All one has to do is consider the eyewitness accounts of the shootout in Watertown to realize that the Tsarnaev brothers were almost certainly not—as a surprisingly large number of people posting comments on this site and around the Internet seem to believe—harmless naïfs who did nothing wrong. Whether or not they planted the bombs at the 2013 Boston Marathon, whether or not they acted alone or in concert with others, whether they were ideologues or dupes, it seems evident that they were involved in some kind of violent adventure culminating in the death of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and the shooting and apprehension of his brother Dzhokhar.
I spent Wednesday of this week talking to residents of the streets where the shootouts took place, and there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that both brothers were there, were armed, and threw bombs at police.
Nonetheless, many aspects of the story remain unclear, and decidedly troublesome. And getting to the bottom of this complex story is not just an option—we cannot afford as a society to have large traumas of this sort come and go without clarity. Otherwise, we are all dupes, of one kind or another.
We’ve raised reasonable questions about the events surrounding the Marathon bombing in previous articles, from the presence of mysterious black-clad security men with well-stuffed backpacks at the race to the FBI and CIA’s awareness of the Tsarnaev family long before April 15, 2013. (See this, this and this.)
Now, some might say that nothing else matters as long as police got their men. However, it is often in the details, the “weeds,” if you will, where we find that a narrative can be useful as far as it goes and yet terribly misleading in terms of what it all means. As we’ve noted, many much-loved historical narratives turn out to be little more than carefully crafted myths around a few core facts.
Our media and our leading interpreters of events explain everything in terms that the unsophisticated can easily grasp. Yet in the real world, happenings may take place for a welter of reasons that even those directly involved may not be aware of.
It is with this in mind that we’ve been down in the weeds.
If there’s one thing out of all the “facts” that emerged in the early hours and days after the bombing that cemented the Tsarnaevs’ capital-G Guilt, it was, unquestionably, the killing of MIT police officer Sean Collier on the night of Thursday, April 18, three days after the explosions at the Marathon.
At the time of Collier’s shooting, the FBI had just released video of two unnamed “persons of interest” walking with backpacks—shown amid many other people walking with backpacks. The still-anonymous Tsarnaevs were nothing more than people with whom the FBI wanted to talk. No hard evidence had been released that connected them to the bombing itself.
Within hours of the FBI video release, everything went nuts. First came word of “officer down” at MIT. Then, quickly, news of a carjacking. Then police swarming everywhere. Then a shootout and the death of one suspect, followed by a lull, and then the discovery and near-death of the second suspect.
Soon came the narrative to explain much, if not all. The suspects in the video had been behind both the bombing and the killing of the police officer. We knew that because the carjacking victim had escaped, and told police and later selected media how his captors had confessed to him.
Boston Globe reporter Eric Moskowitz gained cooperation from the still-unnamed hostage (nicknamed “Danny”). Here’s a portion of Danny’s tale, in which the elder Tsarnaev, Tamerlan, confessed during the carjacking:
He asked if [Danny] had followed the news about Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings…
“I did that,” said the man, who would later be identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “And I just killed a policeman in Cambridge.”
We’ll have more to say about the carjacking in a subsequent article. But for now, the key thing to remember is that in some ways, the shooting of Officer Collier immediately before the carjacking and the alleged confession in the car—to both crimes—were absolutely essential in creating the first profile of the Tsarnaevs as murder-minded individuals, not just two guys on a video wearing backpacks.
Collier as Officer Tippit
Besides playing a central role in establishing a case against the brothers, Collier’s death also served a powerful symbolic purpose in the official narrative, with a huge memorial service for the MIT officer on April 24, addressed by Vice President Biden. Throughout, the spotlight has been on Collier as Hero—a kind of ritualistic hagiography devoid of any inclination to investigate the actual circumstances of his death.
For students of history, however, this part of the narrative had a familiar ring. Exactly half a century ago, another traumatic event took place: the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The big break in that case came several hours later, when a police officer, J.D. Tippit, was shot and killed. Soon, one of the many employees in a tall building on Kennedy’s parade route, Lee Harvey Oswald, was connected to both events. Like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he had recently spent time in Russia. Like Tamerlan Tsarnaev, he had been under scrutiny by the FBI before the crime.
In both cases, it was the killing of a police officer that turbocharged the police pursuit—and that, once the suspect was apprehended, convinced the public quickly that the police had their man.
