Witnesses suggest friendly fire felled MBTA officer
Eyewitness accounts strongly suggest that MBTA Transit Police Officer Richard H. Donohue Jr. was shot and nearly killed by a fellow officer in Watertown April 19 during the hail of gunfire unleashed on Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the suspected terrorist made a getaway in a carjacked sport utility vehicle.
Donohue went down in the early-morning darkness during an extraordinary gunfight in which at least a dozen police officers from four departments exchanged up to 300 rounds of gunfire with Dzhokhar’s older brother, Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The Tsarnaevs also allegedly set off explosives, including a pressure cooker bomb similar to the ones used in the Boston Marathon bombings.
Jane Dyson, who lives 140 feet from where Donohue was shot on Dexter Avenue, said she saw the police officer collapse and fall to the ground near the end of the gunfight as 19-year-old Dzhokhar Tsarnaev sped away. She said the officer appeared to be a victim of “friendly fire.”
“A black SUV appeared, and rapid gun fire was focused on the vehicle,” Dyson wrote in a statement provided to the Globe, referring to the vehicle Tsarnaev allegedly drove in his escape. “It appeared to me that an individual at the corner [of the street] fell to the ground and had probably been hit in the gunfire.”
“I later learned that the individual who had been shot was Officer Richard Donohue,” she wrote.
It would later become apparent that the suspects were no longer armed when Dyson saw Donohue fall, suggesting that the shot that wounded him came from police. Two witnesses support Dyson’s account that Donohue appeared to be wounded in the final volley of shots fired at the fleeing younger suspect.
None of the witnesses faulted police. “I don’t second-guess the actions the police took to stop these terrorists,” Dyson said in an interview. “The police did a great job.”
Dyson said she had offered to make a statement to police.
The shooting of Donohue is the most serious of three possible accidental shootings during the hunt for the suspected bombers now being reviewed by the Middlesex district attorney’s office and the State Police as part of a broader criminal investigation.
In a second incident, another Transit Police officer was slightly wounded, while the third incident involved damage to a police vehicle.
But no matter what the investigation concludes, it will not take away from the bravery of officers who put their lives on the line, a State Police spokesman said.
“Considering the chaos on those dark streets, where a pair of homicidal terrorists were firing shots and throwing bombs at police, the fact that friendly-fire incidents may have occurred detracts nothing, not one bit , from the valor and heroism of the officers and troopers who caught up to them that night,” David Procopio said.
Nationally, about two police officers per year are killed by friendly fire, excluding training exercises, according to data collected by the FBI. The 22 friendly-fire deaths nationally over the last decade include cases in which officers mistook a fellow officer not wearing a uniform for the suspect.
The Watertown shootout was highly unusual in that officers from as many as six agencies converged on the suspects in the middle of the night, with officers having little time to coordinate efforts. It is still unclear exactly how many of the officers fired their guns, though it was at least a dozen from four agencies.
“It’s arguably a wartime situation,” said Chuck Wexler, executive director of the Police Executive Research Forum, a Washington nonprofit that conducts research on law enforcement. “Police agencies are not generally prepared for the kind of wartime situation that these officers encountered.”
Donohue and his partner were among the first officers to arrive at the intersection of Dexter Avenue and Laurel Street, moments after the Tsarnaev brothers pulled over in the SUV they had allegedly carjacked in Allston.
In the ensuing 10 minutes, police officers fired what may be an unprecedented number of rounds in a single police incident in recent state history. They apparently wounded both suspects, but also sprayed the neighborhood. Shots fired in the battle left at least a dozen nearby houses pockmarked with dozens of bullet holes, including a second-floor bedroom where two children slept.
Donohue suffered a three-quarter inch bullet wound to the top of his right thigh and nearly bled to death at the scene; “he was deceased,” as one emergency medical provider described him. Besides that shooting, authorities are also investigating an incident in which another MBTA Transit Police officer was grazed in the buttocks by gunfire. The identity of that officer and the circumstances of his shooting have not been disclosed.
In a third potential friendly-fire incident, a state trooper fired at an unmarked Boston police SUV, en route to the scene, the Globe reported April 22. No one was hurt when the trooper, apparently thinking the SUV was the one stolen by the Tsarnaevs, fired multiple rounds at the vehicle, blowing out the back window.
Donohue arrived at Mount Auburn Hospital in Cambridge with almost no blood and no pulse, but doctors now say he will probably make a full recovery. In a statement released last week, Donohue said the bullet “will remain in my leg as it is not obstructing anything or causing any pain.”
Last week, the Globe interviewed three neighbors who witnessed the climactic moment in the confrontation, when Dzhokhar Tsarnaev drove between two groups of police officers amid police gunfire.
By that time, Tamerlan had run out of bullets, hurling his handgun at a Watertown police officer before being subdued and handcuffed. There is little evidence that Dzhokhar ever had a gun. Police recovered one weapon at the scene and none on Dzhokhar when he was arrested the next evening.
Dzhokhar, bleeding from wounds, was in such a hurry to leave the scene that he ran over his brother with the stolen SUV, contributing to his death, said police and witnesses.
Two neighbors who witnessed the barrage directed at the SUV said it was only afterward that they heard shouted calls for medical help for a wounded officer.
Rob Mullen, who watched from a second-floor window of his house on Laurel Street, said the SUV wove between police vehicles, including Donohue’s, to elude officers, but not before the SUV took heavy fire.
“Every cop out there just unloaded everything he had on the SUV,” Mullen said.
Curtis Hazlett, who watched from the third floor of his house on Dexter Avenue, said the injuries to Donohue became apparent after the shooting stopped.
“After the gunfire died down, that’s when I started to hear calls for assistance for the officer,” Hazlett said.
Mullen said the scene was chaotic and that it was possible that Donohue was hit by gunfire earlier, before Tamerlan Tsarnaev had run out of ammunition and that police had not noticed. But the calls for help he heard came only after the SUV had blown through the intersection, he said.
Dyson, in her written account, said she watched the SUV go through the intersection “with what appeared to be several police officers running close behind, firing weapons, trying desperately to stop the vehicle. The car disappeared from view as it continued down Laurel Street.”
At that point, Dyson said she opened her window so she could hear better.
“I heard police radios and police officers call for assistance,” she wrote. “Police officers surround the individual who had been shot and worked to keep the person alive.
“I heard the police doing chest compressions and saw them working to save the individual who appeared to be seriously injured,” Dyson said. “Moments later an ambulance arrived and quickly backed up to pick up the individual.”
Dyson said after hearing officials accounts of what happened she realized it was Donohue whom she had seen treated on the scene.
The gunfire left some residents shaken. Tigran Tadevosyan said his two young children were asleep in a second-floor bedroom on Laurel Street when a bullet penetrated the wall. “We were very lucky no one was badly hurt,” he said.
Another resident, Emily McAlpin, said there were at least seven bullet holes in her house, plus one in her fence. One penetrated the living room and smashed the television. “You feel so violated,” she said.
Procopio said the friendly-fire investigation “will take a good amount of time,” because of the existence of “a great deal of physical and ballistics evidence,” as well as the need to interview numerous witnesses and participants.
“It is a complex investigation being conducted very methodically,” Procopio said.