Carjack victim recounts his harrowing night

A Shell gas station located at River Street and Memorial Drive in Cambriged was roped off at 12:45 a.m. on April 19.
A Shell gas station located at River Street and Memorial Drive in Cambriged was roped off at 12:45 a.m. on April 19.Andrew Ba Tran/Boston.com Staff

The 26-year-old Chinese entrepreneur had just pulled his new Mercedes to the curb on Brighton Avenue to answer a text when an old sedan swerved behind him, slamming on the brakes. A man in dark clothes got out and approached the passenger window. It was nearly 11 p.m. last Thursday.

The man rapped on the glass, speaking quickly. 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 the news about Monday’s Boston Marathon bombings. Danny had, down to the release of the grainy suspect photos less than six hours earlier.

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“I did that,” said the man, who would later be identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev. “And I just killed a policeman in Cambridge.”

He ordered Danny to drive—right on Fordham Road, right again on Commonwealth Avenue—the beginning of an achingly slow odyssey last Thursday night and Friday morning in which Danny felt the possibility of death pressing on him like a vise.

In an exclusive interview with the Globe on Thursday, Danny—the victim of the Tsarnaev brothers’ much-discussed but previously little-understood carjacking—filled in some of the last missing pieces in the timeline between the murder of MIT police officer Sean Collier, just before 10:30 p.m. on 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 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 driving around on a Thursday night.

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 overheard 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 Kendall Square start-up.

“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 the Shell Station on Memorial Drive, his break turning on two words—“cash only”—that had rarely seemed so welcome.

When the younger brother, Dzhokhar, was forced to go inside the Shell Food Mart to pay, older brother Tamerlan put his gun in the door pocket to fiddle with a navigation device—letting his guard down briefly after a night on the run. 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 for any marksman.

“F---!” he heard Tamerlan say, feeling the rush of a near-miss grab at his back, but the man 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, ending a harrowing week across Greater Boston.

Danny spoke softly but steadily in a 2 1/2 hour interview at his Cambridge apartment with a Globe reporter and a Northeastern criminology professor, James Alan Fox , who had counseled Danny after the former graduate student approached his engineering adviser at Northeastern.

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.”

Danny, trained as an engineer, made scrupulous mental notes of street signs and passing details, even as he abided the older Tsarnaev’s command not to study his face.

“Don’t look at me!” Tamerlan shouted at one point. “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.

Danny had come to the US in 2009 for a master’s degree, graduated in January 2012, and returned to China to await a work visa. He came back two months ago, leasing a Mercedes and moving into a high-rise with two Chinese friends while diving into a startup. But he told Tamerlan he was still a student, and that he had been here barely a year. It seemed to help that Tamerlan had trouble understanding even Danny’s pronunciation of the word “China.”

“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. “We are so friendly to Muslims.”

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.”

They lapped Brighton and crossed the Charles River into Watertown, following Arsenal Street. Looking through Danny’s wallet, Tamerlan asked for his ATM code—a friend’s birthdate.

Directed to a quiet neighborhood in East Watertown, Danny pulled up as told on an unfamiliar side street. The sedan stopped behind him. A man approached—the skinnier, floppy-haired “Suspect No. 2” in the photos and videos released by investigators earlier that evening—and Tamerlan got out, ordering Danny into the passenger seat, making it clear if he tried anything he would shoot him. For several minutes, the brothers transferred heavy objects from the smaller car into Danny’s SUV. “Luggage,” Danny thought.

With Tamerlan driving now, Danny in the passenger seat, and Dzhokhar behind Danny, they stopped in Watertown Center so Dzhokhar could withdraw money from the Bank of America 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 seatbelt 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 recalled.

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 of the brothers said.

They continued west on Route 20, in the direction of Waltham and Interstate 95, passing 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 tank nearly empty, they stopped at a gas station, but the pumps were closed.

Doubling back, they returned to the Watertown neighborhood—“Fairfield Street,” Danny saw on the sign this time—and grabbed a few 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 Soldiers Field Road, banking across River Street to the two open gas stations. Dzhokhar went to fill up using Danny’s credit card, but quickly knocked on the window. “Cash only,” he said, at least at that hour. Tamerlan peeled off $50.

Danny watched Dzhokhar head to the store, struggling to decide if this was his moment—until he stopped thinking about it, and let reflexes kick in.

“I was thinking I must do two things: unfasten my seatbelt 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 seatbelt, jump out...and go.”

The car faced west, upriver. Danny sprinted between the passenger side of the Mercedes and the pumps and darted into the street, not looking back, drawn to the lights of the Mobil.

“I didn’t know if it was open or not,” he said. “In that moment, I prayed.”

The brothers took off. The 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 that the car could be tracked by his iPhone and by a two-way Mercedes satellite system known as mbrace. The clerk gave him a bottled water.

After an hour or more talking to authorities—as the shootout and manhunt erupted in Watertown—police brought Danny out to East Watertown for a “drive-by lineup,” studying faces of detained suspects in the street from the safety of a cruiser. He recognized none of them. He spent the night talking to local and state 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 Danny back in Cambridge.

“I think, Tamerlan is dead, I feel good, obviously safer. But the younger brother—I don’t know,” Danny recalled thinking, wondering if Dzhokhar had discovered his address and would come looking for him. But the police knew the wallet and registration were still in the bullet-riddled Mercedes, and that a wounded Dzhokhar had likely not gotten very far. That night, they found him in a boat.

When news of the capture broke last Friday, Danny’s roommate called out to him from in front of the living room television. Danny was on the phone at the time, talking to the girl in New York.

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