Until the shooting of officer Collier, the Tsarnaevs were just two guys seen on a video wearing backpacks. And until the Tippit shooting, Oswald was just one of many employees in a building that most eyewitnesses felt was not even the source of the shots that killed Kennedy.
In both cases, the shooting of the police officer did not make a lot of sense in the context of the “main event” – but nevertheless gave the pursuit a jolt of adrenaline. Only later would crucial details of the narrative be changed—at a time when few would notice.
In the case of Oswald, serious doubts would emerge as to whether he had killed Officer Tippit.
In the case of Officer Collier, if we look carefully, we can see that the script was rewritten after most people stopped paying attention.
Early reports left the impression that Collier had some kind of active interaction with his killers.
Here’s the Associated Press from that night:
Cambridge police and the Middlesex District Attorney’s office says the officer was responding to a report of a disturbance when he was shot multiple times.
Here’s the MIT News—the publication of the university’s administration—several days later:
On the evening of Thursday, April 18, MIT Police Officer Sean Collier was shot and killed in the line of duty following an altercation at the corner of Vassar Street and Main Street on the MIT campus.
And here’s the Los Angeles Times on April 23, five days after Collier’s death:
WASHINGTON–Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev allegedly shot and killed a Massachusetts Institute of Technology police officer Thursday because they wanted his service revolver, according to two federal government law enforcement officials who have been briefed on the Boston Marathon manhunt.
They came upon Collier outside a gas station and convenience store near the MIT campus in Cambridge. He was apparently shot multiple times, but had left a safety device on his holster that the suspects could not unlock to retrieve the weapon.
It was unclear which brother shot the officer, the officials said. However, authorities have obtained a surveillance photo of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, dressed in a gray hoodie, at the store.
This is a false story, circulated days after the events. Collier was not outside a gas station and convenience store. Dzhokhar certainly appears to have gone into a gas station/convenience store later that evening, but Collier was not there and no murder took place at that time. Collier did not respond to a disturbance. He did not approach anyone. In fact, it’s likely he never even knew who shot him.
To this day, hardly anyone in the general public is aware of this glitch in the narrative. Yet it is very important. Because if the initial story had been, “unknown persons came up behind a police officer sitting quietly in his patrol car and shot him for no apparent reason, not even taking his firearm” – that would no doubt have triggered a very different media response.
Keeping up the Hero Story
It was for some reason very important to someone that the death of this police officer be projected on a massive screen. Consider the content and tone of this, from the Boston Herald:
Thousands of students and law enforcement officers from across the country have packed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology campus to honor fallen MIT Police Officer Sean Collier who was remembered as a joy-filled, caring and compassionate man who believed kindness could change society.
MIT set aside 15,000 seats at Briggs Field and every one was filled, with law enforcement officers making up two-thirds of the heartbroken audience.
Here’s the Atlantic Wire:
MIT held a public memorial service Wednesday afternoon for fallen officer Sean Collier on their Briggs Field, where the 26-year-old university police officer was remembered for his commitment to the school community, his love of country music, and his dedication to his job. Vice President Joe Biden closed the ceremony’s remarks, offering words of condolence to the family from the perspective of someone who had also lost a child—before offering a scathing indictment of the Tsarnaev brothers’ terrorism.
MIT cancelled classes for the service, which brought together members of the MIT community, law enforcement officers, and public officials. A private funeral was held Tuesday. Yesterday, CBS News reported that Collier may have been killed because the Tsarnaev brothers wanted his gun.
Yet, even after it was clear that Collier had done nothing more than sit in his car while someone came up behind him and shot him, the authorities were still feeling it necessary to lay it on thick. On April 25, a week after Collier’s death, the New York Times was reporting
“I [still] consider him a hero,” Boston’s police commissioner, Edward Davis, said in an interview this week. “It was his death that ultimately led to the apprehension. The report of the shot officer led to all those resources being poured in.”
A cop had been shot, “all those resources” were poured into that general vicinity, and a juggernaut had been launched. There was nothing that would reverse it. Indeed, a month after Collier’s death, a Cambridge, MA, brewery announced it was issuing a special “Collier Stout” in his honor.
Why were we more upset over Collier’s death than other deaths of law enforcement personnel? Because it was linked, in the public’s mind, with the assault upon America itself at the Marathon. The killing of Collier, we were told, was an act against us all. “Boston Strong.” “America Strong.” In a sense, when we wore those ribbons, attended those mass ceremonies, we were mourning, yet again, our loss of innocence in the face of a world that seems to be spinning out of control.
