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?
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 something unexpected.
“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 without intervening.
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 cat.”
Throughout the course of my reporting, Tatiana is the only one of Ibragim’s associates who recalled being questioned about the Waltham murders before Ibragim’s death.
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 the jail.”
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 see her.
“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.”