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?
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.