The Murders Before the Marathon
Waltham, September 11, 2011: Three men, throats slit, cash and drugs left on
the bodies. Two years later, two dead suspects: Tamerlan Tsarnaev, and a
friend who the FBI says was about to confess. One haunting question: Could
solving this case have prevented the Boston Marathon bombings?
By Susan Zalkind | Boston Magazine | March 2014
It's nearly midnight in a nondescript condo complex a few blocks from
Universal Studios in Orlando, and Tatiana Gruzdeva has been crying all day.
Though neither of us knows it yet, as she sits on the corner of her bed and
sobs in tiny convulsions, the fact that she's talking to me will lead to her
being arrested by federal agents, placed in solitary confinement, and
deported back to Russia.
Next to us on the bed are nine teddy bears. Eight of them came with her from
Tiraspol, Moldova. The ninth was a gift from her boyfriend, Ibragim
Todashev. Today would have been Ibragim's 28th birthday, but he is not here
to see it, because in the early hours of May 22, 2013, a Boston FBI agent
shot and killed him in this very apartment, under circumstances so strange
that a Florida state prosecutor has opened an independent investigation.
According to the FBI, just before Ibragim was shot—seven times, in two
bursts, including once in the top of the head—he was about to write a
confession implicating himself and alleged Boston Marathon bomber Tamerlan
Tsarnaev in a brutal triple homicide that took place in Waltham,
Massachusetts, in September 2011.
I'm sitting awkwardly at one end of the twin bed. She's crying quietly,
cross-legged at the other end, wearing shorts and a white shirt with
sequins. Most of her outfits have sequins or rhinestones. She's 19. I'm 26.
We both have long blond hair. We've both been close to men who were in
trouble with the law, and lost them violently. We've been talking for about
an hour, mostly about men, and parties, and moving forward after a tragedy.
Ibragim was a good man, she says. He could never have committed a murder.
"I'm here alone," she cries. "I hope it never can be worse than this."
I try to comfort her, but it's complicated. We both want to know why Ibragim
Todashev was killed. She wants to clear his name. For me, and for the
families of the Waltham murder victims, Ibragim's shooting may have snuffed
out the last chance at finding out what really happened that night. In the
back of my mind is this question: Did her dead boyfriend kill my friend
September 11, 2011 was a Sunday, and at twilight Erik Weissman was looking
for somewhere to spend the night. That afternoon he'd visited his younger
sister Aria at a diner down the street from their parents' home, but he
didn't have a place of his own—he'd been couch-surfing since the cops busted
him on drug charges back in January. He kept his belongings at his friend
Brendan Mess's apartment on a dead-end street in Waltham, and that's where
he usually stayed. Erik and Brendan were established pot dealers who
occasionally worked together and shared an interest in sports, personal
fitness, and designer weed. But Erik had cleared out of the apartment while
Brendan was going through a dramatic breakup with his live-in girlfriend,
Hiba Eltilib. He had recently been staying with a friend in Newton. "That
chick is crazy," Erik had repeatedly told the friend.
That night his friend in Newton was busy, so around 7:30 p.m. Erik drove his
Mercedes SUV back to Brendan's place in Waltham. It was a warm night,
cloudless. Brendan and Hiba had finally broken up, and Hiba had split for
Florida, so the coast was clear. Brendan had invited another friend, Rafi
Teken, to come over, too. Like Erik, Rafi had been avoiding Brendan's place
while Hiba was there. Rafi and Hiba were known to get into arguments of
At 7:30, Erik sent a text to his friend in Newton. Shortly thereafter, all
three men stopped answering their phones.
The bodies were found the next day. Erik was 31. Brendan was 25. Rafi was
It was Hiba who found them, of all people. On September 12, she returned
unexpectedly from Florida—most of Brendan's friends were under the
impression that she wasn't coming back—and after she couldn't reach Brendan
on her cell phone, she showed up at the apartment and asked the landlord to
open the door. The bodies were inside. One news report says that Hiba left
the house and screamed, "They're all dead!" Another says she went outside,
crying, with blood on her feet, and calmly asked for a cigarette.
Their throats had been slashed with such force that their heads were nearly
decapitated. A veteran Waltham investigator called it "the worst bloodbath I
have ever seen," and compared the victims' wounds to "an Al-Qaeda training
video." About a pound and a half of high-grade marijuana covered two of the
corpses. Rafi Teken's face was left untouched. Erik Weissman had a bloody
lip. But Brendan Mess, an experienced mixed martial artist who trained in
jujitsu, had real fighting wounds. His arms were covered in scratch marks.
He had puncture marks on his temple and the top of his head, another mark by
his ear, and he was bruised around the lips. It didn't scan like a robbery:
There were eight and a half pounds of pot left in bags and glass jars, and
$5,000 dollars left on the bodies—enough for a cheap funeral, for one of
Hours later, Middlesex County District Attorney Gerry Leone stood amid a
scrum of reporters on the dead-end street outside Brendan's home at 12
Harding Avenue. State police had found a "very graphic crime scene" in the
second-floor apartment, he said. "It does not appear to be a random act." He
told reporters that there was no evidence of a break-in—that it was likely
the assailants and dead men knew one another. Assailants, plural? a reporter
asked. Leone replied that there were "at least two people who are not in the
apartment now, who were there earlier."
