One BAA runner’s nerve-wracking experience during a run in the midst of the manhunt for the second Boston Marathon bomber
Editor’s note: The following is a first-person account from Dan Harper, who was detained by law enforcement officials in Boston on the morning of Friday, April 19, 2013. We share our thoughts on it in a subsequent post.
By Dan Harper
I awoke to the sound of police sirens coming from my living room. Realizing immediately that this was the sound of my television, I pulled a blanket over my head, re-adjusted my sleeping position, and attempted to fall back asleep. I did not know what time it was, but the absence of light coming through my windows told me that I still had at least a few more hours before I had to run.
Normally, falling back asleep would not have been a problem. As a serious high-mileage runner, I could quite literally fall asleep on command at a moment’s notice during any given twenty-four hour period. Today, however, was an exception. The Boston Marathon had been bombed four days prior and the city’s occupants, myself included, were on edge. After only a few seconds of lying in bed listening to the television, it became clear to me that one of my roommates had turned on the local news broadcast. For the television to be on at such an odd hour meant that something of significance was happening. Perhaps police had tracked down the bombing suspects. Maybe the evil-doers were even in custody. My weariness quickly faded and was replaced with curiosity. I slipped out of bed and sat myself in front of the television. My roommate and I watched with anticipation.
The broadcast informed us that an MIT police officer had been gunned down and that police had chased the criminals into Watertown where a shootout occurred. We also learned that the gunmen were still at-large and considered extremely dangerous. It remained unknown at that time whether or not this incident had any connection at all to the Marathon Bombings. To us, it felt like the world (or at least the city of Boston) could be coming to an end.
I spent a few more minutes immersed in the news coverage on television, waiting for new information to be released. As soon as I realized that I had all the facts I was going to get until something new happened, I returned to my room and attempted to get a few more precious hours of sleep before sunrise. Needless to say, I had difficulty sleeping as my mind was racing trying to make sense of the week’s tragedies.
At precisely 5:55 a.m. I awoke again-this time to my alarm. Right away, I was out of bed readying myself for the 13 miles I had planned for the morning. My phone’s weather application reported the temperature as 52°F, which meant that it was warm enough to run shirtless. The first few minutes would be a bit chilly, but the rest of the run would be quite comfortable. For better or for worse, the thought of skipping my run for safety reasons never even crossed my mind. As with most veteran runners, I had conditioned myself long ago to stop excuses before they even have a chance to manifest as thought. I was, however, aware that the general vicinity of Watertown could potentially be dangerous, so I opted out of my usual Fresh Pond Friday route in favor of traveling into Boston. I was confident the city would be safe by virtue of the elevated police and military presence that had been established there since Monday.
Sporting only shoes and a pair of solid orange running shorts, I was out the door by 6:40 a.m. My apartment is close to Inman Square, so my route began with a straight-shot down Hampshire Street and into Boston via the Longfellow Bridge. The route, which I adopted from my undergraduate days at MIT, gets progressively more complicated and eventually finds its way along the Harborwalk at Rowes Wharf in Boston’s Waterfront neighborhood. By the time I reached this landmark, nothing unusual had happened. I had even spotted other runners out for their morning toil just as I was. The city was definitely quiet, but not to the point of concern.
After the route weaves back and forth along each dock, it takes a sharp left onto Northern Avenue’s footbridge and passes in front of the Moakley Courthouse. As I veered left to take that turn, I looked up and saw a police officer standing directly in my way. “This bridge is closed, you’re gonna have to go around,” he said. I slowed my pace and pointed to the next bridge over asking him if I could use that one instead. He paused in thought for a moment before telling me that I’d be better off avoiding the general direction of the courthouse altogether. Later, I would learn that a suspicious package had been found near the courthouse minutes before my arrival. Not particularly pleased nor bothered by this sudden change of plans, I turned right, heading toward Atlantic Avenue when the police officer shouted back to me in afterthought: “Hey, you kinda look like that guy we’re looking for.” His tone was playful and my response was a quick chuckle followed by, “Yeah, I guess you’re right.” Neither the gravity of the officer’s statement, nor the truth behind it had any time to sink in, as no more than six strides later, the policeman’s partner took one up-close look at me and said, firmly, “Hold up, son. You look like that guy we’re after.” Without hesitation, I stopped my watch and halted to a stop. The tone of his voice and the look in his eye told me that he meant business.
[Editor’s note: Does he look like the guy? You be the judge.]
“Who are you?” the officer inquired. I noticed the first officer walking over to where we were standing. “And what are you doing here?” He sounded confrontational, but also genuinely confused. I answered both questions succinctly. When the first officer caught up to us, he repeated the same questions, which I answered with the same, word-for-word response: “My name is Dan Harper and I’m in the middle of a run.” The second officer furrowed his brow and continued to stare me up and down. I knew then that my answer, although honest, would not be enough to relieve me of this predicament. The two policemen gave each other a familiar look and then turned to me. “Sir, we’re gonna have to ask you to turn around and put your hands behind your back.”
