fb-pixel Skip to main content

Bill Richard’s testimony an act of grace

Bill Richard, depicted on the stand Thursday in federal court.Jane Flavell Collins/Reuters

There was a brief, light moment just after Bill Richard climbed onto the witness stand Thursday.

Nadine Pellegrini, the prosecutor, asked him how long he had been married to his wife Denise.

“You told me you weren’t going to ask any trick questions,” Bill Richard said, in mock incredulity.

Pellegrini would settle for a ballpark figure.

“A long time,” Bill Richard said. “We’ve been married for a long time.”

Bill Richard was sitting about 10 feet away from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who by his own lawyers’ admission put a backpack containing a bomb just a few feet behind Bill Richard’s 8-year-old son Martin as the family took in the Boston Marathon in 2013.


The two men, one a wounded father, the other a young man who will either spend his life in a cell or leave this life on a gurney, didn’t look at each other.

Bill and Denise Richard had been going to the Marathon even before they had kids. They always had friends running. Marathon Day, Patriots Day, was just a great day to be in the city. And Bill and Denise Richard loved the city.

“When we had kids,” Bill Richard said, “we kind of made it a ritual to go in.”

In the previous five years, they had taken their kids to Hereford Street, near the corner of Newbury, because the crowds were often thin. This time, they just missed the elite runners going by.

“We were unlucky that day,” Bill Richard said.

Pellegrini put a photo on the video screen. It showed the Richard family, standing on Hereford near Newbury. All the kids -- Martin, Jane, 6, and Henry, 11-- were standing on the bottom railings of the metal barriers.

“That’s Jane,” Bill Richard said, pointing to his daughter in the photo, “with two legs.”

They walked down to the Ben & Jerry’s on Newbury and got the kids some ice cream. This seemed to give the kids a second wind. Bill Richard had a decision to make.


“Do we go home,” he said, “or try to go back and stick it out a little bit longer?”

To their everlasting regret, Bill and Denise Richard opted for the latter, steering their charges up toward Boylston. There was a spot at the barriers in front of the Forum restaurant so the kids squeezed in.

“It was very random,” Bill Richard said. “We had no reason to stop where we did. There was just an opening, so we took it.”

Pellegrini showed another photo of the Richards, this time at the barriers in front of the Forum.

“That’s Jane with two legs,” Bill Richard said again.

Pellegrini asked Bill Richard to look at the man with the white baseball cap on backwards in the photo. It was Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. She asked him if he had ever seen that man before.

“Til today,” Bill Richard replied, “not in person.”

It was in that moment, as the Richard family and everybody else had their attention focused on the runners, that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev slipped off the backpack containing a bomb and placed it right in back of Martin Richard.

When the first bomb went off, in front of Marathon Sports, Bill Richard’s first thought was that it was a sewer explosion.

“Time slowed down,” he said. “And I recall thinking, ‘Okay, we should probably go.’”


Somebody yelled, “Get in the street!”

That sounded like a good idea to Bill Richard. He moved closer to Denise. He actually said to her, “We’re gonna go.”

But just as Bill Richard began to hoist himself over the barrier, the bomb that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev placed in back of Martin exploded.

“I was blown into the street and I remember getting up, orienting myself and immediately walking back to where I came from,” Bill Richard said.

Everything was muffled. He saw Denise, kneeling over Martin. He looked to his left and saw Henry, stunned.

“Henry walked toward me and we embraced,” he said.

“Is this really happening?” Henry asked.

“Yes,” Bill Richard replied. “You have to help me find your sister.”

Henry pointed to Jane. She was behind them, next to a small tree on the sidewalk. Bill Richard went to Jane, who tried to get up and fell.

“It was then that I noticed her leg and I picked her up,” Bill Richard said. “She didn’t have it. It was blown off.”

He carried Jane into the middle of Boylston Street, praying that someone would stop to help. Paramedics arrived and took over.

His paternal instinct was to cover Henry’s eyes, to shield his oldest son from the carnage. He brought Henry to the other side of Boylston and asked someone to look after him while he ran back across Boylston to check on Denise and Martin.

He saw Denise and others hovering over Martin. He could see Martin wasn’t moving. He could see Martin’s color drain out of him.


“I knew he wasn’t going to make it,” Bill Richard said.

He told Denise he had to go in the ambulance with Jane, and Denise was crying but she knew he was right. He looked one more time at Martin, knowing, he said, it was the last time he would see his son alive.

“From what I saw,” he said, “there was no chance.”

But he knew if he didn’t act quickly, they might not only lose Martin but Jane, too. He ran to the ambulance.

Bill Richard was with Jane at Children’s Hospital while Denise was at another hospital. A piece of shrapnel had pierced her eye, blinding her in that eye. Denise’s phone had been blown out of her hand by the bomb. She borrowed someone else’s to call Bill.

“She told me that Martin was dead,” Bill Richard said. “I told her, ‘I know.’ “

Bill Richard sat there, almost embarrassed to recount his injuries. He says they weren’t that big a deal, compared to what happened to others. His hearing isn’t what it used to be, but Bill Richard is the type of guy who sees the glass half filled.

“I can still hear the beautiful voices of my family,” he said.

His testimony was more than a simple legal requirement, a perfunctory step toward the day of reckoning for the man who so grievously hurt his family and others. It was an act of transcendent grace, the words of a man who, in all his grief, in all his loss, still possesses something so much more powerful than a bomb.


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.