"This is a fluid, ongoing investigation," he said. "We will have information
as we develop the facts."
But they didn't.
From top left, pictures released by Ibragim Todashev's father show his
wounds—bullet holes in his torso and the top of his head—as well as the
bloody scene at his Orlando apartment.
From the beginning, investigators failed to follow up on seemingly obvious
leads. They didn't visit the gym where Brendan trained, and Tamerlan
Tsarnaev, one of Brendan's best friends, was never questioned—even though
several of Brendan's friends say they gave his name to the police. Ten days
after the murders, a state police detective essentially told one victim's
mother that investigators were waiting for the case to solve itself.
It would take 18 months and two homemade bombs before FBI investigators
exhumed the case—and once they did, they were able to move with uncanny
speed. It took them mere hours to link Tamerlan to the Waltham triple
homicide. The day after Tamerlan was killed in a shootout with Watertown
police, plainclothes FBI agents detained his friend, Ibragim Todashev, at
gunpoint. Although the FBI seems to have initially been looking for evidence
of a wider terrorist cell in connection with the marathon bombings, within
weeks its agents were questioning Ibragim about the Waltham murders.
According to the FBI, agents were able to bring Ibragim to the brink of a
written confession by pressuring him with circumstantial evidence.
If you believe the FBI's account, then you must also believe this: If
Waltham police had figured out who hacked three men to death on September
11, 2011, there's a good chance we would not be talking about the Boston
Marathon bombings. Tamerlan Tsarnaev and Ibragim Todashev might be alive and
in jail. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev might be just another mop-headed, no-name stoner
at UMass Dartmouth. There would be no One Fund. Krystle Campbell, Lu Lingzi,
and Martin Richard would still be alive. Sean Collier would have graduated
from the MIT police department to the Somerville Police Department by now.
And for the friends and family of the three men who died in Waltham, perhaps
their grief would not still be paired with such haunting questions.
I met Erik Weissman in the summer of 2006, after my freshman year of
college. I was 19. He was 26. He'd come to sell us some high-end weed. I was
with my friends from high school in a Newton attic, and it felt less like a
drug deal than a Tupperware party. Erik had spotless sneakers, wire-rimmed
nerd glasses, and a contagious smile. He produced a series of glass jars
from a black duffel bag, each filled with a different strain of headies:
Blue Dream, Grand Daddy, Alaskan Thunder Fuck. My friends were easily
impressed; I teased him for talking game. My father, Norman Zalkind, is a
criminal defense lawyer, and I grew up discussing his cases and clients at
the kitchen table.
A few days later, Erik picked me up and we drove around in his blue Audi,
taking turns playing Lil Wayne and Buju Banton on our iPods and smoking
Erik's Sour Diesel. We did that a few times that summer: driving aimlessly,
talking, smoking. He was one of the few friends who encouraged my cheesy
freshman-year poetry. He thought of himself as an entrepreneur and a
connoisseur of pot; he would fly to Amsterdam regularly to buy seeds of a
particular variety that interested him. He talked about selling pot as if it
were a community service, and told me repeatedly that he didn't operate in
violent circles. I told him about my father and his clients. I told him his
line of work always ends badly. He laughed.
Over time I stopped smoking pot, and we grew apart. The last I heard from
him was sometime in January or February of 2011. He wanted my father's
number. He'd been busted when his landlord went into his apartment, saw his
stash, and called the cops. Boston police had seized more than $20,000 in
cash and tens of thousands of dollars' worth of marijuana from his
Roslindale home. He had always told me that he sold only pot, but in the
raid police also seized cocaine, Vicodin, and OxyContin.
I gave him the number for my dad's law firm. He sounded scared.
Soon after my dad took me out for oysters to thank me for the referral. He
told me there was a problem with Erik's warrant, and he didn't think the
case would go to trial.
I never spoke to Erik again.
There was a lot about him I learned only after his death. The drugs and
money he lost when he was arrested left him $50,000 in debt to his Sour
Diesel connection in California, his friends told me. He'd invested in a
California bong company called Hitman Glass, but his money woes kept him
from moving out West. In the months before they died, Erik and Brendan were
working together to expand their pot business, trying to buy in larger
quantities and purchasing equipment to grow marijuana on their own,
according to another dealer who sometimes worked with them.
Waltham is often described as a small, quiet, suburban town, but in 2011 it
was teeming with much bigger drug operations. A few months before the
murders, federal investigators indicted a steroid-popping Syrian national
named Safwan Madarati, the Waltham-based head of a violent international
drug ring. Madarati, the indictment revealed, hired thugs to assault and
intimidate his enemies, and maintained "personal connections with members of
the Watertown police department." A former Watertown officer was among those
charged in the case. In an unrelated case only a few months later, police
arrested a former Watertown council member after they found $2 million worth
of hydroponic pot in his Waltham warehouse. They were all convicted.
