Update 2/22/17: Due to some concerns about the validity of the U.S. Attorney’s statement as reported in the Fusion article, I have reached out to the article’s author to see if I can obtain any clarification about what was said. I will update this post if I receive a reply.
It’s not exactly news that the last few weeks of American politics have been chaotic ever since the Republican administration took office. From the discriminatory Muslim travel ban that is being repeatedly struck down in court, to combative White Housespokespeople and fast-developing scandals, it’s been the least organized time in government since perhaps the immediate aftermath of 9/11.
However, I’m not here to talk about the new president or his policies. Instead, I need to tackle something that has been flying more or less under the radar until a few days ago: the appointment of a man named Dr. Sebastian Gorka to the White House’s National Security Council.
As 2016 draws to a close, I find myself looking back on a contradictory, tumultuous year. In terms of this blog and my investigation into the case, I feel good: much has been uncovered, and the discussions I’m having and the awareness I’m raising are enlightening and filling me with hope. On the other hand, the American political landscape I am surveying is far more challenging than I ever could have imagined when my journey started in a Boston federal courtroom a year and a half ago. I’m hyperaware of the passage of time these days, and know that each rotation of the earth is another day for Dzhokhar in prison under dubious circumstances. It’s forced me to re-evaluate everything about myself and the direction I want to take this project I have undertaken, as well as my life in general.
I would like to update you on all these things and what it means for the blog (spoilers: good news!). First, however, there’s information that I’ve been wanting to post about for months: updates to the stories I posted over the course of 2016, thanks to tips sent to me by sharp-eyed readers. I would not have been able to make these connections if not for their input, and my gratitude to them is immense. I encourage all of you out there, if you think you have information useful for the investigation, please do not hesitate to email me using the contact page. I read and evaluate everything that comes through there, even if I don’t have time to respond. Given the incredibly complex nature of this case, sometimes details don’t make sense to me until much later, so I assure you that your input is valued.
Last month, my father visited me in Boston so that we could do several case-related site visits. Among them was a test drive we’d been wanting to do for quite some time: measuring the actual distance between the greater Boston area and University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, Dzhokhar’s college campus.
At trial, the prosecution made several assertions about Dzhokhar’s whereabouts in the months leading up to the April 15th bombing at the Boston Marathon. Many of these claims would have required him to, on a dime, drive north from UMass Dartmouth to Boston, as if the two locations are situated nearby one another. As I’ve discussed in a previous post (see subsection: “Dzhokhar’s January”), this is simply not true. The distance between the two locations is significant enough that driving it on a regular basis would have been a noticeable inconvenience, a fact that was never addressed at trial.
(This is a continuation of a study about the Ruger P95 that killed Officer Collier. Please read the first installment here if you haven’t already before moving on.)
Recap: Finding Howie
When we last left off, I was trying to trace the chain of custody of the Ruger P95 that killed Officer Sean Collier. Unsatisfied by the vague, inconsistency-ridden testimony of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s friend Stephen Silva, my father and I hoped to find the enigmatic “Howie,” the only name given to the friend Silva reportedly obtained the gun from. It took a few months for us to learn Howie’s identity: Merhawi Berhe, a young man who had pled not guilty to possessing the gun and made bail at the exact time Stephen Silva, one floor down, was testifying at Dzhokhar’s trial that Howie was the source of said weapon. It wasn’t until a year later, in March of 2016, that he changed his plea to guilty, and thanks to a Google news alert, I heard about it.
This threw me for a loop. I grilled my dad for details, to see if he had any insight into why something like this would happen. I knew that in the US legal system, pleading guilty or not guilty doesn’t always have direct bearing on a person’s actual innocence. Just because Howie pled not guilty doesn’t mean he had nothing to do with possessing the Ruger. What was strange, however, was why the federal prosecutors went after him right when it would be pertinent for Dzhokhar’s trial: on March 10th, 2015, when the indictment was signed, the prosecution was only a week into their case during the guilt phase. The timing suggested that Howie was wanted as a corroborating witness for Stephen Silva, who would be testifying the following week.
