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?
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 him dead.
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 divorced.
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 electronics.