Police quickly seized on Erik and Brendan's pot dealing, and theorized that
the murders must have been connected to a drug dispute or robbery. "Whose
toes were they stepping on in Waltham?" one friend remembers being asked.
Investigators grilled the victims' friends about Erik and Brendan's drug
sources, and asked with whom they had financial disputes. "They were telling
us that it could've been a drug deal that had gone wrong," recalled Bellie
Hacker, Erik's mother. "But then it didn't make sense because there was
money left behind, and the marijuana."
For Bellie, the aftermath of the murder was excruciating. In addition to the
cops' theory about a drug deal gone wrong, there were other dark rumors
circulating, some of them concerning Brendan's ex-girlfriend, Hiba. "One of
the theories was that Hiba hired someone to kill Brendan and just Erik and
Rafi were there and they got killed, too," Bellie said. According to news
reports, police questioned Hiba on several occasions. Before dropping out of
sight, she gave anonymous interviews to the New York Times and the Boston
Globe disavowing any involvement in the crime. Bellie didn't know what to
believe. "Nothing really made sense," she said.
It didn't help that police seemed to save their toughest questions for the
victims' families and friends. A few days after the murders, Erik's sister,
Aria, learned that her brother had kept a storage unit, and called the
company to ask if she could get access to Erik's belongings. They didn't
call back, and instead she got a hostile phone call from a detective, State
Trooper Erik Gagnon, assigned to the Middlesex County DA's office. What did
she think she was going to find in that box? Gagnon asked. Drugs? Money? She
remembers that Gagnon called her "deceitful" and threatened to prosecute her
for interfering with the investigation. "How many murders have you solved?"
he barked. (When I asked Gagnon about the conversation, he wouldn't comment
on it directly, but said, "If someone said I was being accusatory, maybe ask
Friends of Erik's who spoke to the police after his murder had similar
experiences. One friend, who did not have a police record, told me he was
questioned by detectives just hours after carrying Erik's casket at his
funeral. "They were treating us less like friends and more like drug
dealers," he said.
Then there were leads that the detectives seemed to ignore. They never
visited the Wai Kru gym in Allston, where Brendan practiced mixed martial
arts several times a week, according to gym owner John Allan. They never
spoke to his training partner and best friend, Golden Gloves champion
Tamerlan Tsarnaev, even though several friends gave the police his name in a
list of Brendan's closest contacts. Meanwhile, detectives called Aria into
the police station and accused her of knowing who killed her brother. She
broke down in tears as her mother defended her.
Ten days after the bodies were found, detectives told Bellie that they were
not actively pursuing leads in her son's murder. Instead, she remembers
state police detectives explaining, they were waiting for a suspect to shake
loose. "They were basically waiting for someone to come forward and say who
did it," Bellie recalled. "They said, 'Someday down the line, someone is
going to need a plea bargain.'"
It was September 22, 2011. The case would go cold for 582 days.
There was a time, just after the bombs went off on Boylston Street, when it
looked like the families might finally get some answers about who killed
Rafi, Brendan, and Erik. On April 19, media outlets made the connection
between Tamerlan and Brendan. Friends recalled that Tamerlan had acted
differently after Brendan's death, and hadn't attended his memorial service.
John Allan, the owner of Wai Kru gym, recalled approaching Tamerlan to offer
his condolences, only to have Tamerlan laugh him off.
Bellie was hopeful that the renewed attention would stir something up. "It
got international news, everyone found out about it, the whole world knew
about it, and someone will get the fire under their tush, and we'll start
really getting some answers," she remembers thinking.
A few days after the Watertown manhunt, Aria says, she spoke to Gagnon for
the first time since 2011. He asked for her brother's cell-phone number and
the name of the gym Brendan Mess went to. The Middlesex County DA's office
had Boston cops send over the files from Erik Weissman's previous
arrests.For the first time, Brendan Mess's younger brother Dylan and his
friends were questioned about Tamerlan Tsarnaev. The FBI agents wanted to
know if either Brendan or Tamerlan was involved in organized crime. If
Tamerlan had guns. Who else he sparred with. If Tamerlan prayed, if he
preached. The agents asked if the auto shops where Tamerlan and his father
sometimes worked were part of an organized-crime ring.
A few weeks later, in mid-May, FBI agents called on Dylan again. He and a
friend met them at Dwelltime, a café near Inman Square. The agents, who were
in plainclothes, took them into the back of a van and showed them a series
of photo lineups. Dylan and his friend looked at each other, and told the
agents that the man in the last photo looked vaguely familiar.
The man in the photo, they would later learn, was Ibragim Todashev.
No one who knew Ibragim Todashev seemed to have a complete picture of who he
was. Even his own father, with whom he spoke regularly, did not know he had
a wife in America, let alone a girlfriend. Ibragim was a womanizer. He was
kind to children. He had a sweet tooth, and a temper. He was a trained MMA
fighter who liked to hang out with a close-knit group of Chechnyan friends;
he didn't socialize outside of that circle. He was an erratic driver—he' d
been in several car accidents. He and his friends liked to drive luxury
cars, but they'd buy old, broken-down ones and fix them up. He liked to
listen to a Russian singer called Mr. Credo, who sings in a fake North
Caucasus accent about buying drugs from the Taliban.
