BOSTON — The 26-year-old Chinese entrepreneur had just pulled his new Mercedes to the curb to answer a text when an old sedan swerved behind him, slamming to a stop. A man in dark clothes got out and approached the passenger window. It was nearly 11 p.m. April 18.
The man rapped on the glass and spoke. Danny, unable to hear him, lowered the window — and the man reached an arm through, unlocked the door, and climbed in, brandishing a silver handgun.
“Don’t be stupid,” he told Danny. He asked if he had followed news about the Boston Marathon bombings. Danny had, down to the release of the grainy photos of suspects hours earlier.
“I did that,” said the man, who would later be identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “And I just killed a policeman in Cambridge.”
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He ordered Danny to drive in the beginning of an odyssey last Thursday night and Friday morning in which Danny felt the possibility of death pressing on him.
In an interview, Danny — the victim of the Tsarnaev brothers’ carjacking — filled in some of the last missing pieces in the timeline between the slaying of Massachusetts Institute of Technology police Officer Sean Collier, just before 10:30 p.m. April 18, and the Watertown shootout that ended just before 1 a.m. Danny asked that he be identified only by his American nickname.
The story of that night unfolds like a Tarantino movie, bursts of harrowing action laced with dark humor and dialogue absurd for its ordinariness, reminders of just how young the men in the car were. Girls, credit limits for students, the marvels of the Mercedes-Benz ML 350 and the iPhone 5, whether anyone still listens to CDs — all were discussed by the two 26-year-olds and the 19-year-old.
Danny described 90 harrowing minutes, first with the younger brother following in a second car, then with both brothers in the Mercedes, where they openly discussed driving to New York, though Danny could not make out if they were planning another attack. Throughout the ordeal, he did as they asked while silently analyzing every threatened command, every snatch of dialogue for clues about where and when they might kill him.
“Death is so close to me,” Danny recalled thinking. His life had until that moment seemed ascendant, from a province in Central China to graduate school at Northeastern University to a startup business.
“I don’t want to die,” he thought. “I have a lot of dreams that haven’t come true yet.”
After a zigzagging trek through Brighton, Watertown, and back to Cambridge, Danny would seize his chance for escape at a Shell Station, his break turning on two words — “cash only” — that had rarely seemed so welcome.
When the younger brother, Dzhokhar, was forced to go inside to pay, older brother Tamerlan put his gun in the door pocket to fiddle with a navigation device — letting his guard down briefly. Danny then did what he had been rehearsing in his head. In a flash, he unbuckled his seat belt, opened the door, stepped through, slammed it behind, and sprinted off at an angle that would be a hard shot.
Tamerlan cursed, and Danny felt the brush of a near-miss grab at his back, but his captor did not follow. Danny reached the haven of a Mobil station across the street, seeking cover in the supply room, shouting for the clerk to call 911.
His quick-thinking escape, authorities say, allowed police to swiftly track down the Mercedes, abating a possible attack by the brothers on New York City and precipitating a wild shootout in Watertown that would seriously wound one officer, kill Tamerlan, and leave a severely injured Dzhokhar hiding in the neighborhood. He was caught the following night.
“Don’t look at me!”
Danny spoke softly but steadily in a 2½-hour interview at his Cambridge apartment. He offered his account only on the condition that The Boston Globe not reveal his Chinese name, saying 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. “I don’t feel like a hero … I was trying to save myself.”
Danny, trained as an engineer, made scrupulous mental notes of street signs and passing details, even as he heeded the older Tsarnaev’s command not to study his face.
“Don’t look at me!” Tamerlan shouted. “Do you remember my face?”
“No, no, I don’t remember anything,” he said.
Tamerlan laughed. “It’s like white guys, they look at black guys and think all black guys look the same,” he said. “And maybe you think all white guys look the same.”
“Exactly,” Danny said, though he thought nothing of the sort. It was one of many moments in their mental chess match, Danny playing up his outsider status in America and playing down his wealth — he claimed the car was older than it was, and he understated his lease payments — in a desperate hope of extending his life.
He told Tamerlan he was still a student and that he had been here barely a year, both lies. It seemed to help that Tamerlan had trouble understanding Danny.
“Oh, that’s why your English is not very good,” the brother replied, finally figuring it out. “OK, you’re Chinese … I’m a Muslim.”