Now in handcuffs, I was largely at their mercy. They asked me question after question. Most had simple, one or two word answers. I gave them my age, birthdate, ethnicity, address, occupation, parent’s names, country of citizenship, and more, including an explanation as to why I was half-naked. Between questions, I could hear them radioing-in, alerting nearby officers that they had a person of interest in detainment. Seeing what must have been a mild look of confusion on my face, one of them asked, “You know why we’ve stopped you, right?” I nodded and told them that I was aware of sharing what could be considered a loose resemblance to one of the marathon bombing suspects. Several pictures of the two individuals had been released the night before and apart from Suspect 2’s overly-pronounced nose, I could not fully deny a physical likeness. Attempting to draw the officer’s attention to the normalness of my own nose, I turned my facial profile at a ninety-degree angle and commented on how remarkably different my nose was from that of the real bomber. In response, the officer removed a piece of paper from his pocket and showed it to me. It was a headshot of a younger Suspect 2. I had not seen this particular photograph before as it had not yet been released to the public. As soon as I saw it, my eyes widened. If my mother showed me that picture, claiming that it was taken of me six years ago, I probably would have believed her. It was then that I realized the officer who stopped me may not just be following a circumspect protocol-he may genuinely believe that I was the bomber. The accusatory look in his eyes revealed this to be true.
Less than five minutes had passed before the police presence in that small parking lot increased from two officers and a squad car to more than 10 officers and several squad cars. After the two original officers had exhausted their standard barrage of questions, they brought me over to the center of the space and positioned me between two police cars. The first officer asked me if I had any weapons as he pried my shoes off and poked his hand around the inside of my shorts. A bomb-sniffing dog was told to investigate, eventually reassuring the officers that I had not recently handled any explosives. Another officer held up his phone and told me to look directly at its camera. As he was taking the picture, I noticed several other officers pull out their phones to do the same. “Great,” I thought to myself. “My mugshot is now all over the police force intraweb.” After the photo shoot, I was ordered to sit tight in the back of a police car. There I sat as groups of policemen with various department affiliations flocked to the scene. I can recall seeing members of the Boston Police Department, Cambridge Police Department, Massachusetts State Police, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the United States Military. They were talking, pointing, shaking their heads, and speaking into cell phones. Periodically, the car door would open, at which point I would be told to look into several more cameras and answer another few sets of already-answered questions. I began to wonder how long they would keep me handcuffed in the back of this police car.
At one point, a rather plump officer opened the door. He looked at me distrustingly and started asking me the same old set of questions that I had been asked almost non-stop for the past 20 minutes. When he got to the, “So what were you doing out here” question, he leaned back against a squad car, preparing himself for an amusing cover-up story. I did not disappoint. “I was out running before work,” I said. The officer looked puzzled. “And where were you running from?” he asked.
“Somerville? That’s really far away!” he exclaimed. “How far is that?”
“Uh, probably about five miles.”
The policeman chuckled. “So you mean to tell me that you just ran five miles all the way from Somerville and you’re not even sweating?”
“That’s a load of bullshit.”
I wasn’t exactly sure how to respond. This officer clearly had no knowledge of what it meant to be a competitive runner. I tried to enlighten him: “Well you see, sir, when it’s fifty degrees out and you’re running without a shirt, your body doesn’t need to sweat because it’s already cool enough. On top of that, I wasn’t running fast today.” He shook his head a few times and closed the door to the police car. I saw him turn to his fellow officers and I put my head against the car window so that I could listen in on their conversation: “He said he just ran five miles,” the chubby officer submitted to the group.
“Yeah, five miles all the way from Somerville.”
“But he isn’t even sweating,” said another.
“I know, his story isn’t making any sense.”
Now, I am well aware that the elite running community is not nearly as well understood to the general public as, say, the football community, but this was ridiculous. Using my elbows to knock against the car window, I tried to draw their attention. Perhaps they didn’t have enough information to believe that I was actually a runner. When they opened the door, I told them that I was no jogger. I was a serious runner who ran an average of 22 miles each day and that I was an Olympic Trials hopeful for the marathon. I mentioned my membership in the Boston Athletic Association running club and even commented on the irony of mistaking a BAA runner for the bomber. “In fact,” I continued. “I just ran in the BAA 5k on Sunday. You can look up the results!” Although relevant, none of this new information made a difference. The officer was still fixated on the fact that I had just run five miles without sweating. He folded his arms. “If you ran all the way from Somerville, then you should be able to tell us exactly how you got here,” he challenged.
“You mean you want to know my route?” I asked. The paradox of describing a run to someone who was so far removed from the activity amused me. Rarely do team-specific runs make their way into other running groups, let alone the general public. This could be my chance to give one of my undergraduate runs, Docks, eternal fame.