Ibragim was the eldest of 12 children—his father, Abdulbaki Todashev, had
two wives. The family was on the move constantly in the chaos of war-torn
Chechnya. After the wars, Ibragim attended college in Russia for three years
before leaving in 2008. He arrived in Boston with a student visa (though he
would never attend school here), and shortly thereafter received asylum.
Ibragim was welcomed into Boston's insular Chechnyan community. Tamerlan was
one of his first friends. They worked out together, and went clubbing. But
it seems he never socialized with Tamerlan's many American friends. He most
likely knew Tamerlan's friend Brendan, though, because the three of them
once lived within a few blocks of one another around Inman Square, and they
all trained at the Wai Kru gym.
According to owner John Allan, Tamerlan introduced Ibragim to the gym
shortly after Ibragim first arrived in Boston in 2008. Allan remembers them
praying together before training. "[Ibragim's] English was horrific, and it
was really hard to communicate with him," Allan recalled. "In the beginning
I assumed the fights and problems were related to language. But later I
learned he was just very hotheaded." For some reason, Allan said, the word
"motherfucker" would incite in Ibragim an inconsolable rage. "He would lose
it. He would just lose it. He would be ready to fight 17 people and not care
if he would win or lose. Sometimes it wouldn't even be directed to him."
In 2010 Ibragim was working for a medical-transport company when he got into
a verbal argument with another driver in traffic on Tremont Street. By the
time police arrived, he was out of the car, being held back by several
bystanders as he screamed, "You say something about my mother! I will kill
Ibragim met his wife, Reni Manukyan, when she came to visit his roommate in
May 2010. He was 24; she was 20. They exchanged phone numbers, and when she
went home to suburban Atlanta, they began a courtship via text message. The
relationship moved fast. By July, Reni, an Armenian Christian, had converted
to Islam and married Ibragim; a few months later Ibragim moved in with her
in Georgia. But he had trouble finding work, and came back to Boston in the
summer of 2011 to work at another medical-transport company. Reni came to
visit that July to watch him fight a match (he lost). She remembered that
his friend Tamerlan called frequently during that visit. Reni told reporters
that Ibragim left Boston in August; she told me she had a bank statement
that proves he was in Atlanta the day after the murders, but she said her
lawyers advised her not to show it to me.
By early 2012, Ibragim had moved to Orlando alone. A year later, when the
bombs went off in Boston, he was living with a girlfriend in a condo complex
located between Universal Studios and a swamp. A month later, the FBI shot
Anonymous FBI sources gave numerous accounts of Ibragim's death to the
press, managing to be both vague and contradictory. The agency claimed that,
just before being shot, Ibragim had been sitting at a table, about to write
a statement that would implicate both himself and Tamerlan in the Waltham
murders. In some reports, he lunged at an FBI agent with a knife, while
others said he used a pole or a broomstick. It was an agonizing development:
The FBI claimed he had been killed at precisely the moment he was about to
give the answers so many of us had been waiting for.
Whatever occurred in Ibragim's apartment the night he was shot dead, his
death put the FBI on the defensive. The agency quashed the coroner's report,
leading media outlets and the American Civil Liberties Union to call for an
independent investigation. On its editorial page, the Globe declared that
"the agency's credibility is on the line" due to its lack of accountability
in Ibragim's death. Ibragim's father accused the agency of "premeditated
murder" and released photos of his son's bullet-ridden corpse, showing that
he'd been shot in the top of the head—even though the FBI contended that one
of its agents had fired in self-defense. Instead of providing answers, the
FBI's investigation of Ibragim had turned into a sudden dead end.
Bellie was infuriated. "Oh, I was so angry," she said. "That was just
horrible, because here we had an opportunity, they were starting to make
connections and tie people and find out more information… and the man that
could've given us answers is no longer available to us."
She added, "Where is there for us to go?"
But there was at least one person who might know more about Ibragim. At the
time of his death, he had been living with a woman named Tatiana Gruzdeva. I
found her on Facebook: a slight 19-year-old with bleached blond hair and
huge green eyes. She posted a lot of selfies. I sent her a friend request.
On the night of September 18, she accepted it.
We corresponded for a few minutes, and then she sent me her number. When I
dialed, she picked up right away. Her voice sounded small, but she talked
rapid-fire, her Russian accent thick but understandable. I told her I was a
reporter, and that I wanted to hear her story.
Two days later, I flew to Orlando to meet her.
By the front door of 6022 Peregrine Avenue, a wire statue of a cow held a
pink sign with the word "Welcome." The apartment was all one room, with a
lofted bed surrounded by a waist-high wall. Tatiana invited me in, and I
looked around, taking in the sliver of a linoleum kitchen, distinguished
from the carpeted living room by a small island. Tatiana slept in an
upstairs loft, in a bed covered in stuffed animals, watched over by a poster
of Muhammad Ali. The back wall was all windows, looking out on a black pond
a few yards off, where a bale of turtles broke the surface to take in the
evening air. Tatiana pointed out the place in the living room where the
carpet had been cut out, because it had been stained with Ibragim's blood.
