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Watertown man recalls being stopped by police the night of manhunt for Marathon bombers

Posted by Your Town  May 2, 2013 03:45 PM

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A Watertown man says he is the figure leaning forward against a car in this photo, taken the night of the manhunt for the Marathon bombers. Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

His photograph was seen around the world: palms pressed against a police cruiser, a gun pointed at the back of his bowed head, standing in the darkness of a night illuminated only by lights from emergency vehicles.

On his way home from work some time after 12:30 a.m. on April 19, the 42-year-old Watertown resident found himself commuting through the largest manhunt in New England history.

Phil, who asked that his full name not be used because he doesn’t want the attention, had no way of knowing that the two suspects in the Boston Marathon bombings had aimed their stolen Mercedes toward Watertown, after allegedly killing an MIT police officer.

At 12:42 a.m., a Watertown dispatcher warned officers that the stolen SUV was in the area of 89 Dexter Ave., about two blocks from Phil’s home. The infamous shootout followed and at 12:48 a.m., according to authorities, Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sped away after driving over his older brother Tamerlan Tsarnaev, who died from his injuries.

Despite being grabbed from his car, searched, and finally released by police, Phil said he is thankful for their vigilance that terrifying night.

“They were rough, understandably, but they didn’t hurt me,” he said in an interview with the Globe. “I’m thankful for them. They were protecting my neighborhood and protecting my family. I have zero ill will at all.”

Phil had finished his shift at a West Newton restaurant and was heading to his home near the corner of School and Boylston streets. As he approached Watertown Square, he saw a crush of police vehicles. Perhaps, he thought, police had set up some sort of sobriety checkpoint.

He drove down Arsenal Street, past several police cars that appeared to be converging there, and turned onto School Street.

Phil made it about three blocks, when police officers noticed him and started yelling. “They were like, ‘Get out! Turn around, get out of here!’ I turned around not knowing what’s going on.”

He reversed direction thinking he could get home via Cypress Street, but as he followed that residential road, he ran into a scene unimaginable in a normally peaceful town.

SWAT teams and state troopers had convened on Cypress, near its intersection with Walnut Street, and Phil apparently took them by surprise, he said. With guns pointed at him, Phil recalled a blur of uniforms and weapons.

Two men in military armor wielding what looked like assault weapons approached his Subaru Legacy. One of them pulled him out of the car.

“Who are you? Who are you? What are you doing here,” he recalled hearing.

He told them he lived around the corner and was just trying to get home, he recalled in the interview. A law enforcement officer, he said, came over, grabbed him, and pulled him over to his cruiser, where the photo, which ran on the front page of the Globe as well as in other media outlets, was snapped. The officer put him against the cruiser and frisked him.

Only later would he learn that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was on the run, searching for a hiding place, around the time Phil was trying to get home.

“I believe he was probably running through that same neighborhood at the same time I was driving,” he said.

Phil said he is grateful to authorities for their actions that night. The same police, who were there to hunt down a suspected terrorist and to prevent any more people from being injured or killed, appeared themselves to be terrified.

“I could see how scared they were in their eyes,” he said. “The military gentlemen, the policemen, everyone was scared.”

After Phil was frisked, an FBI agent, identifiable because of his jacket, told troopers to get him out of there.

The same law enforcement officer who had patted him down grabbed Phil by the belt and shirt collar.

“We’re going to run right now,” the officer told him.

The officer took Phil to Randy’s Car Wash, leaving his car and identification.

The police still wanted information so Phil offered up his social security number, and he sat on the back bumper of an ambulance with his hands up, while another officer ran his number.

After apologies, an officer said, “There’s some severe stuff going down,” Phil recalled.

“I was so scared and discombobulated, I didn’t know what was going on,” he said.

He estimates he stayed at the car wash for about 45 minutes. EMTs tried to talk to him, but he found himself unable to speak. He thought about his wife and his two-and-a-half-year-old son just a few blocks away. Scared and confused, he was thankful nothing had happened to him. “I just wanted to get home,” he recalled.

Finally, he approached an FBI agent and asked if he would walk him home. He did.

It wasn’t until Phil got home and turned on the television that he found out he had been in the middle of the manhunt, which finally ended Friday evening when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev surrendered after he was spotted hiding in a boat, a few blocks from the car wash.

Phil’s wife, wearing earplugs, was still asleep when he walked in.

“I got home and said, ‘You’re not going to believe what just happened to me.”

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