BOSTON, MA – Dun Meng knew to pull over his Mercedes-Benz SUV to respond to a text message that night in April 2013. That’s when a man got out of another car, jumped into his SUV and pointed a gun at him.
“He asked me, ‘Do you know the Boston Marathon explosion?’ ” Meng told a crowded courtroom Thursday, speaking in halting English. An interpreter who spoke Meng’s native Mandarin sat next to him but was not needed.
“He asked, ‘You know who did it? I did it and I just killed a policeman in Cambridge,’ ” Meng said a man later identified as Tamerlan Tsarnaev told him.
Meng was on the witness stand in the death penalty trial of admitted Boston Marathon bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, Tamerlan’s younger brother. He recalled seeing the flashing lights of police cars in Cambridge earlier that night.
“After that, how did you feel?” Assistant U.S. Attorney William Weinreb asked.
“Terrified. The whole world is looking for him at the time. … I thought it was just a typical robbery.”
There was nothing typical about the days after the Boston Marathon bombings, which killed three people and hurt more than 240 others.
Prosecutors say Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev had earlier killed Massachusetts Institute of Technology police Officer Sean Collier because they wanted his gun. But their efforts to take it were thwarted by a safety holster.
Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, who was 19 at the time, does not dispute he was present when Collier was killed on the evening of April 18, 2013, nor does he deny that he participated in the bombings three days earlier. He is being tried on 30 charges — 17 of which carry the possibility of the death penalty.
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, 26, would not survive the night. He was killed in a chase and gunbattle with police that began with reports of an “officer down” at MIT.
It was after Collier’s killing that Meng encountered the Tsarnaev brothers.
At the time, he was working on his master’s degree at Northeastern University. Meng, a partner at a company that created a food delivery app, recalled feeling tired after work. He drove along the Charles River with no destination in mind. He pulled over after receiving a text message.
‘Don’t be stupid’
“I’m a traffic engineer, and I know it is unsafe to text while I’m driving,” he said.
A car pulled up quickly and stopped. A man in the car walked over. Meng said he thought the man wanted directions. Instead, the man pulled open the SUV door and climbed in.
Meng said Tamerlan Tsarnaev demanded cash. He said he had about $45 on him.
“He said, ‘That’s not enough. Where’s your wallet?’ So I give him my wallet, but there’s no cash in the wallet.”
The man pulled the magazine out of his handgun. He showed Meng it was loaded.
“I’m serious,” Meng testified that the man told him moments before admitting to being the Boston Marathon bomber. “So don’t be stupid.”
After he handed over the cash, Meng said the man ordered him to drive. He said Dzhokhar Tsarnaev followed in a Honda but later got in the backseat of the SUV.
“He ordered me to every direction,” he said of Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
“We had a conversation. … He asked me my name and he asked me where I’m from. First few minutes my hands were shaking and I was having trouble driving. I was very scared.”
‘Muslims hate Americans’
Meng said his name was Manny. The man laughed when he thought Meng said Nanny.
“I said I’m Chinese. He said, ‘OK, you are Chinese. I am Muslim and Muslims hate Americans.’ I responded, ‘I’m Chinese. Chinese are very friendly toward Muslims.’ ”
At one point, the carjacker asked Meng for the PIN code on his bank card.
“I tell him the PIN code,” he testified. “It started with 86, somebody’s birthday. He asked me if I was born in 1986, and I said yes.”
Meng testified that he asked Tamerlan Tsarnaev: “Are you going to kill me tonight? He told me, ‘I’m not going to kill you. Just relax, man.’ ”
The witness pointed to Dzhokhar Tsarnaev as the man who later sat in the backseat behind him. The men played a CD as they drove around.
‘Victim of something’
“I would say weird,” he said of the music. “It sounded religious.”
At one point, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev went into a gas station convenience store to pay for gas and load up on snacks, Meng testified. Tamerlan fiddled with a GPS device.
Meng unbuckled his seat belt, opened the SUV door and got away, dashing across the street to another service station. He never looked back. Meng begged a worker to call the police. He hid there until officers arrived.
It was “the most difficult decision in my life,” he said.
“I could feel he was trying to grab me. His hand was so close to my left hand I could feel the wind.”
Cambridge police Officer Michael Nickerson had to talk Meng out of a gas station storage room when he arrived.
“He was trembling,” Nickerson testified. “He was very scared. You could tell he was a victim of something.”