She had met Ibragim through a mutual friend, Khusen Taramov. Then she moved
in. "First it was just friends," she said, "and after, we starting having
relationship and we were sleeping together like boyfriend and girlfriend."
She cooked him meals. Together they adopted a cat, Masia. "It was like a
small family, me and him and the cat, he was like a little baby for us."
Tatiana knew that Ibragim had been married to Reni. She believed they were
After the Boston bombings, Tatiana recalled, Ibragim seemed upset. "He
didn't tell me it was his friend, he just was so sad. I said, 'What happen
with you?' He said, 'Nothing.' Long time he don't want to tell me. And
after, he tell me, 'My friend is dead.'"
The day after Tamerlan was identified as a marathon bombing suspect, Tatiana
was washing the dishes when Ibragim stepped outside. Then she heard shouts
outside the house: Get down! Get down! She saw Ibragim on the ground,
surrounded by six or seven men. She didn't know who they were, because they
weren't wearing uniforms. She says they told her they were FBI agents.
They handcuffed Ibragim and made him sit in the middle of the room, and
began questioning him about the Boston bombings, asking him what he knew and
where he was on the day of the attack. Tatiana spoke up: "He was with me, he
was in the house, we didn't do anything wrong," she told the agents.
"They just kept asking again and again, the same questions," she said. They
asked if he knew Tamerlan Tsarnaev. He replied that the two of them had been
friends. Tatiana said this was the first time she had heard the name.
Eventually the FBI left with Ibragim, confiscating his phones and computers.
About six hours later, Tatiana said, Ibragim came home, reassuring her that
everything was okay. The next day, she said, agents returned their
As best as I can tell, the FBI arrived on Ibragim's doorstep looking for a
terrorist. The marathon bombings had been the largest act of terrorism on
American soil since 9/11, and if there were any chance that the Tsarnaevs
had ties to a terrorist organization, federal agents had to find it.
Wrapping up a drug murder was not their top priority.
For the next month, Ibragim and Tatiana were under intense surveillance.
Agents intercepted Ibragim's wife, Reni, in an airport and questioned her
for five hours; she was later interviewed several more times. They even
tracked down his old Boston roommate.
Meanwhile, Tatiana said, agents contacted the couple regularly on the phone,
visited their home, and on several occasions called them into the local
field office for more questioning. They asked Ibragim about a call from
Tamerlan a month before the bombings, just after Ibragim had undergone knee
surgery. "He asked how he feels after surgery and Ibragim tells him, 'I'm
better, what about you? How is your family?' So they would talk just a
little bit and that's it," Tatiana said. At some point, Ibragim deleted the
call from his phone's memory. "FBI asked him, 'Why did you delete this phone
call?'" Tatiana said. "And he said, 'I was scared.'"
When Ibragim and Tatiana left the house, he would point out cars to her.
"When we go to the workplace or we go hang out with him, he show me in the
street, 'Look, look, they're following us,'" Tatiana recalled.
On May 4, according to an arrest report, Ibragim got into a fistfight over a
parking space, beating a man unconscious. He fled the scene in his white
Mercedes, pursued by Orange County Sheriff's deputies. When they caught him,
Officer Anthony Riccaboni got out of the car and drew his gun. Ibragim put
his hands up, and Riccaboni got a good look at him.
"I could see the features of the suspect's ears. I immediately recognized
the marks on his ears as a cage fighter/jujitsu fighter," Riccaboni later
wrote in his report. "I told this suspect if he tried to fight with us I
would shoot him."
He made the suspect lie on the ground, but when he got up, he told Riccaboni
"Once on his feet, the suspect commented that the vehicles behind us are FBI
agents that have been following him," Riccaboni wrote. "I noticed 3 (three)
vehicles with dark tint. These vehicles began to leave the area. I noticed
one vehicle was driven by a male, had a computer stand and appeared to be
talking on a radio."
If Ibragim was right, FBI agents had just watched him beat a man bloody
Then they turned the pressure up higher.
About two and a half weeks after Ibragim was first interrogated, the FBI
called him back to their office yet again. While he was being interviewed,
Tatiana said, two agents took her into an office, where they questioned her
for three hours. At first they continued to ask her about the Boston
bombings. The agents wanted to know if Ibragim was planning another attack.
"They asked me, 'Can you tell us when he will do something?'" Tatiana
recalled. "I said, 'No! I can't!' Because he wasn't doing anything, and I
didn't know anything."
Then they brought up a new topic: a triple murder.