Why Was Collier Killed?
Here’s what we were told at the time of that memorial service:
Until now, it is not been clear why the officer – who was laid to rest today at a private funeral service in his hometown of Stoneham, Massachusetts – was shot dead.
The officer was slain execution-style as he sat in his patrol car at the MIT campus in the suburb of Cambridge.
But now, according to CBS News, police believe the officer was ambushed by the Tsarnaev brothers in a botched attempt to take his gun to boost their arsenal of just one real gun and a pellet gun.
We have been told that, perhaps, the brothers wanted his gun.
Yet, they did not take it. The police chief explained that maybe they could not get it out of his holster, because it was found still in the holster. But it is also possible that whoever shot him was not interested in taking his gun.
It is also important to understand that the CBS News coverage—including the dubious claim that Collier was killed in an attempt to get his gun, and the belated story that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev scrawled a confession on the interior walls of a boat while he lay bloody and grievously wounded – is helmed by John Miller, CBS Senior Correspondent, who between journalistic stints served as the top spokesman for the FBI. In other words, it is an FBI insider who is guiding the narrative. Of course, the FBI itself has serious credibility problems, including the fact that it failed to disclose that it knew exactly who the Tsarnaevs were, long before the bombing. (On May 22, an FBI agent shot and killed Ibragim Todashev, another person of Chechen origin connected to the story and the investigation—whom a friend claims had recently warned him that he felt he was in the process of being framed; and who reportedly had, at the time of his death, just confessed.)
As we previously noted, all of these shootings warrant a closer look—including why so many shots were fired at Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as he lay wounded in that boat, firing not a single shot, and given the potential importance of him as a witness.
All of this must be addressed. But for the purposes of this article, let’s stay focused on Officer Collier’s death—and the circumstances surrounding it.
Why Would the Brothers Have Been on the MIT Campus?
Nobody seems to know. Would they have been there because they knew they would find an officer sitting in his car between buildings? If not, it means the brothers randomly passed through this unlikely area and happened upon Collier in his unlikely spot, snuck up behind him, killed him, and then—took nothing.
Why Collier Was Where He Was
Why was Collier even sitting in his police car at that time? According to news accounts, Collier was parked near the intersection of two streets in Cambridge for the purpose of preventing illegal shortcuts through campus. Here’s the Boston Globe’s account:
About 9:30 p.m., Collier was on routine patrol. He was parked by the corner of Vassar and Main streets. It was a spot where motorists would sometimes take a chance, making an illegal shortcut through campus to avoid a red light.
“We ask patrols to sit there,” DiFava explained. It prevents the forbidden cut-throughs and it provides a high-profile presence for the MIT community.
Something crucial is missing from this account. Collier was not parked on the street. He was parked on the pavement, a distance from the corner, between two campus buildings. When I asked students about the scenario Chief DiFava presented, they were baffled. They didn’t recall patrols sitting between those buildings, and it was not apparent how or why anyone would save a minute at a red light by climbing the pavement and driving between buildings.
With crazed terrorist bombers on the loose, why was this officer sitting where he was? I hoped to clear this up with Chief DiFava. Especially since DiFava is not just MIT’s police chief, but also the chief of MIT “facilities operations.” Thus, he had oversight of facilities including the many sensitive research facilities scattered around the campus, some close to where Collier died.
At the campus police station, I was first told that he was…in Guatemala. Why Guatemala? Why go so far away to a foreign country at the very time that everyone most wanted to talk to him? In any case, I was soon informed that he had been in Guatemala, but just returned. But he had left again. Now he was in Washington. Why Washington? Something to do with the case? But again I was told he was back, but out on business off campus.
Then I was told that maybe he was not off campus, but that in any case, he preferred not to talk. I wondered why that would be, when he had already shown a willingness to talk. Then I was told that I needed to go through the MIT central authorities. Was it the chief who did not want to talk, or was he told not to?
I tried to talk to the Emergency Medical Technicians, students who volunteer to handle campus emergencies, and whose colleagues showed up with their ambulance at the scene of the shooting—they declined and I left. And then I got this email from MIT’s Executive Vice President for Communications:
I have heard from a number of people at MIT that you have been on campus today wanting to ask people questions about the week of the marathon.