“He could have gotten the same deal Silva did,” my father said. “That’s how this stuff works. They bring in these people to testify in another case and cut them a sweetheart deal. He’s exactly the kind of witness I would have wanted if I had been the prosecutor.”
(This post is a continuation of a series. Please see Part One.)
Introduction: A Tale of One Gun
The night of April 18th, 2013, at 10:24 p.m., in the Koch courtyard on MIT’s campus, Officer Sean Collier sat in his cruiser. I can picture the quiet hum of Cambridge, the orange hue cast over the concrete sidewalk from the streetlights, the hopeful hint of warmth to the April air. However, these images are cut off from the reality that transpired when someone approached Officer Collier’s window with a gun. Did the assailant throw open the door first, or did Collier try to get out? Was there a conversation, or did the perpetrator simply start shooting? Where did the golf gloves come from — the shooter, Collier’s own car, or somewhere else entirely?
In my heart, I am a fiction writer, and these holes in the narrative frustrate me. I miss the days when I could just decide what happened in a story, nail down a detail because it seemed realistic or the imagery was striking. I’ve grown disdainful of fictionalized accounts of any “true event,” because I’ve learned that after a certain point, someone in a room somewhere simply makes it up, and everyone accepts it, even if it is wrong. I shudder to think what the upcoming Hollywood movie about the Marathon Bombing is going to do to further damage the public’s view of what happened, to callously assign blame like it isn’t literally the difference between life and death.
To combat this, I refuse to deal in approximations. I may never know exactly what happened in the last moments of Sean Collier’s life, but I think he deserves the truest possible version. After months of pouring over the eyewitness testimony and studying the location in question, I am confident of one thing: the person who appeared at Collier’s window with a gun wasn’t Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
Regardless, he was killed by someone. The murder weapon was a Ruger P95 handgun with the serial number filed off, recovered from the shootout in Watertown, the gun that was in Tamerlan Tsarnaev’s possession. This was established at trial through testimony and Massachusetts State Police reports also match the ballistics from the Ruger to the bullets recovered from Collier’s body. There’s no doubt about it: this is the gun.
I’m at work on the research and analysis on the next post in my series about Sean Collier’s murder, but it’s going to be a few more weeks before I can get that out. In the meantime, I was thrilled to realize recently that readers on Twitter have been reaching out with comments and questions about the last post, and so I thought it might be a good idea to answer them in a blog post. If there is enough interest, I hope I can make these posts a continuing series. I have so many intelligent and engaged readers, and I absolutely encourage a dialogue as I continue to research this case and appeal efforts are made on Dzhokhar’s behalf. If you are not following the Twitter, you can do so here: @USvTsarnaev. However, I am happy to take questions a variety of methods: you can leave comments to the posts, use the Twitter, or send us an email at email@example.com.
And so, without further ado, let’s turn to the questions.
My recollection of this date, as a resident of Boston, is vivid. It had been a mentally exhausting week: from the bombing on Monday, to the line of army men stationed in the Harvard T station to check bags, to the circus in town at Government Center, where I took my preschoolers on a field trip. I recall stepping off the bus clutching four-year-olds in each hand, only to be greeted by a hoard of area policemen in full riot gear and assault rifles. That week, every emotion was heightened, every person waiting for the other shoe to drop. It would either be another attack, or an inevitable arrest. There seemed to be no other possibility.
So when around midnight my roommate told me a police officer had been shot and killed at MIT, I thought: This week has brought all the crazies out. My next thought was: I’m going to bed. I had a class to teach at 8:30 the next morning. I didn’t think a shooting at MIT could be related to the bombing, and I certainly didn’t fathom that within six hours, the entire city would be shut down while law enforcement searched for a teenager from a neighborhood I was intimately familiar with.
When the trial started last year, one of the many things I hoped would be clarified were the events of that evening — but, as you probably know, the trial left me with more questions than answers. In the months since the three-week stretch I spent in a courtroom with Dzhokhar, the more determined I’ve become to answer the questions myself. And when I went home for Christmas this year, my father and I became acutely focused on one question: who killed Officer Sean Collier?