"They said, 'We think he did something else, before.' They said he killed
three people in Boston 2011 with a knife. I said, 'It's not true! I can't
believe it.' You know, I was living with him seven months, and we have a
Throughout the course of my reporting, Tatiana is the only one of Ibragim's
associates who recalled being questioned about the Waltham murders before
When agents didn't get the answers they wanted, Tatiana said, they told her
they would call immigration officials to detain her. Her visa had expired
weeks before. "I said, 'Come on guys, you cannot do this! Because all this
two and a half weeks, you know my visa was expired and you didn't do
anything. And [now] because you need me and I say I don't want to help you,
you just call to immigration?' And they said, 'Yeah, that's right.' And they
called immigration and immigration came and they took me and they put me in
For a week, she said, she was kept in an immigration detention facility. She
was allowed to talk to Ibragim every day on the phone. She said he told her
that when he had come to find her in the lobby the day she was detained, FBI
agents mocked him, saying, "Where's your girlfriend?"
He told her he was so angry, he felt like hitting them for lying to him and
stealing her away.
Later that week, the facility had a visiting day, she said. Ibragim came to
"He kissed me, he hugged me like never, it was so sweet, like always. And he
tell me, 'I will marry you when you get out of here, or in the jail,
whatever. If we can marry in the jail, we will marry in the jail.'"
On May 21, the last night of his life, Ibragim was hanging out with friends
when the FBI called him again. It was an agent Ibragim's friends were by now
familiar with, but knew only by his first name: Chris. The agent told
Ibragim that men from Boston were here to ask him a few questions. Ibragim
got nervous. He was afraid of a setup, he told his friend Khusen Taramov.
"And I said, 'All right, if you don't want to do it, don't do it. But if you
don't do it, they're not gonna leave you alone. They're gonna get more
suspicious.' And so he decided to go, and he wanted me to go with him,"
Khusen told reporters later. Despite his temper and proclivity toward
violence, Ibragim had stayed relatively calm under weeks of questioning and
scrutiny. But now, heading to meet the "men from Boston," his demeanor
changed. Ibragim gave Khusen his family's phone number back in Chechnya, and
told him about the $4,000 he had in his apartment, inside his jacket pocket.
In case he got locked up, Khusen thought. Then Ibragim said something
strange: "Worst-case scenario," he told Khusen cryptically, "forgive me."
When Khusen and Ibragim got to the apartment, Chris was with three other
officers—an FBI agent from Boston, and two Massachusetts state troopers.
Orlando police were on the scene as well.
The officers took Ibragim into the apartment and Chris said he needed to
interview Khusen outside.
It was 7:30 p.m. At the same time, at two different locations in Georgia,
agents were interviewing Reni yet again, and questioning Reni's mother,
Elena Teyer, for the first time.
Agent Chris asked Khusen a few questions, "Like what do you think about
bombings, or do you know these guys, blah blah blah, or what is my views on
certain stuff. You know what I mean, lotta stuff, different questions,"
Khusen said. Chris didn't mention a triple murder.
Khusen waited outside the house for four hours. Then at 11:30 p.m., he was
told to leave, and that the agents would drop off Ibragim back at the plaza
where the friends often hung out.
What happened next inside the condo is known only to the officers who were
Pictures later released by Ibragim's family, of his inert body, show that he
was shot four times in the chest, twice in the arm, and once in the top of
Neighbors remember hearing shots a little after midnight. One of them looked
out the window to see the parking lot filled with police cruisers. Then he
heard an ambulance coming.
At Glades County Detention Center, in Moore Haven, corrections officers were
suddenly hustling Tatiana from an immigration jail to a cell in solitary
She didn't know why they had moved her. When she asked, they said, "We'll
tell you tomorrow in the morning."
The next morning immigration officers came to her cell. They told her
Ibragim was dead.
"They said, 'He's gone.'
"I said, 'Come on, what do you mean? That's not true.'
"They said, 'He died yesterday.'
"I said, 'No! I just talked with him.'
"They said, 'We have a paper, and it says that he's dead, and you can make a
She called Khusen. He told her it was true: Ibragim was dead. "And I'm
screaming. I have panic attack. I realize, I realize, he is really dead. And
it's true, you know, it's true. And I will not see him anymore. It's not
like a movie, it's not like we broke up or something, I will not see him
anymore, for all my life. And everything is flush in my heart, my heart was
broken, because me and Ibragim, we had a plan, we had a plan to be together,
we had a plan to have a family…. And now he's not here and we're not going
to be together anymore."
She told me she was given a sedative, and was kept in solitary confinement
for four more days before being returned to an immigration jail. Her
detainment stretched for months longer. Finally, on August 9, she was
released. Ibragim's friend Ashurmamad Miraliev came to pick her up, along
with Ibragim's father, who had flown to Florida from Chechnya.
They drove her back to the apartment she had shared with Ibragim, where he
had been killed. "They said, 'Don't worry, the house is clean, and we
But the cat, Masia, was gone. With Ibragim dead, and Tatiana in jail, there
was no one to feed it, and it had run away into the swamp.
When FBI agents came to tell Reni Manukyan that her husband was dead, they
claimed they had hard evidence of his guilt in the Waltham murders. "We have
DNA that proves he was involved in that triple murder," she remembered them
saying. "The only thing I was telling them is, 'This is not true, this
cannot be true.'"
