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?
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 them why.”)
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 you!”