Leading up to the 10-year anniversary of the bombing at the Boston Marathon—and the ensuing manhunt and investigation that was the FBI’s largest terrorism case since 9/11—the special agent in charge of FBI Boston asked his entire office to pause and reflect on the crucible of that massive investigation as they prepared for this year’s 127th running.
Three people were killed on April 15, 2013, when two pressure-cooker bombs detonated 11 seconds apart on Boylston Street near the finish line of the iconic 26-mile race. More than 500 people were physically injured, including 17 who suffered amputations. The bombers also took the life of Sean Collier, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology Police officer who was executed while on patrol.
Large images of the victims were arrayed in a conference room last month at the Boston Field Office, along with a whiteboard agents used to sketch out their plans and the wanted posters that helped identify the suspects, brothers Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev. A moment of silence preceded the remembrance ceremony.
“It was important, first and foremost, to honor the victims,” said Joseph Bonavolonta, special agent in charge of the Boston Division.
But he also wanted to enlighten the office’s large cadre of young agents, analysts, and professionals—many not around 10 years ago—who may not fully appreciate the all-hands-on-deck response required in major cases like this.
“Internally, I wanted to give my personnel a real good idea, with some granularity, about what it means when a critical incident occurs,” he said, “what is expected of all of us to step up, and how we work toward a common goal.”
Understanding how all the pieces fit together—from ground-level evidence collection and witness interviews to high-level coordination with Headquarters divisions and partner law enforcement agencies—can go a long way toward preparing for the next event, Bonavolonta said.
Some of the more notable elements that helped shape the investigation:
- More than 33 terabytes of digital information were collected, including photos and video from the public via a special digital tip line developed to support the investigation.
- Linguists spent more than 2,500 hours translating material to support the investigation and trial.
- FBI Boston’s Evidence Response Team (ERT), working with teams from the Boston Police Department, the Massachusetts State Police, and the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF), spent nine days processing 12 square blocks near the bomb scenes.
- About 176 FBI Laboratory and ERT personnel deployed to Boston to assist.
- Evidence technicians processed more than 3,500 pieces of evidence and shipped 2,749 items to the Laboratory in Quantico, Virginia for further analysis.
- The Victim Services Division deployed 10 victim specialists from around the country to support Boston’s specialists in providing support and resources to the victims and their families.
The program included a two-hour presentation by one of the case’s lead agents, Tim Brown, who delivered a gripping account of the investigation. He was followed by Dun Meng, a graduate student at the time, who recounted his kidnapping by the bombers and his daring escape that ultimately helped authorities track them down. He remembered the police officer who showed up to help him while he was hiding in a Cambridge gas station.
“That’s the first moment I feel like I’m safe,” Meng said. “That’s probably a moment I’ll never forget. I really appreciate the officers. They saved my life.”
Special Agent Brown said there are scores of unsung heroes who helped save lives and bring the case to fruition—to include members of the Boston Police Department and the Massachusetts State Police who were on the front lines of the manhunt alongside the FBI’s SWAT team and special agent bomb technicians.
Brown and Bonavolonta both spoke at length about the partnerships the FBI relies on both during critical incidents and its day-to-day investigations. The Boston Division alone covers four states and has five distinct Joint Terrorism Task Forces (JTTFs) with representatives from 75 different agencies. They said those partnerships are key to investigations.
“I think that this brought us closer as a law enforcement community,” Bonavolonta said. “The partnerships now are probably as strong as they have ever been.”
Looking ahead, Bonavolonta said the bombing 10 years ago set in motion refinements in how the office prepares now for critical incidents, from pre-determining a staging area for evidence collection on the scale of 2013 to the precise roles every last field office employee will have in the event of an incident.
“We’ve evolved in the way that we respond to these incidents,” said Bonavolonta, speaking from his personal experience as a young agent in New York on 9/11.
As Brown closed his presentation, he said it was the victims that really propelled the case to its successful conclusion.
“The capture of the surviving terrorist provided some comfort to the community, but we knew that our work on this case had just started,” Brown said. “Over the next several years, it was the victim’s families and the hundreds of survivors who gave us motivation each day to keep pushing forward to get the job done.”