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A Suspect Leaves Clues at Every Turn

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Here is a quest for the invisible life, rendered in less than 50 words.

Buy a used Nissan Pathfinder with cash; decline a bill of sale or any other paperwork; communicate about the deal on a prepaid cellphone, registered to no one. Then strip the vehicle identification number, or VIN, from the dashboard. Add a stolen license plate. Tint the windows.

And here, it seems, is the very definition of futility.

These were the tactics that prosecutors say were used by Faisal Shahzad, the man pulled off a plane late Monday night and charged with trying to blow up the Pathfinder in Times Square on Saturday evening, when tens of thousands of people were jammed into the streets.

It was the precise map of the fanatic heart drawn by Yeats: Great hatred, little room.

At virtually every turn, the evasive steps Mr. Shahzad took left digital footprints, a trail that ultimately led to his seat on an Emirates flight that was bound for Dubai, the authorities say. Mr. Shahzad did not make it into court on Tuesday; he is said to be talking, and the authorities seemed unwilling to interrupt the stream of his consciousness.

If Mr. Shahzad is indeed responsible, he would not be the first car-bombing suspect arrested in a matter of days because of the things he left behind. With every breath of modern life, people leave a vast series of markings that are unseen and, usually, unnoticed.

Nearly two decades ago, the first — and so far, only successful — car bomb in the modern history of New York was planted in the basement garage of the World Trade Center on Feb. 26, 1993. Six people were killed. The explosion left an immense crater.

Climbing through the rubble a few days later, Joe Hanlin, a federal explosives investigator, and Donald Sadowy, a detective with the Police Department’s bomb squad, found bits and pieces of a vehicle that had been torn apart, including a severely twisted section of the frame. That section appeared to have been quite close to the explosion. As they began to swab it for chemical residue, a series of raised dots emerged. They formed letters and numbers.

“We couldn’t read all the numbers,” Mr. Hanlin testified later that year, “but we knew they were numbers and could be used to trace the vehicle.”

It turned out that particular fragment had been stamped with the vehicle’s 17-digit VIN, the automotive equivalent of DNA. Each vehicle is assigned a unique series of numbers that shows where it was manufactured and when, and describes in code its body type, make, model, options.

The VIN showed that the demolished vehicle had been a Ford Econoline van, owned by the Ryder Truck and Rental Company, which reported that it had been rented a few weeks earlier in Jersey City by a man named Mohammed A. Salameh.

In fact, by the time the van was linked to the bombing, Mr. Salameh had already reported it stolen. While others who were part of the bomb plot had fled the country, Mr. Salameh was left behind, nearly penniless. As federal investigators descended on the rental company, Mr. Salameh was haggling with Ryder for the return of a $400 deposit.

ON Saturday, when police seized the Nissan Pathfinder left in Times Square, the VIN plate on the dashboard had been removed. But the VIN is also stamped on engine parts and on the frame, and these were intact. That identification quickly led to a 19-year-old Connecticut woman who had sold the Pathfinder a few weeks ago to a man for $1,300 in cash.

The man who bought it had declined the offer of a bill of sale. He had, however, called the seller several times from the prepaid cellphone to arrange the purchase, according to a criminal complaint made public on Tuesday.

That same phone had been used for calls to and from a “Pakistani telephone number associated with Shahzad,” the complaint said.

With Mr. Shahzad’s name, investigators searched his home in Connecticut on Monday, and solved another tiny mystery: The police had found keys in the Pathfinder, and one of them opened the door to Mr. Shahzad’s home. In his garage, they found fertilizer and fireworks, similar to what had been left in the Pathfinder in Times Square.

Later that night, in a seat on board Emirates Flight 202, they found Faisal Shahzad.

Another invisible man, thwarted by a VIN.

E-mail: dwyer@nytimes.com

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