3 Years After Boston Marathon Bombing, The Story Of A Wrongly Accused Student

Apr 17, 2016
Originally published on April 19, 2016 3:58 pm
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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Boston Marathon is tomorrow. It has been three years since two explosions at the race killed three people and injured hundreds. Now a new documentary tells a part of that story that many have forgotten - about the young man who was wrongly accused of being one of the bombers. The film is called "Help Us Find Sunil Tripathi." Anders Kelto reports.

ANDERS KELTO, BYLINE: Sunil Tripathi was a gifted student from a high-achieving family. His older sister Sangeeta says, growing up, he always surpassed her academically.

SANGEETA TRIPATHI: And did so effortlessly, in just an embarrassing way. So I was always very jokingly, you know, kind of spiteful of his - the ease with which he could pass through school.

KELTO: But in college at Brown University, Sunil began to struggle with depression. In March of 2013, he went missing. His family organized a massive search operation. And somewhat reluctantly, they used social media to help with the search.

S. TRIPATHI: Despite how uncomfortable it was to take our personal childhood and smatter it across Facebook, we just knew that this is what we needed to do to get his story out.

KELTO: They received lots of messages of support. News organizations picked up the story. But three weeks later, they still had no leads. They were exhausted. So Sunil's brother and sister went to the Boston Marathon to cheer on a friend who'd been helping in the search.

(SOUNDBITE OF BOSTON MARATHON)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All right. All right.

KELTO: And then at the race...

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

S. TRIPATHI: We were just all so shaken. And it just felt like tragedy on top of tragedy on top of tragedy for so many people.

KELTO: And this is where Sunil's story and the Marathon story became intertwined for one terrible night. Three days after the bombing, the FBI released photos of the suspects. On Twitter, a former classmate of Sunil said she thought one of the suspects looked like him. That was picked up by Reddit. And suddenly the Tripathis's Facebook page was bombarded with hateful messages, many saying that given his name and appearance, Sunil must be a Muslim terrorist. Here's his brother, Ravi.

RAVI TRIPATHI: This is not just one or two comments that would make Mom cry. It progressed to having as many laptops open as possible and deleting every single post. It almost felt like a - you know, a case study in mob mentality - in virtual mob mentality.

KELTO: Journalists saw the buzz on social media and started calling the Tripathis. Some retweeted the accusations. Others actually broadcasted them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: We do have some names for you, some names to match those faces that the FBI gave us a little earlier. The first one - his name is Sunil Tripathi. He's been missing now for about three weeks. His family...

KELTO: The Tripathis had been waiting for their phones to ring with information about Sunil. Now they were getting questions about his alleged involvement in the bombing. Between 3 and 4 a.m. on Friday, April 19, his sister Sangeeta got 58 calls from the media. News vans lined up outside their home and reporters were knocking on their front door. Then, at 7 a.m. that morning, the FBI released the names of the actual suspects, Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev. Sunil's name was never mentioned. At that point, his brother Ravi says...

R. TRIPATHI: The endless phone calls and text messages that were still coming in from the night before stopped. And the only thing to do was to reach out and say - hey, we're people. And we're here, and we're actually still looking for Sunil.

KELTO: In 24 hours, Sunil had gotten from a missing person to a bombing suspect and back to a missing person. His family called every news outlet that had phoned the night before and asked for their help in finding Sunil. Most never returned their calls. And then, one week later, the Tripathis discovered what had happened to Sunil. His body was found in a river near Providence. He had died from suicide a month before the marathon. For the Tripathis, the false accusations only added to the devastation of losing Sunil. Still, the film's director, Neal Broffman, says there are important lessons here, including social media's potential for both harm and good.

NEAL BROFFMAN: During the early days of the search, the social media was incredibly uplifting and helpful. And then in a matter of an hour, it turned so fast and became so ugly.

KELTO: Since Sunil's death, the Tripathis have tried to separate his story from the Boston Marathon bombing. But his aunt Nina Taylor worries that may never happen.

NINA TAYLOR: For you to Google his name and know that they will always come up together - and it makes me so mad because he was such a private person. And we went public because it was our only shot.

KELTO: For NPR News, I'm Anders Kelto. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.