Bloodshed becomes likelier, the longer the fugitive remains on the loose

SWAT team members search for the second suspect at a residential building on April 19, 2013 in Watertown, Massachusetts.
SWAT team members search for the second suspect at a residential building on April 19, 2013 in Watertown, Massachusetts.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

As the hunt for suspected Boston Marathon bomber Dzhorkhar Tsarnaev intensifies, the more desperate he may become. His desperation, in turn, increases the likelihood of further bloodshed.

More than a thousand officers swarmed the small Massachusetts town where they believed Tsarnaev— one half of the sibling duo suspected in Monday’s deadly bombing— had taken refuge. His older brother, Tamerlan, died on Thursday night after a shootout with the police. That leaves the younger Tsarnaev isolated. He’s unable to reach out to other family or friends–they are under surveillance. And with each passing hour that the 19-year-old avoids capture, the chances of a peaceful resolution are dwindling, said Jay Wachtel, a former agent with The Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.

“Once a suspect knows you’re onto him, the outcome is a crap shoot with possibly catastrophic consequences for cops and innocents,” Wachtel said. “There are no next steps. You just don’t know what’s in the head of these people.”

There is a long and fiery history of raids and sieges gone wrong. And April 19–Friday’s date–is among the most notorious days in modern American history for such incidents.

Twenty years ago, on April 19, 1993, federal and state law enforcement officers raided the Waco, Texas, compound of cult-leader David Koresh, ending a violent, 51-day standoff with the well-armed group. But nearly 80 sect members and four law enforcement officers died after FBI agents in an armored vehicle rammed the building and launched tear gas canisters inside, which then caught fire.

The siege at Waco has become one of the most notorious American law-enforcement blunders. But even before that, in 1985, also on April 19, there was the Covenant, Sword and Arm of the Lord siege. Federal agents raided a radical, racist Christian organization in Missouri to arrests its leaders. And while the raid went relatively smoothly with no loss of life, it is often cited by anti-government groups as an example of government tyranny.

Some two years after Waco, again on April 19, embittered U.S. Army veteran and militia movement sympathizer Timothy McVeigh detonated a rental truck filled with explosives outside of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. One hundred and sixty-eight people were killed, including 19 babies and children.

Other historical botched raids include the 1985 MOVE bombing in Philadelphia, in which the police dropped two one-pound bombs on a row house occupied by a black liberation group. Police fired over 10,000 rounds at the building. The resulting fire destroyed 65 houses and killed 11 people, including five children. Like the Watertown stand-off of Thursday night, this incident occurred in an urban, heavily-populated area.

Another is the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992, a confrontation in northern Idaho that left a Deputy U.S. Marshal and the wife and son of militia movement sympathizer Randy Weaver dead.

“There’s just no science to this stuff,” said Wachtel. “The cops who are doing this are people. There’s this horrible feeling that you’re going to end up getting a bunch of citizens killed… If something goes wrong and someone [innocent] gets killed, there’s no way to explain it.”

While there is no indication just how close officers are to locating Tsarnaev, he may feel the physical and emotional noose tightening around him. And avoiding a standoff may be virtually impossible, as officers consider Tsarnaev armed and dangerous.

On Thursday night, after Dzhorkhar and his brother allegedly killed a security guard at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, they allegedly carjacked an SUV before getting into a shootout with police that left the elder Tsarnaev dead. The 26-year-old was wearing an explosive vest at the time of his death, according to law enforcement officials.

“You open a panel to an attic and somebody is laying up in the attic ready shoot you as your head comes up,” former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt told msnbc host Chris Matthews of the dangers confronting officers as they search for violent suspects.

“The bottom line is, you got to go through the door and you got to go in there and confront somebody… this guy has got the drop on you unfortunately, and its potentially not just hand guns, it’s explosives. Remember, his brother had what has been described as a suicide or explosive vest and he charged at police officers, perhaps to blow himself up and take officers with him. This guy [Tsarnaev], if he has this, could have the same capability.”

Bloodshed becomes likelier, the longer the fugitive remains on the loose