With the exception of Ibragim's alleged confession, no agency has ever
offered an official explanation of how it connected either him or Tamerlan
to the Waltham murders. Reni's account is the only one that even suggests
the FBI has physical evidence linking her husband to the crime. Last July,
the New York Times quoted an anonymous official suggesting that DNA evidence
may have linked Tamerlan to the crime scene. But as for Ibragim, the
official said, they made their case based merely on "a lot of circumstantial
If, in fact, the FBI had only circumstantial evidence against Ibragim at the
time they shot him, it might explain what happened next. Investigators who
had previously asked Ibragim's friends only about the bombings suddenly
returned to ask them about the murders. Even though their suspects were both
dead, the case remained open. After Ibragim's death, the FBI continued its
take-no-prisoners approach: Several of Ibragim's friends found themselves
detained, interrogated, and ultimately deported.
The first to go was Tatiana. On October 1, after I'd published an account of
my interview with her, she called me collect from Glades County Detention
Center. She'd been arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers
and placed back in solitary confinement—and, she says, immigration agents
told her repeatedly that she was about to be deported for talking to Boston
magazine. By October 11, she was on a plane back to Russia. An official from
ICE confirmed that Tatiana had been in the country legally on what's called
a "deferred action" extension of her expired visa. The official could not
tell me why she had been deported.
Others felt the scrutiny of the FBI as well. Several of Ibragim's Orlando
friends worked in a pizza shop; the owner told me that after the FBI came to
question him, he fired them. Reni's mother, Elena—a noncommissioned officer
with the U.S. Army—says she was told that she would be flagged as a security
risk, preventing a promotion. Khusen left the United States in mid-June, to
attend Ibragim's funeral in Chechnya, but when he attempted to return to the
U.S. in December, according to several sources, he was blocked from boarding
a plane, despite having a green card.
In one case, I was able to catch a glimpse of how the agency was maneuvering
behind the scenes—and how, after Ibragim's death, its focus seemed to shift
from looking for a terror cell to investigating the Waltham murders. When it
came to Ibragim's friend Ashurmamad Miraliev, the agency worked
clandestinely with local, state, and federal agencies to manufacture a
charge against him, interrogate him without a lawyer present, and ultimately
get him out of the country.
After Ibragim's death, Ashurmamad had come to live with Tatiana, supporting
them both with pizza-delivery work. On September 18, while Ashurmamad was
driving Tatiana to an appointment with her immigration officer, he was
pulled over on an expired driver's license. But this was no ordinary traffic
stop. Between five and seven unmarked law-enforcement vehicles were present;
Ashurmamad says FBI agents and local police took him out of his car and
escorted him to the Orlando police headquarters. Tatiana never saw him
Contacted later, Orlando Police Sergeant Jim Young looked up the arrest
record and said it looked like a routine traffic stop—with no mention of FBI
involvement. But Ashurmamad says he was questioned by the FBI for hours—he's
not sure exactly how long—and was denied requests to speak to his attorney.
(The FBI has declined to comment on this case, but a Tampa Field Bureau
public-affairs official told me it is their policy to question individuals
"with their consent, or in the presence of their attorney.")
Agents had previously interviewed Ashurmamad and two of his roommates two
days before Ibragim died. They questioned him about his own religious
beliefs, the Boston Marathon bombings, and about Ibragim. Now, four months
later, the interrogation was different. This time, agents were mostly
interested in Ibragim and his involvement in the triple murder in Waltham.
They wanted to know if there was someone else who might have been involved
in the killings, and who else might have information.
But after hours of questioning, when Ashurmamad asked to leave, the agents
told him he was going to jail—on a state charge they claimed to have nothing
to do with. That turned out to be an outstanding warrant for a
witness-tampering charge. It was the first Ashurmamad had heard of it—but
the next thing he knew, he was behind bars.
The trumped-up charge stemmed from an incident the previous summer, when his
friend Ibragim had gotten into a fight at a hookah bar with a manager named
Youness Dammou. The next day, Youness walked into the pizza shop next door,
where Ashurmamad worked. A screaming match ensued; Ashurmamad was angry that
Youness had called police after the fight. At the time, police weren't able
to identify Ibragim as the assailant, and Youness never mentioned his
confrontation with Ashurmamad, so the case was closed. Then almost a year
later, on May 17—five days before Ibragim was shot—the case was suddenly
reopened. I wanted to know why.
I found Youness working in an Orlando strip mall. He told me it hadn't been
his idea to reopen the case. Instead, he had been approached by an FBI agent
in May, who took him to meet with an Osceola County Sheriff's Department
detective in an unmarked cruiser in a Burger King parking lot. The agent sat
in the front seat, Youness sat in the passenger seat, and the detective sat
in the back. They showed him a picture of Ibragim. They told him about
another fight Ibragim had been in recently—the incident in which agents
apparently watched him beat up a man over a parking space without
intervening. When he heard about the other assault, Youness was eager to
The law-enforcement officers did not mention that Ibragim was involved in a
larger investigation. A few days later, however, Youness saw Ibragim's face
on the news and learned his aggressor was a murder suspect—and dead.