Your approach—visiting very busy people in person unannounced to ask them about this painful subject—is not productive, and in some cases, it has proved upsetting. I need to ask that you please follow the guidance that my colleague….. gave you over the phone today. You should email her whatever questions you have, and we can go from there.
Can you agree to this, please?
Significantly, we’ve been assured that the Tsarnaevs were Collier’s killers.
Here’s a report from the afternoon of Friday, April 19, from the Associated Press—probably the major source of information for the nation’s media, essentially stating that the Tsarnaevs committed the shooting:
WATERTOWN, Mass. (AP) — Two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombing — identified to The Associated Press as coming from the Russian region near Chechnya — killed an MIT police officer, injured a transit officer in a firefight and threw explosive devices at police during their getaway attempt in a long night of violence that left one of them dead and another still at large Friday, authorities said.
Nine days later, on April 28, we see this from the Boston Globe’s mega-narrative of the sprawling affair:
Authorities say video from a surveillance camera shows the suspects approaching Collier’s car from the rear as he sat in his cruiser. Collier was shot five times, including twice in the head, officials said.
“The suspects.” In a long article about the Tsarnaevs, it is reasonable to conclude that the Globe means the Tsarnaevs.
It is all much more unclear. On April 25, several days before the Globe published the bit above, the New York Times offered a crucial but underplayed distinction:
While there is video of two men approaching Officer Collier’s car, three law enforcement officials said, it does not clearly show their faces. But investigators now believe the brothers killed the officer to get another gun.
The Times reports that the video does not establish with certainty the identity of Collier’s murderers. Yet the next sentence accepts as a certainty that it was the brothers.
Murkier and Murkier
In a story full of weird twists, here’s another: one of the first responders to the scene at MIT was himself later shot in Watertown. In the early accounts, we were told:
One of the first responders to the scene of the officer’s death was police officer Richard Donohue, who had gone through the police academy at the same time as Officer Collier.
A few hours later, he would be critically wounded in the Watertown shootout with the Tsarnaev brothers.
What are the odds? Of all the law enforcement people who could get shot in Watertown, only Donohue was. Unlike Collier, Donohue was a Boston transit policeman—but the two were good friends.
And then, more….We learned later that Donohue was hit not by the Tsarnaevs, but by “friendly fire.” That is, an early witness on the scene of the mysterious shooting of Officer Collier shortly thereafter became himself the victim of a strange shooting— by fellow law enforcement officers.
Donohue survived and, according to the Boston Globe on May 19, is saying nothing about that night because he … can’t:
Officer Richard “Dic” Donohue of the MBTA Transit Police remembers almost
nothing of the night he was shot during chaotic gunfire on a normally quiet
Watertown street, or of the murder of his close friend, MIT police Officer
Sean Collier, hours before in Cambridge.
An editor at The Globe told me they’d received tremendous grief from police for reporting the fact that Donohue had apparently been shot by fellow officers. This despite the fact that the paper hardly focused on that, initially reporting it in an article where it was almost mentioned in passing. Nonetheless—or perhaps because of the sensitivity, we’ve seen surprisingly little coverage of this angle by the local and national media.
I did end up submitting questions to MIT; I received a short note back that said, in part,
John DiFava is not available to speak with you. But I can give you answers to some of your questions.
John is Director of Facilities Operations and Security and also the Chief of the MIT Police Department.
That was the only answer. The letter continued:
And regarding your question about the night Officer Collier was killed: I would refer you to the Middlesex DA’s office. As with all homicide investigations in Cambridge, that office is heading up the investigation. Like you, we at MIT seek answers to what happened on that night. Those answers will come once the DA’s office has filed charges.
The Middlesex County DA’s office told me they couldn’t talk because….it’s an “ongoing investigation.”
The truth is, in these kinds of situations, the investigators, AKA the prosecution, has an agenda—to get a conviction—and holds just about all the cards.
We don’t know whether the Tsarnaev brothers did kill Collier, although it would be easy to assume they did. Still, we have trouble coming up with an easy motive or a logical reason for them to have been at that place at that time. We wonder about the lack of candor in this matter. As to whether there is another explanation, the reality is that there may always be others who benefit from chaos and fear.
In any case, if the deaths of people like Sean Collier—or the bombing victims–are truly not to be in vain, it will be because open-minded people work to get to the bottom of things, not because those with an agenda exploit their deaths—or countenance a possible cover-up of the facts of the case. A clear investigative role exists outside of law enforcement. We’ll do what we can, and we welcome informed tips and insights.