appear heroic.

One has to give Danny a tremendous benefit of the doubt to believe that he would get that confused about momentous events in which he was the central player, telling such different versions of a story whose details, one would imagine, had been seared into his memory.

Note to Danny: We’d be glad to hear your side. Please contact us.

Note to readers: for background on other aspects of the Boston Marathon bombing story, please see this, this, this, this and this. For lingering doubts about the murder of the MIT officer, see this. For more on the murder of Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s friend, Ibragim Todashev, and FBI harassment of people who have sought to raise doubts about the official story, see this

In the meantime, consider the following:

Without the murder of the MIT policeman, followed by the carjacking confession reported by Danny, we would have no solved crime, no evidence linking anyone to the horrific Boston Marathon bombing except some grainy video of two guys wearing backpacks in a sea of other backpack-wearers near the source of the explosion. The assumption many of us make that the Tsarnaevs planted those bombs is just that: an assumption that, in the absence of the reported confession, has no evidence behind it.

Thanks to the media’s consensus narrative, we think we saw or heard proof. But we didn’t. We heard people saying there is proof, and we saw ambiguous footage that we were told established proof.

While this too-tidy scenario certainly calmed the public, it may also have poisoned a cherished principle of American justice: the notion of “innocent until proven guilty.”

According to the consensus narrative, Tamerlan Tsarnaev commandeered a private car, and was soon joined by his younger brother. Tamerlan spontaneously informed their hostage that they were behind both the bombing and the shooting of the police officer. The hostage then escaped from the car, and relayed what he heard to police. But, in fact, beyond the testimony of a gas station owner that a man came running up and said he had been carjacked, we do not know what else of this is true.

Crucially, we do not know that Tamerlan Tsarnaev actually confessed to either the Boston bombing or the murder of Officer Collier. We only think we know this to be true because we have been told there was a witness. Yet we do not even know who that crucial witness is. We are left with the word of “the authorities” that this quasi-phantom, his identity protected by, and his remarks filtered through, handpicked intermediaries from the traditional media, is telling us the truth.

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