Sunday, June 01, 2014

When exactly was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev identified by FBI on surveillance video?


Forum Manager showed surveillance footage to police half an hour after the bombings


The picture shows a surveillance camera above the right side of the entrance door, beside the awning (Source: Forum)



Numerous law enforcement representatives have recently come forward and ingenously talked to media about the "manhunt" for the Boston bombers. The video footage leading them to the Tsarnaev brothers - the so called "Eureka video" -  plays a prominent role here. Unfortunately, neither the identity of this important video is clear - is it taken from the Forum restaurant or the Lord&Taylor department store across the street - nor the "Eureka moment" when Dzhohar Tsarnaev was spotted as the prime suspect.

Retired FBI Special Agent In Charge Rick DesLauriers showed a surprising tentativeness when asked for this moment on a  CBS News "60 Minute" program:

Scott Pelley: Was there a Eureka moment in terms of the video? At some point somebody said, "Hey, boss, have a look at this"?

Rick DesLauriers: Yes, there was. It was I believe, early Wednesday morning. And we watched that video hundreds and hundreds of times.

DesLauriers' "believe" that it was Wednesday morning is wrong however, if we may believe another program where he also offers insights into the investigation. The National Geographic docudrama Inside the hunt for the boston bombers, designed with the aspiration of being detailed and accurate, sets the Eureka moment on Tuesday, confirmed by DesLauries and two other FBI agents.

So the docudrama certainly trumps DesLauriers' believe expressed on CBS News. Both versions however have to be confronted with the account of Chris Loper, a manager of the Forum restaurant who was working there when the second bomb exploded.

Half an hour later, the police found Mr. Loper and asked him to show them the restaurant’s security cameras. He took them to the basement, where he rewound the tapes and saw that they had captured the bombing. He and his colleagues headed home in a daze. He woke up the next morning on his couch, his cellphone ringing. The first call was from the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The next was from CNN.

The "half an hour later" refers to the moment when Heather Abbott was moved out of the restaurant, i.e. shortly after the bombings. This means that the police has seen the Forum surveillance video at 3:30 p.m., April 15, 2013, at latest.

The investigators who had the opportunity to watch the video in the basement for the first time may not have been from the FBI. But in case they were only local police forces, they would have confiscated the video likewise and shared it with the FBI promptly. DesLauriers announced on Monday evening at 9:00 p.m. that the FBI had taken over the lead in the investigation. So at this time, the FBI was surely in possession of a copy and had begun to analyze the video by itself.

In the National Geographic docudrama Assistance FBI Special Agent in Charge Jeffrey S. Sallett is quoted as saying that "the most important videos early on would going to be the ones who were directed at the crime scene so that we could identify who put the devices down". This is a matter of course, and the Forum video was on top of that list. But in contrast to Sallett's insight, the program paints the picture of an unsorted huge pile of video tapes with dozens of investigators browsing through them at random.

"We were looking for signs of abnormal activity. Individuals who didn't look like they were there to watch the Marathon. Individuals who might have been pacing back and forth. Individuals who might have been carrying something that could have contained an explosive device. Individuals placing such a container down in a particular moment in time near the bombings" (Des Lauriers)

"There's the impression from CSI that you saw everything in 10 minutes with video forensics. But it's just tenacious labor of looking at the video over and over and over again." (Sallett)

"Hours at the same video, hours at watching the bombing over and over and over again - you know I would be lying if I said that it didn't take a toll of us. It's very difficult to watch that. I saw the bomb actually go off so many times - it was stick in my head forever." (Kimberley Lawrence, FBI Supervisory Special Agent)

The docudrama suggests that after endless hours of tenacious searching, Tsarnaev is finally spotted by one of DesLauriers' supervisors, and that this Eureka moment occurred on late Tuesday. On CBS News, DesLauriers pinpoints it on early Wednesday morning.

Neither of these narratives is credible. As we know from the criminal complaint, the individual Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is well recognizable on the Forum video, his behavior stands out against the other spectators, and he enters the crime scene with his bag and walks away without it just before the second bomb explodes. To identify him as a "person of interest" was a matter of minutes rather than hours. The Forum video was known to investigators since Monday afternoon. So the job was certainly done on Monday night.

The elaborations of DesLauriers and his co-workers in the National Geographic and CBS News program seem to be intended to cover up the existence of the Lord&Taylor video which caused indeed an Eureka moment for law enforcement on Wednesday morning. This was reported by CNN, the Boston Globe, AP and other media outlets and confirmed by a spokesman for Mayor Thomas Menino and City Council President Stephen Murphy. The suspect was not "White Hat", however. According to CBS, Tsarnaev was wanted as a potential witness.

The prosecution is apparently not keen to acknowledge the existence and significance of the Lord&Taylor video or provide it to the defense.