“Chinese are very friendly to Muslims!” Danny said.
When the ordeal had started, Danny prayed it would be a quick robbery. Tamerlan demanded money, but Danny had just $45 in cash — kept in the armrest — and a wallet full of plastic. Evidently disappointed to get so little out of holding up a $50,000 car, he told Danny to drive. The old sedan followed.
“Relax,” Tamerlan said, when Danny’s nerves made it hard for him to stay in the lane. Danny, recalling the moment, said, “My heart is pounding so fast.”
Directed to a quiet neighborhood in East Watertown, Danny pulled up as instructed on an unfamiliar side street. The sedan stopped behind him. A man approached — “Suspect No. 2” in the photos and videos released by investigators earlier that evening. The brothers transferred heavy objects from the car into Danny’s SUV. “Luggage,” Danny thought.
“Don’t be stupid”
With Tamerlan driving now, they stopped so Dzhokhar could withdraw money from an ATM using Danny’s card. Danny, shivering from fear but claiming to be cold, asked for his jacket. Guarded by just one brother, Danny wondered if this was his chance, but he saw around him only locked storefronts. A police car drove by, lights off.
Tamerlan agreed to retrieve Danny’s jacket from the back seat. Danny unbuckled, put on the jacket, then tried to buckle the seat belt behind him to make an escape easier. “Don’t do that,” Tamerlan said, studying him. “Don’t be stupid.”
Danny thought about his burgeoning startup and about a girl he secretly liked in New York. “I think, ‘Oh my God, I have no chance to meet you again,’ ” he said.
Dzhokhar was back now. “We both have guns,” Tamerlan said, though Danny had not seen a second weapon. He overheard them speak in a foreign language — “Manhattan” the only intelligible word to him — and then ask in English if Danny’s car could be driven out of state. “What do you mean?” Danny said, confused. “Like New York,” one brother said.
They passed a police station. Danny tried to send telepathic messages to the officers inside, imagined dropping and rolling from the moving car.
Tamerlan asked him to turn on and demonstrate the radio. The older brother then quickly flipped through stations, seemingly avoiding the news. He asked if Danny had any CDs. No, he replied, he listens to music on his phone. The gas tank low, they stopped at a gas station, but the pumps were closed.
Doubling back, they grabbed more things from the parked car, but nothing from the trunk. They put on an instrumental CD that sounded to Danny like a call to prayer.
Suddenly, Danny’s iPhone buzzed. A text from his roommate, wondering in Chinese where he was. Barking at Danny for instructions, Tamerlan used an English-to-Chinese app to text a clunky reply. “I am sick. I am sleeping in a friend’s place tonight.” In a moment, another text, then a call. No one answered. Seconds later, the phone rang again.
“If you say a single word in Chinese, I will kill you right now,” Tamerlan said. Danny understood. His roommate’s boyfriend was on the other end, speaking Mandarin. “I’m sleeping in my friend’s home tonight,” Danny replied in English. “I have to go.”
“Good boy,” Tamerlan said. “Good job.”
The SUV headed for the lights of Soldier Field Road, to the two open gas stations. Dzhokhar went to fill up using Danny’s credit card, then knocked on the window. “Cash only,” he said. Tamerlan peeled off $50.
Danny watched Dzhokhar head to the store, and let reflexes kick in.
“I was thinking I must do two things: unfasten my seat belt and open the door and jump out as quick as I can. If I didn’t make it, he would kill me right out, he would kill me right away,” Danny said. “I just did it. I did it very fast, using my left hand and right hand simultaneously to open the door, unfasten my seat belt … and go.”
The brothers took off. The station clerk, after brief confusion, dialed 911 on a portable phone, bringing it to Danny in the storeroom. The dispatcher told him to take a deep breath. The officers, arriving in minutes, took his story, with Danny noting the car could be tracked by his iPhone and by a Mercedes satellite system.
After an hour or more — as the shootout and manhunt erupted in Watertown — police brought Danny to Watertown for a “drive-by lineup,” studying faces of detained suspects from the safety of a cruiser. He recognized none of them. He spent the night talking to police and the FBI, appreciating the kindness of a state trooper who gave him a bagel and coffee. At 3 the next afternoon, they dropped him home.
When news of Dzokhar’s capture broke the next day, Danny was on the phone, talking to the girl in New York.