That was the last he heard about it until the end of August, when the
detective came back with another request: The last time they'd met, Youness
had recounted the incident with the man who'd screamed at him in the pizza
shop, Ashurmamad Miraliev. (Youness hadn't actually known the man's name; in
the case file the detective wrote that an "Agent Sykes" provided the
identification.) The detective said Ashurmamad could be charged with a
crime. Would Youness like to pursue charges against him? At first Youness
said he wasn't so sure, but then he agreed.
So the FBI had been matchmaking: They had helped the sheriff's department go
fishing on a long-closed case to find a victim and a charge with which they
could pressure or detain first Ibragim, and later Ashurmamad. The
witness-tampering charge the FBI brought against Ashurmamad was so flimsy
that it was dropped in just a month.
And yet it didn't matter. Although he had never been to Boston and never met
the Tsarnaevs, Ashurmamad was nonetheless flagged—according to a note on the
booking sheet—"ON TERRORIST WATCH LIST/PLACED PROTECTIVE CUSTODY AND HIGH
RISK. HOUSE ALONE." Ashurmamad was taken from the Orlando Police Department
to the Osceola County jail, where he was kept alone in an 8-by-10 room. To
meet with his lawyers, he had to have his hands and wrists shackled and be
chained to the ground. Ashurmamad told me there were no windows, the light
was always on, and he was always cold. He was there for a month until the
tampering case was dropped. But he wasn't released. His student visa had
expired, and he'd missed a court date while he was in jail. So he was moved
directly to an immigration detention facility, and on November 4, he was
ordered to be deported back to Tajikistan.
Nine months after Ibragim's death, the FBI still hasn't put the Waltham case
to rest—or offered any further insight into the death of the man who might
have closed it. Back in January, FBI director James Comey claimed the agency
had completed its report on Ibragim's shooting and was "eager" to share
it—but almost two months later, the report somehow still hadn't been
released. The Florida prosecutor's office was also investigating the
shooting—but at the end of 2013, shortly after speaking with the Department
of Justice, it announced the report would be delayed.
When I spoke to Ibragim's father in February, he said he was waiting to hear
the FBI's findings before deciding whether to file a wrongful-death lawsuit.
But that account is unlikely to shed significant new light on Ibragim's
death: The FBI has a long, unbroken history of clearing its agents of
wrongdoing in shooting incidents, the New York Times found in a review of
150 such cases over the past two decades. And according to WBUR's David
Boeri—quoting unnamed "law-enforcement sources familiar with accounts of
what happened" that night—the FBI has little to add to the story it peddled
to reporters on background shortly after the killing. Boeri's sources told
him that during the interrogation, Ibragim admitted to being present at the
crime scene but "blamed Tsarnaev for the murders." He also quoted
law-enforcement sources saying that Ibragim had knocked over a table and
come at the FBI agent with a pipe.
According to a statement by the Middlesex County DA's office, the
triple-homicide case is "open and active" and state police, Waltham police,
and the FBI are conducting a "thorough, far-reaching" investigation. "This
investigation has not concluded and is by no means closed," it said.
They have not updated the statement in nine months.
In late September, Aria Weissman and Dylan Mess invited me to accompany them
to the annual Garden of Peace ceremony, which is held beside a dry,
stone-lined riverbed near the State House to honor Massachusetts homicide
victims. As she does every year, Massachusetts Attorney General Martha
Coakley presided over the event. "We have more people who are here to listen
and to find some peace tonight," she said to the crowd that evening.
Afterward, Aria, Dylan, and I approached Coakley and asked her why there
hadn't been any progress in the Waltham case. "We haven't been getting any
answers," Aria told Coakley.
Coakley was calm and respectful. "I know how frustrating and how difficult
it is for you," she told us. The triple murder, Coakley explained, was not
her investigation—it was the Middlesex County DA's concern. She said that
she could and would follow up to make sure state police were working with
Waltham police on the murder case. "The Waltham PD and the state police
should be working together," she told us.
But two weeks later, Detective Patrick Hart of the Waltham police, who has
been investigating the murders since before the Boston Marathon bombings,
told me his department had not been contacted by Coakley's office. "No one
here knows," he said at the time. "I think I would have been told."
Two days after I reported on Coakley's exchange with Aria and Dylan, a
victims' advocate from the Middlesex County DA's office reached out to Aria.
The advocate said officials from the DA's office were looking to sit down
with the victims' families and provide more information soon. But they never
After Ibragim was killed, Bellie Hacker's friends congratulated her. The
case had been solved—she must be so relieved!
"I'd say, 'Don't pay any attention, nothing is solved,'" she said.
She's still waiting to be shown evidence—to know, finally, what truly
happened to Erik. "I was told that once they knew something, someone would
knock on my door in the middle of the night," she said. "I was told that I
would be contacted even in the middle of the night."
State officials once told Bellie that they were waiting for a lead to shake
loose, maybe from another case.
They were right. But by then it was too late.